Chapter 7 - Closing In

Sakura tore down the darkened hallway. Lanterns flickered and smoked in her wake. Another darkened turn. Another empty corridor. The place was an underground labyrinth of tunnels and rooms, none of which showed signs of life. She sped on, sweat beading at her temples in spite of the chilled air.

Another whiplash turn. Another empty corridor. She pushed on. Maybe Ino and the rest of her team were having better luck—

She careened around another corner just in time to catch a slant of light disappear into nothingness. A door was closing at the end of the tunnel. She barreled right for it.

Sakura yanked hard on the door, then pressed her ear to it to listen. It was damp and cool against her ear. She held her breath. Far away, another door slammed shut.

Dammit! They're getting away!

As part a team of Konoha nins hired by the Grass country to get to the bottom of the kidnappings plaguing their land, Sakura helped Team 10 interview the few men who escaped. They told of captives and experiments and beasts in the night. Although it sounded like the realm of ghost stories, Sakura felt sympathy for the men. Their fear, at least, was real, even if the tales sounded too fantastical to be true. Especially coming from the sleepy lowlands of the Grass region.

But closer inspection of a rock tipped up at an odd-angle at the base of a tree had them rethinking everything they'd believed. Beneath the rock, a narrow stone stairway disappeared into the darkness. At the bottom of the steps, with only their flashlights stabbing through the black, the team realized they'd stumbled an underground complex like nothing they'd ever seen before.

A massive labyrinth of dripping tunnels and cave-like rooms stretched out in almost every direction. It stunk of must and and dirt, and made Sakura's stomach turn. But when they pushed back a heavy door onto a room with shackles and chains, discarded syringes and empty medical vials, Sakura's disgust steeled itself to resolve.

What the men had said was true, and Sakura and Team 10 wanted nothing more than to haul whoever had done this up into the light.

The farther in they went, the more signs of disarray they found, until they realized they were only moments behind the people responsible for these atrocities. The four split up, hoping to cast a wider net.

It worked. Sakura followed her hunch that they were trying to sneak out a back door. So she ran through the tunnels until the slope changed she felt like she was tipping up to the surface again.

The air smelled singed from flickering lamplight. Someone had passed through recently. And when she caught the distant clap of a slammed door, she knew she was hard on their trail.

But now her momentum had ground to a halt. A single closed door stood in the way of the catching them.

Sakura jerked the old handle and heaved her shoulder against the damp planks. But it wouldn't budge. She was loosing precious time, she had to get through—

Sakura tightened her glove. She knew she'd be giving herself away, but she had no choice.

She hauled back her fist and let it fly into the tunnel wall with every ounce of chakra she could muster. Stone chunks exploded away from her fist and flew in every direction. A shuddering rumble answered her blast as the roof of the corridors and rooms beyond caved in. Thick clouds of debris rolled upwards into the newly formed crater.

The door swung lamely open on its hinges now the wall that it was once locked to was smashed to pieces. Sparing a moment to smirk at her handiwork, Sakura pushed the door back dashed through the rubble. Another wall crumbled nearby, spattering dust and pebbles across her legs.

But beyond the din were voices. Distant, but she heard them. Maybe she could still catch them….

Sakura scrambled through the debris, past chunks of walls and scattered medical equipment and into the enveloping clouds.

Dust stung her eyes and burned her lungs, but she kept going, breathing shallow and listening hard, until she was out into the opening where the roof had collapsed. Patches of sky were peeked through the grey clouds—

A tunnel caved in beside her, hitting her with a thick wave of debris. Dust coated her mouth and nose, choking her. Sakura could go no further. She dropped to her knees, coughing and clutching her throat—

"What the hell was that?"

"Just a little mouse."

The voices were somewhere in the haze above her. Sakura was trying desperately not to cough when another thought came to her…one that she had long ago trained herself against…. What if…. What if….

"A mouse?!" the first voice laughed loudly. "The sounded more like a herd of elephants!"

Sakura's eyes went huge. There was no doubt. She knew that voice.

Sakura blinked up into the receding clouds, trying to see in spite of the blinding grit in her eyes. Tears welled at the pain. But even with blurred vision Sakura could still make out four outlines in the haze, standing above her at the edge of the crater.

She opened her mouth to call out, but doubt seized her, stopping her cold.

What if she called and they just laughed at her? What if they didn't want her, all over again?

Her eyes burned like they were on fire. She crushed them closed and hot tears slid out of the corners.

It was a chance she'd have to take.

Eyes closed, she was about to scream "Stop" or "Wait" or something, anything

When another voice smoothly intoned, "There's nothing more for us here. Let's go."

An enormous cloud of dust exploded down into the crater, nearly blasting Sakura backwards. They had transported and covered their actions in a repelling jutsu that went off like a wind-bomb in their wake.

Sakura grasped the ground for purchase as the wind whipped her hair against her face and the fresh dust choked her.

She doubled over, hacking hard. Tears streamed down her face. She pushed her forehead to the ground trying to get control, but every raspy breath sent her into another fit of spasmodic coughing.

Sakura pounded her head lightly against the ground. But the tears that scalded her cheeks were no longer in response to the pain.

She felt like a failure. Again. Instead of stopping them, she'd let them get away.

This was how Ino and her team found her in the moments after the blast. They had all come running through the black corridors, following the sound and the dust and the light, till it opened up onto the ruin of a room with Sakura curled over on herself in the middle of it.

Ino was the first to reach her. "Sakura! Are you ok? Are you hurt?"

Sakura dragged an arm down her face, streaking wet tracks through the grime. She nodded weakly.

Even Ino coughed as she helped her to stand. Shikamaru and Choji were right behind her.

"I can see your handiwork here," Shikamaru said wryly, looking around the room once he was certain Sakura was uninjured. "Wh-What is this place?"

In unison, they studied the wreckage around them.

The dust was settling and light streamed into the hole, probably the first sunlight that had ever touched the subterranean lair. Details of the rooms and chambers slowly came forward out of the far edges of the darkness. More labs and barred cells. Chains hung from walls, and liquid containment units oozed sap-like substances through their shattered hulls. But there were no one signs of life.

"So it was all true? What those guys were saying?" Chouji rubbed a hand across neck. "Yeesh, I'd hate to be stuck down here. No wonder they were all half-crazy."

His words stung Sakura. Questions ran through her mind, making her dizzy and sick.

Was this really where they lived? A torture chamber and a nightmarish medical lab? Were they now captives too, having experiments performed on them? Or were they honored guests, letting the torture of innocent men go on beneath their noses, without lifting a hand to stop it?

Sakura didn't like the answers she found. If they knew what was going on here, then they had grown up into very different people than the teammates she knew as a child.

Shikamaru tipped his head up to the cracked edge of the crater. It looked like torn paper against the bright blue sky. "So…. Did you see anything Sakura?"

When she didn't answer, Shikamaru turned to look at her. Ino, still holding her elbow, studied her face with concern.

What if she was wrong….

Sakura dropped her gaze to the ground. She cleared her throat.

"No," she said quietly. "I didn't see anything."

It must be another layer of weakness, to protect them in even the remotest way after everything they'd done…. But if she was wrong, then she would be adding 'wanted criminals' to their status as nukenins. And she just couldn't be certain….

Shikamaru nodded, as if he suspected as much. Ino nodded sympathetically before leaving her to make an inspection for their report.

The implicit trust of her friends made Sakura feel even worse. They would never suspect her of lying.

Team 10 didn't question her silence at the campfire, or trouble her about her reticence the next day when they returned their findings to the Grass Country daimyo. They all knew the pain of close calls and failed efforts. They left Sakura to cope in peace.

But Sakura grappled with deeper disappointments. In herself. In them.

It seemed an insurmountable chasm until she remembered she wasn't alone in this. She was still part of a team. Her own team.

He'd know what to do.

When Kakashi saw Sakura standing in his doorway, he was instantly transported back a few years. Gone was the fierce shinobi who tore up the ground with her fist or healed with her fingertips.

She had been replaced with the girl he knew before, heartbroken and defeated and left to pick up the pieces of her shattered team.

Sakura sagged against his doorframe, looking tissue-paper thin. Her face was pale, her hair was dusty and the salty tracks of tears were still visible on her cheeks.

His stomach twisted in his gut.

"What's wrong?"

Sakura blinked, trying to find the words.

Kakashi supplied them for her. "You saw them, didn't you?"

Her bottom lip trembled. "I-I'm not sure, but I think…." She blew out a shaky breath. "Yeah. It was them."

Her strength left her. Her chin crumpled, and her eyes brimmed with tears. She shook her head to speak, but only got out "I… I…" before Kakashi took her hand and guided her in.

She sat on the futon and explained what happened while Kakashi made them two cups of tea.

"Did anyone else see them," he asked, pushing the small cup into her clutched fingers. The steam wound up into her face. She sniffed at it and started to relax.

"No. Just me. I thought…. I thought I heard…Naruto." She whispered his name like that would make it hurt less. It didn't. More tears slipped down.

Kakashi took a slow sip of tea, letting her gather her thoughts. She'd finally gotten to the heart of the problem.

Sakura sniffled. "I couldn't say anything. All this time, I thought when I saw them, I'd be stronger. I'd catch them single-handedly and I'd force them to stay." Her voice cracked at the end. "But I couldn't do anything. It was just like before," she said bitterly. She raised the cup to her lips.

But Kakashi smiled and set the cup on the low table. This he could help her with.

"No Sakura," he said, turning to look at her. "It's not like before. You are different. It was just the shock of the first time seeing them. But now that's over with. One little surprise doesn't undo the changes. When they see you again, they won't even recognize you. You've grown so powerful—" He smiled so earnestly it crinkled the corners of his eyes. "You are one of the finest Konoha shinobis that I've ever known."

Sakura gave him a wobbly smile. He nodded, grinning big. She took another sip of tea, this time actually tasting it, before setting it on the table too.

"You'll have them shaking in their shoes," he added.

"Thanks Kakashi-sensei," Sakura said, the warmth of the tea and the compliment putting color back into her cheeks.

They spoke more about the details of the mission, the men's stories and what her team had discovered. Kakashi nodded, aligning it with other with other whisperings he'd heard as well as some classified data from years ago, when Sakura set her empty cup on the table. She had to go.

Kakashi stood with her. "So, you're sure no one else saw them, from another angle?"

"No." She was firm.

Kakashi smiled to himself. The powerful shinobi had returned.

"And you told no one about it," he added.

"No." But this time, she hesitated. "Do you…do you think I did the right thing? I mean, they could be captives as well, waiting for us to rescue them…." She cut her eyes to the side, revealing that even she didn't believe that idea. "Or they could be the ones doing the torturing—"

"We cannot know the truth. At least, not yet. But we will." Kakashi smiled into her face, lending her his confidence where hers flagged. There were precious few times he could still be her sensei, but this was one of them.

"You did the right thing, Sakura. Telling anyone else would have incriminated them both, regardless of the truth of their situation."

Sakura shrugged. "I just thought I might have been wrong about who it was…." Her voice thinned, and Kakashi read between the lines.

"But you don't think you were?" He looked at her knowingly.

"No," Sakura said with a deep sigh. "I'd know his stupid voice anywhere."

Kakashi nodded sympathetically. He didn't have children, and didn't think he ever would. Sarutobi had tried to push him into being a sort of surrogate parent to Naruto, but Kakashi had been too young and independent to take responsibility for a child's upbringing. But looking back, he wondered now that maybe if he'd tried harder, none of this would have happened—

That's why he promised himself to make a change with Sakura. He had one chance left to do right by these kids, and he wasn't going to screw this one up.

And sometimes, like now, he saw Sakura almost as a daughter.

He stopped her in the doorway and put a hand on her shoulder

"This was the first time. There's always a first time for everything," he said, looking into her clear green eyes. "And it's never what you expect it to be. But now it's over. And when the next time rolls around, you'll be ready for it."

Sakura took it all in, then squared her shoulders. "Thanks, Kakashi-sensei. That makes me feel a lot better."

She turned to go, but stopped, turned back and grinned. There was a mischievous twinkle in her eye. "That was good advice…. Did that come from one of your books?"

She pointed to the dog-eared romance novel sticking out of his pocket.

His cheeks pinked a little but he laughed and tapped on his temple before shooing her off.

He leaned against his doorway and watched her go. At the corner, she turned and waved. He waved back, smiling brightly.

But as soon as she was out of sight, the smile disappeared. He closed the door behind him, strode out the back door and launched to the roof, then fairly flew straight to the Hokage's office.

Tsunade blinked up at Kakashi, her amber eyes narrowing. "And she's certain—"

"Yes. It was them. She was sure of it."

Tsunade studied Kakashi's face without seeing it. She was weighing all the possibilities…and the consequences. Both of them knew how serious this was.

Tsuande swore, then rose from her chair to stand at the window. She bit her ed thumbnail in thought.

"If you think there's something you can do," she said finally, turning back to him, "then do it. Because if the council gets wind of this, it's a death sentence…. Well, for one of them. But it will be worse for Naruto." She muttered bitterly as she signed a scroll. "Those damn kids…. They don't know what they've done…."

She dashed off a scroll and handed it to Kakashi relieving him of his active duty.

"Inspect the compound. If it truly is a medical lab, look for signs of Orochimaru and Kabuto." Kakashi nodded curtly at each command, confirming his suspicions as well, and pocketed the scroll. "Those kids aren't alone. They're being helped. And if they are with my old teammate, I want to know what he plans on doing with them."

Kakashi bowed and raised two fingers to leave, but Tsunade's voice stopped him.

"Kakashi, Danzo's on the hunt." She peered at him seriously. "Find them first, otherwise my hands are tied."

Kakashi nodded and disappeared in a swirl of leaves.

Of course, Kakashi was right. The next day, she did feel better.

But that first night home, Sakura stared up into the darkness, worrying that she would loose all the ground she'd gained. That her show of weakness would somehow spread like a poison, stealing in and taking over. And that the life she'd worked so hard for would be lost.

But the sun came up, and her life continued. And in that normalcy of her day-to-day life, she realized she truly had changed. It still hurt knowing how close she'd come to her old teammates, but the pain did not linger as long as she thought it would.

And when Tsunade assigned her to more missions in the weeks and months after that encounter, Sakura accepted them with more confidence than ever. She applied herself to her tasks with the same strength and resilience she'd come to rely in the three years since they'd left.

She shook off her worries. She worked hard at the hospital saving lives. And she trained hard at the sparring grounds so she could take lives if she must.

It was exactly as Kakashi had said. The first time was behind her. And she knew if she saw them again, she'd be ready for it.

Sakura's missions beyond the walls were stated as standard ones. Patrolling the Fire Country borders and dipping into the territories for reconnaissance work. She was to accompany the teams or anbu squads in case they encountered an attack.

But Sakura knew there was more than what was written on the mission scroll.

The territories had always been wild and lawless. It was the home to roving bands of thugs and bandits, and the hiding place of rogue nins. But lately there was another cause for concern in these reckless lands, and it was sowing the seeds of distrust among the five great shinobi nations.

There had been attacks in the night, mysterious and vicious, and most often targeting nins. There were no accurate accounts to go on, only rumors, as no country would ever admit to being weak enough to attack or disclose how far their shinobis were from their own borders.

But the reports were enough to set the wheels of power slowly turning. Countries grew suspicious of their neighbors. And now the once-sleepy territories had become a deadly proving grounds for nins, as more and more were sent to monitor their perceived enemies and determine the truth: Were these attacks merely isolated events…or was it the spark that might ignite a war?

So Sakura was sent with the teams to scout and watch and listen.

But more often than not, they had nothing to report.

They did come across some bandits, but these men were easily identified by their clomping footsteps and loud voices. The Konoha shinobis crouched in the dark treetops like birds and watched the men pass right beneath them. They never once looked up to see the light glinting off the bared kunais.

Sakura herself had a close encounter late one night. Sitting in the vee of a branch, Sakura had staked out a well-trod footpath until her eyelids were drooping. She had just refocused on the flattened stretch of ground beneath her when a careful padding sound hit her ears. Something creeping so softly, under the deepest cover of night, could only belong to hunting wolves…or shinobis.

Sakura held her breath and watched…and sure enough, a lone shinobi stepped out. Sakura didn't move, but the nin must have sensed something was amiss. He froze. Listened. Smelled. Then he scanned the canopy.

Sakura's heart pounded in her ears. She soundlessly regripped the handle of the kunai in her lap and waited, telling herself to trust in the deep shadow that covered her. She knew he couldn't see her. All she had to do was remain calm, silent and still—

He tipped his face up and looked straight at her, peering into the darkness where she sat. Her first thought was he didn't look like a shinobi. His eyes were furtive and black and darted ceaselessly. Like an animals' eyes. His movements were twitchy. Nervous.

Thin moonlight dappled his face, and Sakura saw he was haggard and unshaven, with deep wells under his eyes. He had been moving a long time and needed sleep. The angle of his cheekbones protruded a little too much. He hadn't eaten well in a while either.

She squinted, hoping he would turn his face just a little more so she could make out the insignia on his ragged headband, but when he did, Sakura almost gave herself away with a gasp.

A jagged cut ran through the Stone country symbol on his forehead. He was a nukenin. A rogue. A defector. He was running not because he was in enemy territory, but because he was hunted. Everyone was his enemy.

Deciding he was still safe, he swung his head back to the trail and ran on, making only the slightest footfalls as he disappeared into the darkness.

Sakura blew out a breath and sank back against the tree. Studing the silver edge of the kunai blade in her lap, she wondered just what kind of lives her old teammates were living now.

Is this…is this what they look like? Are they worn out and exhausted, hunted and half-starved? Is this the life of a rogue nin? Having to always stay one step ahead of your own country who would execute you for treachery, or other countries who would squeeze any secrets from you before ending you?

She watched the path, her thoughts in turmoil. She didn't need to worry about sleep now, even though nothing more happened on the path in the hours before sunrise than an appearance by a nervous rabbit. It stopped once, nibbled on grass while its ears twitched in every direction, then moved on.

So when Sakura was assigned to Team 8 to help patrol the deeply forested territories beyond their southern border, she didn't expect to see much action. There hadn't even been reports of trouble from these sparsely-populated areas, so she wasn't surprised when they broke for solo patrols of the quadrants. Each would scout out their area then return to the campsite to compare notes and maps and update any information.

Sakura rerolled her map and launched off the ancient tree limb. Standard Konoha mission operatives still applied: They were not to engage unless provoked. But it was so peaceful and idyllic here it almost lulled her into a false sense of safety. Almost.

She could hear Kakashi's voice in her head: Treat every shadow as a threat and every limb as a trap. Expect the unexpected.

So, as much as it felt nice to stretch her legs leaping from limb to limb, letting the warm breeze stream through her hair, she stayed on alert. She listened beyond the bird song for the telltale snapping of twigs. She smelled beyond the clean woodland air for the earthy musk of sweat. And she watched for the glint of weapons in the farthest trees.

Sakura went through the long afternoon without any disturbance. She kept going, watching the light and her positions, lining up landmarks with the map to see where she needed to turn. She hadn't even come across anomalies to update.

It was quiet, the sun was sliding down in the sky and turning the forest light golden. Birds chirped around her and the evening air was pleasant. Anyone visiting would never believe that there were reports of attacks in these treetops—

A twig snapped nearby. The birdsong stopped.

Sakura's eyes widened, her stomach muscles bunched, the adrenaline rushed…. She wasn't alone.

Noiselessly, she stopped on the next branch and swung her gaze around to get her bearings.

The leaves shivered softly in the line of trees behind her, not quite in time with the rest of the canopy. Dust motes sparkled in the slanting sunlight.

Someone was there. Waiting her out….

In a single fluid jump, Sakura pushed straight up to the limb above her, using her chakra to cover her movement and soften her landing. She crouched and watched. An untrained assailant would rush off the branch, thinking she was running, and expose himself. But no one lunged out from behind the far trees.

Sakura held her breath and listened hard. In the stillness there was a whisper of fabric, the slightest groan of a limb under shifting weight….

Sakura's mouth curved up into a smile.

A shinobi.

Now she knew how to proceed.

She readied to lunge, letting the chakra coil warm and tight in her calves. She'd become the untrained nin, the prey hurtling wildly through the woods in fear. She'd be the rabbit…and then she'd run the predator right into her trap.

Sakura was off the branch like a shot.

She clambered through the canopy, bouncing limbs and shuddering branches. She zig-zagged in fake desperation, making as much noise as possible.

Finally she leapt long, providing her enough time for a backwards glance. And there he was. Blurring through the trees behind her.

Sakura smirked. Seeing her run wildly lowered his expectations. He'd never know what hit him.

Sakura launched again, breathing into the burn in her lungs and letting it fuel that zing of power she'd come to rely on in situations like this. The one that told her that being a Konoha shinobi was exactly what she was meant to be. Whether demolishing whole sparring fields with her fist or luring an enemy shinobi into a trap. This was what she was best at.

She bit down on her lip to steady her focus and keep herself from grinning and began scanning for the right set up. She needed a large tree, big enough to block the view from the other side, followed by smaller one.

She found it. Hurtling past the gnarled trunk of an ancient tree she came to a stop on the spindly tree beyond it.

Panting loudly, Sakura clamped a hand on her waist and played the part of a startled nin, run to exhaustion. But her eyes stayed focused on the edges of the large tree trunk as she gasped.

She had given her target an excellent place to hide. Now she just had to wait for him to take the bait—

Leaves jittered unnaturally nearby.

Sakura brought her free hand to her heaving chest. But it was covering the movement of her other hand which was quietly slipping around to a spate of shuriken at the small of her back.

Dust motes sparkled in the air beside the tree.

She had him!

Sakura pivoted, flinging the shuriken in a wide arc at the line of trees. The stars flew like they were on fire, gleaming and deadly, and whizzed behind the large tree in a curved trajectory that sent them perilously close to the trunk.

The nin on the other side had to have flattened himself against the trunk to keep from being hit. Stars flew out the either side and bit into the smaller trees to the left and right.

Sakura clucked her tongue against the roof of her mouth. She hadn't hit him, but at least now he was scared.

He knew that one wrong move and he'd get a nose or a finger sheered off.

Sakura plucked two kunai from her thigh holster and fanned them in her hand.

"Now, step out slowly." Her voice was hard. She let the kunai clang together menacingly. "Unless you want to lose an appendage. And I'm not choosy about which I take…."

This was the moment of decision. Either he came out fighting or she spiked him in the back as he ran.

A shuriken embedded beside the large tree gave her a secret view of the nin.

Sakura watched the mirrored surface. The black-clad body reflected there began to move, then stopped.

Sakura decided he was going to strike instead of retreat. She hunkered down, threw one kunai to her open hand, and was ready to pounce

Suddenly, a flash of color moved across the silver weapon, a streak of pink skin followed by a burst of yellow. A face blurred across next. And then a mouth. A wide grin slowly spread to fill the star shape, and a low chuckle carried through the air.

Was someone laughing at her? Was this a sick joke?

But where Sakura should have been blisteringly mad, she was…confused. Something about that laugh, those colors…. It was all so strangely familiar….

And then it hit her. Her breath hitched and her grip loosened just as a voice rumbled through the air—


Author's notes

This chapter shaped up differently, so the reunion got bumped to next chapter. But it will work out better in the end plot-wise (got some development in here that is necessary for later on). Tried to give Kakashi a little development, by letting him right the wrongs of his youth and early Team 7 days by taking an active interest in Sakura. And tried to give Sakura all the benefit of that attention by making her enjoy her self-confidence! Anyway, next chapter…reunion! Promise! :) Please read and review!