Zero Hour, Chapter 16: The Heart
Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto.

"Our lovers nod their heads.
They'll never tell our kids they wish they had the life you lived
For no one but you.
'Cause when it's time to go, you'll have so many things to show
To no one but you." - Chris Thile


Karin kept her focus on her work changing Sasuke's bandages as he recounted to Juugo and Suigetsu the same tale of Itachi's sacrifice that he'd already told her in Madara's alternate dimension. This time, however, he held back his tears. Maybe he just couldn't cry anymore after hours and hours of pain in that dark, cold place. She hadn't said anything then, either; she'd just let him cry and break under her watchful eye, ready to pick up the shattered pieces and put him back together when he was done. Even if the sharp edges ripped her skin and drew blood, she would swallow the pain to help him. It was how things had always been. It had kept them both alive through the worst that this world had to offer.

Juugo remained silent throughout Sasuke's tale, staring out the window of and Akatsuki safe house at the stars. Suigetsu leaned against the opposite wall next to Kubikiribouchou, scowling. Sasuke slumped over his knees, more tired from repeating the story than from his still-healing wounds. The fight with Itachi should have killed him, and he knew it. If Madara hadn't transported Karin and Sasuke to an alternate dimension so she could heal him, he may not have made it.

But it was neither here nor there. Sasuke was alive, and Itachi was dead. Looking at the last Uchiha now, though, Karin could see that this was the worst case scenario for Sasuke.

"So all this time, your brother was stringing you along?" Suigetsu said, his voice low and solemn for once. "That is seriously fucked up, Sasuke. You get that, right?"

Sasuke said nothing and Karin tightened the last bandage around his upper arm. Hebi's laconic team leader was prone to silences, but this one rang in Karin's ears like the aftermath of a bomb. She didn't have the energy to snap at Suigetsu's callousness. It was the truth, after all.

"What do you want to do, Sasuke?" Juugo asked. He continued to gaze out the window, and starlight cast a wan glare across his face.

Sasuke ran a hand through his hair and took a deep breath. "Madara says there's a way to...bring Itachi back."

Karin narrowed her eyes. She didn't trust this 'Madara' character for a minute, not the least bit because he was lying through his teeth when he spoke to them. She could detect a lie with perfect accuracy from anything with a chakra signature. Madara was good, but he wasn't who he said he was.

"I don't trust him," she said.

Sasuke met her eyes through the gloom. "I know. But if what he says is true, I could get the truth from my brother myself."

"You mean the brother who lied to you from day one? Does no one else see the irony in that?" Suigetsu gestured across the room.

"Shove it, Suigetsu," Karin said.

He scowled. "C'mon, you can't be serious. I know we can't agree on anything, but this is just dumb. You're talking about seeing Orochimaru again. Do I have to remind everyone how that ended last time? Huh?"

"Yeah, I remember. I was there," Karin said, standing. "You think anyone here is excited about this? It's the only option we have."

Sasuke stood as well. "Enough, both of you."

Juugo settled his gaze on his teammates, sensing a shift in the conversation. Sasuke had never liked to drag things out where his brother was concerned.

"I created Hebi with one goal in mind, and we accomplished that goal. This new purpose doesn't involve you. I'll meet with Orochimaru alone."

Suigetsu was about ready to shout at Sasuke, but Juugo beat him to it.

"We're coming with you."

"Damn right we're comin' with you, shit-for-brains," Suigetsu said. "I-I mean, 's not like anyone deserves to visit Orochimaru alone. That's just cruel."

"How touching," Karin said, rolling her eyes.

Sasuke was implacable. "Madara will probably turn on me eventually. You'll get caught in the cross-fire if you come with me."

Karin remained silent as the boys argued. Normally, she would have had every intention of speaking her mind. All things considered, when Karin talked business it was incumbent upon the boys to listen and heed her words. But Sasuke's fluctuating chakra held her attention. He was healing and nearly back at full capacity after several chakra transfusion sessions with her, but something in him was off. Different. She'd noticed it since he started recovering, like a new presence within him, but it wasn't Orochimaru's cursed seal. It was something more natural, something warm and soft. Something had happened to him during the fight with his brother, and it had changed him.

"This isn't your battle," Sasuke said. "You're all free to go."

"Dude, are you drunk? Karin, what kinda pills did you give him, anyway?" Suigetsu demanded.

Juugo approached the group. "We're a team, and teams stick together."

Sasuke let his eyes fall, far away, but he said nothing to that. Karin wondered if he was remembering something.

"Yeah. Hell yeah, Juugo, you said it. And if I'm free to go, I'm free to stay. Someone's gotta haul your sorry ass to safety when you get cocky, Sasuke. And you do get cocky."

Suigetsu poked Sasuke in the chest, and the motion drew Sasuke out of his trance.

"You're one to talk," Sasuke said.

"I like to make a habit of things I'm good at," Suigetsu said, smirking.

"Karin? You'll come too, right?" Juugo asked.

Karin looked between the three young men who had become her whole world. They'd been through hell and high water together. She'd seen Sasuke at his shining peak and on the verge of death. 'Team' was not a word she would have used for their motley crew in the beginning, but as time went on, she supposed there was no other way to describe them. Juugo could still turn on them at the drop of a hat and Suigetsu was kind of a dick when he wanted to be. But Sasuke had brought them together for his goal, and now it was theirs to share. Karin had never had a purpose in life other than survival.

Live, alone if you must.

She didn't want to be alone anymore.

"Yeah," she said, adjusting her glasses. "Someone has to save you all when you fail to do it yourselves."

"You know, I resent that," Suigetsu said.

"I'll wait outside," Juugo said. "Suigetsu."

Suigetsu stared at Juugo for a moment, blank-faced, and Juugo waited for him in the doorway to the one-room safe house.

"What the hell—"

"I need your help with something."

Suigetsu frowned and looked back at Sasuke and Karin, suspicious. But he let it slide. Whatever. It wasn't any of his business, anyway, and he could always hound her later when he got bored.

"Yeah, yeah."

Karin watched them go, and Sasuke turned to the window. The sky was clear, but there was no moon. She had the urge to go to him, alone at last, but she let the desire pitter out. They'd been spending most of their time lately alone together while he recovered, and things were clearer now. This revenge errand had killed Sasuke in a way, and she'd watched him struggle to live with death's venom in his veins. Was it gone? Or did it linger in the dark corners of his heart, waiting for its next chance? And there would be a next chance, Karin was sure. Madara she mistrusted, but Orochimaru she feared. They all did. He'd made them and he'd broken them, just to see if the pieces could fit back together nice and pretty.

What Orochimaru failed to account for, though, was that their pieces fit better with each other than they ever had all alone.

"They're right, you know," Karin said, watching Sasuke's profile. "We're a team."

"I had a team once."

Sasuke didn't have to elaborate there. Everyone knew the gist of what had happened when Sasuke left Konoha to join Orochimaru. To this day, his old team was still chasing him, trying in vain to turn back the clocks to before everything broke. Karin could understand that desire, in a way. Who wouldn't want to return to sunny days and warm smiles when all that was left was cold, dark, emptiness? But for Sasuke, revenge had always been more important. He'd needed people who could understand that and help him, or he would end up destroying himself. Hebi filled that role, and that was why they had lasted. Why they would stay together now. Still, it hadn't been easy watching Sasuke run straight to the heart of hell.

But then, wasn't it better to follow him there, watch his back and support him, instead of hanging back and hoping and wishing in vain that he would make it out on his own?

"We're not them," Karin said.

"I know."

Believe me, I know.

Karin wondered if she should give him some time, and she turned to leave. His voice stopped her.

"Why would you go so far for me?"

His words were so soft that she almost missed them. He still wouldn't look at her.

"Because you would do the same for me."

Karin remembered stormy nights in the old Southern Hideout, tallow candles and the smell of bleach. Two thirteen-year-old kids, alone in the world but not by choice. Kabuto had thought it would be a funny experiment. Group therapy, he'd called it. Karin had never before wanted someone dead as much as she had Kabuto.

But if not for Kabuto and Orochimaru, she never would have met Sasuke. If not for the unspeakable slaughtering of her entire family save her, he would not have answered her question.

"Does it get any easier?"

There had been no moon that night, either, a bad omen. But Sasuke had wrapped his bruised arms about his knees and stared resolutely into the darkness, searching for the meager starlight, should it exist.

"No. But it makes you stronger."

Looking at Sasuke now, she was sure he believed those words. She believed them, too. Always had. Loneliness hardened the heart, but even the loneliest people need a connection. He was hers, and she was his. With no one else left to them in all the world, what else could they do but fall into the fire pit together?

"Karin..."

"You have us," she said. "...You have me. I'm not going to sit by and let you run into the fire alone."

Sasuke regarded her, and she held her ground, unwavering. "I'm an Uchiha. I can make my own fire."

Karin put a hand on her hip. "Even the hottest fire can't last long without wind and wood to keep it alive."

A few moments of silence passed, and Karin wondered if she would have to beat it through that thick head of his. Sasuke had never been excited about getting close to people, and she, Suigetsu, and Juugo had respected that for as long as they'd known him. When he needed them, they would be there. That was all they could do.

Sasuke approached her slowly, and Karin remained still. His hand brushed hers, fleeting but warm, and he turned his head so his nose was only inches from her wild hair. She suppressed a shiver at the proximity. A part of her wanted to reach for the hand he'd almost offered, but she resisted. This was not the time. She settled for turning her head to meet his gaze, unwavering.

"Come with me," he said. He lingered just a moment.

Karin nodded, and he pulled away. As he retreated outside, Karin raised her hands to her face, which burned red with a blush. Her stomach was doing that twisty thing it did sometimes when she looked at Sasuke just so, but she revealed nothing of her inner thoughts. Clearing her throat, she turned on her heel and joined the rest of her team outside.

"So, when do we leave?" Suigetsu asked. He sucked noisily on a straw to no avail, and the sound gave Karin a twitch.

"Soon. I have to consult with Madara first," Sasuke said.

Juugo watched in silence, and Karin wondered what he was thinking.

"Soooo, Team Hebi Round Two, eh? So long as I don't have to deal with Orochimaru, I'm fine."

"No."

"...No?" Suigetsu paled and began to sweat.

"From now on, we're Taka." Sasuke looked toward the horizon where the first rays of morning light breached the horizon. "We have a new purpose."

Karin leaned back against the safe house's wall. Whatever was in store for them, she knew they would handle it. Together. This time, it wouldn't be Sasuke facing the object of his terrors alone. This time, whatever happened, they would fight side by side for a common purpose.

She fought the urge to chew out Suigetsu when he tried to persuade Sasuke into naming their team something else.

"What about Team Ika? Or Team Sake? C'mon, I can't believe you didn't even let us take a vote."

"I'm not going to be a part of a team named after a sea creature, Suigetsu."

"Or Team Tako, maybe? That's kind of like Taka, but an octopus is way cooler than a hawk, I'm just saying—"

"Drop it, Suigetsu."

"I like Taka," Juugo said.

Sasuke said nothing, but he didn't have to. Suigetsu pointed an accusatory finger at Juugo.

"You're colluding with him, you bastard. Whatever, I could take both of you."

Karin snorted, and Suigetsu turned on her. "You got somethin' to say to me, Karin?"

"Not really. No matter how many times I tell you what a first-rate moron you are, you just don't hear me."

"How 'bout I chop off the rest of that rachet hair, even you out a little?" Suigetsu brandished his sword and Karin glared at him.

Even with a new name and a new purpose, as well as new enemies on the horizon, perhaps some things would never change. And deep down, that was just fine with Karin.


Sakura paced her room, annoyed at the palpable change in temperature as she approached and retreated from the fire. This place was so freaking cold and it was pissing her off. No windows, no light, no people to talk to. Except Deidara, who was somewhere Sakura had no real desire to be, wherever that was.

And Sasori.

She paced faster.

A good night's rest and a homemade remedy she'd whipped up with Kaori's assistance had done wonders for Sakura's abused hands. She was just about back to normal, and it seemed like a month had passed since Sasori was up and about. And kissing her. And pushing her against the kitchen counter. And lifting her up like a goddamned idiot who forgets he's not invincible anymore—

"He was never invincible," Sakura corrected herself aloud.

Great. Now she was talking to herself.

"Technically, I kissed him," she said, stopping. She made a face. Like that mattered anymore.

All these thoughts, all these emotions (a deep disappointment in the pit of her stomach that made her drag her feet, but whether if arose out of the kiss having ended so soon or having happened at all, she could not say) were driving her stir-crazy.

She wasn't a prisoner here. She'd just worked a miracle on a former criminal who was a bit of a miracle himself, coming back from the dead like he had, and now she deserved some kind of reward for her efforts. If Sasori wanted to stay cooped up in his room to recover or wherever he spent his time, that was fine with Sakura. If he needed her, he could just seek her out himself. She wasn't here to wait on him hand and foot like a maid.

Decided, Sakura marched out of her room and took a deep breath. The last time she'd been here, she'd had a handicap that made it difficult to walk around for too long. This time, she intended to explore every nook and cranny of this castle. Sasori was hiding things and she wasn't looking, per se, but open enough doors and she was bound to find something interesting. Things were never boring when it came to him, if nothing else.

"Right, because poisoned booby-traps are so invigorating."

Talking to myself again. Cut it out.

She scampered down the hall to the main floor, as though speed and distance would erase the fact that she had no one here with her and was compensating with short soliloquies.

To her surprise, Sakura had already explored most of what the main floor had to offer. She steered clear of the kitchen, where she suspected Kaori and the cooks to be so close to lunch time. They made her uncomfortable, though by no fault of their own. Sakura made a note to ask Ino about breaking mind control techniques when she got back to Konoha.

If one had seen Sakura's idea of "exploration," one might presume her to be a common cat burglar with the way she peeked behind priceless paintings and checked beneath hand-painted vases for secret switches. At one point, she came upon an ancient suit of samurai armor from the Golden Age, complete with two katana and boiled leather under garments. Peering left and right to make sure she was alone, she pulled out one of the katana and swung it before her with two hands.

Naruto would love this.

She smiled as she twirled with the sword. Sakura had never been anything special with a blade, but it was standard fare at the Academy to learn the basics. Naruto had never been any good with weapons of any kind, but he'd always been the last one still practicing. In retrospect, there was so much about Naruto that she'd never thought much of until years later. To have him on her team, as her best friend, was beyond lucky.

Sakura replaced the katana and continued on her prowl of the castle. She tried every door she could find, remembering Sasori's rule about locked doors being locked for a reason. What bad fortune she had, for nearly every door she came upon was locked tight and the ones that weren't had nothing special to hide. She was half-tempted to force a door or two, but Sasori would probably find out and become cross with her.

Cross, sure.

"It's not that you can't open the doors, it's that you're not ready to see what's behind them," Sakura said in her best (worst) impression of Sasori's mellifluous baritone.

She laughed, unable to resist. She could just picture the look on his face if he were to encounter her now, having a laugh at his expense. Murderous.

Maybe it wasn't so funny, now that she thought about it.

Shrugging it off, Sakura continued in her quest. She'd traversed the entire east wing of the castle, so she made her way west. There were fewer doors on this side of the castle, and at some point she stopped bothering to check them. That is, until she came to the last door at the top of the western rampart.

It was slightly ajar.

Sakura got a chill, and she looked over her shoulder. No one was there, and she couldn't pick up any sounds of human approach. She bit her lip. Technically, Sasori's rule regarded locked doors, so open ones were fair game. Still, she hesitated. There was a faint light filtering through the crack in the doorway, but the lack of human life in the area suggested that no one was around.

She decided to chance it. She wasn't breaking any rules, and Sasori had no intention of harming her. Neither did Deidara. She could trust them.

As soon as she had the thought, Sakura frowned. Did she trust them? She supposed she could trust them with her life, all things considered. They were on the same side, in a way. The fact that she'd so easily convinced herself, though, puzzled her. Was this good or bad? Memories of the kiss she'd shared with Sasori the night before spurred her forward. She could trust him, just as he must have trusted her to let her near him with her chakra. She'd seen him at his most vulnerable twice in this single visit, and that had to count for something.

She pushed open the door, wincing when it squeaked on its hinges. The interior was somber, and the room was spacious. The walls were stone, just like every other room in the castle, but there were no tapestries or paintings or other valuable baubles as in the other rooms.

Instead, there were puppets.

To be precise, there were puppet parts. Arms and legs, half-formed torsos, faces with unfinished paint jobs and the like hung from the rafters on sharp hooks. Sakura approached one that stood out to her, an old thing with a few holes in its face. She ran her finger over the one directly between the eyes.

Knife wound.

Sakura could not fathom why a wooden puppet would have multiple knife wounds in its face. She further could not explain why Sasori kept it. Or why it was wooden. Narrowing her eyes, she followed that thought deeper into the room.

A desk was pushed against the far wall, and it was covered with with scrolls, some opened, some closed. She was tempted to pore over them, but refrained. He might know if she touched anything, and something told her that Sasori did not appreciate other people touching his things.

They why would he leave the door open?

Sakura debated with herself for a moment. Perhaps just a glance would do no harm. She wouldn't even touch anything. A couple of scrolls were open and she could make out kanji inked in black and red, looping and beautiful. They looked ancient, and she didn't recognize some of the symbols. Seals, she decided. Made up ones, at that. This must be where he stored some of his human puppets.

Green eyes roved over the open scrolls, searching for clues, anything to give her a little more insight into the man she couldn't get out of her head. One of them looked new. The ink was still drying, and the blood Sasori had used to decorate the seals ran a bit. She made out half of of a kanji, but it wasn't visible enough to decrypt. Maybe...

"Devil?"

Sakura reached for the scroll, her earlier boundaries forgotten.

"What are you doing in here?"

His voice made her jump, and Sakura whirled to find Sasori standing in the doorway. She hadn't sensed or heard his approach at all. Instinct drew her eyes to his abdomen and she assessed his posture, taking into account time elapsed, the healthy flush in his cheeks, and those sleepy eyes no longer glazed with death. It was a relief to see him up and about and not about to collapse, that is, as long as he didn't lift her up on any more counters and kiss her stupid—

"Sakura," he said, stepping into the room.

The heat twisting Sakura's stomach evaporated. He looked displeased.

"I'm sorry," she said, trying to relax. She could relax as long as she was truthful with him. "The door was open, and I was curious..."

He approached, every step slow and deliberate, and Sakura lost all motor function. But he paused just short of her and peered over her shoulder. She didn't have to wonder at what he was thinking.

"They were open when I got here. I didn't touch anything."

"Nothing?"

Sakura swallowed. She'd wondered how her next encounter with Sasori would go after what had transpired between them, and this did not quite fit. He didn't strike her as the type for physical affection by any means, although he'd proven time and again how little he cared about her personal space. She'd even expected anger or his usual callousness. But there was no reading him like this. She clenched and unclenched her fists, resisting the urge to chew on her lip.

Sakura's eyes shifted to the knifed puppet, and Sasori followed her gaze. He stared at it for a moment, silent.

"Why don't you fix that one?" she ventured.

He lifted a finger and traced the gash between the puppet's eyes. "Bad memories."

He was in one of those crypticmoods. It wasn't ideal, but at least Sakura had some idea of how to approach him now.

"Then throw it away."

He looked at her sideways, and Sakura got an eerie sense of deja-vu.

"My collection isn't just about quantity; quality is just as important."

"Sometimes the worst memories are best kept close. A reminder of who the real enemy is."

"Orochimaru?"

Sasori smiled a little, and Sakura knew she'd assumed wrong. There were so many things she wanted to ask him. Ignorance was bliss, but it was still ignorance. Fumble around in the dark for too long and she was bound to run into something nasty. Even Sakura had her limits, and they were fast running thin. Sasori was reticent. He would come clean in his own time, when it was right. Even Deidara wasn't fully apprised of the situation, as far as Sakura could tell. There was a method to Sasori's madness, and the maddest usually planned for everything.

Instead, she tried a different approach and put her hand over his against the puppet's face. He didn't pull away.

"Your puppets are strong, but they can't fight on their own." She caught his eye. "They don't have to."

He kept his gaze steady on her. He didn't waver for even a moment, and Sakura fought the urge to bite her lip.

"They don't. I'm the puppet master. I give them life and purpose. Beauty."

"What happens when you're out of puppets?"

Careful.

Sasori gave no indication of his thoughts on her prodding. Perhaps months ago, Sakura would have sooner stayed silent than dare to question his motives without picking a fight, but things had changed. She had changed, and so had he.

"Not all puppets are made of wood."

Sakura frowned. "Is that what I am to you? A puppet? Is that what Deidara is?"

"We're all puppets, in a sense. Everyone has a part to play. I'm just...arranging the pieces to my advantage."

She trusted him to plan this right. She trusted him with her life more than she trusted most people. Sasori, she was certain, could predict her death and circumvent it if necessary. But they weren't immortal. People made mistakes.

"You're not a puppet anymore. You're human."

At this, his gaze froze over and he leaned back. Sakura hadn't even noticed how close they'd come until he pulled away.

"You never tire of reminding me."

"Sometimes I think you forget." She reached for him and laid her hand over his heart. "Sometimes I forget, too."

His heartbeat was steady underneath her fingertips, and Sakura's eyes softened. "There. You're not heartless."

Sasori chuckled. "The heart is just a pacemaker. Its sole purpose is as a cog in the machine you call a human. The only reason people use it to channel irrational emotions like trust and love is because they need a corporeal medium. Like a physical thing will prove the existence of something intangible and superfluous."

Sakura's expression fell and she dropped her hand. "Love isn't superfluous, Sasori. It's the strongest force in the universe."

She had seen light in his eyes, a burning that brought him to life when he was with her. But this look was frozen, so like the way he was during their fight to the death. Empty. Suspicious. Out of her reach. Sakura fought the urge to step away.

"It's pure fiction, nothing but a crutch when logic and reason and true power fail you. And even then, it's not a very reliable crutch."

Sasori's mother and father had died on a mission when he was very young. Too young. And according to Chiyo, he'd never been the same. What was there to say to a man whom love had failed in every imaginable way when he'd needed it most? But it was no excuse.

"It's not about a physical heart. When you let that last attack hit you... That wasn't logical. The heart is something deeper. You can't escape it even if you cast it aside."

He narrowed his eyes. "Then enlighten me, Sakura. What's so important about the heart?"

She itched to punch him. She was trapped now, and they both knew it. But Sakura was undeterred. If she had to make him see what was so clear to her, then and now, she would waste her breath for him again.

"When you love someone, you would do anything for them. Even death can't break that bond. Love is about sacrifice."

This only made him angry, and he withdrew. He looked at her like he wasn't seeing her, but something else. Something far away and forgotten. "You're a fool. To win, you need all your best pieces. Sacrificing even one would mean admitting a pointless defeat."

His anger rubbed off on her, and she clenched her fists. "Sacrifice isn't pointless, it's selfless. And I wouldn't do it for just anyone."

"I'm relieved to know you have standards," he bit out.

That was it. Sakura took a step toward him and the stone floor cracked beneath her foot. She didn't care. "Why is that the only way you can see the world? Why can't you just for a minute think that maybe it's not pointless? Maybe we're not in a race to the bottom and we can actually make this work!"

He glared and Sakura faltered. She knew that look.

"Be careful how you speak to me, woman."

"Oh, so now we're back to that? You can't even say my name? That's pathetic."

He was on her in a second with his fist in the collar of her woolen sweater. Sakura didn't resist. She returned his glare with all her might.

"You try my patience," he said.

She could feel his breath on her lips, razor blade sharp. "Good. Someone should."

He blinked and the anger subsided, like she'd caught him off-guard with her words, though she could not have imagined them having this kind of jarring effect on him. The shift was gone as soon as it had come, though, and he released her. Without another look in her direction, he paced to the desk and began rolling up and storing the scrolls in his coat. Secrets he kept bottled up in that very human heart he refused to share—not because he couldn't, but because he wouldn't.

Sakura watched him a moment and entertained an apology, but decided against it. There was no getting through to him in the end, no matter how close he brought her, and that hurt. Maybe he had a point. Maybe death was only the beginning, and she was the end. Sasori didn't want to die.

Sakura released a shaky breath and looked at the maimed puppet hanging to her left once more. It stared through her, like she wasn't even there.

"Sasori was always alone. And solitude will drive a man mad, no matter how powerful he becomes or how far he tries to outrun it."

At the time, Sakura had thought Ebizo's explanation was a pithy excuse for Sasori's lifetime of crime and cruelty. Now, she suspected it ran much deeper than that. Sasori may have been alone, but he'd always had a choice, and that choice was clear.

"I'll leave you alone, then," Sakura said, rubbing her upper arms for warmth and walking back into the hall.

She didn't see Sasori watch her go, or the way his hand twitched as she turned from him, though he never reached for her. No point. No time. With only his sightless puppets for company, Sasori was back in his element. He glanced at the mutilated puppet still hanging from its rafter, and gritted his teeth. Faster than the eye could see, he produced a knife from his sleeve and flung it at the puppet, landing a hit in its chest. A kill move that would have stopped the heart, if the puppet had a heart.

There was no sound, no witnesses. Nothing to account for the twitching in his hand.

There was no one here at all.


The minute Sakura wanted to be alone in this armored palace, she had to run into Deidara. Of course.

"We have to stop meeting like this," she grumbled as she sat down in the basement kitchen to eat a sandwich.

"What was that?"

When Sakura didn't answer, Deidara gave her a funny look. "Y'know, they say talking to yourself is a warning sign of schizophrenia."

"Deidara, I'm not schizophrenic."

"Coulda fooled me, yeah."

"Jerk."

"Rude~"

He wagged a butcher knife at her. Paired with a shit-eating grin, it would have looked out of place on anyone else. On Deidara, it just looked like the last sight his victims ever saw. Lucky me. Sakura dropped the conversation and went back to eating.

Deidara plopped down across the table from her and ploughed into what looked like enough food for four people. Sakura eyed the leftover stir-fry he was currently ignoring in favor of fried rice and stole a tofu square.

"Hey! I was gonna eat that," Deidara said through a mouthful of food.

"Didn't your mother ever teach you that sharing is caring?" Sakura said as she popped the tofu into her mouth.

Deidara's expression fell blank, and he returned to his food at a more sedate pace. Sakura quailed, and her appetite vanished.

"I'm sorry, that was thoughtless. I didn't know—"

"—that my mother died when I was a kid?" His expression was unreadable, neither angry nor calm nor anything in between. It was terrifying.

"...Deidara, I'm—"

"Whatever. It's in the past. All we can do is worry about what comes next, yeah."

Sakura watched him for a moment, fascinated. He was so different from Sasori that times like this made her wonder what, if anything, had forced their paths to converge and progress together.

"That reminds me. You never answered my question about why you keep coming back here. To Sasori."

"Guess I didn't."

He didn't elaborate, and Sakura rolled her eyes. "Well?"

Deidara swallowed and rested his chin on the backs of his hands. "You say that like you want me to answer."

"Yeah. So?"

"So, it's none of your damn business, yeah."

Sakura smiled, and Deidara narrowed his eyes.

"What," he demanded.

"What?"

He set down his utensils and gave her his full attention. "I don't get what he sees in you. I really don't, yeah."

"But you get that I saved your life, right?"

He scowled. "Never speak of that again."

They lapsed into a brief silence while Sakura thought about what he'd said. She was inclined to agree. After her most recent encounter with Sasori, she was beginning to think he didn't see anything at all beyond the debt he'd foisted upon her. But the way he'd touched her...

So gentle.

"It's not what you think."

Silence stretched between them, a rarity for Deidara and Sakura on any given day. He broke it first.

"You have no idea what I think. So lemme lay it out for you, nice and slow. I think you're a coward and he's a stubborn piece of shit. I think you got these pretty ideas in that pink head of yours and he doesn't like 'em, not that I blame him. Am I getting warm?"

"What's so important about the heart?"

Sakura let her eyes fall, the will to argue gone.

Deidara scowled. "There you go, thinking too much again. Just make up your mind and go with it. Sasori's an ass, but even he can be convinced, whatever it is." He paused and closed his eyes, troubled. "You've had more luck than me, anyway."

"...What if I can't?"

"Then you're not worth his time or mine, yeah."

Sakura's mind reeled. Convince Sasori of what? That he had a heart? That it was okay to fall back on it? To use it? She sighed. The last time she'd appealed to Sasori's human heart, he'd wound up dead and she'd needed a miracle to make it out alive. What did it take to make the heart beat? To make him see the world the way it was meant to be seen?

The world could not be as he saw it. Until he understood that, wooden people who couldn't see him, either, would be his only company.

"You still never answered my question," Sakura said. "Why you keep coming back to him."

Deidara topped off his meal before he bothered with her again. For the longest time, Sakura wondered if he would ignore her the way he had last time.

"Because he can see the world the way it's supposed to be seen."

"I don't think I can agree with you on that one."

Deidara sighed dramatically and gestured across the room. "I don't mean just see; I mean really see. Vision. Without it, even the best art's just a way to kill time, yeah."

"I thought you didn't agree with Sasori's artistic style."

"I never said the guy was right," Deidara qualified. "...But he's got a point."

Sakura was missing something because Deidara's words struck a chord. Maybe she didn't have all the answers. The last time she thought she had, Sasori had ended up dead. It hadn't been enough. What did Deidara see that she didn't?

"The world isn't as black and white as you seem to think it is."

"Yeah, I guess he does."

They were just finishing up lunch when a woman's scream echoed down the hallway. It lasted only a second or two, but Deidara and Sakura were on their feet and running to the kitchen's entrance, back to back as they assessed the situation. Deidara's palms chewed frantically.

Mogu, mogu, mogu.

Sakura swallowed. "That sounded like Kaori."

"Someone's here," Deidara said. "Find Sasori. I'll check outside."

He was already running down the hall when he finished his command, and Sakura didn't need to be told twice. She raced past her room and found Kaori slumped on the floor by the staircase leading to the first floor. Swearing, Sakura kneeled and felt for the woman's pulse. There was none.

A cold chill traveled up Sakura's spine. A quick sweep with her chakra showed no signs of struggle, no wounds of any kind. It was like Kaori had dropped dead of a heart attack, unheard of for a woman her age.

There was only one person Sakura knew who could drop someone like that and have a reason to do it.

Her hands shook, but not out of fear. A rage Sakura had never known she possessed wriggled its way through her veins and propelled her upstairs, fists glowing green with lethal medical chakra. She had to find Sasori, and fast.

The race to the western rampart took only minutes as Sakura sprinted through the castle, but when she arrived there was no one around. The door had been locked, but when she kicked it open, the place was empty save for the puppet parts hanging on their rafters. The scrolls that had previously littered the desk were gone. There were no signs of struggle here, and Sakura turned around to leave. Where could he be?

A deep booming sound reverberated through the walls and Sakura stumbled and crashed into a pedestal holding a vase. The vase fell from its perch and shattered. Deidara was fighting somewhere. Not good. Sakura went back the way she came, this time heading in the opposite direction toward the sealed castle gates. Without slowing down, she pulled her fist back and ran at them. A burst of blue chakra hit the ancient doors with the force of a thousand men, and they burst open. Splinters exploded and frozen iron whined and bent at the brutality, but the gates fell apart and cleared a path.

Sakura hit the ground running, faltering only momentarily at the rush of frigid air. The snowstorm still raged on its last dregs, and snow flurries blinded her. Sasori was here, busy fending off a group of Sound shinobi. Deidara circled overhead, but his focus was elsewhere. Orochimaru ran across the small clearing through interspersed pine trees as Deidara's bombs rained down upon him, crumbling what little was left of the cliff face and blowing snow everywhere. If he kept it up, there would be no ground upon which to stand.

There was no time to wonder at Orochimaru's seeming good health (the last time she'd seen him, he'd been bedridden). More importantly, he launched a chakra-laden tornado that sucked up Deidara's bombs and snow alike, forcing Deidara to veer off course and avoid getting blown up himself. In the distraction, Orochimaru focused his next attack on Sasori.

"Look out!" Sakura screamed.

Sasori, puppet-less from having been dragged into battle off-guard, nevertheless made do with what he had. He used his strings to throw one of his Sound shinobi attackers in the path of Orochimaru's concentrated blast of superheated wind, kicking and screaming. The attack hit the Sound nin full tilt, ripping off his appendages and boiling his skin. He was dead before he hit the ground, and Sasori had escaped unscathed.

"Is that the best you can do?" Sasori said, finally finding a free moment to release the Third Kazekage puppet.

Orochimaru grinned. "Not quite."

The Sound lackeys converged on Sasori and he unleashed his puppet's iron sand attacks on them, but Orochimaru hung back. Sakura grew anxious. Why would Orochimaru hold back?

Movement caught her eye, and the blood drained from her face. Kabuto approached in silence at a full sprint, his hands glowing green. Deidara dropped bombs after him, but they were too slow and Orochimaru retaliated to compensate with his usual snake-based attacks. Kabuto was thirty feet away and closing.

Sakura sprang into action, approaching from the opposite direction. Kabuto caught her eye and grinned; he was closer than she was. Rage and nightmare aftertastes lent Sakura an inhuman strength the moment she saw that grin, and she flew over the snow toward Sasori.

Twenty feet.

Fifteen.

Five.

Kabuto launched himself forward, glowing hand outstretched, and Sasori faced him. It was too late to throw up an iron wall. Sakura opened her mouth in a silent scream and reached a glowing hand toward Sasori's back. Another bomb went off, too close to them, and sound faded to a high-pitched ringing in Sakura's ears as she flew. Kabuto struck Sasori's heart just as Sakura slammed her hand over Sasori's shoulder blade opposite the attack.

Snow and sleet swirled around the trio, and Sasori's arms jerked on impact. His strings faded and the Third Kazekage fell to the ground a short distance away. Kabuto stumbled and skidded to a halt just as Sakura's hand fell away and Sasori crashed to knees on the ground, all in eerie silence as Sakura registered what had happened.

She dove after him.

"Sasori!"

The world came alive again in a rush of shouts and the smell of burning flesh and wood. Sakura flipped Sasori over on his back and paled at the look in his half-lidded eyes. They were glazed and unseeing, and his heavy clothing smoked over the place where Kabuto had struck him.

"Fancy meeting you here, Sakura," Kabuto said a short distance away. "Why the long face?"

Sakura wanted to ignore him and help Sasori, but if Kabuto advanced she would have to defend herself. Just when it looked like he would do just that, something small and fast hit him in the side and exploded. He cried out and vanished in a flurry of smoke and snow, Sakura look up to see Deidara swooping down on a giant, white falcon. He threw more bombs after Kabuto and the few Sound nin that Sasori hadn't killed.

"Deidara," Sakura said, her voice shaking. "Help me. We have to get him out of here."

Deidara moved even before she finished her entreaty. He dragged Sasori toward the bird under his arms and laid him flat across the bird's back. Sakura scrambled up after him and tore open Sasori's shirt to assess the damage. The skin over his heart was turning black with rot as whatever Kabuto had done seeped deeper and deeper, like poison. Sakura poured chakra into Sasori and swallowed her fears. This was no time to panic when he needed her most.

Meanwhile, Deidara launched them into the air, kicking up snow in his wake. The Sound shinobi tried to hit the trio with distance attacks, but Deidara was through fighting. He clapped his hands together and, in seconds, constructed a version of his infamous C3 drop-bomb. The Sound shinobi scattered, perhaps sensing what was about to happen. Deidara watched them the way a child watches ants through a magnifying glass. His only concern now was to make them suffer.

"Burn," Deidara said as dropped the bomb.

The miniature statue grew in size as it fell, and when it hit the ground the gloomy afternoon lit up like the sun itself had crash-landed. Orange fire swallowed the castle whole and spread to engulf the entire cliff face. The sound was deafening enough to make Sakura's ears bleed. The mountain crumbled beneath their flight. Colossal stone slabs slid from the mountain's peak to the deep valleys below, one after another, until all that was left was a smoking, black lump of superheated rock where once the tallest mountain in the range had stood proud and immutable for millennia.

Sakura heard none of this as she concentrated on saving Sasori's life for the second time in less than seventy-two hours.

"Don't you do this to me, Sasori," she said, pumping more chakra into him.

One beat.

One beat was all she needed.

Deidara looked at them over his shoulder as he steered them out of the mountain range, lone blue eye cold and furious. "What's happening back there?"

Sakura pushed harder. Just one beat. "Come back. I won't let you die, I swear. Come back!"

Her vision blurred and he faded from sight, warped beneath her tears.

"Sakura!" Deidara shouted.

She barely heard him, though, as she strained to listen for just a single heartbeat, anything at all to prove that Sasori was still here.

"What's so important about the heart?"

But there was only silence.

He was gone.


Sorry for the delay here, everyone. The next chapter should not take so long. Remember to review and let me know what you think!