Running from the Sixth
The one single constant thing in the span of the indefinite hours in that dark prison cell, was the pain. The excruciating pain. It came from everywhere; her arms, her knuckles, her knees, her head. Oh, her head! It felt like it was going to explode when she tried to open her eyes.
Haruno Sakura gritted her teeth together, willing herself not to lose consciousness again. This was not the time to be weak. The people of Konoha were required to be strong, especially in these times when the village needed them the most.
When the Hokage herself needed them, most of all.
She forced her arms to move, but for some unknown reason, they would not follow her bidding. She moved her head slowly, saw the dirty walls of her cell, the disgusting moss growing right where her cheek was pressed against the rocks. She forced herself to examine the extent of the damage those Root scum did to her body.
And she nearly cried out with what she saw in the dim light of that one single torch positioned above her head. She knew instantly why she could not move her arms; they were broken beyond recognition in several places, judging by the way they hung mangled at her sides. Her blood-covered knuckles, she knew by the looks of it, were shattered. It was a wonder she still had her fingers intact. Her eyes traveled to her legs stretched out in front of her. Her right knee was oozing blood from the side where a wound she suspected to be from a kunai lay open. Other than that, she did not know. She felt consciousness slipping again. She fought it desperately by remembering the events of today. The task only made things worse.
The memory of Tsunade in her most vulnerable state, Shimura Danzo raised Sixth Hokage, and Uzumaki Naruto gone missing not too long after. The events felt like centuries ago, although it had been but a few hours that Sakura had been more than willing to offer her life to get the Root underlings away from her Shishou. Perhaps it was because of the fatigue from running around the village for three days without sleep to heal the wounded after Pain's invasion. While Pain – because of Naruto – had revived every single person he had killed in the attack, Sakura didn't think he would go to the extent of healing the dying and the wounded. It had been frustrating to watch people die after the invasion simply because there wasn't enough medicine for their disposal, or not enough hands to help around the hospital, or not enough blood donors. And to think Sakura had thought it was finally over.
It had been frustrating to watch a child die from a bash on the head, when every single stabbed, cut and slashed ninja had started popping back to life.
It had been frustrating to have the Sixth Hokage prioritize pointing fingers than healing the wounded. It had been even more frustrating to have the new Sixth Hokage accuse Tsunade – who had just offered half of her already short lifespan to save the people of the Leaf – of Reckless Endangerment.
Danzo had tried to assault Tsunade in her quarters in her weakest state, and her Shishou had commanded her to back down. But Sakura would rather have died than have their grubby paws on her master when the older woman couldn't even defend herself. They had held down Shizune, but Sakura had kicked and punched and used her chakra to keep them away, demolishing half the Hokage Tower in the process. But as expected, one kunoichi against a dozen ANBU Root division members did not stand a chance. They had pounced on her as one, and she had given them hell but they were able to knock her out, breaking her arms to prevent her doing any damage. Tsunade had been screaming the whole time, begging them to leave her alone.
Sakura nearly cried then. Tsunade never begged. Never.
And then she woke up in this cell, every single part of her body aching.
Sakura felt her heart racing again. She willed the anxiety attack – the panic – at the Thought of Tsunade subside. Was she safe? Or was she dead? Where was Naruto? Kakashi? Sai?
Sakura used her shoulder to prop herself up on the wall. Her cheek scraped against the rough surface. She didn't care. She needed to get out of there. She needed to see her Shishou. She needed to find Naruto! Everything always turns out fine when Naruto was around.
It may have been out of pure determination that got her able to stand on her feet, her right knee nearly giving away under her weight. Seeing her arms like purplish rubber hanging at her sides made her sick, and utterly helpless. It was then did she discover how close to being completely useless she was without her arms. She could not fight, could not heal.
Sakura raised her head. It didn't matter. If she had to bite Shimura Danzo to death, she would!
Sakura warily squatted, making herself as small as possible in the far end of her cell. Pain shot through her chest at the sudden movement, and she bit down hard on her lip as she heard vague and very light footsteps. She did not know why, but she felt her whole body start to shake. It was one of those rare occasions when she was truly, truly afraid. And there were only two occasions in her life that she had been genuinely afraid; one was when she first saw Naruto's Kyuubi form, and the other was when she first encountered Orochimaru. But that was because the snake had used his genjutsu on her, showing her the possibility of a painful and gruesome death.
But right now was different. It was not a genjutsu. Her broken arms were real. The pain was real. Her helplessness was real.
She did not even notice she had started to hold her breath when she saw a shadow round the corner, and the willowy figure of a haggard Shizune appeared soon after. She looked unharmed but her eyes kept darting here and there, over her shoulder, as if expecting someone to pounce at her from the darkness.
Sakura started to breathe then and there, sagged against the wall, her heart doing erratic jumps and throbs. "Oh, god! Shizune! You scared me…!"
Shizune, at the sight of her, gasped and was immediately kneeling by the bars. "Sakura, what have they…" her voice faded as her eyes fell on the pink-haired kunoichi's arms.
"Shishou… is Shishou all right?" Sakura asked as she summoned all her energy to her legs. Her chakra reserves were dwindling fast, but she didn't care. In a great effort that nearly made her black out, she stumbled her way to Shizune, who immediately cupped Sakura's face gingerly with her hands. Shizune's touch was cold on Sakura's skin, and she leaned in on her palms desperately.
"Tsunade-sama is… right now… detained…" The pained expression on Shizune's face made Sakura start to panic again.
"Did that bastard hurt her? Did that bastard…? If I ever… I'll kill…!" Sakura started to hyperventilate.
Shizune reached down and started to rub her back. "You shouldn't have done what you did. Tsunade-sama nearly had a heart-attack when she saw them knock you down." Instantly, the woman's fingers nimbly trailed down her broken limbs, healing her with the green cloak of chakra.
Sakura felt the cool sensation on her skin and winced as she felt her bone tissue regenerate and connect painfully, the purple bruises fading as Shizune hovered her palms over them. "Where is she?"
Shizune's face was grim. "She's in her room, a dozen of Root's members guarding her door, and a barrier seal surrounding her bed to prevent her from chakra regeneration. Danzo's persistent in putting her up for trial."
Sakura closed her eyes tiredly. The Hokage was the leader of the village. If anything went wrong, it would always be the leader's fault. Tsunade saving the villager's lives would amount to naught, because the village itself was leveled down close to nothing. Perhaps it was true that they were not prepared for the attack. Pain had been a mystery. Had it not been for Naruto, everyone would have died. Sakura wouldn't be surprised of Danzo started making up stories about Naruto next, just to get him out of the way. That hateful, hateful man! He would do anything he thought best for the village, and it didn't matter how he did it and who he stepped on. Leaf History was full of his almost hideous plans and schemes, an unseen force lurking beneath the Leaf's foundations.
Oh, how Sakura would have loved to wrap her fingers around that thick neck of his and squeeze and squeeze...
"Don't force yourself too much," Shizune said silently, and Sakura's eyes popped open. She had unconsciously clenched her newly healed fists around the bars of her cell. She knew that even with Shizune's healing skills, bone tissue was still bone tissue. It would still take at the least three to four days in a cast before it fully recovered. Over-exerting would cause it to snap again.
Sakura raised a hand in front of her face and flexed her fingers. They were stiff, and she could hardly move them, but at least the pain was gone. Shizune started to work on her knee next, then her left rib, which she soon discovered to be cracked.
"Don't waste too much chakra, Shizune. We may have to break out of Konoha because of the events that are happening."
The comment made Shizune avert her eyes from Sakura's face. "We cannot leave."
"Of course we can. And I'd love to see them try to stop us when we do. We'll find Kakashi-sensei, and all the Jounin. We'll overthrow Danzo, and once I reach Naruto – "
"Naruto is a missing nin. I doubt he would be hanging around the village outskirts. And Danzo has declared martial law within the village walls. No one is to leave or enter without the Sixth's permission."
Sakura, after immediately dismissing the fact about Naruto, scoffed. "It wouldn't matter once I kill him."
"You cannot kill him."
Sakura's eyes widened, a bit insulted. "Well, of course, alone I wouldn't be able to get near him, but – "
"It's Tsunade-sama's orders not to oppose Danzo."
And Shizune's gaze returned to meet Sakura's incredulous glare. "But you, Sakura, have other orders."
Sakura lethargically shifted her knees and leaned against the bars to make sure she didn't miss a thing Shizune was about to say. "I'm listening." Her voice didn't seem like her own.
"When you get the opportunity to escape, take it."
Sakura had to pause a moment before she understood what Shizune had just said. While normally, she obeyed orders without question, there had been too many confusing events lately that she did not understand. "Tsunade-sama wants me to escape? Alone? But what about you? What about Shishou? What about Danzo?"
"There are bigger things happening right now, Sakura. Bigger than you and me. Bigger than Naruto or Tsunade-sama. The village is at its weakest, and the only thing that's keeping Iwa and Kumo at bay is Danzo. Tsunade-sama knows this. Every Jounin and Chuunin know this." Shizune frowned. "Only for some reason, your batch of Chuunin refuses to understand."
Sakura felt her newly healed hands once again squeeze the bars. "It's simple. It's just unbelievably wrong!"
"Pain's full force was too much, and it might take months before we recover. Tsunade-sama knows she would not be able to defend Konoha if ever the neighboring Shinobi Villages decide to take this advantage, especially with her state. Taking back the title will do the village little good."
"Then why is Danzo hindering her from recovering by using seals?" Sakura demanded. "I have to set her free!"
"Set her free and then what?" Shizune snapped back. "Leave the village and risk getting shot down as a missing nin? Tsunade-sama won't make it within two steps out the village walls."
"And what makes you think I can make it alone?"
"Because Tsunade-sama will send assistance. The Fifth is going to hand-pick your back-up. Personally."
Sakura felt the anger seep out of her in resignation, her grip on the bar slacked and she rested her forehead on the cold metal. "I don't want to go," she whimpered. "If everyone's staying, I don't want to go."
"You can't stay."
"I want to stay!"
"If you stay, you'll die!" Shizune shouted, gripping Sakura's shoulder meanly and shaking her.
Of course, Shizune was never known to joke around, not on circumstances like this. Sakura could only stare at her before falling back. The older woman took this opportunity to elaborate what she had just said. "You knew better than to have fought the Sixth, Sakura. You were the only one stupid enough to do so. They've accused you of treason. You were too reckless."
Reckless. Haruno Sakura was never reckless… She just did what she thought was right. She shook her head. She did not know what to do anymore. "This is not the Konoha we know. This is not my Konoha…"
"But it is still Konoha. And at this moment, that's all that matters. So long as it exists, there is a chance of bringing it back to the way it was. But until then, you have to live."
It was all Sakura could do not to shake the bars in anger. She nodded stiffly, disgruntled. "All right, but I doubt I'd be able to succeed getting out this cell, more so the village, without getting caught."
Shizune looked over her shoulder again, a bit frightened, then pressed closer to Sakura and hissed, "You must take this with you." And she produced from one of her overly long sleeves two fat scrolls sealed with Tsunade's shachihata.
Sakura eyed the scrolls as if it were poisonous snakes. And then the recognition hit her. She shook her head adamantly, backing away. "I can't take these…"
Shizune knocked the scrolls closer to Sakura, making Sakura jump. "Tsunade-sama wants you to take these to safety. Part of her instructions was to sign this when you reach safer grounds." She pointed at the thicker of the two scrolls. The look in her eyes was unreadable as she pushed the objects into Sakura's arms. Sakura instantly dropped them to the ground as if burned.
"I can't take these! Tsunade-sama needs these scrolls!"
"Just take them!" Shizune's eyes widened when they heard footsteps down the chamber.
Without thinking, Sakura grabbed the scrolls and carelessly stuffed them inside the front of her shirt. The sudden movement made her joins crack, but she didn't care.
"Someone's coming." Shizune suddenly was on her feet. "I have to go." She turned to Sakura and gave her a nod. "Good luck, Sakura. And be safe." And the woman disappeared in a whirl of smoke.
Scuttling back to the far wall, heart in her throat, Sakura reached up and plucked the torch with clumsy fingers. She heard the footsteps come closer. Her hands shaking, she threw the torch onto the ground and dug her heels into the fire, plunging her into claustrophobic darkness. Crouching once again into the wall, she hugged her knees to her chest, feeling the scrolls against her breast.
The village renovations were barely completed for the last three days when new rules had been laid down and Sai found himself back behind his porcelain mask as he treaded his way through the crowded entrance of the Administration building. Danzo had always been a patient man, but Sai didn't want to test that patience when he had already received the same summons twice in one day. He had put it off once when Yamato had asked him to help around the excavation of any possible survivors in the heart of the residential area. Out of respect to his former Captain, he had obliged, but doubted there were survivors in that rubble. Pain had done a clean job of demolishing Konoha to dust.
When Sai had gotten back to his apartment after spending three hours hauling out dismembered bodies from the wreckage, a messenger pigeon had been waiting for him by the window. Danzo wanted him in his office, and it looked quite urgent. He hadn't even bothered to clean up. He'd hurried to the Hokage tower immediately.
Sai had a slight idea on what it could be about. Lately, all Danzo ever talked about was Uzumaki Naruto. And if not Naruto, it would be about Haruno Sakura.
Sai frowned at the memory of his teammates – or former teammates. He had heard of Naruto's successful escape from Konoha, and Sai had been informed of the status of the Jinchuuriki, when he was declared as a Rogue.
And then there was Haruno Sakura… she was the only one who had dared to defend the Fifth Hokage when Danzo tried to detain her. The thought made Sai uneasy. He had never really resisted Danzo before and he didn't know the consequences that lay before anyone who ever did, but he doubted it would be good.
Shifting his mask from his face and cupping it against the side of his head, he knocked three times before entering Danzo's office.
It was the first time he had been inside the Sixth's office since he had taken up the position, but Sai could already see the change the room had undergone since Tsunade was still in power.
Tsunade's liquor collection was the first noticeable change; the shelf on the left side of the circular chamber was replaced with dark mahogany desks where three masked ANBU were sitting, sorting scrolls and folders and dividing them into three neat piles.
Another obvious change was the large, broad windows that spread behind the Hokage's desk. What used to be clear glass that overlooked the whole village was now black-tinted with a heavy film, undeniably put up to prevent anyone from seeing the inside from the out. Though Sai doubted anyone would try to peek inside a room a hundred meters from the ground. Suspicious old man.
Perhaps it was because of the film that made the room darker than usual. Or perhaps it was the man sitting behind the desk, in his usual simple dirty-white kimono, his right hand in a leather cast and his right eye under layers and layers of white bandages. Much to Sai's surprise, the only thing that did not change in the office was the slender woman in a dark yukata, raven-black hair brushing her shoulders. Shizune.
Sai immediately sank on one knee, his fist planted on the floor. "Danzo-sama."
The man raised his head at him, as usual his one exposed eye narrowed in a thin slit. "Time is short, Sai."
"My apologies." There was no use explaining to this man. Every explanation would all sound like excuses to him.
"It matters little. I have a mission for you." As if an afterthought, he raised his practical hand, and the woman, Shizune, bowed and hurriedly left the room.
Sai followed her with his eyes. When she firmly closed the door behind her, he turned back to Danzo. "Why is she here?"
Danzo's usually grim mouth turned up at the corners. "She is far too valuable to dispose of, having worked under the Princess for nearly all her life. And she doesn't resist."
Resistance, Sai knew, was futile. He rose to his feet. "Can she be trusted?"
"Anyone loyal to Tsunade cannot be trusted. Used, yes. But never trusted."
"There are quite a number of them in the Village."
"I'm aware of that." Danzo swiveled his chair – as if he was trying to get the hang of sitting in it – to face the far wall that used to house several potted plants. "I called you here, to ask if you are one of them."
Sai gave the man's back a brief stare before closing his eyes pleasantly, then smiled. "You are questioning my loyalty?"
"I am questioning everyone's loyalty."
A normal Danzo trait. He was always a suspicious man by nature. "We are all loyal to the rightful Hokage."
Danzo once again turned his chair to face him. There were too many holes in his answer. The man's eye bore onto his head, as if searching for a reason to doubt him. After a while, he nodded. "But there are others who are not. I know vaguely who they are. Those who follow the path Sarutobi chose to take… The weaker option." His eye shifted to the three ANBU shifting papers on the desk. "But I need to make sure. And I want you to do it for me."
Sai opened his eyes slightly when one of the ANBU handed him a relatively thick folder before returning to his seat. Nimble fingers thumbed through the folder lightly, and familiar names popped out to him.
Hatake Kakashi. Kurenai Yuhi, Iruka Umino, Maito Gai, and several others. Along with the Jounin names were a handful of ANBU and Special Jounin like Yamato, Yamanaka Inoichi, Morino Ibiki, Mitarashi Anko and others. It was like an all new bingo book in itself, if it hadn't been for the Chuunin and Genin names in it. Team Kakasi, Team Kurenai, Team Gai, Team Asuma. Sai's eyes narrowed when he saw Konohamaru's name in there. He snapped the folder shut. "What do you want with them?" he asked soberly.
"I want them monitored. And if worse comes to worst, exterminated. You are the man for the job. It's about time we pull out the weeds from Konoha."
Sai took a breath and let it out in a huff. He slipped the folder into his backpack and nodded briefly. "Understood."
In all the years Sai had worked for the man, he wondered how Danzo could ever trust the Foundation members, when people who are practically emotionless could lie through their teeth.
But of course, as Shimura Danzo had said, use but never trust. Sai wondered if it applied to himself as well, because the one-eyed man was looking at him up and down distrustfully. "Good, you are dismissed."
After executing a salute, Sai turned on his heel and proceeded out the door. The moment he shut it behind him, he turned to his left where he saw Shizune leaning on the wall, eyeing him apprehensively.
He never did get much of an opportunity to work with the woman, except in tailing the Sanbi. She seemed like a capable enough assistant to the Lady Tsunade, but looked like she was at a loss for words as they stared at each other in something some people would have defined as an awkward silence.
Without another word, Sai's hand shot and slid through Shizune's hair, his fingers clasping the back of her neck.
Shizune froze, eyes growing wide and hand slipping through her sleeve as if to retrieve a weapon.
Sai swiftly withdrew his hand and waved his two forefingers in front of Shizune's pale face. In between them was a small, round object, red light flickering on and off on one of its surfaces. "You are being heavily watched." Stealthily, he slipped the tracking device into Shizune's hand.
He did not wait for Shizune to say anything, and Sai plucked the ANBU mask from the side of his face and tossed it aside before walking away. It was now time to answer another summons.
He felt a slimy sensation make its way up from his pocket to his shoulder. "I don't think it's advisable for you to come out right now, Katsuyu-sama."
The tiny slug, that which was but a part of the magnificent whole, slithered inside the high collar of his shirt. "I would have to agree, Sai."
Sai wiped the trace of slime off his skin. "Danzo was suspicious enough as it was, but I don't think he's aware of your presence."
The little creature squirmed inside his clothes. "I'm surprised you didn't choose his side."
There was nothing to be surprised about. It was a mere question of priority, if not morality. His mission was given by Danzo himself to blend into Team Seven from the very beginning, and he had filled the role. Loyalties always change, even for an emotionless seventeen-year-old such as himself.
And he was not lying when he said his loyalties belonged to the rightful Hokage.
"Tsunade-sama is waiting in her quarters. Naruto is with her."
"And the guards?"
"All knocked down by Naruto himself."
"Danzo won't be happy with that."
"Naruto is a missing nin now. He couldn't do any more damage than he's already done."
Sai had to admit, Naruto's work was crude and dirty, but effective. He must have used his Rasengan on every single guard he came across to; the hall was practically littered with unconscious bodies of masked men with circular, swirling rips on their clothing.
"I thought Naruto had left," Sai whispered.
Katsuyu wriggled again. "Tsunade-sama ordered me to warn Naruto not to return to the village. But Naruto – being Naruto – did the exact opposite of what he was told to do."
Sai blinked. While he could actually have come close to worrying about the blonde Jinchuuriki, Sai could only put on a frown. When he first joined Team Seven, he had tried quite hard to play the part of what could be called an 'obnoxious ass'. Sakura had more than once told him that being tactless and not thinking about what others might feel before talking would cause others to hate him. He had merely smiled at that – because he didn't know how else to react. He did not believe he cared being hated, but somehow, as time passed by with Team Seven, he had found himself researching about how to successfully relate with other human beings. It could possibly have been out of pure curiosity. The desire to just know.
And Sai would have believed it to be just that, had he not thought sincerely that the primary reason was Naruto, the boy who had made him thirst to create and know about bonds.
"Naruto will always be Naruto," Sai said to Katsuyu.
"Indeed," the slug answered back.
Sai stepped over the unconscious ANBU guards and pressed his ear against the door that led to Tsunade's sleeping chambers. He could hear nothing.
"It's safe to go in, Sai," Katsuyu said, and the Root member could only nod. It was not as if he did not trust the slug completely. Well, surely not completely. Hard times, hard times. Wariness suddenly started to feel like a curse. He pushed the door open, slipped inside the room.
"What are you staring at, boy? First time you've ever seen an old lady?"
One of the Legendary Sannin, Tsunade was famous for three things: brute strength, unbeatable healing ability, and youthful beauty. The old, wrinkled woman sitting in the middle of the bed was nowhere near the legend. If it hadn't been for the long, grey hair gathered into two low ponytails trailing behind her thin shoulders, and the green happi with the Japanese character 'gamble', Sai would not have recognized her. The always present rhombus on her forehead was gone.
"You're all shriveled up. But I guess that's better than being dead, yes?" Sai asked, as he always had the knack to say uncomfortable truths without meaning anything.
The woman's cheek twitched before she raised two fingers in front of her, closed her eyes and muttered something under her breath.
Sai felt the small creature hiding in his shirt disappear. Tsunade fell forward, catching herself with one bony arm, panting hard. Sai's eyes traveled to the conspicuous- looking seals surrounding the bed, plain white parchments with odd markings scribbled in them. Danzo's work, obviously. To what extend did those seals do were beyond him. Shifting his gaze a bit to the left, that was when he noticed Naruto slouched at the foot of the other side of the bed, one leg stretched out in front of him, the other pulled up against his chest, his chin resting on the arm hugging his knee. In the darkness of the room, the Jinchuuriki's sky-blue orbs nearly glowed a fiery red. The heat disappeared when his eyes met Sai's dark ones.
"You're alive," Naruto said silently as he lowered his guard and rubbed his nose with a finger, trying very hard – and failing – not to give away the evident relief at knowing one of his teammates was safe.
Sai cocked his head to the side, observing the boy with an emotion one would define as curiosity. "I heard you ran away."
Naruto winced. "I did not run away. I escaped. There's a difference."
"Of course." Sai rested his weight at the balls of his feet. Naruto did not look like he was in a good mood at the moment, and if Sai weren't Sai, he would have said he understood. He turned to Tsunade's forlorn face. "You summoned me."
Though the Fifth Hokage's body was weakened, the spark in those golden eyes was the same. She was looking back at him with a burning curiosity that could have been mistaken for uncertainty, had he not been Sai. "There are but a few people I could trust, and most of them are already being watched closely. I sent Katsuyu to a number of people to confirm who among you are loyal to me. You being the only one who came must mean that you are the only one who was not hindered to come here by other forces. Danzo must still trust you."
Sai raised his eyebrows. He doubted that. "Danzo asked me to spy for him. On your ranks."
Tsunade's smile broke her wrinkled face. "You were always good at being the double-agent."
Sai returned her smile with his fake one. "You don't even know if you could trust me completely."
Tsunade's smile widened. "I was always a risky gambler."
"What are you betting?"
"The freedom and survival of my apprentice."
Sai's smile faded. He did not expect this coming. He had sort of imagined Tsunade wanting a spy. Not a savior. "You want me to break Sakura out?"
"She'll die at dawn if she doesn't get away."
The insanity of the idea almost had Sai reeling. Chances of escaping Konoha – escaping Danzo – were close to improbable. If he ever did get Sakura out from where she was being held captive, and then out of the Village, they would be, like Naruto, branded as Rogues and would then have Hunter nin on their tails the moment they leap out of the boundary. Then they would be forced to leave Fire Country just to shake them off.
The only way of raising their success rate was a concrete destination. And Sai doubted they have even that. He made the smile return to his lips. "Am I to free her alone?"
"Do you need any more?"
It was a challenge Sai genuinely did not recognize. He gestured slightly with his hand. "And what about you, Lady Tsunade?" He did not see the over-all mission objective, and why Sakura had to be prioritized instead of the Fifth. His eyes drifted back to Naruto, who was now sitting very, very still, legs crossed and hands on his knees, as if in a trance.
Stories of Naruto's battle with Pain had been legendary. The facts varied from one person to another, but Naruto having mastered Sennin Mode was a constant.
"I have Naruto with me," Tsunade told him.
Sai frowned. Too many holes in her plan. It was obvious she didn't trust him enough to tell him everything there was to know about what they were supposed to do. "Why not escape together?"
"Because I do not like keeping all my eggs in one basket. Once they realize Sakura is missing, she will be hunted, even more than Naruto, or Sasuke, or even me."
More secrets. More riddles. "She should go with Naruto instead. Wouldn't you agree that she would be safer in more… trust-worthy hands?"
"I've already put enough eggs on this basket as it is." Tsunade patted Naruto's head affectionately, as would a mother do with her son. The Jinchuuriki did not move a muscle.
Sai could only watch. It was not as if he was not used to working under a number of secrecies. Working for Danzo for quite some time had been training enough. But still… he found himself lost under those ambiguous orders. "What is my mission, then?"
"Your mission is to escape the Leaf alive. And then stay alive until I give you further instruction."
To stay alive… That was the mission. The indefinite time frame, the unknown location. It was as if Tsunade didn't think much about how he would accomplish the mission.
"Is there a specific place you want us to go?"
"So long as you stay alive, it doesn't matter. I will find you. No matter what."
"And where will you go?"
Tsunade sneered. "Nice try, double-agent."
Sai narrowed his eyes grimly. Definitely not one-hundred percent trusting. A fine woman, indeed. He nodded. "Understood, my Lady."
Tsunade cocked her head back. It was obvious in her face the doubt she possessed about entrusting a life to him, but there was a small smirk playing on her thin lips. "This is my greatest gamble yet, and probably the only one I will fear losing."
The door behind Sai suddenly opened, making him reach for his tanto out of habit.
"Aren't we jumpy," Hatake Kakashi said blandly as he closed the door behind him.
Sai froze in mid-action, stared at the mask Jounin a few moments, then smiled. "Everyone is, I suppose."
Kakashi stared at him with that one dark eye, the eye that reminded him so much of Danzo. "Is he with us?" he asked Tsunade, but his stare remained pinned on Sai.
"We'll know otherwise if Sakura dies."
That dark eye narrowed menacingly, but was instantly covered with creases when the Jounin smiled beneath his mask, as if to cover the hostility. "Better than no one, I guess." He knelt down the foot of the bed examining the seals surrounding Tsunade. "Shall we begin?"
"I'm counting on you, Kakashi," Tsunade said.
"The pressure is killing me," Kakashi said dryly.
Sai took this as a cue to leave. He stopped when he felt someone touch his shoulder firmly. He looked back and found himself staring at yellow amphibian-like eyes. Naruto.
"I'm counting on you too, Sai. We were… you know… never really that close and all. But I'm asking you… as a fellow teammate, take care of her."
Another emotion he would have identified as desperation, had Sai not been Sai. He nodded at the boy. "I'll do my best." Emotionless people could always lie through their teeth.
He stepped out of the room.
A masked ANBU appeared behind him after turning the first corner from Tsunade's quarters.
"The younger ones are always the most troublesome," said the woman behind the mask as she leaned into Sai from behind.
Sai shrugged his shoulders. "What is it?"
"What are they planning?"
Sai turned to face the woman. Lie through your teeth. "That's for Danzo-sama to know."
"Uzumaki Naruto is in there, yes?"
Sai smiled. "He could be."
The woman cursed under her breath and her hand quickly whipped her tanto out.
The world exploded around them and the ANBU woman was thrown forward in a whirl of debris as the door leading the Tsunade's quarters erupted in white light and ripping winds.
Sai found himself being blasted back further into the hallway, skidding to a stop by the staircases leading to the lower levels of the tower.
Now was his chance. He bolted down the stairs, not even bothering to look back.
Sakura's arms flew over her head as a loud explosion caused her dark cell to shake. Dust and small pieces of rock and stone rained down on her as her heart started to hammer against her rib cage, and she cowered by the wall. If only her arms were of use to her, she would have gotten away in a heartbeat.
That would have been a funny joke. Her arms had been of use to her, but she had still been caught. It was hopeless. There were too many of them around for her to even think of escaping.
No, Sakura… This is not the time to give up!
Tsunade had entrusted her with two of the most important scrolls of medical ninjutsu history in this lifetime. Failure was not an option! Escape was imperative.
She looked down at her hands, close to unmoving. It was the most she could do to wriggle her fingers and bend them. Although Shizune had healed her, the least she needed was a cast. A splinter would do, even.
She wrapped her arms weakly around herself, wincing as she heard her brittle bones grinding against each other. She could feel the scrolls under her shirt, blinked back the tears threatening to flow down her cheeks.
She had to be strong.
Her head shot up when she heard footsteps scrambling down the prison hall. She blinked in the darkness, afraid. She was wounded, unarmed and carrying precious objects that could be easily taken from her. She felt the determination bubble up her gut. If she needed to defend these scrolls with her teeth, then so be it.
The ground beneath her continued to shake and a cloud of dust rose from the rarely walked-on prison floor. Sakura blinked as small particles started to irritate her eyes.
And from the smokescreen flooding everything around her, a familiar vision in black appeared before her, breaking through the thick barrier of smoke and dust and rock and stone.
"Sai?" Sakura sputtered, honestly quite confused. "What – ?"
"Ninpo. Choujuu Giga," Sai muttered, and in a flash of swirling scrolls and a graceful flick of a brush, a huge falcon soared to life. It retracted its wings, as if annoyed at being summoned in such a cramped prison cell. From brush to blade, Sai had his tanto in his left hand and had swung the hilt of his weapon against the heavy lock of the bars. It fell onto the floor with a loud clang, and Sai kicked the door open.
"Sai? What's going on?" Sakura asked as she fought the urge to laugh in hysterical joy for the rescue attempt. Of all the people to come to her aid, Sai would have been the last in her mind. But beggars weren't choosers. She was sincerely glad he came.
Scrambling to her feet, her crisp limbs still around her body, she felt Sai's arms around her as he huddled her into his ink familiar.
"Are you ready to be a Rogue?" Sai asked over the loud rumbling of the walls as he held her to him tightly.
"What – ?"
The falcon swooped down and burst into flight without warning, its wings crashing against the tight walls surrounding them.
And all Sakura could see were the buttons and zippers of Sai's top as he pressed her head down to his chest. The world spun around her, feeling her stomach do uncomfortable flip-flops as the falcon dove and swooped and rose into unseen passages. No sooner did Sakura hear loud protests and the cold midnight air suddenly stung her skin to the point of pain.
She looked up just in time to see the falcon break into the open night from one of the large windows of the administration building. A few seconds, they spent hovering over the sleeping village. There was no moon tonight, and the clouds cast eerie shadows over the buildings and houses below them.
Sakura looked up to examine Sai's pale face half hidden in darkness. The boy looked, as always, scarily calm, that small fake smile pulling at his lips and those flat, glassy eyes staring down at the view as if looking for something. Sakura followed his gaze and true enough, there was something worth seeing.
Over the distance, Sakura spotted a familiar-looking toad disappearing with a loud pop and a flurry of smoke.
"Naruto – !" Sakura screamed after Naruto's toad, reaching out a hand as if to will it back.
Sai had his arm around her more tightly, keeping her from falling. "The moment we pass the village boundary, it's all running and hiding."
Sakura's eyes widened at him. "Are you… sent by Tsunade-Shishou? To assist me?" It was probably the most unlikely choice. She had hoped it would be Kakashi-sensei.
"Something to do with eggs and baskets," Sai muttered ominously, confusing himself and Sakura as well.
If it were the first time she had met Sai, she would have immediately knocked him over for talking weird. But having worked with him for several months had been good enough to prepare her from the bizarreness that was his person.
Root members were supposedly trained to lose emotion in order to function with close to perfect efficiency in missions. Sai was the epitome of blandness. Before he had joined Team Seven, he was an insensitive jerk who said everything as if to purposefully annoy the people around him. Because he did not have a definitive personality, he had opted to putting up a certain mask as an obnoxious moron who lacked tact.
It seemed to have gotten worse when he desperately tried to 'understand' the meaning of bonds after meeting Naruto. Questions people normally knew the answer to kept on popping out of his mouth that could drive a person to insanity, especially since he had taken to getting advice from Idiot Manuals and How-To books. The boy was seventeen years old with an emotional level of a kindergartener. It had annoyed Sakura to death at some point, but it had eventually lost its novelty after a while and she discovered the best way to deal with his handicap was ignoring him completely.
It was hard to ignore him now.
"Where are we going?" Sakura asked him as she gave the village a lingering look, as if knowing that it would be a while before she saw it again.
"A place where we can stay alive."
A weird answer, but a valid one. "Where is that?"
Sai made a quick hand sign and the falcon started to fly north. "Anywhere but here. Be ready."
Sakura swallowed. She did not feel too comfortable running blindly to an indefinite destination in an indefinite time frame. The only thing that kept her from protesting was the fact that it was Tsunade who had hand-picked Sai as her companion for the possible remainder of her life.
Thoughts too many to make sense to started to parade through her mind as she let herself lean against Sai's sturdy frame, grateful for the warmth his body emitted against hers. It was only then did she feel herself trembling from head to foot, and the broken bones of her arms, half-treated, started to throb painfully.
She looked over her shoulder, at the half-destroyed Hokage Tower, at the dark houses whose windows one by one lit up as the inhabitants of Konoha started to awaken to the ruckus that was caused by Team Seven.
She hoped everyone was all right.
"Tsunade-sama is with Naruto," Sai whispered in her ear, as if reading her thoughts.
Sakura, surprised and relieved, felt the scrolls under her shirt shift and she sighed. "Thank goodness. We should find them, then."
"Those aren't the orders. Baskets and eggs. She said not to put all her eggs in one basket," Sai said, frowning.
Sakura frowned with him. There were too many things she wanted to ask him, but she knew she would only get half-baked answers and riddles. She impulsively felt very, very tired. Leaning her forehead against Sai's shoulder, she closed her eyes in defeat.
Right now, her life was in the incapable hands of a Root member that would probably drive her crazy in the long run.
She wrapped her throbbing arms around her body tighter, somehow finding comfort in the feel of the scrolls against her skin.
A/N: An attempt on something different. Review if you like. =)