Sorry for the wait, guys — but at least it wasn't as long as last time, right?

Anyway.

This is the much-anticipated chapter where Sasori finally makes his reappearance! And with this PART TWO BEGINS. I hope you all remember what I said about the poems at the bottom: when it's in italics, the puppet master is speaking to his marionette, and when it's in bold, the marionette is speaking to her puppet master. And why do I say I hope you've all remembered?

Because starting with this chapter, the poems are bold!

On another note, the lovely ya-cho will now be translating this story into Vietnamese! I'm so happy!

In the reviews for chapter 13, a lot of people were pissed at Sasuke for leaving on Naruto's birthday. His reason why is revealed in this chapter.

Also, there are two things in this chapter that reference chapter two. I wonder how many people will catch them. ;)

Please read and review!


Reconciliation


Sakura could still remember the way Naruto cried in her arms on his fourteenth birthday.

He'd been the first person she told about Sasuke leaving. He had, understandably, been extremely upset with her, so much so that he'd yelled at her for the very first time. She let him. Then, calmly, she laid it all out for him.

She didn't stop him when he ran off with a team to chase after Sasuke. She just sat by the gates and waited for him to come back — because as close as she was to each of her teammates, she knew that they were closer.

This was something Naruto needed to do — so that he could let go and support his two dearest friends in achieving their dreams wholeheartedly.

She remembered that'd he managed to keep the tears from falling when she'd told him why she let Sasuke go. She remembered that he'd swallowed back his pain when he whispered that he understood. She remembered that, when he returned with his team limping wearily behind him, he'd kept his head down and allowed her to pull him into a tight embrace.

After a moment, he'd quietly murmured that he'd finally caught up to Sasuke at a place called the Valley of the End. He said he'd made Sasuke tell him himself why he was leaving. Then, when he had, Naruto mustered up the courage to grin through the pain and say, "You weren't gonna leave without saying goodbye, were you, teme?" He proceeded to give Sasuke the same lecture Sakura had about taking care of himself and making sure they saw each other again, ending with a forcefully cheerful, "Just you watch, teme — I'll be the Hokage when you get back. Believe it!"

Then, Sasuke had smirked at him in a way that no one else would ever be able to get close enough to him to see.

"Happy Birthday, dobe."

And, Sakura remembered, that was when Naruto finally broke down and cried in her arms as his team watched on in respectful silence.

It was in that moment that he really let go and accepted that their team was meant to go separate ways — "But not forever, Sakura-chan," he'd told her weeks later, face lit up with a bright, heartfelt smile. "Sasuke-teme's leaving for a while to go after his dream, and I'll be leaving, too, to train for a couple years. Then, you'll leave to fulfill your own dream, and once we've all done what we have to do, we'll be Team Seven again!" He'd gazed off into the distance, completely sure of his words and at peace with them. "I know we will. Just, don't go before I get back, okay, Sakura-chan?" He'd grinned at her. "I want you to welcome me home first."

She'd smiled back warmly. "Of course I will, silly."

True to his word, Naruto had left four months later — on her fifteenth birthday. "I get why he did it, Sakura-chan," he'd said as he hugged her goodbye. "Why Sasuke-teme left on my birthday, I mean." Then, he'd broken out into possibly the widest and happiest grin she'd ever seen on him. "He wanted to make sure I didn't forget about him. So don't you forget about me, either, okay?"

She'd swatted at him playfully before pulling him into another hug. "Never," she'd promised.

Since the day he left, Sakura had grown into a full-fledged kunoichi. She'd sought out the new Hokage for more training, shocking the woman with her knowledge of her signature techniques, and under her tutelage had made a name for herself in the shinobi world. She perfected her medical and enhanced strength jutsu faster than Tsunade thought possible, passing her boards with flying colors to become one of the most talented medic-nin in the entire world, and eventually began serving as one of Tsunade's right-hand dignitaries for diplomatic meetings in both Suna and Kiri. She graduated to jonin alongside Neji, Shikamaru, and Temari of Suna a year and a half after their Chunin Exam, afterward often joining Kakashi on two-man missions that paid spectacularly.

In her free time, Sakura trained with her former sensei on their cell's old training grounds, even convincing him to teach her a couple of earth-style ninjutsu when he suggested she might have a minor affinity for it. And, every year, the two of them got together to celebrate her, his, Naruto, and Sasuke's birthdays. They never missed a single one.

It was when they were at Ichiraku celebrating Sasuke's seventeenth birthday, just under two and a half years from the day Naruto left, that Konoha's most famous and energetic ninja finally returned. They exchanged a knowing glance when a flare of chakra alerted them to his presence in the village, and they quickly paid for their meal. The pair found him two streets away, inspecting Konohamaru's version of his Sexy Jutsu with Jiraiya behind him, grinning and covering a heavily bleeding nose, and Tsunade next to Jiraiya, looking incredibly unimpressed. Sakura rolled her eyes skyward, and Kakashi chuckled.

"Why am I not surprised?" she asked, shaking her head.

Naruto's head shot up, apparently hearing her, and a thousand-watt smile spread over his face.

"SAKURA-CHAN!" he shrieked, attracting the attention of the entire street, and leapt at her with his arms flung out wide.

She contemplated sidestepping him and letting him crash into the ground but decided against it. He would've tackled her and sent them both cartwheeling down the road a ways had she not sent chakra to her feet to keep her balance. She hugged him back tightly, releasing the chakra so he could spin her around.

"Tadaima," he said cheekily.

"Okaerinasai," she replied, pulling back to smile at him.

Kakashi placed a hand on Naruto's head and ruffled his hair as the two parted. His eye crinkled. "How was your training?"

"It was great, Kakashi-sensei!" he crowed. "Ero-sennin taught me all kinds of new jutsu!"

Tsunade shot Jiraiya a withering look. Jiraiya smiled back innocently.

"Ne, Sakura-chan," Naruto spoke up, grinning at her mischievously. "Looks like I'm taller than you, now, 'ttebayo."

She fixed him with a mock glare. "Did you know that I could punch you a quarter-mile in any direction if I felt like it?"

Naruto's expression didn't change expect for the not-so-subtle paling of his face, and Jiraiya directed an accusing glance at Tsunade as if to say, "And you dare to criticize me?"

"Hard to believe it's been over two years," Kakashi remarked mirthfully. "You two haven't changed at all."

"What the heck are you talking about, Kakashi-sensei?" Naruto grouched. "You're the one that hasn't changed — you're still wearing the same clothes!"

"It's not nice to pick on old men, Naruto."

"Sakura!" Kakashi said, scandalized, as Naruto roared with laughter.

She laughed with him for a moment before finally taking a good look at her closest friend. He really had changed.

Naruto was, as he'd said, taller than her now by a few inches. His trademark orange jacket and pants were gone, replaced by another just-as-orange set that now included black accent instead of blue. The cloth of his hitai-ate had also changed to black, and the ends extended well beyond the knot at the back of his head. His hair, while still spiky, seemed a tiny bit longer.

And, Sakura noticed, his voice was a little deeper, too. It was strange to think how much he'd grown from when they met as young kids.

For her part, Sakura had changed as well.

When they were genin, she'd worn her hair semi-short, the ends just skimming her collarbone. It had grown out a little during and after their mission to the Land of Waves, but when that Zaku idiot had sliced off a chunk in the Forest of Death, she'd been forced to hack it off messily at her chin. However, after sporting the new hair cut for a few days, she'd come to like it, and she still wore it that way two-and-a-half years later. Though she'd told herself she would change her everyday attire when she made chunin, she actually put it off until she made jonin — and it was this new outfit that she now wore. Like Naruto's, her clothes still held more than a passing resemblance to those from their genin days: a sleeveless red top with a high collar that was held together with snap fasteners rather than a zipper, tan shorts, black knee-high boots, black spandex elbow guards, and her hitai-ate tied around her left bicep. Perhaps the biggest difference was the large tan pouch that buckled around her waist and rested against the small of her back, wide enough that it peeked around either side of her by an inch or so. Strapped on top of it was a thick scroll.

The scroll, humorously enough, had been a "no hard feelings, right?" gift from Kankuro that she'd received one of the times she made a diplomatic trip to Suna after graduating to jonin. Despite the obvious contempt he'd felt for her during the Chunin Exam, they got along pretty well once their villages were no longer at war; they had a lot in common, after all. But whereas Kankuro's entire offensive strategy was built around his puppet master jutsu, "aniki" had taught it to her as a sort of last resort to use if her other attacks proved ineffective, also inevitably teaching her how to counter a puppet master. He'd figured she would only need it for attaching chakra strings to weapons and other objects around her, occasionally even opponents to trip them up — hence why he hadn't given her a puppet before he left.

When her relationship with Kankuro bordered more on friendly than hostile, they'd often engaged in conversations about various aspects of their daily lives, and when he inevitably asked why he'd never seen her whip out a puppet of her own, he'd been more than a little surprised to hear that she didn't have one. He then made some mumbled comment about how her skill with the puppet master jutsu was being put to waste, and the next day, a Suna chunin had delivered the scroll to her.

She trained with it often by herself, and she'd used it in battle twice just because she could, but she still considered it a last resort type of weapon. It was nothing special anyways — it was very basic, as puppets went: a male humanoid figure with brown hair and equally brown eyes that could store up to twenty weapons.

Sakura was brought out of her musings when Naruto turned to their former teacher with a loud exclamation of, "Oh, I almost forgot! I brought you something, Kakashi-sensei!"

He pulled a book out of the pouch at his hip, and Kakashi froze up, lone visible eye stretching wide. "That's…"

The titled, she noted blandly was Icha Icha Tactics. No doubt, another porno novel that Jiraiya had written. Kakashi spent no less than five minutes gazing at it as one would gaze at a deity, then immediately cracked it open and buried his nose in it. She doubted he would pay them any attention for at least the next few hours.

She was proved wrong when, just an hour and a half later as Tsunade and Jiraiya were leaving to let them catch up on lost time, Kakashi snapped the book shut and beamed at them. Both of his former students arched an eyebrow in unison.

Then, he slid the book into the pouch on his hip and took out something that was exceedingly familiar to all of them: two silver bells.

.

When they reached Team Seven's old training grounds, all three took a moment to soak it in and swim down memory lane. Then, Kakashi sighed and clapped his hands together.

"Alright. I think you both know how this works." He glanced at each of them, his eye lingering on Sakura for a moment. He frowned.

Naruto, noticing this, asked, "What's up, sensei?"

"Well…" The man scratched absently at his cheek as he thought, clearly unsure how to proceed. "Now that I think about it, this might not be as effective as I'd hoped."

"Why not?"

He smiled sheepishly. "Because Sakura-chan beat me in one-on-one a few months ago."

Naruto, unsurprisingly, gaped at his female teammate for well over a minute before demanding what had happened in his usual shrieking manner. Sakura merely gazed up at the sky as if nothing was amiss.

Inwardly, however, was a different story. It was true — she had finally managed to beat Kakashi four months earlier, and even though it was only once, it was enough for her. They'd gone all-out, using every weapon and technique in their respective arsenals, and both had made an unscheduled trip to the hospital afterwards, but she'd done it.

And that was the moment that Sakura had known she was ready. Her promise to Naruto was the only thing keeping her there, and now that she'd welcomed him home just like he asked, there was nothing left. Tomorrow, she would tell him that it was time, and then they would begin planning her departure. She would let herself enjoy today.

Kakashi eventually decided that it wouldn't really be an exercise in teamwork if he excluded Sakura just because she could take him all by herself, and he gave them an entire day to get the bells instead of just until lunch time. It ended in half an hour — quite the spectacular embarrassment for Kakashi, no doubt — with both teens smirking over him and ringing the bells tauntingly. He sighed as though heavily put upon and hung his head.

And promptly forgot his failure when he remembered the beloved new book in his possession.

Naruto and Sakura had an arm slung around each other's shoulders, inspecting their bells smugly with Kakashi trailing behind them, walking blindly as he read, when the blond finally spoke up. "We should celebrate at Ichiraku," he said brightly. "Just like old times!"

Sakura looked back at their sensei, and she saw him smirk over the top of his book.

"I hate to burst your bubble, Naruto, but we already ate there earlier."

He stopped dead in the middle of the street, staring at his team like they'd just ripped his heart out. They laughed at his expression. Before he could come out with the expected, "How could you?!", a voice called out their names. All three turned.

Shizune stood just twenty feet away, hunched over with her hands resting on her knees, heaving for breath. She'd clearly been running all over the village looking for them.

"Tsunade-sama's…office," she gasped between inhales.

.

Tsunade was looking more than a little irritated as she tapped her painted nails against the desk in a punishing rhythm, Tenten noted with worry. One fist was curled against her cheek, her eyes were narrowed into thin slits, and her lips were pressed into a tight line. Tiny cracks were beginning to form on her desk beneath her agitated fingers.

Tenten swallowed discreetly.

A glance to her left and right showed that Neji was just as aware of their Hokage's anger as she was, while Lee and Gai were completely oblivious as they exchanged their usual fiery pep talk.

A moment later, the door flew open, and in stepped Team Seven.

Tsunade leveled them with an acidic glare before directing all of it to Kakashi. "You're late."

Naruto offered an uncomfortable smile, and Kakashi edged a little closer to Sakura seeing as she was the only person to never suffer Tsunade's wrath. Sakura greeted her latest mentor without preamble.

"Shizune only just found us a minute ago — we arrived as quickly as we could."

At that, Tsunade cooled and gave a curt nod. "Fine. Get over here."

Team Seven and Team Gai stood at attention as their Hokage folded her fingers together and began.

"We have a serious situation," she stated solemnly. "I've received word from Suna's fastest carrier bird that two Akatsuki members infiltrated the village." Naruto froze. The sannin seemed unwilling to force the next words out of her mouth. "The Kazekage has been kidnapped."

The color drained from Naruto's face so rapidly that Sakura almost thought he might pass out. "The Akatsuki took Gaara?" he whispered.

Someone must have told him that Gaara was the Kazekage, she realized. Somehow, he and the Suna-nin had become friends after the Chunin Exam fiasco, just as she and Kankuro had as well as Shikamaru and Temari. Funny how easily enemies could become comrades.

"Yes," Tsunade agreed bitterly. "Jiraiya had told me that the Akatsuki was planning to capture all of the jinchuriki and harness the powers of their tailed beasts. Unfortunately, it looks like he was right."

After Gaara's transformation during the Chunin Exam, it was common knowledge in Konoha that he was a jinchuriki — but most people who weren't old enough to have fought during the Kyuubi attack nearly seventeen years earlier still didn't know that Naruto was one, too. Judging by how Tenten and Lee didn't cast inconspicuous glances at him as Gai and Neji did, they were part of that majority.

"Teams," Tsunade announced, "I'm sending you both to track down the pair of Akatsuki and rescue Gaara. Failure is not an option."

"What is our time limit?" Neji asked, calm and proper as ever.

"There isn't one," she replied. "It'll take you at least two-to-three days to travel to Suna, longer if sandstorms or other factors in the desert delay you. I don't care how long it takes you to finish this mission — just make sure you do." She waited until they all nodded to continue. "Gaara's sister Temari is currently here in Konoha on diplomatic business, and as far as I know, she hasn't yet been made aware of the situation. Find her, fill her in, and take her with you." They nodded again. "We don't have much information about what's going on, so I'll dismiss you all now. Go home and pack; I expect you to leave by five."

Sakura glanced at the clock on the wall. Three-twenty-six.

"When you get to Suna, find a jonin named Baki. He'll give you all the details." Tsunade sighed. "All right. Go."

As one, they all bowed, then filed out as teams to prepare for the mission.

Sakura took the time to walk home instead of jumping over rooftops or flash stepping in order to preserve chakra. She was already at two-thirds of her usual reserves thanks to the training exercise with Kakashi and Naruto, and she couldn't chance being caught unawares on the trip to Suna. She packed light; instead of bringing along a large pack, she filled two sealing scrolls as thick as her arm with supplies, which she then nestled in the tan pouch at the small of her back. She brought strictly necessities: two dozen bottles of water — the extra in case her teammates ran out or forgot to pack some, eight protein bars — so little because she was sure Naruto would bring a whole suitcase full of instant ramen, a bottle of chakra pills, a bottle of blood replenishing tablets, and a wide light-colored tarp to throw over herself and her teammates should they need to take cover from the sun or sandstorms.

She met her companions at the gates ten minutes before the set departure time. Kakashi, despite knowing better than to show up his customary two hours tardy, was five minutes late. Neji shot him a severely unimpressed look. Gai and the two younger members of Team Seven were clearly unsurprised, while Lee and Tenten didn't really seem to care. Temari, having been found and filled in by Neji, was obviously both stressed out and impatient to go.

"Yosh! Let us strive to make it to the Hidden Sand Village in one day!"

"An excellent suggestion, Lee! What say you, Kakashi? How about a race to see which team gets there first?"

"Er…"

"Lee, Suna is three days away."

"Don't be silly, Tenten! We can make it in one — we can make it in half a day! With the power of our youth!"

"Gai-sensei!"

"Lee!"

"Gai-sensei!"

"Lee!"

It was with this "wonderful" pep talk that they embarked upon their mission. True to his word, Gai turned their journey into a race and forced his team to double the already-neck-break pace Kakashi had set, hell-bent on victory. Had Temari possessed the stamina to keep up, she would undoubtedly have been leading the pack; she'd made herself sick with worry over Gaara and she wanted to get home as quickly as possible, but she simply didn't have the energy to tag along with that pair of spandex-clad speed freaks and their poor teammates. Instead, she stuck with Team Seven and managed clipped conversation with the two younger members in order to get her mind elsewhere. It didn't work.

The four shinobi leapt through the trees for hours, stopping only once for a short eating-and-bathroom-break along the way. When the sun set, they had already crossed into the Land of Rivers but were still many miles from the border with Wind Country, so Kakashi instructed them to press on. No one spoke in the darkness; with the limited visibility that the moon provided, they had to rely on their other senses to detect and hidden enemies and avoid getting a branch to the face. The moon was high in the sky when they finally reached the outpost from Suna's border patrol. Sand ANBU escorted them to the five jonin waiting inside to inspect their travel papers.

The instant said jonin laid eyes on Temari, they practically fell over themselves with apologies.

"Temari-sama!" one man choked out, his shock and embarrassment mirrored on the others' faces. "I'm terribly sorry! The ANBU never should have stopped you! There's no need to check any papers — p-please go right through!"

Temari graced them with a tight smile, seeing no reason to take out her frustration on them. "Thank you," she said, "but no apology is necessary. If everyone else has to be stopped for inspection, then I should be, too."

They bowed deeply, physically and vocally demonstrating their respect and gratitude. She and Team Seven were then quickly sent on their way, much to Sakura's amusement.

"How far are we going, Kakashi-sensei?" Naruto asked once ten minutes had passed. Despite his desperation to find Gaara, he was drooping with fatigue. He and Jiraiya had risen at four in the morning to complete their nine-hour trip back to Konoha, then he'd gone through a training exercise with his team, and it was now going on seven hours that they'd been running at top speed. Even his legendary stamina couldn't last forever, especially seeing as all the noise Jiraiya had been making last night in the other room with those women had made sleep damn near unobtainable.

Kakashi's eye crinkled in a reassuring smile. "Just two more miles," he promised. "We'll set up camp near the tree line." At the chunin's blank look, he explained, "Where the trees start thinning out."

In just a handful of minutes, Sakura spied smooth slopes through the trees that marked the beginning of the desert. Kakashi stopped them before they reached the sparse dead grass that gave way to sand, and he built a fire while Sakura set out in search of a water source to refill the five now-empty bottles she'd shared with her companions. In a testament to just how tired he was, Naruto ignored his growling stomach in favor of collapsing on the forest floor for some much-needed sleep. He was out before his head landed in the leaves.

.

Sakura's internal clock told her that it was around eight when they woke — just two hours after sunrise, and the temperature was already in the high nineties. And, she thought bleakly, it was only going to get hotter as the day wore on.

Before they began the second part of their journey, she took it upon herself as the only medic present to relate desert safety tips such as to conserve water and cover as much skin as possible. She directed this at her teammates, who were notorious for injuring and overworking themselves on missions, and then made a show of checking for Temari's approval to show that she considered the other kunoichi more qualified to lecture on that particular subject.

Progress was undeniably slower in the desert than it had been in the forest, and Sakura was assigned the task of keeping an eye on the group's health to ensure none of them keeled over with heat stroke. Three-and-a-half hours in, they all stopped to take refuge from the sun under the tarp she'd brought, Temari using a light Wind-style jutsu to stir about a cooler breeze. During the hour-long rest, Sakura expanded a little chakra to check her comrades for health problems, and they each drank half a bottle of water to stave off any dehydration.

The second time they stopped was when they discovered Team Gai crowded into the limited shade of a small cave-like indention in the side of an eleven-foot-high sandstone formation. Both Lee and Gai had been sorely lacking in foresight at the start of the mission, only packing three water bottles between them as they'd expected to zip across the desert with their trademark unholy speed before more water was necessary. When Team Seven found them, their entire supply of water had been used up, and Neji and Tenten were in the midst of glaring the guilty pair to death since they lacked the energy to berate them. Kakashi was positively beaming when Gai admitted they needed some help, and Sakura readily provided them with water as well as treated their burns, blisters, and heat exhaustion. They then found another shaded alcove in the rocky outcrop to wait out the rest of the day, sleeping while they could. As soon as the sun disappeared over the horizon, both squads emerged for the last leg of their voyage. They pushed themselves faster during the cool hours of the night to make up for lost time, pausing briefly for a two-hours power nap, then continuing on even as dawn broke. They finally reached the village just after seven in the morning, and despite Gai's challenge, Temari was in fact the first to get there.

Sunagakure was in chaos. Chunin and genin were bustling to and fro in the middle of rebuilding destroyed and damaged sections of the village, while jonin stood guard over the entrance. There was a noticeable lack of ANBU, the vast majority now on border patrol to stop anymore "unexpected guests" from dropping in while the rest were either searching for Gaara or already dead due to the Akatsuki's infiltration.

Temari spent a solid ten minutes searching high and low for Kankuro, the Konoha-nin by her side, until a Suna chunin recognized her and directed her to the hospital. When they located her brother's room, a grim sight awaited them. Dozens of medics — quite possibly Suna's entire feet — stood around him, wringing their hands uselessly and whispering to one another, while Kankuro's destroyed puppets lay against the back wall in a heap. The whispers halted the instant Temari appeared, and rage exploded in her chest when she saw an unconscious Kankuro hooked up to a machine with no one attending to him.

"What the hell in going on here?!" she demanded, rushing to her brother's side. "The attack was three days ago, so why isn't anyone healing him?!"

The medics all exchanged uncomfortable glances before one finally cleared her throat and spoke up. "Um…w-we can't, Temari-sama."

Temari rounded on her with a blazing glower. "Why not?!"

She flinched. "Because…b-because he's been poisoned by a substance we've never seen before." She looked both frightened and sympathetic. "I'm sorry, Temari-sama, but we tried everything, and it's not working. He only has a few hours left to live."

"Then why did you stop?!" the blond screeched, nearly blinded by her panic and fury. "He's still got a few hours, right?! Keep trying!"

"We did what we could," an elderly woman said, making her presence known. For some reason, Sakura couldn't shake the feeling that she'd seen her before. "It just wasn't enough."

Temari had gone devastatingly pale. "Chiyou-baa-sama…?"

If even the elder Chiyou, the greatest medic in all of Suna, couldn't save her brother, then what hope did he have? Her throat closed up with unshed tears.

"Let me have a look," came Sakura's sudden voice. Temari watched her intently. The Konoha kunoichi appeared neither uncertain nor pitying; poisons were one of her specialties.

Temari pulled herself together. She stepped aside and nodded. Without hesitation, Sakura approached her patient and channeled chakra to her palms, scanning his system for the toxin. She found it almost immediately, and she frowned at what she discerned from it. A large portion had already been absorbed into his organs and tissues, places far too delicate for her to remove it from, meaning she would have to administer an antidote to dissipate it as well as manually extract the part that hadn't yet been completely absorbed. She deduced all of this in less than a minute before she began issuing orders.

"I need three basins, one filled with ice water, one with room temperature, and one empty. Ice packs, as many as you can get me — hand towels, too. Also a sterile vial and at least five antidote simulation scrolls. In a bit, I'll need access to medicinal herbs and concoctions in order to form the antidote." As she said this, a small battle ensued between Chiyou and Kakashi, brought on by the woman jumping him with a shrill cry of "White Fang!", which she studiously ignored.

At Temari's order, two-thirds of the medics rushed to find the supplies Sakura requested, while the rest attempted to help break up the fight and shoo the Konoha shinobi into a corner where they wouldn't get in the way. As soon as the others returned with the required items, Sakura set to work.

"I want four people to hold him down," she instructed as she washed her hands thoroughly. "Two of you, start covering him in ice packs and towels soaked in ice water; we've got to get his fever down, but keep his upper torso clear so I can work." She dried her hands and approached the bed. "Once I start, he'll thrash, so make sure you keep him still, and replace he cold compresses that he knocks off."

When her wishes were met, she pooled chakra into one hand and paced it on the surface of the lukewarm water, letting it gather up a sizable sphere of the liquid before withdrawing it. With one last check that the other medics had Kankuro secured, she pressed her palm flat against the scar on his chest and allowed the water to soak straight into his body. Predictably, he groaned and fought against his captors despite remaining unconscious. Sakura kept her hand against his skin for a moment longer to get as much of the poison as possible, and when she lifted it, a thick plum-colored liquid tainted the center of the water sphere. She released the toxin, water and all, into the empty basin and repeated the process twice more before the rest of it was collected.

"There," Sakura said proudly, holding up the last orb to the light for inspection as she wiped her brow with her other hand. "That's the last of it. Some of it was too far gone to remove, but with this much of it out of his system, he's out of immediate danger."

Temari slumped against the wall, sighing heavily with relief, while the medics in the room — and even Chiyou — stared at Sakura in awe. Maybe a dozen people in the entire world could use that jutsu, and, needless to say, none of them had been Suna-nin. Tenten's eyes were as wide as saucers, while Lee and Naruto were whooping over Sakura's perceived victory. Neji, who had watched the entire procedure with his Byakugan activated, seemed mildly impressed. Gai gave her the wink-and-thumbs-up combo, and Kakashi smiled proudly.

Sakura used her chakra to separate the water from the poison and transferred the latter to a vial. "Now," she continued, collecting the scrolls she'd asked for, "I need someone to show me the way to your lab and any medicinal herbs you have. Someone else needs to dispose of that basin" — she pointed to the one that had carried the poison —"the same way you would any hazardous materials; we can't take any chances by reusing it. The rest of you, get Kankuro's fever down."

Before she could leave, she was stopped by Chiyou. The woman studied her curiously. "You remind me of someone I knew a long time ago," she admitted. "You wouldn't happen to be acquainted with the Slug Queen Tsunade, would you?"

Sakura gave a polite smile. "She's my mentor."

As she left, Chiyou stared after her, frowning absently. She didn't say it aloud, but something about the way that girl spoke and acted — the way her smile didn't quite reach her eyes, the way her speech pattern was both formal and commanding, the way her jaw tightened with impatience if she had to wait more than a few seconds… Something about her inexplicably reminded her of her long-lost grandson.

.

It took Sakura barely half an hour to concoct the correct antidote, as well as two extra in case they ran into whoever poisoned Kankuro. She was indeed a poison specialist, but usually something of this level would take her an hour or two to figure out. For some reason that she couldn't explain, the formula seemed…familiar to her — not as though she'd seen this particular poison before, but more like than she'd seen one similar to it.

Nevertheless, she wasted no time in checking in on Kankuro and rousing him once she saw that his fever had gone down. His eyes cracked open, then shut back as the light assaulted him without remorse, and he groaned lowly at the ache it brought on. She spent five minutes forcing him to sit up before he finally came to his senses. He blinked at her dazedly.

"Sakura?"

"It's me," she said, holding a glass in front of his face. Normally, the type of antidote she'd made would be administered via injection, but she'd mixed in a couple more ingredients to make it both safe and less disgusting to ingest, as well as something that would make him drowsy. "I need you to drink this, Kankuro."

He stared at it for a moment, his head still a little fuzzy and thereby delaying his reaction. The longer he was awake, however, the clearer everything was becoming.

"You made this?" he asked, voice less slurred than it had been the first time he spoke.

"Yes," she confirmed, slipping the glass into his hand. "Drink this, and you should be feeling a whole lot better in a bit."

"The poison," he mumbled after doing as she asked. "That was…an antidote?"

"Yes, it was," Sakura assured him, helping him lie back down. "Get some sleep."

"Wait." He speech was becoming thick again — the sleeping agent she'd included in the mix was pretty fast-acting. "Gaara…follow the…scent…"

"The scent?" Kakashi piped up, walking closer to the bed.

Kankuro was struggling to keep his eyes open. He pointed shakily at the pile of his broken puppets. On top of the pile was a wooden hand cured into a fist. "Karasu…he's holding…cloth…the scent…"

For a second, they were all sure he'd succumbed to unconsciousness again, but his lids flickered open as he fought it. Kakashi approached the marionettes, carefully pulling open the fingers until he saw a torn strip of black fabric. He looked back at Kankuro.

"This came from your attacker?"

The Kazekage's brother didn't actually confirm this, but they all knew Kakashi's assumption was right. "He…puppet…red sand…"

He said nothing more as he finally passed out, but his arm remained outstretched over the side, one finger limply pointing at the puppets. The room grew quiet.

It was a few minutes before Temari broke the silence. "Chiyou-baa-sama," she murmured, "you don't think…?"

"Yes," the elder said bleakly. "I suspected as much, but I was hoping it wasn't true. That poison was his work."

"Who?" Naruto questioned, confused.

Chiyou's face was like stone. "My grandson."

The remaining medics in the room paled. They began whispering amongst themselves in a fright, but all Sakura caught of it was, "red sand." The atmosphere grew increasingly morbid after that, and the Konoha-nin spent only a short time more in the hospital before going with Temari and Chiyou to meet with Suna's council.

Sakura's gaze landed one last time on Kankuro's hand, following the path it pointed in toward the puppets. As she studied the mannequins, she wondered what he'd been trying to show them. Relenting when she could see nothing of importance, she filed out of the room alongside her team.

She never even noticed the diamond insignia on the necks of all three puppets that depicted a red scorpion.

.

The cloth Kankuro snatched worked like a charm to track the two Akatsuki members, with the help of Kakashi's nin-hound summons. Team Gai — and the dogs — went on ahead in different directions to scout the area, but Chiyou remained with Team Seven. Temari had stayed behind to help run Sunagakure, being the only one of the three siblings that was both in the village and conscious. Pakkun was the first to discover the lair, and once he'd reported back to Kakashi, he tracked down and alerted Team Gai to the enemies' location, then he and the rest of the nin-dogs were released from the summons.

With both teams approaching from separate directions, they were hoping to corner the Akatsuki members.

It didn't work.

Sakura reflected cynically that their plans never worked out properly when her team found itself facing off against an Akatsuki member that had clearly been sent out to stop them. Miles away, Team Gai was presented with the same problem.

Kakashi swore at the sight of the man before them, and Naruto looked absolutely furious. When said man raised his head, Sakura recognized him instantly.

Uchiha Itachi.

Her muscles coiled as she slid into a defensive stance. The irony was bitter on her tongue as she recalled the last time she laid eyes on him — when she'd mistaken him for Sasuke. It was even worse when she remembered the first time she'd seen him.

She had been six. "Aniki" had been taking her out for her very first day of training, and Uchiha Itachi had been leaving one of the fields. She hadn't known who he was at the time, but "aniki" had told her about him some time later.

Both times, she had failed to realize who he was. But not anymore. She knew who he was now, and she would never forget his face again.

She owed Sasuke that much, at least.

When Itachi spoke, she would have thought he was mocking them except for the blankness of his voice. It sounded like he was completely hollow, as if he was unable to feel or show any emotions whatsoever. "Long time no see, Kakashi…Naruto."

Naruto gritted his teeth. "Who do you think you are?!" he growled accusingly. "First you come after me, then Gaara — and what you did to Sasuke!" He jabbed a finger at the man from across the clearing. "You're going down, you bastard!"

As Itachi began to lift one hand into a tiger seal, Kakashi inhaled sharply. "Don't look him directly in the eyes," he warned.

Sakura already knew this from the studying she'd done on the Sharingan — she'd had to heal Kakashi's more than once because he'd overused it — but it still frustrated her. Most shinobi gave away their intentions in their eyes, and being unable to read him would give them less time to react to his attacks. On the other hand, she thought flatly, she doubted this man would have given anything away anyways, seeing as he was a veritable void of emotions.

Faintly, she heard Kakashi explaining to Naruto what the Sharingan and its more advanced forms could do, and Chiyou chimed it with how one could overpower the Sharingan: by a large group going at him and hoping something got through. Yeah. A spectacular plan.

"Well," Kakashi sighed, "I'd really like to send you all ahead to save Gaara, but…" He offered his former students a tight smile. "I don't think I can handle him by myself."

"Naruto," Itachi said evenly, "I'll have to ask you to come with me."

Before Naruto could throw back a curse-ridded reply, Kakashi made his move. In the blink of an eye, he'd launched himself at Itachi and struck out with a fist aimed for his face. Instead of flying into a contest of taijutsu, both shinobi merely remained like this, putting their entire strength into staying at a deadlock, staring one another down with their respective Sharingan eyes. The other three didn't move, waiting to see what would happen. Kakashi broke the sudden silence first.

"Tell me, Itachi," he said icily, "how much of your eyesight have you lost?"

Sakura noted that the nuke-nin actually reacted this time — his eyes narrowed, and he didn't seem pleased at all by the question. He didn't reply, however, and his free hand flashed out with lightning speed to jab into the inside of Kakashi's elbow, the force causing Kakashi to jerk forward. Itachi wasted no time in grabbing the back of the jonin's head and flinging it to the side, successfully unbalancing him. Kakashi stumbled a few steps, leaning dangerously forward as he scrambled to regain his footing, but Itachi didn't give him the chance to. His hands flew through a series of hand seals that Sakura had seen Sasuke use on more than one occasion, and she sprang into action before he could complete them.

She covered half the distance between them with a single leap and brought her heel down with a tiny burst of chakra, splitting the earth in a wide crack that raced towards Itachi. He was forced to retreat many yards, but it didn't stop him from completing the signs for his jutsu, and he released an enormous fireball that all three Konoha-nin and Chiyou were in the path of even spread out as they were. Kakashi and Sakura dove in opposite directions simultaneously, Chiyou only a second behind them, but it wasn't until Sakura glanced back to check on Naruto that she realized he was frozen in place. His eyes were blank, and he didn't appear to have even seen the fireball at all — and she immediately knew without a shadow of a doubt that Itachi had trapped him in a genjutsu.

She should've expected him to target Naruto first. Even though Itachi's current job was to presumably delay or stop them, the Akatsuki still wanted Naruto, so now was as good a chance as any to capture him.

Thankfully, because of the sheer size of the katon, it couldn't travel very quickly, so Kakashi was able to snatch Naruto out of its way with ease. He left the blond with Sakura and turned as she pressed a chakra-filled palm against his shoulder to snap him out of the illusion. Naruto flinched, eyes going wide, and his head swiveled in every direction until he came back to his senses.

"You need to be careful, Naruto," Kakashi reminded him, lone Sharingan eye trained on their opponent. "Itachi specializes in genjutsu."

Naruto shook his head wildly as though to clear his mind, then leveled Itachi with a glower. "Got it," he muttered.

"Good," their former sensei said, bracing himself to instigate another attack. "Both of you stay back and wait for an opening."

Without further warning, he flash stepped and appeared to Itachi's left, dropping low and sweeping out his leg. Itachi never so much as blinked when he jumped over it and his sandal clad foot shot out like a serpent to deliver a punishing kick that connected with Kakashi's chest, sending the man flying back nearly twenty feet, all the while going through another set of seal. The fireball this time was smaller but at least twice as fast, and it swallowed the Copy-nin up before he could even stand.

Sakura and Naruto didn't have to look at each other; they both hurtled forward at the same time and sprang apart to come at Itachi from his left and right sides, Naruto swinging out a punch high and Sakura sliding in low with a chakra-packed kick. In that instant, Kakashi burst through the ground at Itachi's feet with a chidori aimed at his torso. All three attacks met their mark — but as soon as they did, the apparent clone poofed out of existence with a cloud of white smoke.

Immediately, the trio spun and slipped into a tight triangle for defense, leaving no room for the Akatsuki member to appear in the middle as Zabuza had once done when Sasuke had been part of the formation rather than Kakashi. Naruto was the first one to spot him materializing from the ground, and he alerted his teammates in his customary volume fifty voice.

All gazes locked on him as he stared back at them silently, giving absolutely no hint as to what he was planning. A beat passed in tense silence.

"Naruto," Sakura said, eyes neither blinking nor leaving Itachi's form. "You remember our mission to Rice Country three years ago?" Feeling her teammate look at her, she continued, "That Ame jonin we had to fight, Rokusho Aoi — remember him?"

Kakashi, who hadn't gone with them on that mission, had no idea what she was talking about. Naruto frowned at her briefly, wondering what she could possibly be getting at — and then it hit him.

She, he, and Sasuke had made this exact formation when they were facing off against that creep who'd introduced himself as Aoi. Understanding what she wanted him to do, he grinned. "Got it."

When Sakura caught Kakashi's confused look, she added cheekily, "Try to keep up, sensei."

Sakura leapt toward Itachi with chakra pooling in her hand, and he shifted ever so slightly to intercept her attack, but two-thirds of the way there, she abruptly plastered her foot to the ground with chakra and slammed her fist into the earth. It erupted massively, large chunks of dirt and rock soaring in every direction, and dust clouded the air. Itachi was forced to relocate again to avoid losing his balance or getting a rock to the face, the latter of which she wouldn't have minded seeing, and she disappeared into the shroud of dirt and debris as he moved.

A second later, both Sakura and Kakashi streaked out into the open and swung viciously with kunai at Itachi's sides. When he dodged them, they spun and slashed out again with perfect synchronization at his eyes and knees, neither managing to score a cut —

And then, a second Kakashi — the real Kakashi — appeared at Itachi's back with a chidori blazing, and the Akatsuki member was forcing to spring forward to avoid it, but it still burned a nice place on his shoulder blade that was sure to slow him down.

That was when the last of the dust cleared, revealing the real Sakura in the midst of physically throwing Naruto, complete with a large rasengan in his palm, straight at him. Naruto barreled right into Itachi, rasengan first, and gouged a hideous hole in the man's chest before colliding with him and toppling them both over.

Naruto flew to his feet, ready to form another sphere of chakra if necessary, but the job was done. They watched as a small smirk spread across Itachi's bloodied lips, and his eyes fell closed.

Only, a second later, it wasn't Itachi anymore.

Kakashi sighed wearily. "I thought this might be the case," he admitted. "I've fought Itachi once before, and this man wasn't nearly as powerful as him. At first I thought it might be because he's going blind, but…"

He trailed off as Chiyou approached them cautiously. "Is he dead?"

"Yes," Sakura answered. "But he's not actually Uchiha Itachi."

Stunned, the old woman peered down at the corpse, only to see that it had, indeed, changed. Her face fell, and she suddenly looked incredibly tired. "That's Yura," she murmured. "He's a jonin from our village."

"Was he an Akatsuki spy?" Naruto asked.

"He couldn't have been," she disagreed sadly. "He worked for four years at the highest level of security, and he's never done anything to make anyone suspicious of him."

"So…what? He transformed into Itachi?" Naruto sounded, understandably, confused.

"No," Kakashi said grimly. "The Uchiha Clan created the Grand Fireball Jutsu, and only someone with Uchiha chakra can perform a real one. And that fireball he made…that wasn't just an imitation. It was real."

"That means Itachi was somehow giving him his chakra, right?" Sakura concluded, glancing at the jonin.

"Yes," he murmured. "I'm afraid so."

.

"You're late, Kakashi," was Gai's retort when they finally caught up with him and his team on the surface of a lake.

"Well, you see, we ran into a little trouble along the way," Kakashi replied casually.

"You don't mean me, do you?" Chiyou deadpanned.

"Naruto!" Lee called out, smiling and waving. "Sakura!"

"Looks like we all made it here in one piece," Sakura observed, her eyes traveling up to the massive boulder before them that was wedged into what appeared to be the entrance of a large cave. Some sort of sealing tag was stuck to it that had the kanji for "forbidden" written on it. Kakashi followed her gaze and frowned at what he found.

"Alright!" Gai declared, gaining everyone's attention. "Our first order of business is this barrier. Any idea how to get past it?"

"A five-seal barrier is established by placing five paper seals in the area," Kakashi explained, clearly unenthusiastic. "One of them is right here, so the other four should be nearby, but the catch is that all five must be removed at the same exact moment."

Naruto swore.

"You think you can find them, Neji?" Gai asked.

Instead of replying, he brought his hands together in the tiger seal and activated his Byakugan. A moment later, he spoke. "There. One is on a rock five hundred meters to the northeast… Another is on a tree by a river about three hundred fifty meters south-southeast… Then there's one on a cliff wall about six hundred fifty meters to the northwest… And the last is on a tree in a wooded area eight hundred meters southwest."

"Great," Gai said, grinning as he passed out wireless radio communication devices to his team and another to Kakashi. "They're all within range of our headsets. My team and I will take care of four other seals with Neji directing us."

"And I'll get this one," Kakashi agreed, tilting his head in the direction of the boulder. He smiled at Team Seven's only female. "Once that's done, Sakura-chan can smash us a way in."

She cracked her knuckles in response. All four members of Team Gai turned to look at the boulder, then back at her.

"You know I'd never do something to piss you off, right?" Tenten joked. "I don't have a death wish."

"Yosh!" Lee cheered. "You are truly splendid in the springtime of your youth, Sakura!"

For her part, Chiyou was watching Sakura skeptically. "I saw what you did to the ground earlier, but something like that?" she questioned. "Isn't it a bit too much for you?"

Naruto grinned at the elder widely. "Sakura-chan could practically destroy a whole mountain with one punch if she wanted to. Believe it!"

Kakashi's lone visible eye crinkled. "You might want to step back a bit." It took Team Gai barely five minutes to locate the seals, made evident by the chorus of affirmations over Kakashi's headset. The silver-haired jonin perched on top of the boulder, one hand on the paper talisman and the other pressing a finger to his wireless radio. "On three, then. One…two…three!"

He peeled the paper off and executed a perfect backflip, calling out Sakura's name as he did so.

Without needing to be told twice, she hurtled forward and drew back a fist, flooding it with chakra. The boulder shattered easily upon impact, and she sprang out of the way to avoid the debris as it all came crashing down. The four waited cautiously until the rocks finally stopped falling, hesitating a moment longer to allow the cloud of dust to dissipate. Kakashi suddenly pressed the button on his radio, asking a surprised, "What?" Sakura, Naruto, and Chiyou looked at him silently as he sighed. "Well, try to take care of it as quickly as possible and get back here." He met their stares. "Gai's team won't be back for a while. Ripping off those seals released some sort of trap."

"We can't wait for them," Naruto argued, glaring at the cave. "Those bastards are probably in there right now with Gaara."

"I know," the jonin agreed. "Let's go — but be careful. We don't know how many there are."

They had to peer through the last traces of dust and dirt to see what was going on when they entered the cave, and when it cleared, Naruto inhaled sharply. Two Akatsuki members greeted them, one short and bulky with a sash that covered most of his face and the other sporting long blond hair that reminded Sakura distinctly of Ino. An enormous white bird that didn't quite look real was standing off to the side.

And the blond one was sitting on Gaara's motionless body as if he were a couch.

Naruto stared, stunned, and Sakura's eyes immediately cut over to him. He was going to explode any second now — she could feel it.

"YOU!" he shrieked, eyes flashing red and canines elongating. The marks on his cheeks grew more pronounced. "I'LL KILL YOU, YOU SON OF A BITCH!"

And there he went.

"I guess that one's the jinchuriki," the blond Akatsuki member remarked with amusement, smirking.

"Get up, Gaara!" Naruto screamed. "Why are you just lying there?! GET UP!"

"Stop, Naruto," Kakashi said wearily. "You know full well why he isn't moving."

Tears welled up in his eyes, and it just seemed to make him even angrier.

"He's already dead, yeah," the mysterious man mocked, obviously the more talkative of the two seeing as the second one had yet to speak a single word.

"Give him back," Naruto whispered, fists clenching. Then, the Kyubi's chakra pulsated from him in a threatening wave, and he leapt forward. "GIVE HIM BACK, YOU BASTARD!"

Before he could get very far, Sakura snatched the back of his jumpsuit and hauled him back behind her, the motion throwing him off balance and causing him to crash in a heap on the ground at her heels.

"Why do you think that guy is sitting on Gaara?" she said icily. "He wants to piss you off so that you rush in without thinking. Don't be stupid — if you play right into their hands, you'll get caught, and the rest of us will be killed." She fixed the unnamed blond with a cold stare, making it clear that her next words were meant for him. "Get off your ass and face us. You've kept us waiting long enough — and I don't like to be kept waiting."

To their astonishment, the man abruptly roared with laughter. He turned to his partner, one hand clutching his stomach and the other wiping a nonexistent tear from his eye. "That girl sounds just like you, danna," he snickered.

The other male said nothing, studying Sakura with an intensity that confused her — not that she allowed it to show.

"I think I'll keep the body with me," the first man continued, unconcerned with his partner's silence. It was apparently a common thing. "The jinchuriki clearly wants it…" He grinned maliciously. "So I'll let him have it, yeah."

At that, the second Akatsuki member finally looked at him disapprovingly. "Don't push your luck, Deidara." His voice was low and rough like crushed gravel.

Deidara snorted. "As an artist, I must always seek ever-greater stimulation lest my senses dull," he preened.

Instantly, all reservation on the other man's part was lost. "Art? You mean those cheap pyrotechnics of yours?" He made a disdainful noise. "That isn't art. Art is eternal — a beauty that lasts forever."

All of a sudden, Sakura was hit by a memory she hadn't thought of in many years.

"Art," he murmured so quietly that her ears strained to catch it. "You will be my greatest work of art."

She immediately banished it. This was no time to be thinking about him; that could wait until she and her companions beat these guys and recovered Gaara.

To both her confusion and irritation, the two Akatsuki members were still arguing about art, and she was about ready to fling something at them to get them to shut up and fight. Naruto was obviously on the same wavelength as her, because he produced a scroll that summoned a windmill shuriken and did just that. In a move that surprised all of them, the unknown enemy swung out a long wooden tail to smack the shuriken away from them — and he didn't even look at it as he did so; he was too busy bickering with Deidara about art.

"Are you trying to make me angry?" he ground out.

"See there — I told you that you wouldn't like what I had to say, yeah."

Sakura's gaze zeroed in on the tail, and she scrutinized every inch of it as she recognized what it was for.

This must be what Kankuro was trying to tell us when he was pointing at the puppets, she thought to herself. This man is a puppet master. She glanced fleetingly at the Suna elder. I bet he's Chiyou's grandson, too — she said he was the one who made the poison, and most puppet masters use poison on their weapons. Her eyes shifted to Deidara. Besides, this guy's partner mentioned that he used pyrotechnics, and the Suna council said one of the Akatsuki members was fighting with bombs. Bombs and poison don't typically run hand-in-hand.

The pair's strange conversation was brought to a halt as the puppet master attempted to disembowel Deidara with his tail, and the blond leapt onto the large white bird to avoid it. "See ya," Deidara called tauntingly as the bird kicked off the ground and flew out of the cave.

"No!" Naruto yelled, rushing to his feet, but then halting when he recalled Sakura's words to him.

Sakura thought of the two antidotes nestled in her pouch and knew what to do. She stared straight at the remaining opponent as she spoke. "Naruto, you and Kakashi-sensei go after him and get Gaara. Chiyou-baa-sama and I can take this one." She turned to look at Chiyou. "You said he was your grandson, didn't you?"

The woman was startled. "Y-yes."

"Good." Her eyes were once again trained on the man. "Naruto will go for Gaara no matter what we tell him, and I'm more equipped to fight against a puppet master than you are, Kakashi-sensei. Leave him to us."

He hesitated a moment before nodding. "Try to stall until Gai's team arrives."

Sakura gave a frosty smile, never blinking. "I won't have to."

In the next instant, Naruto and Kakashi had taken off after Deidara and Gaara, leaving the three alone in the cave. She probed discreetly to see how much chakra he possessed, only to discover that he'd masked it. And it wasn't the way most shinobi did in battle to disguise how full or empty their reserves were — he'd covered up his entire signature so well that if Sakura hadn't been staring him down, she'd swear that no one was there.

Why would he do that?

That's not important, she reminded herself, focusing back on the task at hand.

There was a few beats of silence, then Chiyou stepped forward and held out a hand indicating that Sakura should stay back. "You may indeed be more equipped than Kakashi to fight him since you're a medic-nin, but the last time I saw my grandson, he was very powerful, and I doubt that's changed. Let me fight him. You just keep a lookout for your friends in case they get back."

"With all due respect," Sakura said flatly, marching up beside her impatiently, "I know what I'm doing. I was specifically trained to fight against puppet masters."

Chiyou looked at her in surprise. "Trained by who?"

Sakura gave a small bitter sort of smile. "No one you'd know." She studied their opponent from his strangely unexpressive face all the way to his tail, the gears turning in her head. "From what I can tell, this 'person' in front of us is actually a puppet — and since I can't see strings anywhere, I'm going to assume that he's inside of it."

"Yes," Chiyou agreed grimly. "Because it can serve as both armor and a weapon, this puppet was always his favorite when he was younger, but I was under the impression that he didn't use it anymore. Clearly, I was mistaken." Her lips pressed in a tight line. "He calls it Hiruko."

"Then the first thing we need to do is drag him out of his puppet," Sakura concluded. "If he went out of his way to build one that acts like a shield, then we can assume that he's like the majority of puppet masters in that close combat isn't his forte." She pulled a pair of black gloves out of her pouch and tugged them on. "Not only have I been trained to counter the puppet master jutsu, but I also specialize in close combat." The corners of her lips curled up slightly. "This shouldn't take too long."

The man finally spoke up, shirking his cloak to reveal that he was perched on all fours, and he widened his stance. "You seem awfully confident for such a little brat," he stated matter-of-factly, oddly focused on Sakura rather than his own grandmother.

"I was taught by the best," she shot back, completely sure of her words. "You couldn't possibly compare to him."

Curiously enough, he seemed particularly interested by this. "The man you were calling 'sensei,' you mean."

"No," she disagreed, sliding smoothly into an offensive stance. "My first teacher."

She ignored the confused look Chiyou sent her as she channeled chakra into her fists. Eventually, the older woman sighed.

"Well, Sakura," she said, "now that he's removed his cloak, I can see that he's made some changes to Hiruko over the years, and I'm afraid I won't be able to defeat him on my own. The only way we're going to get him out of that puppet is to destroy it." She smiled. "And since you seem pretty good at smashing things, I'll leave that part to you. But whatever you do, you must not let yourself get even a single cut—"

"Because of the poison," Sakura finished. "Got it."

"Are you finished?" he intoned dryly. "You know I don't like to be kept waiting."

"Don't worry," Chiyou retorted in a similar tone. "We won't waste any time in killing you."

Both women lurched forward, Sakura covering twice as much distance as her partner before he pulled back the sash on his mouth and dropped his mouth open mechanically. Chiyou didn't have to tell her to dodge — she'd seen enough puppets to know what was coming. Not disappointing her, a barrage of undoubtedly poisoned senbon shot out of a large slot in the back of the puppet's throat, and she was reminded of her fight in the Chunin Exams with Kankuro. She smirked. The scenario was almost identical.

Feeling a bit nostalgic, especially since Kankuro had fought against this man as well, she fell right into the pattern she'd utilized then; calculating the trajectory of the weapons, she somersaulted and twisted a dozen different ways, then twirled sharply on her heel and executed a perfect one-handed handspring to vault over the cloud of needles. He lifted his left arm and the lower section disconnected, propelling forward and exploding with hundreds of more needles. In mid-air, she drew her leg up nearly parallel with her body for an axe kick, and in her mind, she was back in the arena.

He scrambled to move, but it was too late. Sakura's foot slammed down on its back, and the mannequin essentially exploded. Pieces of wood and metal were sent flying, and the puppet collapsed lifelessly as a person shrouded completely in a black hooded cloak streaked out from the wreckage and put a considerable amount of distance between himself and Sakura in case she suddenly struck out and punched him with that monstrous strength of hers. She raised her head triumphantly, drawing up a clenched fist as if to show him what was waiting for him once she got close enough again.

"I shouldn't have expected any less," the man said softly, one hand slowly surfacing from the cloak to reach for the hood. As it shifted, it became obvious that he was wearing the standard Akatsuki uniform beneath it — and Sakura wondered absently just how many cloaks this guy had on.

She was preoccupied, however, by his voice.

Something…

Something about it sounded…familiar

"Facing off against both my own grandmother…" He released the hold he'd placed on his chakra. The plain black cloak was shed. "And you."

Sakura froze up entirely, unable to move or speak or even think. If he wanted to kill her, this was the perfect opportunity — actually, now that she'd seen his face, he could kill her any time he wanted.

Because she would let him.

She would give him anything he wanted.

His hair was still red and messy, the tips falling around his beautiful hazel eyes and brushing against his thick eyelashes. His skin was still tanned and unblemished. And he was taller now — no longer a child, if he ever really could have been considered as such.

But she would recognize him anywhere.

And his voice… It was deeper and smoother now, but it still comforted her just as it had when she'd been little.

Sakura forgot all about Chiyou. She forgot about the Akatsuki and Gaara and Naruto and everything.

Everything except him.

She'd finally found him.

The smile that stretched across her face was the largest and brightest smile she'd ever given since the day he left.

And, for the first time since that day, she finally allowed herself to think and speak his name.

"Sasori."

.

.

.

Naruto was the first to reach the cave half an hour later when his fight with the blond Akatsuki ended. Kakashi had stayed behind with Gaara and Team Gai, but they were sure to follow in a few minutes. To his horror, the cave was absolutely demolished; the top was completely gone and laying crumbled all over the ground — and Chiyou was limp in the middle of the lake, her head and torso supported by a boulder.

He felt his blood run cold as he ran to her even though he could clearly see that she was still breathing — she was just unconscious. Then, ten feet away, he spotted a suspiciously pristine scroll sitting atop another large chunk of debris.

And his name was written on it.

His heart skipped a beat anxiously. That was Sakura's handwriting.

In that instant, Naruto forgot all about Chiyou and went for the scroll. He hesitated for a second, afraid to find out what was inside, but he steeled his nerves and unraveled it.

Naruto,

I'm sorry. I'm sorry for a lot of things. I'm sorry that our team has to go its separate ways, even if we agreed that it was for the best. I'm sorry that we had to have that conversation three years ago that started all of this.

But most of all, I'm sorry that I didn't tell you all of this in person.

When I was fighting this guy, I realized how much stronger I've gotten since that day we promised each other, and I've decided that I'm finally ready. Sasuke went first, then you, and now it's my turn. And I also found a way to leave that won't ever trace back to you — because all you have to do is destroy this scroll and agree with Chiyou-baa-sama when she wakes up.

Speaking of which, you don't need to worry about her. She's not hurt or anything — I've just placed her under a genjutsu that will make her think she saw something that didn't really happen. When she wakes up, she'll tell you that the Akatsuki member ran me through with a poisoned sword in a fatal blow and that I, in a last ditch effort to take him down before I died, used a jutsu to summon hundreds of paper bombs that encircled us like a cocoon. I then detonated them simultaneously once Chiyou had gotten a ways away, but the blast knocked her off her feet, and she hit her head on the way down — hence why she'd unconscious. The explosion killed both me and the Akatsuki member, and it was so big that it destroyed the cave and left nothing of our bodies behind except for splatters of blood.

And that reminds me — you're going to find a lot of blood in the cave, but don't panic. I'm fine. I took blood tablets to replenish every drop I lost. You also don't need to worry about that Akatsuki member. I took care of everything.

I left this letter here because I knew you would get here first, and I knew that you'd find it. I just want you to know that I'm okay and that I'm sorry it had to be this way, but I'm sure we'll see each other again. I promise.

I love you, Naruto — you're like family to me. Good luck, and be safe.

Sakura


For you, my master, I am but a doll.

Your strings have supported me and caught my fall,

So now I am yours for once and all.