Disclaimer: I do not own NARUTO or the characters in it.


CHAPTER ONE: "A Seething Heart"

"My ass feels like a bitch that can't shut up," Rhino protested. "I need some action!"

"And I need a pack of cigs. Do you think if I went over to Akatsuki and asked them real nicely they'd share with me?" Beater wondered.

The laughter of the other ANBU crackled through Sakura's wireless earpiece. They had been hiding out in the trees for the whole night, staking out an Akatsuki meeting on the edge of the Fire Country. This was Sakura's first serious mission since becoming the Hokage's apprentice four months ago, and she was trying very hard to be serious. The ANBU making lame jokes in her ear were not helping.

Down below, in the clearing, three Akatsuki terrorists had already arrived for the meeting. One of the men yawned. Another paced back and forth like a schizophrenic, clutching a metal suitcase chained to his wrist. The third terrorist was leaning against a tree and smoking a cigar.

Rhino sighed with feeling. "Ain't that terr'ist look like the most comfortable motherfucka in the universe! Hey, Saint, you gettin' pictures of this, right?"

"Yeah, I'm immortalizing them," Saint answered. "Akatsuki boobs. Smoking, god. I mean, you could get lung cancer doing that."

"Good help's so hard to find these days," said Beater.

Laughter roared out over the radio. "Don't you start talking trash, Beater!" said Rhino. "Who took that nap at the last stakeout? Man, any more of this shit from you and I'm gonna have to stick sweet little Sakura and Ino on your ass to teach you a lesson."

"Sakura could take Beater by herself," Asuma declared, getting in on the act.

"Hey!" Beater protested. "Now hold on—"

"She'd only have to use one hand," Asuma said. "She'd blow you a kiss and then it would all be over!"

Peering up from her infrared binoculars Sakura looked over at Ino and Chouji, crouching on the tree branch next to her. She could barely make out their faces in the darkness of night, but she could hear Ino giggling, and Chouji was pretty much doubling over in laughter. Sakura sighed.

"You got it all wrong, bro," Beater said. "What do you think I am, some kind of predator? Now, sweet little Sakura's sensei, there's a fine woman—"

"The Hokage would blow your brains out if you ever tried anything!" Saint said.

"You don't know shit, Saint. You didn't hear what she said to me yesterday."


"Remember when the Hokage pulled me aside after the rest of you guys left? 'Oh Beater,' she said, 'you fine strong man. Please be careful on the mission. It's so important.' So I said, 'Course, Hokage-sama. I know how much the United Countries organization means to you.' Then she cupped her hands on my face and whispered, 'Oh Beater. You are my United Countries."

"Shit, in your dreams!" Rhino laughed.

"In your dreams too—"

"That's enough, all of you," a voice said quietly. The First ANBU Captain. "It's almost time for the Akatsuki meeting. Focus."

"Aw, come'on, Cap. It's just a B-rank mission."

"Beater, are you... talking back to me?" the Captain asked. He made it sound like this was the most terrifying thing in the world.

"Uh, no! No, sir!" The other ANBU laughed.

A hush fell over the wireless. Down below in the clearing, the three terrorists were moving. The lazy ninja stamped out his cigarette, and the nervous one unchained the metal case from his wrist. They were expecting somebody. Somebody important. Sakura pressed the infrared binoculars against her eyes, scanning the clearing. She saw it all: the clearing, the vast forests of the Fire Country that surrounded it, the three terrorist ninjas below. It was far into the night, but with the infrared she could have seen their faces if they weren't wearing masks.

Suddenly the young ninja was conscious of the weight of the forehead protector she wore, and all that it represented: the symbol of her hidden ninja village, the swirling leaf of Konoha. The cold metal of the headplate pressed her skin through the cloth. At the same time the young ninja felt a tense warm heat run through her. It was the feeling of danger, of fear. Yeah, it was only a B-rank mission, just a low-level stakeout, but still... This is it, she thought. This is my chance to prove myself to Tsunade-sensei. She was the one saw it first.

"Look! By the rocks to the north," Sakura said. "There's a… thing."

That was the only word she could think of to describe it. The thing was slowly rising out from the ground.

"What the hell is that?" asked Ino.

"Zetsu," said the ANBU Captain, sounding surprised. "Akatsuki second-in-command."

The top of the thing cracked apart, splitting down the center, and the two halves opened up like the jaws of a gigantic Venus flytrap. Inside the jaws Sakura saw the grinning head and upper chest of a man. Then the rest of the man-thing surfaced, relatively normal—with arms and legs—wrapped in the black and red cloak of Akatsuki. The three masked terrorists hurried to meet him, bowing with respect.

"A plant with legs, can this get any more creepy?" Beater said.

"Do you even got to ask?" Rhino said.

"Rhino, Saint, Asuma, circle around to triangulate," the Captain said. "Beater, drop the bug. The kids, stay where you are and watch. Do not take action except by my direct authorization."

"Bug deployed," said Beater. The bug was a small little pyramid-shaped thing the size of a ping-pong ball, shot into the ground and wired with a powerful microphone. Just close enough to pick up the conversation.

Zetsu was the first voice beamed into the team's earpieces. "Sshow me," he said, a slurred inhuman babble that reminded Sakura of a serpent's hiss.

"It's here, Zetsu-sama," the man with the metal suitcase said. His voice was not like Zetsu's. It was hard, cutting, each syllable pronounced like a knife's edge. Judging by the accent, the man was from the Earth Country.

He knelt down and typed a code on the keypad of the case. The locks on the case popped apart. He offered it to Zetsu.

Zetsu took the suitcase and opened it up. Sakura was facing in the right direction. Through the binoculars she could make out some sort of scrollwork along the inside of the case, and in the center, a very bright, glowing thing which shimmered and throbbed and pulsed. Like a seething heart. A crystal.

"Yesss… very good," Zetsu said. He snapped the case shut and it disappeared into his cloak.

"As promised, we've fulfilled our side of the contract," said the ninja with the suitcase. "Now, for your part…"

"Contract?" Saint whispered over the wireless. "What're they talking about? Aren't those guys part of Akatsuki?"

Zetsu laughed. He sounded like a hissing hyena. "Yess, of course… the contract. Tell your leader that Akatsuki will deliver the prototype in due time."

"We want our people to observe development. Where is your lab?"

"In the —" Zetsu paused, cocked his head to one side. "What is that?"

"What's what?"

The man-thing seemed to be searching for something. "I smelled… no. Itss gone now. For a moment…"

"Fuck!" Rhino said. "Should we move?"

"Wait," said the Captain. "We need to know more about this deal. Ride it out."

The three masked ninja peered into the forest. "You think there's somebody there?" the suitcase ninja asked.

"Perhaps… or nothing… make ssure…" Zetsu made a series of hand seals and under his feet a large, flat white glowing disc blinked into existence, like a searchlight. Smaller discs started to bud out from the main disc, sweeping outwards along the ground in all directions. Sakura lowered her binoculars and watched the herd of tiny searchlights plunge into the forest.

"A tracking jutsu," the Captain whispered. "He's a sensor. He must have sensed someone's chakra signature. Everyone suppress your chakra, now!"

The white searchlights rushed through the forest. They were triangulating, converging towards—

"They're going after the kids!" Asuma shouted. "But who… Sakura! You're the only one with enough chakra!"

Me? Then Sakura realized. She had been so focused on the mission, so excited, she had forgotten…

"Sakura! Kill your chakra now!" Asuma shouted.

Fuck! This can't be happening! She concentrated with wide eyes, tried to suppress it. She could feel herself going cold. It was working…

"Hurry, Sakura!" Ino said from the other branch. The searchlights were everywhere around them. Damnit, Sakura, concentrate—

A small white ring of light enveloped her.

All of the searchlights in the forest suddenly shined bright red.

"Fuck!" the ANBU all shouted at once.

"Attack!" yelled the Captain.

"Incompetentsss!" the plant man-thing screamed through her earpiece. "We are disscovered! Kill them all! Kill them! BURN! BURRRNNN!"

At the climax of Zetsu's scream a five-story-high wave of roaring fire erupted from the clearing. The fire rushed directly at Sakura.

"Run!" Chouji shouted. The three genin jumped out of the tree and ran. The gigantic wave of fire just missed them, but the force of the shockwave knocked them back into the air hard. Sakura landed on her side, rolling across the muddy dirt. Groaning she managed to stagger to her feet. There was silence over the radio. Her headset was gone.

Her infrared was gone too, but there was no need for it. The forest burned. Wild tongues of flame leapt from trunk to trunk, lighting up trees like chandeliers in the dark.

A human girl lay crumbled up under one of them.

"Ino!" Sakura cried. She rushed over to her. No, there was a pulse. Ino was still alive, just unconscious. Had to get her somewhere safe, then—

Zetsu burst out of the ground right in front of her. Sakura stumbled back, horrified. The thing's body was split down the middle, half black and half white, grotesquely misshapen.

"Pretty leaf-nin girl," Zetsu hissed. "So youre the one… I smelled…"

"Fuck you," Sakura said.

"Dont be offended. You smelled very nisse." He licked his lips and laughed. His tongue was forked. A huge, long thorn grew out of his hand, a hideous thorn-sword. The sword was dark green and dripped smoking venom. Zetsu started to stalk toward her.

He was too close, it was impossible to run. None of her jutsu were strong enough. Except for…

"Binding!" Sakura shouted at him desperately. The jutsu was only half-learned at best but it was her only chance.

For the briefest of instants Zetsu froze in mid-step as his muscles locked up, immobilized by Sakura's illusion attack. Then the instant passed and he laughed. "A genjutsu? What an interesting little thing you are. Yess… Ill have ssuch fun tonight… when I eat you…"

He rushed at Sakura.

The attack was blocked. Blue glowing trench knives held back the sword of thorns. Asuma! Just as quickly Asuma pivoted and roundhouse kicked Zetsu to the face. The huge power of the kick pushed the man-thing back five meters, his feet skidding in the mud. But Zetsu didn't lose his balance. Instead his head spun around wildly on his neck, round and round like a toy top.

"What in the name of the Sage of Six Paths…" Asuma said.

Zetsu laughed loudly. He reached up with his hands and placed his head in its original position. Then he licked his lips with his forked tongue.

"Are you okay?" Asuma said to Sakura, his eyes still fixed on Zetsu.


Now the Captain and Saint landed next to them. The ANBU's carved masks flashed red in the flames.

"More leaf-nin! Ill be full for weeks!" cried Zetsu. A second thorn sword surged eagerly out of his other hand.

"Yasunari Zetsu, in the name of the Fire Country I charge you with terrorism and conspiracy against world peace," said the Captain. "Surrender or be taken by force."

Zetsu laughed.

Saint charged at Zetsu with his katana. As Saint swung Zetsu melted into the ground. Before Sakura could react the thing had leapt up from behind them! He was so fast—

But the Captain was faster. A bolt of lightning erupted from the Captain's hands and struck Zetsu directly in the chest. Zetsu screamed. The blast blew him back a dozen meters in the air and he fell in an awkward heap. Right away the thing sprang up again, but he was not laughing now. The big smoking hole straight through his stomach had spoiled the mood. "How dare you!" he shrieked.

Right on cue a wood bunshin of the Captain jumped from the ground behind Zetsu and grabbed Zetsu around the waist. The bunshin exploded. A thick ball of impenetrable wood burst around Zetsu, encasing him within it. A wood prison.

"Enemy captured," the Captain said.

"Ahhh!" Zetsu shrieked from inside the prison. "Youll pay for thissss!"

"Wow, that was easy. Good work," Asuma said.

It was not three seconds later when a huge venom-dripping spike rammed through the wall of the wood prison.

"Perhaps I spoke prematurely," said the Captain.

"This always happens when you show off," said Saint.

The spikes shot out as fast as arrows, hundreds of them. The prison shattered. More spikes erupted from the ground in every direction, black thorns spiraling in a twisting web. No escape. The thorns came down on the Leaf ninja like a vise. They were all going to be impaled—

"Mokuton: Shiro Shussei," said the Captain. Wood Release: White Creation Rebirth.

A gigantic white banyan tree burst under and around them, shooting up towards the sky. Within moments the leaf-nin were ten stories high in the air, layered deep within branches hard and white as polished bone. The web of black thorns wrapped around the tree like a thousand chains, trying to constrict it, slice it apart. The tree fought back, branches sprouting out as fast as they could be cut. There was an ear splitting hissing and screeching, and the earth shook.

The Captain pressed his hands against the white bark, pouring out his chakra into the tree. He grunted with the effort. "This mission has gone way beyond B-rank. Get the kids out of here," he said, referring to Sakura and the still unconscious Ino.

"The radios aren't working. Too much static," said Saint.

"Just go, Saint. Find the others if you can. I'll handle the—what th—"

The trunk of the white banyan tree glowed red for a split second, like it was being superheated from the inside. Then it violently exploded.

"Shit! It's Bakudan!" Asuma shouted. "Sougon!"

"Jump!" the Captain yelled.

Sakura jumped. A second later the trunkless crown of the tree detonated like an over-pressurized furnace. The roaring shockwave blasted her forward in the air. She managed to catch herself on the hanging branches of a nearby tree. Then she was running fast away from that place, jumping from tree to tree between the mazes of thorns. She did not stop until she had run out of breath. Then she looked back.

A tall white stump jutted up from the earth, like a dead statue with its body cut off. Above it, where the tree had been, there was a haze of shimmering steam the color of gold…

What jutsu was that?

What the fuck was going on? The girl could hear distant shouts, the sounds of explosions. The smell of smoke filled her mouth. The others were fighting. Should she try to help? No. She had done enough of that tonight. Just… just stay out of the way…

The air in front of her exploded.

The attack just narrowly missed. She staggered back, looking around her frantically. She saw him just in time. The masked ninja was crouched on a burning branch above her. He was close enough that she could look into his uncovered eyes, dark and slitted.

His eyes shimmered gold—

Sakura leapt to the side. The branch she had been standing on right before exploded.

"Die!" the ninja shouted. She had heard his voice before.

The ninja's eyes glowed again. She dodged the explosion again. Again. Again.

I can't keep this up! Had to run away somehow. Ahead of her she saw a small, dense grove of trees. She jumped into it, panting and desperate. Think, Sakura, hide somewhere!

Something hit her hard in the chest. She flew back into a tree trunk and cried out in pain, falling, crashing to the ground floor. On her hands and knees in the mud, dazed, the girl could barely manage to raise her head to see her attacker. The man was silhouetted black against the burning forest. He stretched out the palm of his hand toward her, and then his eyes were gold flames.

"Bakudan," the man said.

The explosion struck with fatal force.

But Sakura was not dead. She had been shoved to the side at the last moment.

Instead Sarutobi Asuma lay on the ground in the place where she had been.

"Asuma-sama!" Sakura screamed.

The masked ninja laughed. "That's one ape down." He stepped toward Sakura. She could see the inflamed network of blood vessels coiled around his dark pupils.

Sakura threw a kunai at him, weakly, clumsily. The man swatted it away with the back of his hand. "You stupid ape. Do you think those little daggers can hurt me?" he asked. Sakura flung more kunai anyway. The man laughed. "You stupid tree-fucker—"

"Binding," Sakura whispered.

The ninja's muscles froze for a fraction of a second. But it was enough. The kunai got him straight through the left eye. Into his brain.

"Ahh!" the man shrieked, clutching his face in agony. Sakura hurled more kunai at him. The man stumbled out of the grove, fleeing blindly.

"Fuck you!" Sakura shouted after him. But she didn't try to give chase. Asuma-sama. He had saved her life twice. She crawled over to him and turned him over onto his back. The explosion hadn't quite hit him directly, but close enough. The front of his chest was a hole, the ribcage was blasted away. But somehow he was still alive.

Got to heal it… She plunged her hands into his chest. Thick hot blood washed over her, spraying all over her arms and body and face. Got to heal it. There was so much damage. She couldn't… she wasn't Tsunade-sensei, she didn't know how to fix this kind of damage! She felt Asuma's heart under the palms of her hands, warm, beating. Then she felt it stop.

No! Restart the heart. She had to restart it. Focus, Sakura. Focus. Figure out the right healing technique—brute force. Raw chakra. That was the only way. She poured waves of chakra energy into Asuma's body, draining all of hers. He needed more. More… more… yes! His heart moved. He was breathing. He was alive. Sakura worked desperately, pumping all her chakra into him, healing as much as she could, stabilizing him one step at a time. Slowly, gradually, the wound began to close up. She had done it.

Sakura leaned back against the tree, exhausted, gasping for air and clutching her stinging ribs. She was out of chakra. The heal was barely enough.

"Sakura! Asuma-sensei!" a voice called. She looked up. It was Chouji, jumping down beside her. The Captain and Saint landed next to him. Chouji was carrying Ino in his arms. "Asuma-sensei! Is he—"

"Alive. I healed him, but we got to take him to Konoha right away, or…"

The Captain went over to Asuma's body and examined it quickly. He placed a small white seed on top of Asuma's chest. It burrowed inside him, infusing him with chakra to buy time.

"Did you…?" Sakura asked hesitantly.

The Captain's face was hidden behind his carved ANBU mask, painted like the jaws of a wolf. But she could guess his expression. "Zetsu escaped," he said. "We managed to get this." He held up half of a burned steel case, torn in half at the hinges. The glowing crystal they had seen before was gone.

"Captain!" a voice called. Another ANBU ninja landed next to them. It was Rhino. He was holding something to his chest, but Sakura couldn't make it out.

"Report," the Captain said.

"They got away," Rhino said, his voice strange, like it was hard to speak. "Captain… they were Sougon… we didn't know… Beater … he…"

Then Sakura saw what it was that Rhino was holding. It was a human head and upper chest, stubs of arms—everything else was gone. The head was wearing an ANBU mask.

Beater! No! God, no!

"They… they just blew up the rest of him…"

The Captain didn't speak. He went over to Rhino and he took what remained of Beater from the ninja. He removed the ANBU mask. Beater's eyes were still open, bright robin blue, frozen. The Captain reached out with a gloved hand and closed Beater's eyes. Then he put the mask back on. For a long moment he stood this way.

"I'm sorry," Sakura whispered.

The ANBU all stared at her. Chouji look away. None of them said anything.

Around them the forests burned still. Orange flames slithered up ravaged trees, consuming everything in their wake. Chips of bark curled up and fell in blackened flakes to the ground. The leaves hissed and roasted and the sky was filled with their smoldering dust. The fire would go on for days.

Next: CHAPTER TWO: "In the Looking Glass"