Author's Note: I know last chapter is not everyone's cup of tea! Those two meeting up together was always in play, but they evolved in a way that surprised even me (character chemistry outta nowhere). They're fascinating together...

Hope you all are excited to keep reading.

Appx II, part (I)

o o o

we could be old and cold and dead on the scene

o o o

The base was built under and into a mountain and had about it at all times the mired scent of mushrooms.

Karin preferred to stay in the labs rather than the cells because at least then she had the reprieve of chemicals to cover the otherwise moulded and stale air that aggrieved both her sense of smell and taste. The labs also kept her from having to listen to the moaning and pleas of the prisoners; while she was indebted to Orochimaru, she didn't always appreciate the man's means to his research. The subjects held in the labs tended to be unconscious and therefore much easier for what remained of her morals to ignore.

With Orochimaru's apparent death, she had found more and more she was feeling unnerved. She didn't have any reason to be scared because Orochimaru was dead; she was scared because with Orochimaru dead, Kabuto was the one in charge of Otogakure and all its operations.

Well, Karin liked to think she was still in charge of her lab and her cells and the wellbeing of the people...prisoners inside. She made sure to act like she was the boss whenever anyone had the mind to bother her – maybe especially when that anyone happened to be Kabuto. The day he saw the truth of her fear of him would be the day she died.

And she wasn't dying anytime soon. She had the base to run, after all.

Karin leaned back from the tissue sample she was observing to rub where her glasses had stuck into her nose. Her pencil and notepad were across the lab at a different station and she glared at their faraway spot from over her hand. She repeated on a whisper the time to start of deterioration as she went to retrieve her records.

She didn't know whose cells she was looking at, but slide after slide told of their eventual downfall to a strand of invasive foreign material. The takeover of the foreign material was similar to Juugo's cells and the Curse Mark Orochimaru used, but different, too. It wasn't a chakra-induced metamorphosis – but the manner of the takeover made her think of her former leader.

Karin paused in her writing as a noise from outside the lab doors caught her attention; the sound of rushing movement and then, preceding a slamming entrance, "Karin!"

She lifted an eyebrow as she stood up to see Suigetsu storming his way over to a metal gurney. He deposited the body he had slung over his shoulders there and Karin felt a twitch at her brow. Suddenly agitated as she sprung from her seat, she heard her voice rise a few notes in annoyance.

"What the fuck– I told you not to bring the live ones here! They go to the med bay – damn it–" Karin cut herself off to stop at a faucet to get a pan of cold water. "You're so impossible..."

"Like hell this one is gonna pull through." Suigetsu waved away her complaint as she joined him at the gurney. He sneered. "See, now you got your fresh samples for harvesting right here."

"I'm not harvesting them, you toe-sucker." And then, watching the gurney man's shivering and spasms ease away, and knowing what that entailed, she snapped, "set up the preservation seals..."

Karin found a mask for her face, covered her eyes, and snapped on a pair of gloves. She tossed the same precautions to Suigetsu, who seemed to find the protective layers novel.

She didn't like Suigetsu – he was a tireless antagonizer – but at least he could, on the rare occasion, break the dull monotony of her work; there was less time for the tempting depressing reflections she tended to pursue when alone if Suigetsu was around and making a general mess of everything.

Making a sharp slap with the hem of his gloves, he said of the seals, "I'm not your slag assistant. Do it yourself."

"Why rush in here – ugh – never mind. Just. Get out of my way if you're not going to be useful."

"It is the you-know-what though, right?" Suigetsu barely moved enough to let her work, and hovered over her shoulder to ask redundant questions. "You even figure out what's doing this?"

"It's some sort of ...infectious...disease, obviously," Karin muttered, trying to look too busy to speak as she took various readings and live-tissue samples from wherever her hands could get to fast enough.

"They got a name for it, you know," he said, meeting her detached tone with smugness, "since you can't be bothered to identify it."

She huffed, glared at him although she was focused on the body...patient. He hadn't quite lost the battle yet, even if at this point she was unconcerned with treatment or minimizing pain, she just needed to save information.

"They're calling it, the ague," Suigetsu told her.

Karin rolled her eyes. She found the hysteria behind the recent deaths overplayed and unimpressive. "Yes, I've heard. How creative."

"What? It's fitting."

"It's just adding fuel to the whole thing. It's becoming a thing. Otogakure has more important issues to consider right now. And instead we have people worrying about a – mostly contained – fever."

Well. It worried her, too, but she didn't want Suigetsu to know as much. She really needed a team to understand how this thing was spreading, more about its lifespan, incubation, early symptoms, earlier means of diagnosis...not to mention, how to cure those who were sick from it.

Shit, Karin was in over her head.

As she worried internally, Suigetsu had moved to the other side of the man. He spider-walked a hand up the man's arm to come to a stop at his slack jaw. Moving the man's mouth without any concern for decorum or possibly infecting himself, he taunted her, "come on, Karin, guy might make it if you let him take a little nibble... Um, nom, nom."

"Stop that," she hissed and slapped Suigetsu's intruding hand away. "He's suffering enough as it is to have to put up with your bullshit."

She wasn't going to risk her own neck for a slight possibility anyhow. Healing damage from brawls was one thing, but a biological matter... Karin wasn't as comfortable offering her own skin for that sort of healing; not when she could be exposing herself to something her body might be incapable of thwarting.

For the moment, she had tenable control over her body and she was going to keep it that way. She just had to get answers and a resolution before anyone learned of the recent incidents and thought to use her as a mobile treatment center again.

Karin breathed through a flinching shudder in her muscles but her company still caught the tell of weakness.

"Ah, so she is scared? I knew it." Suigetsu 'tsked' at her. She was almost grateful when he misinterpreted her thoughts. Still smug, "you thinking this is something contrived? Some sort of ninjutsu and that's why you're hesitating to lend the man some skin."

Karin spared him a glance, surprised at his deduction. He wasn't wrong – she had thought of something like that.

"Oh – fuck – he's gone." Suigetsu said, dropping his smirk as the man heaved a last small breath and expired. "Eugh, gross. I'm not sticking around for when, you know, he starts leaking everywhere. When I die, it'll be nice and clean. Just a little wave of water and I'll be good. None of this...oozing shit from everywhere. Nah-uh."

"When you die, huh. Have a time in mind? I'd be happy to assist," Karin said, returning the boy's sneer.

"Yeah, I'm sure," was his teasing reply and she was disappointed by the lack of reaction. Despite his announced intention to leave, he hung around as Karin continued her tasks, almost as if he felt obligated to make pithy and sharp comments about her occasional fumbling.

The motions were still unusual for her and she had to keep checking that she was doing the right things – saving the right things. She was a sensor and a kunoichi, and only newly a scientist. Any healing she had done in the past had been of a different variety – taking apart corpses and sealing organs was still unfamiliar to her.

"I mean," Suigetsu started as Karin made a face over an incision she intended to use to crack open the chest cavity, "if it is ninjutsu of some kind...the ague...then that means we're under attack. You reckon it's another village or an inside job?"

"Don't make such a stupid accusation. No one here is going to start any shit."

Suigetsu exaggerated a thoughtful expression. "Maybe not when the big guy'd still been around. But now? People start getting ideas. Start thinking it's time to move up. Stretch their limbs."

"Or it's an outside attack – perhaps because of people like you who have no sense of loyalty spouting off about insurrection." Karin was maybe a little too eager in cracking open the ribs. "Not that any of this speculation matters since I don't know if this really is an orchestrated series of attacks. It could just be a new disease in the area. Something brought in from somewhere else."

Too many unanswered questions as of yet, and Karin didn't even know if she were asking all the right ones.

She didn't even know why the ninja had died. She didn't know if others in the country had been sick with the same thing, had died as well but without her knowledge.

"So if it is an attack," Suigetsu went on, too curious to be easily dissuaded, "why this sort of angle?"

She sort of agreed, murmured, "kunai would have done the job just as well."

"Like I said – someone is stretching their limbs." He punctuated his thoughts with picking up an arm and then dropping it back to the gurney for a cold, short clap.

"You're just hoping for someone interesting to come around now that you're friendless." Karin didn't have to say, 'Sasuke is gone and you're clearly bored,' much clearer than that. But saying that name aloud was still too sore for her.

"Like I'd miss that sourfrown shitface," Suigetsu insisted, a touch too defensively. Then, wagging a finger between them mischievously, "besides, we're friends."


"A little."

"Definitely not."

Karin didn't like Suigetsu. However...hours later, after the body had been taken apart, drained, scratched at, pinched, tugged, and all manner of things, she remembered she still much preferred him to Kabuto.

When Kabuto strolled into the lab, back from a mission to the West-Northwest territories and rough from travel, he announced his arrival by dropping a second body on the recently cleaned gurney, and she almost missed Suigetsu.

The second body was still a person, really, because she was alive and even mostly conscious. Her eyes were quick to scan the room, Karin included, and catalogue her surroundings.

Kabuto didn't seem concerned. He greeted Karin very politely, leisurely placing himself next to the blood she was separating. He couldn't quite manage the charm to his voice that Orochimaru had mastered, but the imitation was clear if not entirely purposeful. "Clear one of our special tanks, will you, Karin? I would like to learn a little more about our guest."

Glancing at the woman, Karin asked, casually as she could, "is she...sick or something?"

She really didn't need any more victims ofThe Ague showing up in her lab that night – both to save her from the mess and also an explanation for the unusual cases.

Kabuto gave her a sly, shallow sort of smile. "Quite the opposite, I should think. I do expect she will be staying with us indeterminate, but extensive stay."

Karin nodded, relieved and suddenly not very keen on the woman.

"She really is quite interesting," Kabuto went on, taking a moment to look back at his haul. The woman didn't respond to him in any way and didn't appear to even understand his words.

Karin leaned back in her seat and thought there wasn't anything grand to say about the tiny, gagged and bound person. The woman was petite, older, pale all around, and looked more like a corpse than a proper person if not for her flickering gaze. Raising an eyebrow to Kabuto, she shrugged a shoulder.

"You must be seeing something I'm missing," she quipped.

"I am," Kabuto said, reserved in his glee but there was a certain excited shine to his eyes. "You should look a little more closely at our friend."

Frowning, bothered by his insistence but reluctant to blatantly disobey him, Karin dragged her feet to join him as he returned to the gurney. As she neared the woman, taking in details more properly, her mouth opened in surprise.

"What the..." Karin hovered a hand over the lines of scars covering the woman, feeling their depth and thickness with awe. And then, to be sure, she checked the woman's pulse; it was steady and constant. Not a puppet with rolling eyes. Aghast, "she's really alive..."

"An exquisite specimen, truly."

The woman could have been the man Karin had earlier cut open and sawn into bits if only stitched all back together again and somehow brought back to life.

"Who is she?" She asked, voice soft with honest wonder.

"Yet to be determined," Kabuto filled in, very helpfully.

"Where did she come from –"

Kabuto patted her head as she spoke, effectively cutting her off, and Karin resisted the instinctive need to shrink away that quickly drowned out her awe. "Ah, ah. Tank first, inquiries second, Karin. You're help is so greatly appreciated..."

Orochimaru had saved Karin and had taught her how to fight, how to access her full array of powers. She owed her life. Karin had no such feelings for Kabuto, but she did feel a ghost of loyalty to him out of respect for the esteem Orochimaru must have held for the man. Esteem or ...something like that.

She inched out from under his palm and gave him a bland, forced smile of acquiescence. "Of course, sir. I'll have that ready for your guest" –rather, most certainly subject– "immediately."

"Thank you, Karin."

She held her breath and her tongue all the way from the room, but her mind was a tangle of wonder and hope and, like shadows haunting the flame, fear.

o o o

They called it 'The Tank' because it was sealed from outside rooms and had an observation window looking down into it from one of the labs. Those inside tended to resemble fish on display.

The woman Kabuto had brought in –abducted– to be kept in The Tank was designated as 'Chi' and she had the very unfortunate position of being a new favorite for experimentation.

Even though she felt uncomfortable in acknowledging as much, Karin also found Chi intriguing. The extensive network of scar tissue over Chi's body was beyond unusual and suggested that the body should no longer be viable. A dissection the length of the torso and a circumferential scar on the neck each indicated mortal damage, and yet Chi appeared perfectly functional. She was alert, active, and even had –almost humorous– disdain for Kabuto; she often pulled faces at him when he walked by the observation window. Karin kept out of sight to avoid similar treatment, but she had a sense Chi was aware of her nonetheless.

Their first order of business once Chi had been deposited in her new home was sensory response. The temperature inside the tank was steadily raised in increments until Karin was convinced Chi's body should have ignited, or given out from water loss. Chi fell unconscious eventually, but within several hours and a return to a moderate temperature, she had revived and continued lazily flipping off Kabuto. His recourse was dropping the temperature until she stilled completely like a slate blue work of art. When she thawed out, she spat out a ball of mucous and spittle that landed with a quiet 'plick' on the glass in front of Kabuto's leering face.

"She's lovely," Karin heard him whisper without any hint of sarcasm. He was delighted.

"Is she employing some sort of clan technique or bloodline limit that enhances her physical resilience?" Karin asked, genuinely perplexed. She looked at the woman, currently sitting with her legs crossed under her and locked arms resting in her lap, and thought that somehow, they were similar. Karin frowned. "She's...not like me, though..."

Chi wasn't using any detectable amount of chakra to protect her body. She didn't appear to repair damage or regenerate cells at any remarkable pace. Simply, it appeared that she was continuing to exist in highly unfavorable circumstances.

"No more sustenance for her. No more water," Kabuto said, not giving any response to Karin's thoughts.

"For how long, sir?"

Kabuto looked at her with mild confusion, and then deliberately, "I said, no more, Karin."

Depravation wasn't anything new to their subjects or to Karin. She nodded and recorded the protocol change.

As she scribbled down the revised instructions concerning The Tank, she asked, "is she like Juugo? Do you think she's in some sort of prolonged survival state?"

Kabuto looked nearly predatory in his tempered glee. "No, that's not it. This is her state of being. She just is."

Karin couldn't share his feelings, nor stand to look at him either. Hiding a twist at her lips, she peaked through the glass again.

Chi's violet eyes, vivid even from a distance, caught hers and Karin ducked back again. There was an unfathomable type of thoughtfulness in the woman's gaze that Karin hadn't gotten from anyone else in her life. A great sense of distance, somehow, behind her eyes.

"Karin," someone said, dragging her attention to a young kunoichi at the lab door. "Those tissue samples you wanted are ready for analysis. Should I transfer them to this lab?"

Kabuto didn't react to the interruption from the kunoichi and Karin controlled the automatic, nervous hitch in her breathing. The samples were from the man who had died from the mysterious fever disease, The Ague, even though she had labelled them –as meticulously as she could while not risking too much– as something else.

"No, that won't be necessary. I'll be right there," Karin said. She carefully finished her writing and thought she was in the clear to excuse herself without trouble.

"Samples?" Kabuto asked, not looking away from contemplating Chi. "Where are these coming from?"

Of course luck would shun her, Karin bemoaned. With a shrug, she gave him a prepared answer, "Suigetsu got over excited in training. I'm using his chuunin fodder for lab practice."

"That boy needs to accept his losses and move on." Kabuto accepted the lie. It was well within the realm of possibilities. "Anything worthy of note in your salvaging?"

"No, sir. Nothing so far. Massive trauma, blood loss, all the standard things. Two of his toes had been partially amputated at some point in the past, indications of frost damage on both feet and other extremities. A few missing teeth," Karin said, trailing off. "He was a mercenary picked up on the fringe of Stone, I think. Displaced in the last war."

She stopped before it became a suspicious amount of oversharing.

Kabuto had tuned out and said with a dismissiveness, "it's always charming to see a high achiever in the labs. Go to your work, then."

"Yes, sir."

She had made it a few steps before he stopped her.

"And Karin," he said, tone airily detached in a worrisome way, "you haven't heard any of this squabbling in the ranks about some sort of fever, have you?"

"I'm looking into it," she nodded. "These things usually have some basis of truth to them, but I don't have anything to report so far."

That was the line she had decided to use and she had determined there was a fifty-six percent chance of success. Mostly because she really wanted it to work and also because she had prepared herself in the substantial chance it didn't.

"How capable. I knew you were trustworthy, Karin."

"I'll keep you informed of any developments, sir." She lied with a heavy silver tongue and walked with light footsteps from the room. She heard another splatter of spit on the glass and the doors swung shut behind her.

Karin was sensitive to chakra signatures, even ones from skilled individuals were capable of masking their presence. She felt comfortable she had the lab to herself without possibility of someone sneaking in on her. She laid out her materials on a scroll she could close away easily just in case she had to hide it from curious seekers.

How did she determine the exact cause of death?

Medic-nin and other specialist ninja working with the Investigation Divisions in a village had skills and ability to trace damage on a body to specific jutsu; Karin had some self-taught time on a microscope and a bit of anatomical reading to guide her detective work. Her repertoire was maybe a little underwhelming on paper, but she had other things going for her.

For one thing, the disease was a potentially devastating epidemic waiting to happen – one that could end her relatively stable existence – and that was a substantial motivator to understand it better and try to combat it. As well, she had a burgeoning sense of obligation to protect the ranks, too. They had suffered enough under the machinations of their own leadership – why let something or someone else mess with them further? Unacceptable, really.

A fever was indicative of problems in the body and not a sole cause of death... as far as she knew. Usually it accompanied infections, which meant she needed to compare the diseased cells with healthy cells from a similar specimen; that might give her more information and an idea of what was abnormal, a place to start understanding what went wrong.

Because she didn't have an manual on where to start, she chose the area under the sixth chakra gate, the mid-to-low torso area, because it had some significance in medical ninjutsu. There was something in the kidneys that had to do with immune response in the body through hormone regulation. She might not see a cause of irritation directly, but maybe there would be other clues to follow.

She had set up the testing for hormonal content in different kidney samples, had opened up three kidneys from three different bodies, and was taking notes on a "healthy" example when she felt someone familiar on his way to her lab.

"Glad I could be your scapegoat," Suigetsu grouched from around a straw. He had kicked his way into the lab and sullenly slunk his way towards her station. "Sure, I'm to blame for the guy clocking out his chakra card."

"Maybe if you had brought him to the med bay like I've told you," Karin retorted, not feeling guilted in the least.

"He wasn't gonna make it."

"Are you really that upset I made you an accomplice? You wanted to be friends..."

Suigetsu sputtered, insulted. "I didn't want to be friends. You clearly can't stay away from me."

In reality, Sasuke had been the one to coerce their passably amicable interactions, but neither admitted as much.

"Were you there when this guy fell ill?" Karin asked, changing the subject before either could get any sulkier thinking about their former ally. But he had always been more than that –

"Nope. Why?"

"I'm trying to determine how he died. It would be good to know the full scope of the illness. Where was he; how did it first show symptoms; how long was he effected? I don't know, but stuff like that."

Using an elbow to indicate the spread of opened kidneys, "then what's all this for? Lunch?"

"So funny." Karin mocked a smile. "Also for diagnostic purposes."

"They all look the same to me," he declared, as if to settle a matter.

"To an ignorant eye, they would," she returned, but the sharpness was mostly to false bravado because she hated when Suigetsu tried to make her feel small. But, even so, as she looked at them all lined up in juxtaposition, she could see a noticeable difference in the 'diseased' kidney versus the others. Continuing with renewed suavity, "our man's organ here has very small, but numerous growths throughout the tissue."

Suigetsu pulled a long frown. "And that's important...?"

Karin tilted her chin. "Of course. But I won't get into it with you, you'd fall behind too quickly and it would be an exercise in futility for me."

He snorted and busied himself with his drink. "Anyway. I wasn't with him, but I can get that info for you. I know his cell and his CO is still hanging around here somewhere. Maybe they've submitted their mission report."

"He was away from the base when he got sick?" She said about their patient. Karin hadn't heard that before.

"Yep. At least that's going for us. None of the men had been on base when they got sick."

She straightened up in her seat with a dawning eagerness. This was important information. Forgetting to even order him around, she said, "would you be able to get their information as well? From the other cases?"

Like he might have something much better to do, Suigetsu made a vague gesture of commitment. Dragging out the words, very bothered by the prospect, "I guess..."

The fact he hadn't outright argued it told her he was keenly interested in the truth behind the fever cases. Anything less and he would have been a total shit about it.

"You've seen Kabuto's new toy?" Suigetsu asked, going back to playing with his straw.

Karin nodded and didn't hide her slight contempt for the whole thing. "Yeah, he's just told me today to not give her food or water. Like, at all."

"Yikes. Well. Guess she won't be missing her tongue too terribly much then."

She snapped her head up from where she'd bent down to examine the kidney. "What?"

"Well, I mean, she was a total mute, right? So it's not like she used it for talking or anything. And, you know, no food –"

"Are you telling me he's removed her tongue?" The idea wasn't the worst to come out of an Oto experiment, but it was unsettling. "Why?"

"One too many spit-chucks, sounded like."

"That's..." –gross, terrible– "really unfortunate."

"I think he's hoping it might grow back or something. What's that lady's deal? She some sort of Kimimaro copy?"

Karin didn't think so, but the comparison was easy enough to draw. They looked alike with their paleness and fair eyes and hair. "She's something different. Which is too bad for her."

"Yeah, but like, obviously she's not that strong, right? Wouldn't have gotten stuck in a shitter like that if she had any real power going for her."

"Maybe," Karin surmised, not convinced either way. "She's pretty damn tough to crack."

Suigetsu smiled, a bit unpleasantly, "but that's definitely what Kabuto wants to happen. He's going to find her limits and then he's going to cut her up and eat her. Just like he did with the old White Snake."

She rolled her eyes at his mentioning of the other rumor currently rattling the ranks – that Kabuto had somehow eaten and taken over Orochimaru's powers. It was a ludicrous idea. ...She hoped.

Karin went still, something clicking in her mind and the connection made her cool with dread. "He didn't eat him... he absorbed Orochimaru..."

She was up to her feet and across the lab before Suigetsu could numbly drool out, "whaa?" in confusion.

Grabbing the slides she had been analyzing and tracking for several weeks, she hurried back to place them by her microscope. Then she was skirting around Suigetsu and heading to the door. To herself and with a weird sense of unappealing triumph, "no wonder I thought about the Curse Mark!"

Her company acted shadow as she left the labs she used to the ones hidden and secured for Orochimaru, and now Kabuto's, more secretive and personal pursuits. Suigetsu immediately accused her of only knowing how to enter from having followed and spied on Sasuke, but she ignored him (always on and on about Sasuke...). And he was wrong anyway – it just happened she had been brought there for other purposes by Orochimaru himself and she had observed his sealing methods. Understanding chakra was sort of her thing, of course she would be able to get inside.

She wanted Orochimaru's preserved hand.

If her hunch were right, then the hand would confirm that it was Orochimaru's cells infiltrating the tissue in the slides. And she would have to find a way to confirm that it was Kabuto's tissue being taken over.

Because if that were the case – then her master –the man who had saved her, taught her, made a place for her in the world– was not lost and gone forever.

Orochimaru was going to return.

o o o

Sakura ran her eyes over her newly reformed hand, a few minutes old, and waited. She had broken her last record and the medical ninjutsu she was using with her good hand appeared to be noticeably more effective at containing – ah, nope, there it was! Orochimaru's chakra broke through her defenses and its invasion was as potent as ever.

Disappointed but not entirely shocked, she grumbled a mildly bothered sound and cut off her treacherous hand. Again. It had been weeks and she still hadn't resolved how to regenerate her hand without the foreign chakra of the Snake Sannin. He persisted like a venomous fang long lost from the mouth.

"Complete ass," Sakura said of the man as she destroyed her severed appendage. She concentrated her chakra into a temporary set of digits stretching out from the fresh tissue at the end of her arm. She could hold the shape and use it for certain tasks, namely picking things up, but it was a work in progress. More functional than the single protrusion or the clawed shapes with which she had started.

Her other tasks had gone better.

After the battle against Konan of Akatsuki and the invasion forces of Sound and Cloud, she had made her way to Otogakure and started her infiltration. The goal was to find those with the Curse Mark and to destroy any remaining chakra and influence from Orochimaru. He had found a means to immortality with the technique, but now that she knew of it, Sakura made it her personal mission to cleanse the land of his lingering presence.

All she had to do was discover the location of his bases and eliminate the results of his experiments. Every Curse Mark had to go, but finding those affected had been more difficult than she first thought. When not activated, the chakra Orochimaru hid in his Curse Seals was impossible to track.

Sakura had sought a different means of honing in on the labs, and with the revelation of her most recent 'bug's' location, she now had a likely location for her first target. Three of the people she had tagged had returned to the same point before she lost their signatures, and she had an idea it could be a base of operation.

From her hollowed out hiding spot in a tall hardwood, Sakura could see a distant mountain peak in between the leafs and boughs of the canopy. As she had approached the landmark earlier the day, she had finally started to discern uniquely shinobi chakra signatures. It was there she would get some answers and begin her real work.

After some rest, of course; activating her seal and regrowing a limb wasn't the best precursor to breaking into an enemy compound.

Sleep had been difficult for her. It might have started back in Iwagakure after the incident at the opium den, but lately her body's reaction in her sleep had become more visceral. It wasn't nightmares plaguing her. Instead she would wake up from a black sleep, chest heaving and her ribs aching from a shadow of a mortal injury. It seemed like she would only have just shut her eyes before it was like the Chidori was ripping out from her again.

She'd feel it –that ghostly spear of an arm pierced through her chest– she'd feel it and it would jolt her physically from her sleep. Blind in a moment of white panic and the birdsong cries echoing in her head.

Not very enjoyable nor very good for recuperating energy, but she was learning to cope and recover from the attack.

There were very few things she actually had to be anxious about. She had fought and defeated so many powerful people – she was finally a capable kunoichi. Sakura could handle things.

She slept and the phantom attack hit her. Sakura caught herself at the edge of her makeshift shelter and gasped two breaths, told herself it was only a dream – before being knocked again through her back and rocked clear from her perch in the tree.

'An actual attack.'

She thought frantically, from whom? And how? No one was near her.

Sakura twisted in her fall in order to catch herself on a lower hanging branch, swung herself right-side up and immediately made for cover on another tree. She couldn't see very well and nothing in her field of vision caught her attention, but she listened. She breathed deep and tried to pick up any telling scent. She sharpened her awareness of any chakra in the area that felt out of place.

And then she promptly stopped because it hurt. Something in her middle throbbed, bowed her inward and to her knees, and kept her from trying to focus on sensing chakra. Her hand groped at her front and back, trying to find an injury that wasn't there.

"The hell," she cursed, the words stinging and hoarse. She couldn't see anything wrong, either, but she'd been struck by something. Something was crippling her system.

White movement in her peripheral vision and Sakura snapped her arm up to block what looked like a hit aimed to slam into the crown of her head.

Nothing. The blurring image passed through her arm, snapped down her body and her insides rattled with bubbling pain. She lost her the wind in her chest from the shock of the pain, stumbled in her kneeled stance despite being certain nothing physical had hit her.

Her chakra responded well even with the pain, and Sakura tried a genjutsu to obfuscate her location as she retreated to the base of the tree.

"That won't work on me." The voice was almost beside her, and Sakura's response was quick and precise. The hit would have shattered most things, but her arm didn't connect as it swept through the figure next to her.

Sakura followed her momentum and tucked into a roll before jumping to her feet to spin around and face her opponent.

"Those hits won't work, either," the girl said. At least it was an image of girl –glowing light and barely opaque, a strange and empty three dimensional tracing of a person. Nothing about her told of an Oto affinity, but the vague hint of her expression was less than friendly.

"Ghost," Sakura yelped, and like the accomplished, fearsome kunoichi she had become, she pivoted and fled. If she couldn't block the girl, couldn't hit her, and genjutsu didn't work, then evasion and escape was the best course of action.

Sakura was fast – not the fastest, but she was pretty good.

She was slower than her ghost enemy, who caught her immediately from her pivot in a jab straight through her lower ribs. The intangible arm reaching into her body stuck there like hot tar seeped into her veins and slowed everything to a standstill. Sakura could still breathe, could move her eyes, twitch some of her limbs with enough effort, but she was stuck. Deep inside, as if the roots and the core of her energy were under siege.

"Where?" The girl demanded, and then tacked on for good measure, "you unwashed, wool-eared, degenerate heathen."

Nothing of that really made any logical sense to Sakura, so she ignored it in favor of figuring a way to spring from the girl's hold. ...If she could just first figure out what the technique was and how the hell it worked. The girl wasn't a chakra entity or illusion – she was something like that but...different.

Shaking Sakura enough to make her want to get ill, the girl asked again, more pointedly, "where is she?"

Which finally allowed for some clarity in their situation, Sakura thought. After a short groan, and stuttered some with pain, she said, "I don't know what you're talking about..."

A long answer to stall the girl as Sakura pieced together observations and stubborn memories, but a possibility finally came to her.

"...and if you're looking for someone," she continued saying, "the last person I even spoke with is about two countries south of us right now..."

Not chakra, but rather more than that – life energy. The girl was a projection of her life energy and she was trapping Sakura by the very same thing. Holding her in place by the soul.

Hell, if she weren't just a bit impressed. And curious...

'Two streams of executive function in the brain does not equate to separate souls, so, no. I can't help you.'

Well, that was disappointing; the dead man in her head only looked the ghost of soul of a departed.

"...He's a bit of an ...overeager artist ...with loner tendencies, so I doubt you're looking ...for him..." Sakura couldn't speak very easily and her words left her with the grace of rusted gears ground together.

She needed another way out.

"Someone from Otogakure took who you're looking for," Sakura prodded, hopeful to employ one of her favored tactics.

"I've tracked the person who took my master to this country. And I had felt that same energy from you. But now...I can't seem to feel it any more..."

Choking out a small laugh, which was a very sore thing to do, Sakura was almost relieved. "Right. That. Yeah. That's the energy of a dead man trying to steal my body, I'm pretty sure."

And if the girl were looking for that same energy, then she was definitely after a person with a similar amount of Orochimaru chakra-injection.

"The man you're looking for is Kabuto. Good news for you, I'm here to kill him."

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