Title: Mercy
Author: Killaurey
Rating: T
Summary: Mission!fic, future!fic. Of all the things she thought she'd do in her life, agreeing with a demon wasn't one of them. Sakura-centric, Kakashi-centric. Written for the prompt The Tell-Tale Heart for the Poe Challenge on the kakasaku lj comm. Beta'd by the absolutely fabulous puffinmuffin.
Warnings: Mentions of child abuse, torture, and death.
Disclaimer: Naruto doesn't belong to me. It's Kishimoto's and I just play with it.

"There's been reports of a demon out in Imabari," Tsunade-shishou said, and Sakura was careful to keep her gaze on her teacher and not on Kakashi-sensei. "You're to go and investigate this, then handle it as you see fit."

Sakura's eyes narrowed slightly at that. As they saw fit?

"Tsunade-shishou?" she said, interrupting as politely as she knew how. "This mission has not been requested by a client?"

Clients always gave them an end result to work for.

"No," Tsunade-shishou replied. "Konoha will not wait for a village to scrape up funds in this case. Not when there are demons involved."

She bowed her head, even as Tsunade-shishou finished giving Kakashi-sensei, who was to lead the mission, the rest of the orders.

Do as you see fit? Were they to kill it?

The leaves underfoot were brown and gold and red and crumbly. It was a testament to their skill that they moved soundlessly through the woods. It was a matter of pride to Sakura that she was as quiet as her once-upon-a-time sensei was.

A small pleasure, to be sure, but one of the few she had at the moment.

Sakura thought, with a glance at her 'teammate,' that she wasn't quite sure how Tsunade-shishou had thought they'd be a good team. She could understand sending Kakashi-sensei, because he was well known for being quite lethal in the field. If there was a demon, then there would be ample reason to send him off to fight it. He'd probably come back alive.

On the other hand, she was more medic trained than anything else. Tsunade-shishou had taught her to fight, but at eighteen, the vast majority of her experience was not in fighting, but in healing.

Was she supposed to spend her time healing the injuries, if there were any, which the demon had inflicted on the country-side?

"You're staring, Sakura-chan."

She started, her feet still falling silently despite her surprise and that was another little victory even as her eyes widened. "Sorry," Sakura said, tried not to mutter it. "Just thinking about our orders."

Which had been vague. It was something plausible to worry about. That she'd wound up staring in his direction for another reason entirely was... none of his business and she ignored the part of her that laughed Ino's high, bright laugh and pointed out that it was his business.

No, she told herself firmly, it was not.

"Terrifyingly vague," Kakashi-sensei said, sounding unbothered despite describing it as 'terrifying'. "We'll have more to go on once we reach the village."

Sakura made a sound in the back of her throat and he took that as agreement. It wasn't, not really. If she was supposed to deal with this, then she'd have preferred more coherent orders.

Deal with it as you see fit? She thought mutinously. What did that mean? That occupied her for the rest of the journey to the village.

"It first started a month ago, shinobi-san," said the leader of the village. A pudgy man, with a peculiarly narrow face wearing brown from head-to-toe, Sakura found she couldn't think much of him. Not with the way he was wringing his hands.

Brown wasn't a good colour on him, she observed dispassionately, standing several feet behind Kakashi-sensei as he handled the talking. She was to observe.

They were in the warehouse that served, apparently, as the town hall whenever meetings were called that required the attendance of the vast majority of the village, and her eyes studied each villager as they studied her back just as avidly and with far less training to make their staring less obvious.

"-Hisoka went missing. His family is beside themselves," the leader went on and Sakura picked out the family in question, noting that while they looked pale and worried that they didn't look as-rung out as she'd have thought they might. Not her definition of 'beside themselves'. The youngest children looked confused and the parents looked… weary. The oldest daughter stared at Sakura with a narrow-eyed gaze.

"Have any other children gone missing?"

Children, after all, were a demon's preferred food. Easier to catch and, according to legends, tasted better. Sakura doubted there was a demon here- it was more likely to be some sort of creature having wandered down from its natural habitat and thus strange and unusual to the villagers. While she acknowledged that the tailed beasts existed...

"No! No, shinobi-san, no others have," and Sakura allowed her attention to wander again as he went on. The girl was still staring at her. Sakura met that look with an impassive one of her own and tried to guess what the girl was thinking.

"What do you know of the demon?" she asked, disobeying Kakashi-sensei's orders to remain quiet. But the way that the leader of this sorry village had been dancing around the subject meant that they'd have been here for hours and hours and Sakura was tiring of being a circus attraction.

He, both of them, would just have to deal with the interruption.

"Well- we- that is..."

Sakura stared at the man, who looked nervous in the face of her green-eyed regard and Kakashi-sensei sighed.

"It's a valid question," he said, not quite conciliatory and she was slightly mollified by the tone, though not the words. Had he expected her to ask useless questions? "We're not native to the area and are unaware of the regional legends surrounding the demon. If you have any information we'd appreciate it."

The leader gulped. "Michie was the last to see Hisoka," he began in a trembling voice, gesturing for the girl who'd been staring to come forward.

"That was useless," she said, leaning back against the wall of the warehouse once the last villager had left the building, the pale-eyed daughter giving her a long look as she'd passed. "And I won't say sorry for speaking up."

Sakura felt that was best to get that out in the open right away. Better to not give him time to try and change her mind.

"Oh?" There was an undercurrent of... something... she couldn't identify in his voice and Sakura glanced sideways at him. He almost looked amused, the gall of him.

"No," she said, a bit flatly. "You were taking forever and everything had to be dragged out of that, that mouse of a man and if I didn't know better I'd say that they don't want our help."

Kakashi-sensei studied her for a long moment. "Maa," he sighed, "you're not wrong, even if you are impudent. Where did the kunoichi who respected her elders go?" But his tone made it into something more teasing than serious.

It still irritated her. Sakura bit her lip to keep from snapping out her first response. That, she thought, was for the best as his eye narrowed slightly at her silence as it was. There were only so many ways he could take her silence and they generally didn't bode well for him, not at all.

"What I don't understand," she continued, steamrolling over his question. "Is why they wouldn't want us to help. That family didn't seem to care that they were missing a son, except for that daughter—Michie—of theirs, and the leader was actively against us going and looking for him tonight."

It wasn't even dark out. The sun was still setting reasonably late, this fall. The leaves had gone early, but the sun was taking its sweet time. She couldn't really object as that gave them more time to search.

"It wasn't out of fear for us either," she said relentlessly, "as they were nearly wetting themselves at the idea of two shinobi in their village."

"No," he said thoughtfully, "no, they weren't happy to see us at all."

Kakashi-sensei pushed himself away from the desk he'd been leaning on and ran a hand through his hair. "Stay here," he said, frowning. "Play the good little kunoichi. I'm going to go looking through the village."

"Why do I have to stay here?" she demanded, hands on her hips. "I'm not a green Genin anymore."

"No," he said, eyes curving into a smile to take the sting out of it. "But you don't have my experience either. And if someone comes by, it's best that one of us is here."

Before she could frame a further token protest—damn him for making sense and giving reasons she couldn't really argue with—he was gone and Sakura sighed as she went to dig out her sewing kit. If she had downtime, then she was going to use that time to fix that rip she'd noticed in her bag earlier. Just a tiny tear, truly, but all things started small.

She paused, frowning. Was that what had happened here?

A soft rap on her door, jerked Sakura out of the uneasy sleep she'd fallen into. Sloppy, she thought to herself, what if that had been an attacker?

Then she scoffed at herself, an attacker would hardly knock on the door politely and wait for her to look at the clock—ugh, it was just past one in the morning, where was Kakashi-sensei?—and, even as she yawned, made her way to the door. Palming a kunai, but keeping it out of sight as she opened the door, Sakura found herself peculiarly unsurprised to find the girl who'd spent so much time staring at her standing there. What was her name again? Michiko-? No, Michie.

"Can I help you?" It was more of an effort than it should have been to keep a level voice but Sakura chalked that up to it being the middle of the night. She frowned as the girl shifted from foot to foot, a dark blue shawl around her shoulders and hair tumbling loose.

She looked like she'd come straight from bed.

"I- forgive me, kunoichi-san," Michie said, her voice soft and pleasant. "I didn't... "

Sakura didn't bother pointing out that the girl had meant to disturb her sleep. It was so late that wasn't than an obvious situation? Rather, she plastered on a faint smile, appropriately grave and made soothing sounds. "It's nothing," she said, opening the door wider and tucking the kunai away with a movement that the girl didn't register. "Come in, please. Can I get you some tea?"

As she bustled around, getting Michie to sit down in the desk chair and putting tea on to boil the water. It would take a little while for that and so Sakura settled herself down, cross-legged on the bed and took a moment to be glad that she'd fallen asleep in her clothing. That meant it was a little creased but that was better than having been caught out in her underwear.

"What can I do for you?" she asked, again, this time taking the effort to gentle her voice.

"I... I... don't know if you noticed," Michie replied, eyes downcast, "but Hisoka... Hisoka..."

Sakura waited with a patience she didn't feel, wondering again where Kakashi-sensei was. "What happened to Hisoka?" He'd been taken, she knew that. But Sakura wanted to see what this girl would say.

"He was taken by the demon," the girl said, eyes wide. "But our parents... they, they don't want him to come back."

Sakura's eyes narrowed at that and Michie seemed to draw courage from it as she rushed on with her story. "There's five of us, you know, and money is tight," the girl went on, "and if he's not around then it's easier to provide for Ami and Ryouma-they're both so little, but so bright, and Hisoka never wanted to do anything but-"


"But I loved him," Michie said, eyes huge. "Please won't you save my brother for me? In another year I'll be able to take him and leave but I'm not... not an adult yet..."

That meant she was fifteen, Sakura decided, though she looked older. Sixteen was the age that children were considered legally to be adults in this district of the country. It was the standard, truly, everywhere but in Konoha.

There, adulthood had a different marker than age, unless you were a civilian.

"And when you're sixteen you'll run away with him?" she asked, thinking it was a poor plan. "What will you do?"

"I'll find a job," the girl said, determination blazing in her eyes. "And I'll look after him so that we're not a burden to anyone else ever."

She couldn't help but feel ashamed a bit for her gut reaction, which was assuming that Michie was doomed to failure. The face looking at her now wasn't one that took things lightly.

Sakura leaned back and pursed her lips before beginning with a few simple, but important questions. "Do you know where he went missing? What places did he like to frequent? Was a search done?"

Michie smiled, a soft smile that lit her face as hope came back, even while she began to answer the questions.

While she listened, Sakura wondered if Kakashi-sensei had known someone would come by or if it had simply been years of experience telling him it would be a good idea to take such a precaution…

It was nearing morning by the time that Michie left and Sakura, head reeling with exhaustion that now wasn't feigned in the slightest, shut the door behind the effusively grateful girl and leaned against it. Then, after a moment, she locked it. There was no need to be sloppy while out on a mission.

And speaking of missions, Kakashi-sensei hadn't been back yet. She glanced at the clock—it was an ungodly time of the morning, especially if you hadn't had a full night of sleep first to back it up, and far, far past the time that he'd promised to check in.

Sakura scowled at the clock, hoping as if by pure will she would be able to change the time and push the numbers back until he would be on time no matter how many hours he was late. The clock stayed the same. Then, after an agonizing pause, it clicked to the next minute and Sakura let out an indignant huff.

Stupid clock, she thought, then pushed away from the door and all but collapsed on one of the beds. She couldn't leave. If he wasn't here, then she couldn't leave. That was in her orders. She was the junior member of the team. She was supposed to listen to those orders.

Worry sat like lead in her stomach and gnawed on her insides.

Don't be stupid, she thought savagely. He's always late for things. This was just more of the same.

But he'd always been on time when it had mattered, she thought suddenly. Did this count as something that mattered? Before it had been life-or-death situations that had had him running to be more punctual than anyone. A simple mission to scout through the town...? To keep his teammate from going out of her mind as she waited for him?

Sakura snorted.

No, he wouldn't hurry for that. Satisfied with her reasoning—it was, as far as she was aware, solid enough—she stretched out on the bed, languidly.

Sleep then, for a few more hours, as she turned to adjust the alarm, and then he'd be back and she could yell at him for being tardy on a mission. That sounded about right to her.

And if he wasn't back... she'd go looking.

That soothed the rest of her fears, and Sakura closed her eyes.

She was asleep in seconds.

By noon, she'd gone from attempting to justify his tardiness to full-out worry.

He'd never been so late before and fear twisted uncomfortably in her stomach—she'd followed protocol, yes, but what if in following it she'd wound up causing his death? Sakura was old enough, now, to ignore the snippy voice of hers that thought some pain might teach him to be on time so that his teammates didn't just assume he was slacking off the next time.

That was cruel and she knew it, and she acknowledged the thought nonetheless. To be an effective kunoichi, to be an effective shinobi, sometimes they had to be cruel. It was alright so long as pleasure in being so wasn't taken excessively.

She paced back and forth in their small, rented room—Sakura had paid for another night's stay without fuss and banned the cleaning staff from entering—and thought furiously about what to do. Protocol said that she ought to scout and, if she didn't find anything, she was to either attempt the mission, or head home for backup.

Scouting, she'd do. Sakura wasn't sure she could bring herself to head back to Konoha without knowing where he was, though- and at the same time, was she enough to find the lost boy and the supposed demon that was terrorizing the villagers? Was she going to be able to manage any of it?

Sakura's footsteps fell with extra ferocity as she attempted to mentally crush her unforgiving doubts about her own capabilities. No longer was she the girl she'd been back when things had originally fallen apart. The one who'd stood on the sidelines and cried. So think, she thought, and go from there. What were her facts?

Kakashi-sensei was missing.

Did she have any idea of who would have taken him? The demon.

But she didn't believe in the demon, not really. And relying on the mystical to be the boogeyman while there were likely to be perfectly normal and explainable culprits around...

Who else could have done it then?

The villagers, she realized. Or bandits.

Neither seemed likely right at first, not when she matched her sensei, who'd been made a Jounin the same age as she'd taken her first steps along the road of Genin against the villagers she'd seen. Even their strongest men and women... they were farmers, ranchers, and looked it. Any training they had would not be of the sort that would be particularly effective against a trained ninja.

Which made that thought unlikely. Unlikely, but not impossible, and that was all she really was concerned about at the moment as she paced and thought. He might not like to admit it, but humans were fallible and if he'd gotten tricked somehow...

Bandits or the villagers, she assured herself. Not the demon, which was surely some plot of vindictive bandits to terrify the village into submission, and that too, was a soothing thought. But what would anyone want with Kakashi-sensei? She supposed that they could try for a ransom from Konoha but that was more likely to result in a team being sent after the bandits with orders to eliminate every single one of them and liberate Kakashi-sensei. And the team that came would be wearing white and black.

Still, Sakura knew from experience in managing Tsunade-shishou's paperwork that at least several times a year there were people who were cocky or stupid, possibly a combination of both, who went ahead and tried exactly that, out of confidence that whatever had killed those who'd last tried it, well, they'd out-smart it this time. And on it went.

Sakura coldly forced herself to consider the fact that Kakashi-sensei might be dead.

The very idea sat uncomfortably in her chest, but it had to be thought. If he was not being kept for ransom, then that was the next most likely reason he had not been able to report back. Because he was dead and his body was somewhere out there. If he was dead, she'd have justice done.

Even if it cost her greatly. There was only so much that a human heart could take before it cracked and broke and all the goodness inside them was gone.

As a ninja, she toed that line delicately already. If someone had killed Kakashi-sensei... she would be angry and would likely take it out on someone. If she was even luckier, and lady luck smiled fully on her, despite the pain, then she'd be attacked right when she wanted to do the attacking and vengeance and justice would be serviced equally.

But that, she thought, was getting a bit ahead of herself.

Bandits or villagers. Sakura glanced out the window at the small, quiet town. It was noon, now, and she guessed that this was about the busiest that the village got during the day. Which... wasn't much. She made certain that her bags were thoroughly packed and then, carefully stowing the essential supplies on her person, but leaving the things that weren't necessary for a day out in a village where she was supposed to be treated like an ally, Sakura headed out, determination lighting her eyes.

She'd find out what had happened to Kakashi-sensei, and she'd find out why. Sakura wouldn't settle for anything less.

She was out of the village before dawn the day after next—the previous day having been an absolute waste of her time as she'd found nothing around the village—feeling less rested rather than more for all that she'd managed a few hours of sleep in the interim.

Sakura figured that was a fair enough price. She missed sleep, Kakashi-sensei got to live. It probably didn't work that way, but she was willing to pretend it did. Even if it was a lie, it was enough to keep her from freaking out about her situation.

This hadn't been planned for, protocol only got her so far. Everything else, above and beyond that, especially since she was ignoring what orders said and going forward with the mission… that was all her. And a memory of a girl with big eyes and a heart-felt request to find her brother for her.

"If I leave now," she muttered, "I'm a monster."

Taking a moment to get her bearings, Sakura picked a direction that would take her into the demon's territory obliquely. A compromise that left her unhappy but was a middle ground between rushing in like a fool or heading home for backup.

Life, she thought, seldom was what you wanted. She moved on.

Sakura sat on a blanket she'd folded for just that use and sipped at her water thoughtfully. Night had fallen and she'd found nothing despite searching all day. Despite the way she felt… oddly lonely—it would have been more than nice, she admitted, to have Kakashi-sensei's company right now—she was determined not to let her spirits sink too far.

She might not have found anything more than indications that other people travelled through these woods—which wasn't a surprise, not so close to the capital of Hi no Kuni—and in this case, no news of Kakashi-sensei was good news. As a bonus, it allowed her to ignore the fact that she was neglecting proper protocol. She was going to go forward with the mission and finding Kakashi-sensei. She didn't know how successful she'd be at either, but that was alright.

It was. She'd manage it, somehow, all by herself.

And then she'd kick Kakashi-sensei's ass for leaving her to do all the work while he was lounging around, possibly unconscious, and then-

Not even Sakura could admit that that sounded fair to her at all. Tempting, maybe, but not fair. But she'd still likely yell at him. A little. Comparatively. Tsunade-shishou would yell at him far more when she read the mission report, Sakura was sure. That meant it was her solemn duty to prepare him for it by giving him a taste of the welcome he could expect when they got home.

Because they would get home.

She studied what she could see of the sky though the trees and nodded. Yes, it was dark enough now that her smoke wouldn't be seen. And a small flame, carefully gathered and kept away from the leaves that weren't meant to be burned meant she'd be able to use a soup ball and have a warm supper before crashing out for the night.


Sakura's head snapped up. She hadn't sensed anything and Tsunade-shishou herself had said that she was good at that. Sakura narrowed her eyes across the fire-pit and made out the small form of a boy in clothing that while not ragged, had definitely seen better days.

And she still couldn't sense him. As far as her chakra was concerned, there was nothing there at all and that was—troubling.

"Can I help you?" she asked, carefully wary, and opening her senses wider. There was nothing else in her area, nothing that she could sense. Whatever this boy was, whoever this boy was, he didn't appear to be part of an ambush.

"You're from Konoha, aren't you, kunoichi-san?" The boy, to his credit, appeared to be as wary as she was and stayed out of her range, his hands held loosely in front of him so she could see he was to all appearances unarmed.

Sakura nodded, brushing her hands off—the dirt from her tiny but deep fire-pit made her feel dirtier than she was—and stood, studying the boy with cool eyes. That hair, that face...

"Are you Hisoka?" she asked, finally. He resembled Michie too much to not be, Sakura thought.

The boy's eyes widened in painful hope. "You know about me?"

"Your sister told us about you," Sakura replied, in a gentle tone. "She's worried about you."

Hisoka looked away and was silent for a long moment while Sakura tried to figure out what to do next. He didn't appear to be eager to say anything else to that and she eyed her unlit fire and the scrawny boy across the clearing from her equally for several seconds.

"Come sit down," Sakura said, kneeling down to light the fire with a quick and dirty jutsu. "I'm making soup and you ought to eat."

"Soup?" That got his attention again and she smiled slightly. Boys. Wave food in front of their face and they were happy to do anything for you. "Aren't you scared of the demon?"

"I'm not inviting the demon to supper," she pointed out, a bit dryly. "I'm inviting you."

Hisoka nodded, looking a bit amused as he came over and, at her invitation, sat down on the blanket she'd had laid out. Sakura worked in silence - the fire had to be tended to, the water needed to be brought to a boil, the soup ball added.

"What's that?" Hisoka asked her curiously, as she went to add the soup ball.

She dropped it in the hot water with a plop and smiled slightly at him. "It's all the ingredients for soup in a ball—all I need to do is add water and we'll have a decent enough meal."

Not as good as properly made soup from scratch of course, as the vegetables were dehydrated and the spices were not as fresh, but it was healthy and hearty and warm. The noodles would be filling. All of which she thought the little boy staring at the soup in quiet wonder hadn't had enough of.

"I didn't know they could that," he said, tearing his gaze back to hers.

"Maybe it's something they only do in my village," she said easily, thinking it had more to do with the fact that his village was so very backwater than her village being unique in this case.

He nodded as she stirred it and dug out her spare canteen to offer him some water.

"Drink," she said, offering it to him. "You look like you've had a rough time of it lately."

He stared at her for a moment, a wordless moment, before taking it. "Thank you," Hisoka said, nearly stammering the words. "Kunoichi-san, why...?"

"Because you're here," she replied, after taking a moment to divine his meaning. "And taking care of you- I don't think I couldn't." And it was her job, but he'd gone quiet when she'd mentioned that before and so prudence had her answering it more honestly than she might have otherwise.

"Why are you out here?" Hisoka asked and she blinked, startled at that. She'd decided to not bring it up and he was the one doing so now? See, this was what she'd gotten for attempting to be kind. Geez.

"Konoha sent me," she answered, stirring the soup again. The noodles needed to cook a little longer. "To investigate and take action however we thought necessary. My teammate has disappeared and Michie asked me to look for you and the village was weird." She flushed. What had- why was she telling all of this to a child? "Don't worry about it," Sakura added, hoping he wouldn't think anything too poorly of her calling the village weird.

"You're not here to kill the demon?" the boy asked, tilting his head at her. "Don't ninja do that?"

"If I'd been hired to kill the demon, I would have said that," she said, deciding that the soup was done and taking a few moments to spoon it up and serve it. Hisoka cradled his bowl carefully, like he hadn't had anything like it for a good while. She wondered how he'd managed back home. "It might come to that, it might not. Hokage-sama said we were to use our discretion."

All of which was true. Sakura contented herself with eating soup for the next few moments. Why was she being so honest? She didn't think the boy had anything to do with it. His hands had been wrapped around her canteen the entire time she'd been talking and now he was eating his soup carefully and cautiously while looking thoughtful.

"Why do you care?" she asked, keeping her voice easy and just shy of outright soothing. Some children responded well to a sweeter tone, but she didn't think Hisoka was one of them. "The villagers think the demon has you. Wouldn't you rather be free of him?"

Hisoka stared at her for a moment, a gaze strangely closed off on his face and she wondered for a second what he was thinking. She wished that Ino was here, Ino and her ability to read minds. Sakura could only work with what she read in their expressions and his was… difficult to read. Whatever the reason for that, his wasn't a normal child's expression.

Like he'd been hurt before, the medic in her diagnosed. And he still wasn't showing up on her chakra radar. That was... disquieting but he seemed harmless enough.

She'd just have to take care to watch him. Just because he seemed harmless didn't mean he was, and ninja knew better than most that not everything was as safe as it appeared.

"The demon offered me a deal," Hisoka said and Sakura nearly choked on her soup. "If I can find his heart, he'll let me go."

"You have to find his heart?" she couldn't help but sound incredulous. How did someone lose their heart—did demons even have hearts?

Hisoka looked down, stirring at his soup. "He said that every hundred years or so it falls out," the words were almost a mumble, "and all of the damage that happens is him searching for it."

Sakura could feel her eyebrow wanting to twitch. The boy was telling the truth as far as she could tell. Whatever else was going on, he believed it was the truth. "How are you supposed to find a heart?" she asked, finally. "In these woods, wouldn't another animal eat it?"

The boy shook his head, sandy hair flying about his face. "No one will touch a demon's heart," he replied, "that's what I was told."

She studied him, her empty soup bowl, the darkening clearing. Hearts. Hardly the thing she wanted to go looking for. "You believe him when he says you'll be free after finding it?"

Sakura wouldn't have, and her tone made that clear. Demons weren't... supposed to be honourable, though admittedly, she had only stories to work off of. And none of them had mentioned anything about looking for hearts.

"He gave his word," Hisoka said, "and a demon is held more to that than a human."

He sounded sure and Sakura nodded, thoughtfully.

"Do you know where he was supposed to have lost it?" she said, reaching to take the empty bowl from Hisoka so they could wash them up and put them away.

"North," he said, and she should have known, Sakura supposed. That was where the demon's lair was supposed to be.

"Alright," Sakura said, standing and kicking dirt over the fire so that it would go out harmlessly. "Get some sleep."

He stared at her as she turned to go. "Kunoichi-san-?"

"I'll be right back," she replied, already slipping away to the stream she'd found earlier. Washing the dishes didn't take that long though she lingered over them for a little to give herself more time to think and give Hisoka, hopefully, more time to fall asleep.

He had to find a heart. He was a little boy in the woods without any supplies. It was amazing that he hadn't been eaten yet- though, Sakura wondered, was it the fact that he'd been in the presence of the demon that had the animals of the forest leaving him alone? Could they sense that about him? And he seemed so unafraid of the demon. Whatever the demon had said, it hadn't scared the boy.

Maybe, she wondered, demon was the wrong word. Spirit. If it was only violent while it didn't have a heart... the area didn't have a great many troubles the rest of the time, Sakura knew, having done a small amount of research before leaving. She wished she'd done more.

Making her way back to the camp, her mind made up, she was somehow unsurprised to see that Hisoka was still awake, though he'd at least curled himself into the blanket and looked somewhat drowsy. "Kunoichi-san?"

"Go to sleep," she said, keeping her voice gentle. "We're going to have a long day tomorrow."

Hisoka stared at her. "You're-"

"I told you," she said, "I'm not going to let you do this on your own. I wouldn't be able to stand myself if I just walked away from you searching like that."

And if the demon was lying then she'd be in a better position to save the boy if the deal went south, so long as she was actually there when it happened. She could do nothing from a distance. The silence stretched as she got out her bedroll and spread it out on the ground. It was cool enough that she'd be more comfortable with it.

"Kunoichi-san?" Hisoka's voice was very soft.

"Yes, Hisoka?" Sakura wriggled into the blankets, not bothering to take off her shoes. If she'd been in a more secure area she would have, but it wasn't safe here. Better to be a little uncomfortable than stupid.

"I—Thank you," he said, his voice quiet.

Sakura smiled up at the sky, already feeling her eyelids growing heavy. "You're welcome."

Sakura woke before the sun, with the forest still dark, and as she wriggled out of her blankets and roused the fire, smiled slightly at the curled up form of Hisoka.

She'd have to look out for him now. Kakashi-sensei's plight still gnawed at her, still occupied a large portion of her thoughts, but she could only imagine what he'd say if he ever found out that she'd left a child to his fate of futilely searching for a demon's heart.

What did that even look like? Sakura wondered as, with a check of her chakra she found nothing out of the ordinary in the area, other than the fact that Hisoka still did not show to her senses. Don't borrow trouble, she scolded herself, taking the canteens and the pot and heading to the stream.

All three of the items had water purifying jutsu built into them so that, at least, she could be sure that the water was safe to use. A good thing, she thought, kneeling to fill them and splashing a bit of freezing water on her face. It woke her up quickly, shocking her thoughts into action.

Missions waited for no one to get enough sleep.

Sakura capped off the canteens, took a long drink of one of them, then refilled it and headed back to the camp.

Hisoka was awake and tense looking as she came into the clearing. "Where were you?" he asked, sounding like a lost child.

Which he was, she thought with a sigh. "Sorry," Sakura said, feeling bad that she hadn't thought of how he'd feel if he woke to find that he'd been left all alone. "I just went to get water for us."

He nodded, his eyes wary.

"Did you sleep well?" she asked, choosing to keep up the veneer of this being as normal as possible in the hopes that that would soothe him and settle him down. She didn't have that much experience with children, but Sakura thought that sounded - logical enough, for her to stand it. "It's going to be oatmeal for breakfast, I hope you don't mind."

If it had just been herself, she'd have made due with a handful of nuts and dried fruit and water. But a child needed better nutrition than that. "After breakfast, we'll get going. We've got a lot of ground to cover if we're to find that heart you're looking for."

"You're coming with me?" Hisoka repeated as she began the preparations for breakfast.

"I said I was," she replied, a tiny thread of exasperation in her voice. "I'm not leaving you, Hisoka. Promise."

Silence, then, and when she glanced up, Sakura wasn't sure about the expression he wore. Too complicated for a child, her instincts whispered. Sakura shook that thought off. Perhaps, she thought, perhaps it does fit if that child has seen more than normal.

She didn't know. The children she'd worked with in Konoha were either the strong, stubborn children being trained, or the injured children in the hospital. Neither of them had expressions like that.

"Promise," she repeated, just in case he needed to hear it once more, and then she settled back on her ankles, studying the area as she waited for the porridge to cook. Patience was hard to come by this morning when, had it been up to her, she'd have already been on her way. "Go wash up," Sakura continued. "The stream is five meters behind me. If you run into any trouble, give a shout and I'll be there."

He stood, a bit stiffly, and she eyed his clothing. There was absolutely nothing she could do about the fact that it was old and worn and she didn't have the time to mend the rips and tears right now, but that night, if they were still looking… yes, Sakura decided, she'd fix them then. The wrinkles would work their own way out of the fabric. She smiled at Hisoka as he passed her and that earned her a puzzled glance as well.

That a smile was so puzzling bothered her, but Sakura shook her head as she folded up the blanket he'd been using and repacked her bed roll. Breaking their camp, except for what they'd be using for breakfast, helped soothe her restlessness.

"Kakashi-sensei, where are you?" She stood, with her hands on her hips, and tried to summon up the energy to be angry at him. Maybe he was even now looking for her as he'd managed to get free and when he found her—which was a feat more likely than her finding him, as he had his nin dogs—he'd be angry, but alive and unharmed.

Sakura sniffed, pretending it didn't sound more like a sniffle, as she stirred the porridge. He would try to lecture her and she'd point out that she'd hardly done anything but what she supposed was necessary. Someone who leaves behind their teammates is worse than trash, wasn't that what he'd said all that time ago? That meant she couldn't do that, not if she wanted to live with herself. And in the absence of having more information, this was the best that she could do.

The porridge was nearly ready by the time that Hisoka came back, his face damp, along with his shirt. Her lips twitched. He'd clearly used the shirt to try and dry his face.

He noticed her smile. "What?"

"Nothing," she said, with a shake of her head. "Come sit, it's almost ready."

He came and settled himself down in silence as she dished up the porridge and served it in two bowls that she pulled from her pack. Sprinkling a bit of brown sugar on the top of it wasn't something that was necessary, but it made him smile at her and Sakura figured that was a good enough reason to do something like that.

Hisoka remained silent, though, as they ate. Sakura found that she didn't mind the quiet so very much. He didn't seem upset, and if Michie had been telling her the truth, then from neglect... she could see why he'd be naturally quiet as well. All the better, Sakura supposed, to avoid drawing attention to himself.

"Do you know which way you want to go?" Sakura asked, once she was all but done with her meal. He had a bit more of a ways to go and so she was taking her time finishing the rest of it, not wanting to rush him. "This whole area is under the demon's jurisdiction, right?"

Not for the first time she wished that she knew more about this area. Whatever he told her, she had to accept as the truth. It was an unusual state for her to be in but-

"North," he said, with distant eyes. "I'm sure of it."

Sakura frowned slightly, toying with her porridge as she eyed him. "North it is, then." But he hadn't sounded quite like Hisoka right there.

But what could she do about it? She didn't know Hisoka and he'd obviously been through some sort of trauma... Sakura didn't have enough information to decide what was normal and what wasn't. Something to remember, she thought, and filed it away.

She'd watch, and learn.

They finished their meals in silence, cleaned up, and headed off.

It was a peculiar thing, she decided, as Hisoka led the way.

Sakura was supposed to believe that he didn't know where they were going, not for sure, and yet his steps were taking them with unerring determination in a direction that Sakura was becoming more positive with every footfall that would lead them right to the heart.

Danger! Part of her wailed, and yet she couldn't sense anything dangerous at all. And even if there was… she was a kunoichi of Konoha.

She could handle danger, and would.

This course, she was determined to see it to the end.

"What are you going to do about your teammate?" Hisoka asked as she helped him over an incline. "Isn't he missing?"

Sakura smiled grimly. "He is. I'll find him."

"But you're looking with me-"

"Because the mission comes first." And that was firm. "He'd say the same thing."

"Are you sure he'll be okay?" Hisoka wanted to know, his eyes huge as they ate their lunch of ration bars and nuts sitting under a canopy of trees that hadn't yet lost their leaves.

Sakura chewed, swallowed, and uncapped her canteen. Her knuckles were white around the canteen, so tightly was she gripping it. "He's strong. He'll survive until I find him."

"How do you know?"

Her eyes were cold. "I know him."

"Does he matter to you?"

Sakura bit her lip and counted to ten. Then, when that did nothing for her rising temper-why did he keep asking these questions?-counted to a hundred.

"He's my sensei," she said, finally.

Of course he mattered to her.

"What's a sensei do for a kunoichi?" Hisoka met her eyes steadily as she tried not to growl at him.

He was annoying. She didn't want to think about Kakashi-sensei right now. Not when she couldn't be looking for him.

"A teacher," she said, hefting Hisoka up onto a rock ledge. The area was getting to be mountainous and more and more often she found herself having to pick him up. He never protested—but he never seemed to be worried about the area either. "Someone who watches out for his students and makes sure they know what they'll need to survive."

"So he's better than you are?"

Her eyebrow twitched expressively, though her voice remained impassive. "He has more experience."

"Are you worried about him?" An hour later and another question.

Sakura stared up at the cliff they were in front of. "We have to go up here?"

"Yes," Hisoka said, "answer the question, please?"

"Of course I am," Sakura replied, as she shifted her pack to her front, then lifted him onto her back. It was awkward, but she'd manage it. "Don't ask stupid questions. Hold on tightly, okay?"

His arms tightened around her neck and she heard his murmur only because of their proximity. "Not stupid."

Sakura refused to feel bad and ignored the guilt that gnawed at her insides.

"What would he say about this?"

"Hisoka," she said, sweat beading down her forehead, her neck, all down her back, despite the relative coolness of the temperature. "This really isn't the time for that."

Too tempting to fling him off the cliff. Too. Tempting.


"Not now," she grated out, as the distance between them and the ground widened.

"Now?" Hisoka asked hopefully, as she staggered and collapsed on the ledge they'd found.

Sakura peered over the side of it, and found nothing but a dizzying expanse of air. Up above them the clouds were coming closer and she stretched her fingers, trying to ignore the way she felt a bit shaky.

She had strength. She had been trained by Tsunade-shishou to be able to use that strength to her fullest extent.

Carrying a child who was more than half her size up a sheer mountain side was still freaking hard.

"Now what?" she asked wearily.

"What would he say?"

Sakura glanced at him. "If the mission gets accomplished, he'll say 'good job'." Then she got to her feet, slowly, laboriously. "Until then, he'd want to know why I was sitting around."

Hisoka studied her as she held her hand out.

Sakura smiled as he took it. They went on.

"Why won't he be upset that you put this before him?" Hisoka asked as they finally set camp and Sakura throttled the urge to throttle him.

She glanced at him.

"Because that's what a ninja does."


"Yes, Hisoka?"

"Why does a ninja do something so—uncaring?"

She stared up at the sky. A thousand stars in sight.

"We care," she said, finally. "I don't expect you to understand."

And that, was that. Silence reigned from the other side of the camp. Sakura closed her eyes and fell asleep in seconds.

The next morning dawned grey and cold. Sakura woke up stiff and achy and dreamed of feather beds and coffee. Hisoka was silent as she got them both ready, fed, and cleaned up as best they could before head out.

As he continued right down a path, once more with that same unerring accuracy, she spoke up.


He glanced back at her, grey eyes unreadable.

"You know where we're going."

He nodded, once.

"Don't lie to me again."

But she still followed. Perhaps she was the one saying stupid things.

He kept to silence after she called him out about lying to her and, to her dismay, Sakura found that she almost missed those weird questions. It was better than the silence, which fell heavily in her ears and made her paranoid.

He knew where they were going and yet had said he didn't, and she still didn't know where they were going. Why was she following him?

It was a good question and she mulled over it as she followed him, keeping a careful lookout for anything that he'd need her help to get over and the rest of her attention turned inwards.

Sakura's gaze turned troubled as she studied his back.

"Where are we going?" she asked, finally, once they stopped for a break. Taking a sip from the canteen she passed it on to him as she spoke, doing her best to sound casual. It was harder than she would have liked it to be, but Sakura was determined to continue.

Hisoka was quiet. "I can't get the heart on my own."

And they walked on.

And on.

Until they came to a clearing with a tree that spread out over the clearing like a benevolent grandmother and Sakura's head tilted back, unable to see where the tree came to a top. "Up there?" she asked, sounding resigned.

He nodded.

It figured.

But no wonder a little boy couldn't get up there. The closest branches to the ground were at least five storeys up in the air. Only a ninja or a bird was going to get up there, she thought, shivering slightly. The tree had presence to it, but it felt - almost friendly. That was peculiar. If it was holding a demon's heart, shouldn't it have been affected by it?

Hisoka came to a stop in front of the trunk of the massive tree, his small face impassive. "I found it," he said, craning his neck to look up. "But I can't reach it."

He turned to look at her. "Can you, kunoichi-san?"

And, underneath those words was the real question: would she?

"Next time," she said, with a sigh and reached out to ruffle his hair. Sakura ignored his startled gaze. "Just tell the truth, okay? I told you I was going to help."

And so she was. Sakura pursed her lips. "Not tonight, though," and he started, looking like he was going to protest so she added her reasoning hastily. "It's getting dark," Sakura explained, "and I'm not going to be able to see anything once I'm up in the branches. If we want to find it quickly, it's going to have to be when it is light out."

Hisoka stared at her for a long moment before nodding and sitting down where he was. Sakura bit back a smile. "Don't be like that," she said, ruffling his hair again. "I'll get it as soon as the sun is up in the morning, alright? And then we'll go and give it to the demon so you can go home."

He glanced up at her as she moved past him, hoisting the pack off her back and pulling out her tent—it looked like it might rain tonight and she wasn't going to sleep out in the wet unless she had to. It would be big enough for her and Hisoka, Sakura decided; for all that it was supposedly a one-man tent. That was enough for the two of them.

She got to work.

"Kunoichi-san?" he asked, much later, once supper had been eaten and they'd washed up. Her in amicable silence, him—withdrawn, she thought, as if he was thinking something over hard and wasn't sure of what to make of his conclusions.


His big eyes, wide and young-looking, peered at her. "I don't understand why you're doing this. I lied to you and your teammate is missing."

Sakura lifted her head from the mending she'd been doing—it was best to do the mending as soon as possible so that the wear and tear didn't get worse and making mending a larger chore than it had to be. She hated sewing. "Because not helping you would be wrong," she said, finally.

"Why?" Hisoka persisted.

She let her breath out in a huff. "Because my teammate is either already dead," she told him, her eyes cold. "Or he's alive and will stay that way until I can get to him. For all I know he's managed to free himself and is looking for me. As for helping you..."

Sakura shrugged.

"It wouldn't be right, to not. Even if you do lie to me about how much you know." Kakashi-sensei would likely call her hopelessly naive if she thought that was the right course of action but... she was what she was.

He frowned at her. "It wouldn't be right?"

"That's just how I see it," she said, with another shrug. "I don't know. I don't weigh all of my actions and reasonings behind things. You're in trouble and I can help you. I was supposed to be out here doing something about the situation anyway. This fits the bill and gets you out of a rough spot."

He said nothing else that night and Sakura went to bed feeling oddly drained.

The climb up the tree the next morning was anti-climactic. The heart turned out to be a chunk of stone that pulsed with a queer red light even in the sun, and it was warm to the touch. Her skin crawled. Part of her, a significant part of her, was tempted to simply smash the heart—surely it could be destroyed?—but then Hisoka would be left to bear the consequences for her actions.

Sakura grimaced and tucked it into her pouch. She didn't want to hold it for longer than she had to. She ran down the tree and landed lightly at the bottom, all before Hisoka had even woken up. Sakura felt smug at that. She'd already done what they'd come here for.

It felt good.

Sakura took the heart out of her pouch and knelt down beside Hisoka. She gently reached out and shook his shoulder.

His eyes snapped open and he stared at her, first, before seeing the heart in her hands. "You got it," he breathed, and for a moment he sounded triumphant. "Thank you, kunoichi-san."

"Did you want to carry it?" she asked, smiling slightly. Thanks was nice, too.

Hisoka shook his head vigorously. "Not me," he said hastily. "Could you?"

Sakura didn't want to, but it was a simple request and easily granted. "Alright," she replied, "now come on, let's head back towards the demon's lair."

"Come out!" cried a sharp, familiar, female voice.

Sakura narrowed her eyes at the sound of it. Beside her Hisoka had frozen, something undefinable in his eyes. "Michie," he breathed, and Sakura had a moment's startled realization—that hadn't sounded loving-before he was gone, scrambling ahead of her, and she was left staring.

"Come out," Michie's voice, high and loud, reverberated through the woods.

The demon, Sakura realized, even as she hurried her steps and double-checked that she still had the heart. She did. Michie must have decided that they were working too slow and taken matters into her own hands in order to save Hisoka. Sakura wondered how Michie thought she would accomplish that by coming here and yelling.

Ducking behind a wide-trunked tree, Sakura peered at the demon's lair. Hisoka had told her the opening led the way into a limestone cavern, but that was not what made her stare, throat gone dry and thoughts gone still.

Michie, in her neat but worn dress, a shawl over her shoulders stood in front of the cave, her voice demanding, with a side of beseeching. Bandits, she thought, or mercenaries in a loose circle around her. Were they guarding her or holding her hostage?

But what sent her mind reeling, was the crumpled figure at Michie's feet.


The world stuttered and spun and while training said that she ought to stay where she was, Sakura moved. Where was Hisoka? What was Kakashi-sensei doing here? Was he still alive?

Michie was still shouting when Sakura took matters into her own hands and vaulted over the mercenaries to land in front of the girl who loved Hisoka. His sister. Who'd taken Kakashi-sensei. Rage was a dull roar in her ears and Sakura's eyes were flat as Michie's shouting cut off at the sight of her.

"What is the meaning of this?" Her voice was pure steel. These men, she would have no problems dealing with. "Michie. Answer me."

The Michie that met her eyes was a different sort of girl than the meek and almost shy one that had stammered her way through a conversation in a hotel room. "Reclaiming what's mine," Michie said, her hazel eyes glinting. Her voice was determined.

Right. Right. Because that made so much sense.

Sakura's gaze fell on her sensei. This close, she could tell he was breathing. Thank goodness. "Kakashi-sensei has nothing to do with the demon," she countered. "Why is he here?"

Michie's eyes hardened. "A body for a body," she spat, "you ninja always have more bodies to throw into fights. Let this be his final one."

Sakura didn't even have to think before her hand went flying out in a punch that sent Michie staggering backwards. She knelt down beside Kakashi-sensei and resisted the urge to sink healing chakra into him to clear his system of whatever it was that was keeping him out of it.

"His life," Sakura said, "is not yours to play god with."

"No," came a rumbling, ominous voice that echoed strangely throughout the clearing. "That is the province of the spirits and demons."

Michie screamed high and long, her eyes huge as she stared at what was coming out of the cavern. Sakura spun, careful to keep herself between Kakashi-sensei and the new threat to-

The demon was indescribable. Her mind shuddered away from the horror of it. There was the impression of size, of strength, too many limbs, all of them oddly proportioned, some gleaming, some sucking the light away, of a strangely fluid body and eyes that glowed with pale blue fire.

And walking with it, along with it, part of it she saw, to her horror, was Hisoka. And it was his voice the demon was speaking through, distorting it so that they spoke with two voices. One ancient, the other young.

"Do you not agree?" He sounded amused and she couldn't help but shudder. There was something terrifying about being in the presence of... of it. And she still had his heart in her pouch.

Sakura's blood went cold.

Was this why Hisoka had refused to carry it? A body for a body. Was she to be that body?

"Hisoka!" Michie cried, desperate tears streaking her face. "What are you doing? Get away from him!"

Sakura shook her head as the demon's laugh reverberated out from the little boy's chest.

"That," the demon said, almost pleasantly, "Is not possible."

Michie staggered to her feet. "He's mine," she hissed, "not yours."

"He made a deal with him," Sakura said, her voice high and strained. That had to be it. The only thing that made sense.

"Yes, kunoichi-san," and for a moment the voice sounded purely like Hisoka's. "I did."

"A deal?" Michie demanded, eyes wild. "What deal would he make with a demon? He is a good boy!"

The demon's growl rumbled through the cave and she became distantly aware that Michie's mercenaries had run long ago. Kakashi-sensei was beginning to stir at her feet. Please, she begged. Don't wake up and draw attention to us now.

"A deal," the demon said, even as his voice dropped to something low and unfriendly again. "I keep my deals."

The pressure of an immense weight fell on her and she found herself transfixed by the demon's visage. Nightmares, her mind babbled, she would have nightmares for forever from now on. "Kunoichi-san," he said, very politely. "Might I have my heart back?"

Sakura stared and stared and couldn't drag her eyes away from him. Michie's shriek of rage snapped the attention of them both to her as she flung herself at the demon and was hoisted in the air by something that might have been an arm but it was far too long, far too boneless and had far, far too many fingers.

And it dripped. An inky ichor that made the ground sizzle.

She swallowed, hard, and focused her glance on Hisoka. More accurately, the demon within Hisoka's body. "Hisoka is already dead, isn't he."

It wasn't a question.

The demon nodded, heedless of the raging howls coming from Michie. "But he gave his life willingly."

"Why?" she asked, the word falling from almost numb lips. Sakura had been helping a demon. Had carried him on her back and made him supper. Mended his clothing. And she hadn't even known it. Small wonder that no animals had been able to bother them.

Hisoka gazed up at the hostage, his sister, Michie. "He wished justice."

"I don't understand."

Hisoka smiled slightly. Cruelly. "Not all love is healthy."

Her eyes widened as the implications hit her. Hisoka—Michie had-? Sakura swallowed hard, fighting the urge to vomit.

"He wished to be free," the demon continued, "free and those who hurt him, those who stood by and knew and did nothing- he wishes them dead. I will fulfill my half of the bargain."

"And he-"

"His body," Hisoka said, staring at her with those unfathomable eyes. "I cannot leave my area without another body. I wished to search for my heart. Hisoka's body would aid that and I would take his revenge." Hisoka smiled so sweetly at her. "It is a fitting trade-off."

The demon was ignoring Michie's screams. Sakura was ignoring the way she'd noticed Kakashi-sensei's eyes opening, for all that he held very very still.

"What will happen to us when I give you the heart?"

It was a fair question.

"You are free to go," the demon said.

Her eyes narrowed. "Why?"

"Hisoka's revenge was only for those who stood by and did nothing, those who hurt him. You did the opposite, kunoichi-san." It studied her for a moment. "Or will you try and stop me from completing my end of the bargain?"

"I-" He did not need to say anything for her to know that was a situation that would end in her death. Sakura put that out of her mind. It wasn't the important thing in this situation. Use your own judgement, Tsunade-shishou's voice echoed in her head. Kakashi-sensei was in no position to give orders.

Sakura bowed and, with great deliberation, pulled the heart out of her pouch. It took every ounce of her courage to walk those steps towards the demon. Her chin up, her eyes guarded, and her hands cradling the heart like it was something precious. It still made her skin crawl.

It wasn't such a bad bargain after all. Vengeance for a heart.

She stopped in front of the demon, Hisoka. "What of the infants in the village? The babes in arms, those who would not have the capacity to know what had gone on?"

Hisoka smiled and reached for her free hand. "We'll give them to you, kunoichi-san. Take them to your village."

That was enough for her. Let no innocent suffer.

"Then I present your heart to you." Her eyes were as cold as a winter sky. "Guard it better next time."

Hisoka reached out and touched the heart and her world exploded into a burst of white.

Awareness returned in fits and starts of kaleidoscopic colours and sound. Sakura stared up at the canopy of leaves and sky and tried to decide how long she'd been out for.

From the way she felt, it could have been years, months, days-

"The first step," the demon, Hisoka was purring in an odd crooning voice that made her blood run cold. "Is your toes. And then your fingers." A soft laugh that sounded anything but kind. "There are twenty-seven bones in each hand. I think I shall break them all."

Michie screamed, high and pathetic.

Minutes, Sakura decided, feeling peculiarly detached. No longer than that. Or Michie would be dead already. She sat up, slowly, her head pounding with the movement, and then forced herself to her knees to better see what was going on.

Hisoka - the demon - glowed now, an unearthly colour that hovered between white and something else. Now she could feel him, his power ruffling, choking, along the edges of her chakra sense. It was almost overwhelming. It would have been, had his attention not been so focused on the writhing, screaming girl he held in one inhuman hand.

A hand clamped down on her shoulder and Sakura stifled a scream of her own at the shock of it.

Kakashi-sensei stared at her, his one eye deadly serious. "We move on three."

The way he tilted his head at the demon said his intentions louder than words.

"No," Sakura said, her voice fraught with tension, but steady. "No. We don't attack." It was the first time in her life that she'd so blatantly disobeyed an order given to her by a superior. To her surprise, it was easier than she'd thought it would be.

He glanced askance at her, likely thinking that the demon had possession of her mind as well. Sakura knew better. Hisoka had done nothing but obtain her help.

"It fits the crime," she said, shaking his hand off her shoulder. "Leave it be."

Carefully she got to her feet, deliberately closing out the sounds, though not the sight, of Michie screaming, gasping, and the ragged pop and snap of each bone broken with exquisite perfection.

"Hisoka," she said quietly, "we're leaving now."

Was it a peculiar thing, to address a demon the way she had addressed a little boy? Sakura would call him nothing else, not while he wore the body of the child who'd finally, at last, gotten what he'd wanted. Freedom. Justice.

It was a hard world.

The little boy turned from watching his sister in agony. "Kunoichi-san," he said, smiling beautifully. A truly twisted angel. "You have our thanks."

She felt sick and bizarrely satisfied. Sakura wondered, then, if she was broken in her own way. Having no words to say—it had not been a pleasure, not exactly—Sakura bowed formally to the demon and turned to go.


She glanced over her shoulder, lips almost twitching. He had managed the same plaintive tone he'd used while asking her questions on the mountain. "Yes, Hisoka?" Sakura answered in kind, her voice deliberately light.

Hisoka stared at her with ancient eyes. "May I have your name?"

Her lips curved just a little more, even as Kakashi-sensei shook his head. She knew what he was thinking. Names had power.

"It's Sakura."

And then, without another glance or pause, she left the clearing. There were children to gather up and, once they were home, she would face an accounting for her actions.

She'd face it as it came. Hisoka had deserved to know her name.

That year, in Imabari, the cherry trees blossomed early, dancing over an empty, lifeless village.

Hisoka had been satisfied.

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