The Paper Crane moved smoothly through space. Its sleek blue design, folded like a titanium origami bird, concealed many powerful weapons. Lights burned through the thickly sealed windows. The brightest came from the bridge, where the captain was seated regally in her chair.
"Bastard," she hissed, drumming her long blue fingernails along the steel armrest. Her voice was as cold as her icy eyes. "Who would have thought my android would go astray…"
She snapped her fingers, and a servant immediately flew to her side.
"Yes, Mistress?" he croaked. He was only three feet tall and had papery white skin, making his red eyes bulge all the more prominently from his forehead. All five of them quivered fearfully as he regarded the captain.
"Have we still got their coordinates tracked?" she asked him. He nodded quickly.
"Y-yes, Mistress!" he said. "They were being recorded, your Excellency… even before the android blew up the receptor."
"If we move quickly, we can still have them followed." She pointed at a man sitting in front of her to the right, bent over a panel of controls. "You heard me," she said. "Track them."
A loud whirring noise resounded through the entire ship as the engines revved up and, with a sudden burst of energy, propelled The Paper Crane forward through space.
The acceleration drowned out the voices of two workers, huddled outside the great sliding doors of the bridge. Clad in red shirts, they were both humanoids but with bubbling horns poking out of their foreheads, marking them as members of an alien race subjugated by Konan's tyrannical rule.
"I wish she'd just give it up," one of them muttered. "The rebellion didn't even work, what's she wasting her time chasing after these people for?"
"I'm sure she wants them for Pain's harem," the second one said. "Make up for when she messed up by letting them slip into the palace in the first place."
The first rolled his eyes. "He's got enough wenches in there to last him a lifetime," he said dismissively. "These girls are pretty, but it's still a waste of time."
"Hey, I'm not complaining," the other said, even more quietly. "The more time she spends away from home, the bigger chance the underground movement has to rise up again…"
Konan's eyes flashed where she was sitting in the bridge, draped in her chair as if it were a throne. She stood up abruptly. Her pale periwinkle gown flowed around her ankles as she strode out of the bridge.
The sliding doors opened promptlessly for her, revealing the two red-shirted workers cowering behind them.
"Mutineers," she said softly. Their eyes widened in horror as she raised her black laser gun. "Plotting against me as if I don't have the whole ship wired." They didn't know it, but a slim white earpiece was hidden beneath her indigo hair. It beeped faintly in her ear as Konan pointed the gun straight at one of the men's hearts.
"P-please, Captain," he pleaded, his whole body shaking. "We didn't—"
Konan didn't let him finish. She had pulled the trigger before he could even think of an excuse, blasting a hole cleanly through his chest. He fell over backwards with a dull thud on the pristine carpeted floor.
The other one was killed just as quickly. Konan brought the tip of her gun to her lips, kissing it as she did after every kill. She thought it was a graceful way to send off her enemies into whatever oblivion awaited them.
"Captain!" one of the women in the bridge called, unaware of what Konan had just done. "We've got their coordinates tracked!"
Konan returned to the bridge, the doors sliding closed as quickly as they opened, hiding the corpses of the two workers. "Where are they going?" she asked, sitting back down in the large chair at the center of the window.
The woman tapped a few spots on the touch screen display, bringing up a map covered in blinking red dots. "They're heading for Port Selkin," she answered.
Konan's eyes narrowed in thought. "Port Selkin?" she repeated silkily. "Let's see… June… They've got an auction coming up, don't they?" A small smile tugged at her lips. No doubt trying to sell off the android, she deduced. How obvious… It's as if they want me to come and find them. Well, perhaps they've come around… realized that life in a harem wouldn't be so bad, the sluts…
She cleared her throat and spoke loudly so that the crew could all hear. "Put us on course to Port Selkin," she ordered, "but be careful not to overtake them. They blew up the mercenaries, so now it's our turn…"
A hard smile cutting across her face, Konan sat back and let the ship guide her to them.
Sakura was lying on her bed in total darkness, staring blankly up at the wall. She had spent at least a day in here, only leaving to use the bathroom and sneak food when she knew that neither of the others was awake.
Kakashi was locked up in Tsunade's quarters where Sakura couldn't get to him. She wished she could be with him. Objectively speaking it wouldn't have mattered; when he was deactivated he was completely unaware of the world around him. Sakura didn't care, though, and would have gladly sat curled against his motionless form to keep him company.
Even though she was the one who was going to be kicked out for insubordination, she felt that Tsunade and Shizune were the ones who had betrayed their crew— for Kakashi had become an important part of their crew, even in the short time he had been there. Sakura didn't want to associate with people who would throw out an innocent person, a friend…
But they never considered him a friend, Sakura thought angrily. He always followed their orders and did whatever he could to help, but they've been prejudiced against him from the beginning. He can't help being an android…
As the prospect of losing him became more real, Sakura found herself caring less and less about what he was made of. She had been with men before, but nothing more than a distant affection had ever transcended their shallow, sexual relationships. She had never felt this sort of connection with any man, human or not, and yet the most they had ever done was hug.
Anger bubbled hotly within her. They can't sell him off like this, not like he's some dress that went out of fashion. Her fists curled on top of the flimsy blanket. I won't let them.
She remained in her quarters until she could sense by the motion of the ship that they were slowing down. She was insulated from any sounds in the control room, but she thought they must have reached Port Selkin. Sure enough, the next half hour yielded the slow maneuvering it required to park in a crowded spaceport. Sakura spent the time packing her clothes and gun collection.
When the ship stopped moving, she heard a great scraping noise outside her quarters.
"Damn!" she heard Tsunade say. Sakura sat up, listening hopefully for any sign that the operation was going wrong, but to her disappointment Tsunade only said, "The damn corners of the box caught on the hatch…" She heard Tsunade kick the hatch shut and continue dragging something along the floor.
When the noise had moved past her quarters, the doors shot open with a whoosh. Shizune was standing there, grim-faced. Her dark goggles hid her eyes, but Sakura was sure she was averting them. "Come on," she said gruffly. Sakura followed her out, pulling her two suitcases behind her and hoisting her heavy rucksack onto her shoulders. They were kicking her off the ship, so she needed to take everything with her.
When she got to the gangplank, she felt a swoop of sadness in her chest at the idea of leaving; her throat constricted with the sense of loss, but she suppressed it with a snarl. They were abandoning her. She had done nothing wrong. She had to remember that.
Still, it was with a heavy heart that she descended the crude metal walkway, all of her belongings rolling along behind her. She squinted against the bright lights of Port Selkin. This was where she would start over… But if everything went according to plan, she wouldn't be alone.
Tsunade was waiting for the two of them at the bottom. Her high-heeled boot, the color of a fresh banana, was resting atop a long cardboard box. Thick tape circled the middle, with the word FRAGILE scrawled across in black marker.
Kakashi, Sakura thought, but she said nothing. When she and Shizune had reached the floor of the spaceport, Tsunade addressed Sakura without looking at her.
"You're to wait here with Shizune while I get it registered," she said. Sakura's anger burned at hearing Kakashi referred to as "it", but again, she said nothing. "She'll keep an eye on you so that you don't interfere."
A gangly alien with skin the color of a lemon that had been out in the sun too long walked over to them, pushing a rusty orange dolly. "Registering an item for auction?" he gargled, his two tongues moving in unison as he spoke.
"That's this thing," Tsunade said, nudging the box with the pointed toe of her boot. Together, she and the alien loaded Kakashi onto the dolly, and Tsunade followed the alien as he rolled the cart away.
Sakura watched them go, following their track carefully with her eyes. She had never been on Port Selkin before, but the set-up of most auction ports was similar. Port Selkin was particularly large, though, and Sakura felt apprehensive as she looked at the many ships pulling into port. A few of them were blue, but none of them was The Paper Crane. Air traffic controllers waved long neon sticks, but they were tiny pinpricks of color against the gleaming (and some not-so-gleaming) sides of the ships. It had been a long time since Sakura had seen so many ships in one place, and she was a little overwhelmed by the sheer number of gargantuan vessels. They certainly dwarfed the diminutive Tonton.
A surge of affection for the ship that had taken her through so many experiences mounted powerfully within her, but she bit her lip and stifled it. There were hundreds of ships in Port Selkin alone— she would find a new one.
Shizune was not speaking to her. Her head turned resolutely away, she was instead watching idly as bizarre people shuffled, loped, and trotted past them. Some of them were from species Sakura recognized from their travels, but most were completely foreign to her. Fuchsia giants dispersed the crowds wherever they swung down their enormous feet. Their gnarled toes were the size of a man's head. The people who ran from them were often so small that their heads would have gone no higher than Sakura's knee; their high-pitched squeals could be heard as they hurried to safety, their yellow tails fluttering behind them. Groups of pale blue females huddled around in the shadows, passing between them a long green pipe that emitted faint sparks when they sucked on it with their orange lips.
Announcements blared throughout the entire port: Advertisements for navigation systems and flashy accessories rebounded off the silver walls and echoed in the great dome high above their heads. Vendors whizzed around on miniature hovercraft, trying to cajole indifferent passerby into buying their products.
"Shizune," Sakura said suddenly. The older woman flinched and turned more towards Sakura but couldn't bring herself to look at her. "I'm going over there to buy some food. I'm starving."
She started walking away, but Shizune's voice predictably stopped her.
"Wait!" she called. "Tsunade said—"
"Yeah, well, Tsunade isn't my captain anymore," Sakura shot back with a scowl. "You can follow me if you want. I don't care."
Sakura wound through the swelling crowds; the auction was drawing near, and people were converging excitedly. She had to elbow her way past a particularly ornery cluster of squawking lavender aliens who looked something like cactus plants. Even though she didn't look back, she knew that Shizune was following her to best of her ability. Sakura tried her best to get lost between groups, but Shizune was persistent. It didn't help that Sakura was an easy target with all of her luggage.
Deciding she needed to try a new tactic, Sakura bought a food she didn't recognize from the nearest vendor and stopped walking, waiting for Shizune to catch up.
"Shizune," she said again. She let her eyes flicker to Shizune and then flash dramatically away, staring down at her green boots.
"What," Shizune replied warily.
The crowd moved noisily around them. "We… We need to talk," Sakura said quietly, so that Shizune could barely hear.
Shizune stiffened. Her determined apathy faltered a little in the face of Sakura's vulnerable tone.
"T-talk?" she stammered.
Sakura nodded, her eyes still glued to her feet.
Shizune swung back and forth nervously on the balls of her feet. "Well, then… talk."
Grimy pink bangs flew back and forth as Sakura fervently shook her head. "Not here," she whispered. "T-too many people…"
She sniffled and rubbed her nose on the back of her glove. Shizune stood frozen in indecision at this rather pathetic display; the last thing she had expected Sakura to do in a situation like this was cry. She couldn't remember the last time she had seen her younger friend cry…
Shizune swallowed heavily, her conflicting emotions battling. When it came down to it, she didn't want to lose Sakura, especially not over something Konan had orchestrated. She could only hope that Sakura too valued their friendship more than an android she had not even known for very long.
"Okay," she said softly. "Let's go to the bathroom."
She led the way back through the horde of eager auction-goers. Sakura trailed along behind her, trying to exude sheepishness in every motion.
Sakura was an emotional girl, but that didn't mean she couldn't manipulate her own emotions when she wanted to— far from it. It stung her to treat Shizune this way, but even more than how Shizune had decided to treat Kakashi, she hadn't stuck up for Sakura against Tsunade. Such a steep violation of their friendship was not something Sakura could forgive easily. If only Shizune had valued their friendship more than her feelings about the android whom she hadn't even given a chance…
They squeezed past swarms of colorful aliens (one of whom Sakura could have sworn she saw puking up a cascade of rainbow pellets) into a dingy bathroom in a disused corner of the port. A single strip of fluorescent lights flickered overhead, casting an uneven light on the white tile floors. The ceiling was chipped in a few places, with a long blue wire curling down from a particularly significant crack.
Shizune leaned against a sink. She pushed up her goggles, smiling cautiously at Sakura. The brightness in her eyes, shining through the circles of dust in the outline of the goggles, nearly made Sakura forgo her plan, but then she thought of Kakashi looking at her with equal tenderness. Resolve crackled through her veins and she drew her gun, pointing it at Shizune's chest.
"I'm sorry," she said, and then she pulled the trigger.
Stunned by the low blast of the laser, Shizune slumped backwards against the sink. Fighting back the hot sting of tears, Sakura turned and ran out of the bathroom as fast as she could with her suitcases tumbling along behind her.
A clanging bell throughout Port Selkin told her that auction time was approaching. She took a sharp turn, narrowly managing not to trip over the spiked tail of a scaled scorpion man. If she hadn't had such a keen sense of direction, she might not have been able to track down where Tsunade had taken Kakashi, but within a few minutes she had come to the auction registration counter.
Tsunade was still waiting in line, tapping her manicured nails impatiently along the top rail of the dolly. Sakura hid behind a large poster advertising a career in the Intergalactic Police Force and kept careful watch while making sure Tsunade did not notice her.
When her former captain came up to the desk, the transaction went a little differently than the others. Tsunade leaned forward, whispering conspiratorially in one of the flapping violet ears of the pruny elephant man behind the desk. His gaze automatically slid down his trunk to rest in her cleavage, but then she said something that made his attention snap back to her face. He looked with renewed interest at the box on the dolly, and he hastened to wheel it around behind the desk. He shook Tsunade's hand very vigorously, and as soon as she left he passed the dolly on to an assistant.
Sakura gripped the strap of her backpack. This was her chance. Reluctantly, she left her two suitcases stowed in a cranny behind the poster, hoping that they'd somehow still be here when she returned. If worse came to worst, however, her best guns were all packed into her rucksack.
She snuck along the edge of the wall, keeping her eyes trained on the green neck of the auctioneer's assistant. He was whistling idly as he pushed the dolly along. Sakura followed him to a side room. The assistant nudged the door open with his foot and dropped the box off inside. The loud thud as it hit the floor told Sakura he hadn't heeded the "FRAGILE" warning, despite the fact that it was written prominently on the box in more than one place.
She ducked out of sight as he left, but he didn't seem overly observant. Once he was safely gone, Sakura scurried to the door he had left locked. The lock was no obstacle to her— she picked it within half a minute and crept quietly into the room.
It was a simple storage space for items awaiting auction. Kakashi's box was not the largest box in there, but Sakura had no doubt that it was the most valuable. She dropped down to her knees beside the cardboard box, withdrew a sharp utility knife, and sliced a clean line across the taped flap of the box.
Several well placed cuts later, the cardboard fell back before her. Foam peanuts spilled out as Sakura gripped the tightly bent Kakashi by the armpits and heaved. She pulled him out halfway so that he was sitting upright in the box but flopping over backwards against her chest. Still holding onto him, she brought one hand around and pressed the heel of her palm firmly against the spot on his chest where Shizune had activated him, a lifetime ago.
She held her breath until she heard the telltale whirring of his machinery. After several tense seconds she felt his chest shudder beneath her hand, and he began to breathe.
A cry of relief escaped her lips— she had been so worried she would never see him again. She let go of Kakashi and scooted around the box so that she could face him. His eyelids fluttered for a minute before they pulled back to reveal unfocused eyes.
"Kakashi!" Sakura exclaimed. She grabbed his hand impulsively. He groaned and sat up, rubbing the back of his neck with his free hand.
"Where…" He blinked blearily for a moment before his eyes came into focus. They widened in surprise. "Sakura?" he said. The cloth rag had fallen off his face, so Sakura could see his lips form around her name.
Sakura grinned. "You didn't think I'd let them sell you like common scrap metal, did you?"
Kakashi made a strange motion with his arm— it looked almost like he was going to hug her but was unsure. Sakura felt such a surge of affection at the stunted gesture that she tackled him in a fierce hug, knocking them both across several boxes.
He was quite unsure of how to react. Jubilation was obvious in Sakura's sudden movement, and although it was difficult for him to evaluate his own emotional state, especially when he was so disoriented, he felt a swooping sensation in his chest that he thought might be the same thing causing Sakura to exert such pressure on his limbs.
Panic prickled up his neck. He wasn't supposed to be feeling anything of the sort. Androids were built to serve humans, not to develop fondness for them. Deeper than fondness even… the elusive myth, something that was supposed to set living creatures apart from their artificial shadows…
Dazed, he stared up at the ceiling, letting Sakura bury her head in his shoulder and laugh to herself. Try as he might to deny it, there was no question that a warm, light feeling was swelling like a child's balloon in his chest.
Is this… happiness? he wondered.
Whatever it was, he had never felt it so strongly as he did now.
He chuckled nervously. Perhaps there would be more time to ponder it later, but for now this strange room didn't seem like a good place to linger. "Sakura," he said, "I get the feeling we shouldn't be wherever we are…"
Sakura clambered off him, dusting off her thighs. "Right," she said, composing herself. As the perplexed Kakashi got to his feet, she scanned the room with sharp eyes. "This is the storage room for the auction. We need to find something to replace you with in the box."
Kakashi's eyes fell on her rucksack. "Do you have anything in there you can spare?"
Sakura toyed hesitantly with the strap of her pack. "I mean, I suppose one or two of my guns would be heavy enough…"
Kakashi's eyebrows flew up incredulously. "You can't have guns that heavy—"
His knees nearly buckled as she threw him one. "Never mind," he said weakly, cradling the machine gun in his arms. "Two of these would definitely do the trick."
He tipped the gun into his former cardboard prison, and Sakura did the same with another. "I hate to do this," she said, looking sadly at the departing members of her collection. "But you're more important than two lousy guns… They're just machines."
She avoided his eyes as she zipped up her pack again, although she was sure he was looking at her. "Besides," she continued briskly, "sometimes the smaller ones pack more punch. Less flashy, more concentrated."
She bent over to do her best to reseal the box. Kakashi helped, and Sakura tried not to blush when his fingers brushed against her own.
"Right," she said, straightening up. "It doesn't look brand new, but that guard only had one eye so hopefully he won't notice." She looked up at Kakashi, who was watching her with the eyes of someone awaiting instruction. The look made her feel a little bubble of pride; her authority didn't often count for much.
"We should get out of here," she said.
He nodded. "Yes. But, ah… Where are we?"
Sakura's palm met her forehead with a dull slap. "Sorry, I forgot to tell you," she said. "We're on Port Selkin. The auction is probably starting in a few minutes."
Kakashi's eyes narrowed. "We should wait until after the auction to leave," he said seriously. "If we try to get out while the auction is starting, it might look suspicious."
Sakura nodded. "So we should lie low until the auction's over, and then…"
"There's a hundred public transport vessels leaving a port this big," Kakashi said swiftly when Sakura fell quiet. "We'll catch one of those."
He walked over to Sakura and put a hand on her shoulder. She looked up at him in faint surprise; he usually didn't initiate physical contact. His fingers sank softly into her bare shoulder.
"Thanks," he said. Sincerity warmed his tone and wrinkled the skin around his eyes. He squeezed Sakura's shoulder briefly and then, before she could react, he quickly ruffled her messy pink locks.
She cocked an eyebrow at him as his hand retreated. "Sorry," he said hastily. "I've always wanted to do that…"
He coughed. "Okay, let's get out of here," he said, in a much more businesslike tone. "We don't want to be caught in here when they come to collect the goods for auction."
Still in a bit of a daze from what he had just done, she followed him to the door. Cracking the door open, he swept the area with a penetrating gaze before giving her a thumbs-up and slipping out.
She followed as stealthily as she could, although she felt hopelessly bumbling compared to his slick movements. He made hardly any noise as he snuck past the inattentive crowds, clearing the auction desk without so much as an odd look.
"Hang on," Sakura whispered behind him. "I need my suitcases…"
When she checked in the cranny behind the sign, she saw that one of her suitcases remained. "Better than nothing," she sighed, grabbing it by the handle and wheeling it away.
Sakura felt very nervous with Kakashi standing so brazenly out in the open, but he was such a convincing android that it was unlikely anyone would recognize him for what he was— let alone as the specific android that had been stuffed into the cardboard box. His chrome suit gleamed in the bright lights of the port.
"Hey," Sakura said suddenly, poking him accusingly in the shoulder. "You can breathe okay in here?"
To her surprise, pink rose in his cheeks— she didn't think he could blush. Must be some sort of blood substitute, she guessed, watching him for a response.
"Oh, that…" he said, sounding embarrassed. "Well, I… Well. I have to admit, my body adjusted automatically to the air on your ship…"
Sakura's pink eyebrows knitted together in consternation. "Then why did you keep wearing that disgusting thing?"
He avoided her eyes, pretending to be very interested in an elderly, human-sized frog hopping feebly past. "It was a gift," he said quickly. "Come on, let's move somewhere there's more people."
Her eyes round with surprise, Sakura hurried to snap into her senses so that she could follow his swift movement through the crowd. She had thought there were plenty of people here, but that was before they reached the auction hall.
Sweaty bodies mingled heatedly in the sweltering main hall. They were squeezed between pillars whose noble white surfaces were besmirched with the lowest echelons of intergalactic society. Port Selkin might have been more respectable than a hovel like Anchor 3, but auctions always attracted the shadiest crowd the universe had to offer. Sakura made sure to keep a wide berth from a particularly nasty group, which consisted of one stooped goblin-like creature, who had two buxom human women hanging off his arms and was hawking "authentic milk."
Sakura was used to dealing with unsavory characters, but she still would have much preferred to go and wait on the space bus. Kakashi, however, seemed paranoid about being conspicuous, and she didn't blame him— after all, he had spent the last hour in a cardboard box on the way to the auction block.
An enormous gong sounded on the platform raised in the middle of the hall. The elephant man from the registration desk waved a long baton authoritatively, hushing the crowd. "Attention!" he called, and his voice was magnified by a large green megaphone. "Welcome to Port Selkin! We are about to start the Summer Selkin Auction! Now, to review the procedure…"
Sakura tuned out the auctioneer's blaring voice. She looked up at Kakashi. His eyes were flashing around the auction hall, but when he noticed Sakura looking, he stopped to smile down at her.
She grinned back. "I probably look like a mess," she confessed. "But it's worth it… I couldn't let them sell you off."
His smile widened. "I'm glad you didn't."
But as she looked around, her smile faded. "I wish they hadn't done this," she said in a low voice. "It wasn't your fault that the aliens attacked…"
Kakashi took a moment to respond. "I'm happy you stopped me from being sold, but I still think it was my fault…"
Sakura frowned. "I've never met a guilty android before," she said, quietly enough so that only he could hear in the din around them.
He smiled again, this time ruefully. "You can't have met many androids."
A particularly heated auction came to a roaring close; wolf whistles and catcalls nearly drowned out their voices.
"What do you mean?" Sakura asked.
Kakashi looked down at her frankly. "Well, we're supposed to protect humans," he said. "At least, my kind are… That's where the name 'Scarecrow' comes from. It's like I'm the dummy and you all are the crops, and I'm supposed to draw people away to protect you…"
He gave a tight smile. "Obviously I haven't been doing my job so well."
Sakura's forehead had creased during his explanation. "Tsunade told us about an android much different than that," she said. Kakashi looked down at her curiously. "She said that when she and the android got close, he tried to steal her soul…"
A slim silver eyebrow crept up Kakashi's forehead incredulously. "I suppose there are always rogues," he said. "Give an evil genius with too much time on his hands a chemistry set and you never know what he'll come up with…"
Sakura snorted, and Kakashi's smile returned. The affection dancing lightly in his eyes made her wonder what it really meant, to have a soul… Sakura had always considered a soul to be a person's mettle, what they were left with when you stripped everything else away. Despite all of Sakura's scientific background telling her that her brain was supreme in everything from the shape of her nose to the depth of her character, she had always quietly harbored the belief that without flesh or bones part of her would remain intact. Did Kakashi, who was governed by an electronic chip embedded in his head, really deserve to be treated any differently?
If Sakura had learned anything from her trips around the cosmos, it was that no matter how many tentacles or tongues a person possessed, the most important characteristic was the core of their spirit. Kakashi had been nothing but a friend to her, one of loyalty and integrity. That was more than most people could hope for in this seedy corner of such a vast universe.
She opened her mouth to articulate some of this to him, but just then the auctioneer's words rang again across the auction hall.
"Next up we've got a particularly valuable commodity," his voice roared through the megaphone. His wrinkled purple trunk waved about in excitement. "Ladies and gentlemen, flora and fauna, nobles and nobodies, today I have up for auction an android— but an android unlike any you've ever seen! The Scarecrow model is a revolutionary development in artificial intelligence technology. Its top-of-the-line programming enables it to pass easily for a human, but it far outstrips humans in terms of speed, mathematical ability, and comprehensive powers—"
"Not saying much, is it?" muttered a blue troll-like creature behind Kakashi. Sakura shot him a sideways glare, but he was too busy picking his nose to notice.
"— excellent choices for diplomatic envoys, as they come equipped with most standard dictionaries. They can store more information than most supercomputers but also have space for personality, including new features such as pleasantries, small talk, backhand compliments, and wit! Not to mention, they also come with a healthy libido…"
There were appreciative guffaws in the crowd. "Open it already!" screeched one group of feathered women several yards ahead of Kakashi and Sakura. Sakura felt sick watching them, and was very pleased that Kakashi was not actually in the box.
"Hold on, ladies!" the auctioneer crowed gleefully. "Believe it or not, there are many more features to these elite androids! Their bones are reinforced by titanium, making them nearly indestructible—"
A jet of blue light shot straight at the box, blasting a hole cleanly through it.
The auctioneer fell back, coughing, as the box smoked coolly in the center of the stage. For a few seconds there was a terrible silence, and then screams erupted throughout the auction hall. Everyone began clambering towards the exits as several more lasers shot through the hall.
Sakura's mind pushed through the shock that had frozen her insides. They tried to kill Kakashi, it told her urgently. Get him out of here!
But Sakura was distracted by the sight of a familiar woman scrambling up onto the stage. "My android!" she could hear Tsunade shrieking. When Tsunade got to the smoking box, however, she shrieked again, seeing this time that Kakashi was not in it.
Someone grabbed Sakura's arm and began pulling her away; her legs stumbled as they tried to adjust to the sprinting pace. She looked up and saw that it was Kakashi, trying to lead her away from the danger.
"Kakashi!" she called. Her voice barely made it over the screaming crowds, but she knew that he would be able to hear her. "We can't leave Tsunade and Shizune! They'll get killed!"
Kakashi stopped running reluctantly, his grip still firm on Sakura's arm. He glared impatiently into Sakura's eyes, but he softened when he saw the determination there. Despite everything that had happened in the last twenty-four hours, Sakura couldn't bring herself to leave her friends to die.
Kakashi felt admiration swooping in his chest. "All right," he said quickly. "But we're not going back in there unarmed."
Sakura tore open her rucksack and tossed him a gun. "I hope you know how to use it," she said, clicking the safety off one of her own.
"Do I know how to use a gun," Kakashi scoffed, and he ran after her back into the fray.
The auction hall was in chaos. Tsunade and Shizune were nowhere to be seen, but there were some new arrivals to catch Sakura and Kakashi's attention— the same types of aliens that had attacked them on the ship were now swarming through the hall, and with horror Sakura saw that they were swinging down ladders from a sleek blue ship that hovered overhead like a ghostly sentinel, its cloaking device fading into sharp reality.
"Konan!" she gasped. She had no time for a longer reaction: One of the aliens was stomping madly towards her and Kakashi. They both shot it at the same time, blasting two clean holes through its slimy green skin.
"Nice," Sakura breathed, grinning at Kakashi. He flashed a grin back before shooting deftly at another oncoming attacker. Its blue blood splattered against the adjacent wall and it fell to the floor with an almighty thud, its severed head rolling rapidly away.
"Come on!" he shouted, and they skidded around the fresh corpse to run towards the stage. Alarms were ringing frantically, washing the hall in swinging rays of red light. Kakashi and Sakura fought their way towards the center, discharging laser after laser, and sustaining a few minor injuries but for the most part doing an admirable job of staying alive. Unfortunately, there were far more invaders than there were people fighting, and it didn't help that Konan's ship was shooting down at them with lasers far more powerful than anything in their guns.
A heavy tentacle knocked Sakura to the side. She had been caught off guard, having just decapitated two aliens with one well-placed laser blast. The alien jumped down on her, its drool dribbling on her face as it tore viciously at her cheek— she screamed, feeling the fresh blood spill out, but kicked blindly at the monster's stomach. It buckled backwards, giving her enough space to jump up and send her boot swinging towards its head. She made contact with a sickening crunch and drove the heel of her boot into its skull, piercing its slimy green skin like a gelatinous fruit snack.
One of its tentacles shot towards her leg, wrapping tightly around her boot. She shrieked indignantly, pointing her gun at the monster's wounded head, but another tentacle knocked the gun out of her hands. It clattered uselessly to the floor and the tentacle snaked around her wrist, dragging her down hard to the floor.
"Ow!" she squealed when her tailbone hit the floor. Pain blossomed in her rump, but she gave it little thought as she was too preoccupied by the suction cups attaching slickly to her stomach. The edge of the tentacle tickled the hem of her shorts, and she writhed madly on the ground, trying to throw it off of her, but it was fruitless; with a gleeful cackle from the monster its tentacle had dipped down her shorts and was spreading slime all around her coarse pink hairs, running along the seam of her nether regions. She clamped her inner muscles down hard, trying to keep it out, but the muscular tentacle was persistent and strong as it pried apart her thighs—
"Get away from her!" Kakashi's fierce roar was punctuated by a powerful punch to the monster's jaw. It let out a terrible screeching wail and was knocked back a little, but its grip on Sakura was so tight that it hadn't been dislodged. Kakashi reached down and ripped the tentacle from around Sakura's waist, ripping the bulbous green skin with his bare hands. The monster screeched again and tried to deck him, but Kakashi kicked back at it, hitting it in the yellow teeth. The force of the attack forced it to relinquish its slimy grip on Sakura, and as soon as her hand was free her fingers scrambled for her gun— she wrapped her fingers around the handle and swung the gun up, aimed for the monster's lopsided face, and pulled the trigger.
The green head exploded in a shower of blue blood. Shaking, Sakura rose to her feet. Kakashi grabbed her immediately, gripping her shoulders with firm hands.
"Sakura, are you all right?" he demanded, his eyes moving frantically between her own. "It didn't— Are you—"
The concern in his eyes calmed her shaking hands. "That's twice you've saved me like that," she said. "And don't even say that crap about endangering my life anyway, because Konan has wanted my head mounted on her wall since way before you were ever in the picture."
Kakashi opened his mouth to say something, but the sudden whine of a siren distracted him. They both looked up and saw a large blue hovercraft speeding towards the ground— exactly where they were standing.
Instinctively they each flew backwards, breaking apart from each other. Kakashi's hands left Sakura's shoulders just as the hovercraft landed, sending a whoosh of air gusting from all sides. Sakura shielded her eyes shut against the sudden wind, squinting through the cracks in her fingers to see that uniformed aliens were teeming off the hovercraft. All around the auction hall, identical hovercrafts had touched the ground, and several were still swarming in the air, shooting directly at Konan's ship. The Paper Crane's shield flickered into life, protecting the ship with a sphere of shimmering blue, but her mercenaries on the ground were not so lucky as the Intergalactic Police Force took them on with full force.
Sakura scanned the chaos for Kakashi, but the hulking hovercraft blocked him from view. "Kakashi!" she cried out, pushing past the army of blue-suited police. "Kakashi, where are you?"
Meanwhile, the bridge of The Paper Crane was alive with booming alarms. Konan's face was alternately bathed in blue and red as they flashed wildly around her. She was leaning forward on the main control panel, gripping the sharp metal edge with white-knuckled intensity.
"Your Majesty! Your Majesty!" Her red-eyed assistant flapped frantically towards her, his papery white skin even paler than usual. "The Intergalactic Police Force has—"
"Do you think I'm an idiot?" Konan snarled. She glared through the main window at the bedlam below. "I recognize them just as well as you do!"
"Y-y-your Excellency," quibbled the servant, "we should pull out, this was a reckless place to be—"
"Insubordination!" roared Konan, and she wheeled around on the spot and shot him straight through his central eye. With a tortured wail he fell backwards, landing dead on the carpet.
"I will not leave empty-handed," she said, storming terribly across the bridge. "I was a fool for trusting those brainless thugs to do my job for me. No, it's time I go and teach those girls a lesson myself…"
The metal doors swished away in the face of her cold glare, and she descended tinny metal steps to reach the escape pod. Leaving her ship to fend for itself, Konan sealed herself within the pod and jammed her manicured thumb against the release button. With a great rumbling noise, the ship ejected her like a sneeze and sent the pod shooting down.
It crashed into the marble floor with an explosion of ruptured stone. Konan extricated herself quickly, holding her laser gun at the ready. The pandemonium of the police crafts' battle with the mercenaries was so great that Konan's crash went unnoticed by all but the nearest two policewomen, whom she promptly shot in the chest. They crumpled to the ground and Konan leapt over them, keeping a sharp eye out for any sign of her three targets as she wove through the fighting.
It didn't take her long to find one. Tsunade had always been easy to spot, with her gargantuan breasts and cacophonous temper. Konan saw her fending off three tentacled mercenaries. A smirk curled Konan's lip. Good, she's distracted, she calculated, stalking towards Tsunade like a lioness to her prey. Easy pickings, then…
"Oh no, you don't!"
Konan ducked swiftly down— a bottle green boot narrowly missed her head. Skipping backwards, Konan held her gun at the ready to confront her new foe. Her assailant recovered from the failed attack and straightened up, pushing her wild pink bangs out of her face so she could face her opponent properly.
"Oh, it's the runt," Konan drawled, boredom dulling her tone.
With a feral roar Sakura launched herself once again at Konan. The blue-haired woman twisted out of the way just in time to avoid Sakura's speeding fist. Konan hastily switched her gun from kill to stun, aiming a shot at Sakura's neck, but Sakura swerved away. Her green eyes flashed, and then she jeered at Konan.
"Come and get me, you tyrannical bitch!" she crowed before dashing away. Irked, Konan cast one last, longing glance on Tsunade before hurriedly deciding she would come back for her once she had the pink one as bait.
She tracked Sakura through the flying debris of the ruined auction hall, ducking around battling forces. The battle raging no longer interested her— she had eyes only for her prey.
Sakura, meanwhile, had no real plan. She was merely trying to buy time, leading Konan away from the others— and keeping a hopeful eye out for Kakashi, whom she hadn't been able to find since they were separated by the landing police. She took a sharp turn around the edge of the hall. Konan shot a laser beam after her; she felt it skim her cheek hotly as it barely missed.
She clambered over some toppled boxes and ducked behind one as Konan shot again.
"This isn't hide-and-seek!" Konan seethed. She skittered around the edge of the boxes, swinging her gun smoothly around her to cover all angles. "Come out and play, Sakura! Your new home awaits you!"
Sakura answered with a blast from her laser gun. Usually her aim was deadly accurate, but Konan had excellent instincts and stepped back just in time. The laser missed her but knocked her outstretched gun aside. Seeing opportunity, Sakura jumped out from her hiding place and brought a punch swinging towards Konan's face. Konan's icy eyes met hers for an instant before Konan bobbed down, grabbing Sakura's wrist.
"I've got you, you little—"
Sakura shot at Konan with her free hand. Her aim was off, but although she didn't hit Konan, the sudden blast was enough to make Konan release her.
Konan drew another gun from her looping white belt and shot at the precise moment that Sakura did; their lasers met in the middle and ricocheted off, shattering glass windows set high along the walls.
Kakashi had just dispatched another mercenary, gleaning particular satisfaction from wrapping its tentacle around its own neck to strangle it. That's for Sakura, he thought savagely.
The sound of breaking glass caught his attention. He whipped his head around but could not see the source of the noise— it was removed from the hall.
It could be reinforcements for Konan! When the thought struck him he raised his gun and ran towards the noise.
He came stealthily towards the bend where he saw the skeletal remains of the window's design. He listened closely for the sounds of mobilizing aliens, ready to shoot, but far from his expectations he heard a familiar voice—
"Forget it, Konan!" Sakura shouted. Konan was an excellent defensive fighter, evading Sakura's blows in a graceful dance. Sakura's style was rougher but was serving her just as well— Konan hadn't hit her yet, although she wasn't aiming to kill.
"I'd rather die than join your boyfriend's freak show!" she yelled passionately, aiming another laser shot at Konan's porcelain face. Konan stepped deftly out of the way, jumping up onto one of the window ledges amidst shards of shattered glass. She sneered coldly down at Sakura, who glowered and shot again.
Kakashi peered stealthily around the wall, watching the scene unfold. The grip on his gun tightened. He was going to jump in— two against one would greatly better Sakura's odds—
But just as he braced himself to bolt into the fray, he saw something that made him pause. Konan had tapped her ear, her eyes flashing to the side. She looked as if she were listening for something, but what…?
The answer struck Kakashi like a bolt of lightning. It's an earpiece, he realized, and sure enough, as Konan jumped from the windowsill to avoid a blast from Sakura's gun, Kakashi saw a glint of white revealed by the hair that streamed away in the quick motion.
He knew what he had to do. Crouching down out of sight, he closed his eyes and began to shut down his extraneous systems, just as he had done when he destroyed the aliens on the ship. He cast aside table manners, appreciation of beauty, affinity for furry animals… The only humanistic feature he maintained was a strong emotion he couldn't name, but it had welled up inside of him when he saw that Sakura was in danger, so kept it where it burned in his chest and used it to provoke his mathematical systems into overdrive.
He visualized a vast, black plane, where the screeching security systems of Port Selkin dominated. Their erratic red lines flashed across his new eye's vision, but he sifted through them quickly, navigating between the scarlet scratches and signals. He was looking for something smaller, a signal that was only going to one small location…
He flew through the darkness until a regular flicker of blue caught his attention. Recognizing it, he locked on rerouted all of his power to decoding it. He tapped into the heavily coded blue signal, chipping away at the intricate code with the formidable chisel of his advanced hard drive. He wished he could spare an eye to watch the fight several yards away, but all of his energy was devoted to this: He could only hope that Sakura would hold her own until he broke the code.
She was doing a fair job. The hot glow around Konan's lasers had grazed her skin a few times now, leaving stinging scrapes, but direct contact had been avoided and she was still fighting. The longer the fight went on, the more Sakura taunted Konan, trying to egg her on into recklessness. It wasn't working— Konan was getting quieter, but it meant that she was concentrating even more, calculating an opening where she could end the battle by knocking Sakura unconscious. Sakura had an advantage in that she cared little for Konan's fate, whereas Konan was still trying to avoid killing her.
"If you can't even lock your palace door properly, what makes you think you can take care of me?" Sakura goaded, swerving out of the way as Konan's lasers exploded several cardboard boxes. "You couldn't keep us out of your stupid palace, and you're not dragging us back in!"
"Need I remind you," Konan hissed, ranging quietly around Sakura, "that your plan to overtake me failed?"
Sakura let out a coarse laugh. "That's only because your boyfriend stepped in at the last minute," she jeered. "Poor Konan has to have all the little boys come and save her! She couldn't just be a big girl and take care of it herself!"
"How dare you!" Konan ran at her, whipping forth a rain of sharp projectile weapons. Sakura jumped away and avoided most of them, but one penetrated her thick boot. She let out a little hiss of pain as the sharpened tip pierced her skin, but she didn't let it slow her down.
"I'm more powerful a woman than any of you sluts could ever hope to be!" Konan continued angrily, swiping at Sakura and missing. "We'll see who's laughing when you're begging Pain to grace you with his touch—"
They were suddenly very close. Konan was surprised but Sakura didn't hesitate and slapped Konan hard across the face.
Konan flew back from the force of the blow. "I already told you," Sakura said in a low, dangerous voice, pointing her gun at Konan's face. "I would rather shoot myself than let you drag me off to his sick harem—"
Konan rolled away from her gun blast; it shot a smoking hole in her flowing gown but missed her back by inches. She leapt to her feet and skated backwards, putting distance between the two opponents.
"Being a concubine of Lord Pain is an honor high above anything you could ever accomplish in your own puny life!" Konan spat indignantly.
"You're pathetic," Sakura shot back in disgust. "What sort of woman betrays her own kind like that!"
"You're so simple-minded," Konan growled. "Being a woman doesn't endear you to me anymore than being human does."
She cocked her head to the side. "Pain will like you," she said, but it didn't sound like a compliment. "He likes his wenches spirited—"
Hot, bubbling rage overflowed in Sakura, and she ran at Konan with red blinding her vision. Her blood-curdling battle cry echoed through the hall, and around the corner Tsunade head perked up in recognition.
"Sakura!" she hissed, hope leaping in her chest — she easily killed the alien blocking her way with a hot bullet from her traditional gun and barreled past his corpse, out of sight before he even hit the ground. Her heeled boots crunched debris and stray limbs alike as she ran towards the source of her friend's voice.
Just as she rounded the corner, Kakashi broke the code. He accessed the stream of signals bleeping towards the earpiece in Konan's ear and immediately began to corrupt it, jamming the waves with dissonant interjections and impossible calculations. He forced through increasingly intolerable signals, recoding the signal in a way that would inevitably overload it—
Tsunade saw only the smoke from the explosion. Her honey-colored eyes were wide with horror as she hurried past Kakashi's hiding place and towards the scorched white tiles where Konan and Sakura had been fighting moments before.
"Sakura!" she screamed. "Sakura, where—"
She was knocked aside by Kakashi, who had streaked from his hiding place as soon as his motor functions were restored. He dove into the clearing smoke, groping for Sakura. He didn't know how close she had been— if she were hurt—
But she wasn't. Coughing, she emerged from the smoke and fell clumsily against him. He caught her and gripped her shoulders, his eyes roving her face in frenetic worry.
"Are you all right?" he said hoarsely. The glow from his dark eye, still warming up from being deactivated, cast a small white light on her eyelid. "Sakura, are you okay?"
She nodded. Kakashi steered her away from the smoke but maintained his firm grip on her shoulders.
Still reeling from the sudden explosion, Sakura was nevertheless regaining her senses. She cracked open her eyes and saw Kakashi looking down at her, his face lined with anxiety.
"Kakashi…" she coughed. She noticed that his red eye was still spinning slightly, but she didn't care— when she said his name his face had lit up, smoothing away some of his worry. She couldn't remember seeing such a happy sight.
In a rush of emotion she wrapped her arms around his waist, hugging him properly for the first time. Her nails scrabbled at his back and she pressed her head against his chest. It felt just like the chest of a human, of a strong and living human man, until she heard the ticking— for instead of a steady heartbeat there was within him an incessant ticking noise, unmistakably mechanical in nature.
A hard sob lurched out of her throat. She buried her face deeper and cried baldly against his chest. She had gone from feeling ludicrously happy to hopelessly miserable in a matter of seconds— just when he was feeling so human, the ticking had brought his mechanical roots slamming to the forefront of her mind…
Yet something drew her out of her despair, something soft and tender. Kakashi was stroking her hair soothingly, smoothing her bangs back out of her face.
"It's all right," he said softly. His lips moved gently against the crown of her head. His other arm slid around her waist, hugging her closer to him. "You're safe now…"
Sakura turned her shining eyes up to him. His eyes were warm, and that was suddenly much more important to her than any stupid ticking noise. Her heart knew that such compassion had to be more than an electronic switchboard of ones and zeroes. She rose up on her tiptoes and crushed her lips against his.
The hand he had left on her head froze. Sakura did not relent, reaching up to grip the silver hair on the back of his neck as she deepened the kiss. Her tongue ran hungrily across the seam of his numb lips, requesting entrance; he blinked and then parted his lips to accommodate her, and he very quickly got the hang of kissing her back.
They swayed on the spot, locked together at the lips. Kakashi gasped as Sakura stroked his lower back; he felt her lips stretch in a lazy grin as her tongue continued to tangle with his own, lapping at the corner of his mouth in hot strokes.
"What's the matter?" she said softly. "Don't tell me you've never kissed before…"
Kakashi laughed, a little bewildered at the sensations flooding hotly through his lower abdomen. "Can't say I have, actually…"
Sakura drew back, and despite the long cut along her cheek and the soot blackening her complexion, he had never seen someone so beautiful.
A mischievous grin danced across her face. "Well then," she said, "it seems we have some uncharted territory to explore…" She leaned forward, still on tiptoe, and whispered something in his ear. Said ears turned red as he processed her words, but he quickly composed himself and gave her a debonair smile.
"Erectile tissue?" he repeated, playing with a strand of her grimy pink hair. "We might be able to find some if we look hard enough…"
A pointed cough startled them both. They whipped their heads around to see Tsunade, now fully visible a few yards away in the clearing smoke.
She eyed them beadily, her gaze moving across their frozen faces from Sakura to Kakashi. She seemed calm, but by now they both knew that her temper could erupt at any moment, so they remained apprehensively still.
"You're a bit of a one-trick pony," she said finally, "but it's a damn good trick." She pointed at something behind them. They turned, still with their arms around each other, and saw a limp, white-gloved hand stretched out from beneath a large chunk of rubble that had fallen from the wall in the explosion.
"If your mechanical trickery didn't kill her, that sure did," Tsunade said shortly. "I know it's a bit of a mood-killer after erectile tissue and all that."
Stowing her gun in the holster on her belt, she looked back at them and said, "I owe you an apology," she said uncomfortably. "So… I'll get back to you when I can word it a little more nicely, but for now, damn good job, Kakashi."
A small smile of disbelief curved Sakura's lips. It seemed that Tsunade had finally come around… She grinned up at Kakashi, but he was frowning.
"Where's Shizune?" he asked, removing his arms from Sakura. She felt oddly cold without them despite the sweltering heat of the chaotic port.
Tsunade's face fell. "I…"
"It's all right, Tsunade," Sakura said quickly. "Shizune is in a bathroom out by the vendors." She moved away from Kakashi and led the way, skirting around the ongoing violence — the Police Force was breaching The Paper Crane's shield, and most of the mercenaries had been killed — to come across the bathroom where she had knocked out their mechanic. Tsunade pushed past her and let out a huge cry of relief when she saw Shizune, still safely passed out against the sink.
Kakashi lifted Shizune gently from the sink, catching her goggles when they almost fell off her face. "She'll be fine," he said, feeling her pulse. "She looks like she was just stunned…"
Tsunade and Sakura's eyes met. Sakura squirmed under Tsunade's furious glare.
"You did this?" Tsunade demanded.
Sakura nodded. "I… I had to," she said quietly.
A heavy sigh deflated Tsunade's chest and she rubbed the bridge of her nose in frustration. "You're very reckless, Sakura… but Shizune is safe… and so are you."
There was a tremulous moment before Tsunade looked up and clapped her on the shoulder.
"I'm sorry, Sakura," she said sincerely. The words were so rare and genuine; Sakura wasn't sure how to respond. Tsunade spared her the necessity, rounding on Kakashi and the unconscious Shizune.
"Right," she said, returning to her usual brusque tones. "Why don't we get the hell out of this place before anyone finds out we're the reason this mayhem started, eh?"
Sakura grinned. "Sounds like a plan." She turned her smile on Kakashi, who returned it with a new level of affection. If she hadn't known any better, she would have called it a meticulously calculated attempt at reproducing human fondness… But Sakura did know better. Binary be damned, Sakura knew it when she saw it, and what she saw twinkling merrily in his eyes was nothing less than love.