Zero Hour, Chapter 19: Sub Rosa
Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto.
The wooden staircase Ino had taken from the ground level soon turned to metal. The air smelled of kerosene and rust, old. Halogen lamps lined the floors at intermittent intervals, casting just enough light to cut through the gloom but not enough to make out the ceiling. She marveled at how this place was intact even after Pein's devastation of Konoha. Someone had planned ahead in case of apocalyptic warfare. The revelation offered no comfort to Ino as she made her way over metal bridges, down and down.
Every few minutes, she encountered a Root agent and had to conceal herself in the shadows. They didn't seem to be looking for her, so avoiding them was no great trial. Still, she wasn't invisible. When a Root kunoichi spotted and advanced on her, Ino met her fist to fist. The kunoichi was good, really good, and Ino suffered a nasty punch to the jaw that made her see stars. But even temporarily blinded, her senses were as sharp as ever. She kicked out with a booted foot and rammed the enemy just below the knee. The enemy went down with a grunt of pain, and Ino elbowed her in the back between the shoulder blades just as she reached for the dagger at her hip. It was a short struggle to straddle the kunoichi, and Ino thanked her lucky stars that the enemy was a petite woman instead of a beefy man twice her size.
"Okay, now to find Sakura," she said, laying a hand flat over the kunoichi's head.
The rush of images flew by in a blur. Ino saw the underground fortress through the kunoichi's eyes. It was a maze full of twists and turns and hidden rooms, and Ino was sure she would get lost down here. But at the very bottom somewhere, she saw prison cells behind thick, titanium bars. They housed a number of inmates, all unrecognizable to Ino except for the last one on the left. Sakura was passed out in the kunoichi's memories, her arms badly ripped up and bloody, but she was there. Withdrawing, Ino got to her feet and backed away from the now comatose kunoichi.
"You might want to pop some Aspirin later. You'll wake up with one hell of a migraine," Ino muttered.
She took off in the direction the Root kunoichi had come from, unsure exactly where she was headed except for a vague sense of down. Even simply going down, however, proved trickier than she expected. Ino ran into so many dead ends that she lost count. Her senses weren't picking anything up, and she wondered if this place was rigged against such methods, like the Torture and Interrogation holding rooms. Just her luck. Progress was slow, but it was progress. Neji wouldn't be able to hold off forever, and she still had to find another way out of this place.
One thing at a time.
More Root guards caught her snooping around, and Ino had to jump to avoid a flying kunai that would have hit her in the face. She lost her footing and fell off a metal bridge, landing hard several yards below on her back. Pain flared up her spine, but she didn't have time to wallow in it. A kunai was rammed at her face, and she rolled to avoid it at the last second. Sparks flew where it hit the metal awning Ino had landed on, but she didn't stick around to admire the display. Jumping to the next available surface, Ino took a moment to assess her situation. There were two shinobi, and they were coming fast.
"Goddamn," Ino grumbled as she drew her chakra blades.
The first one was nimble enough to avoid her blades, but he didn't account for the extra six inches they gained in length when Ino channeled chakra through them. As a result, she caught her assailant in the shoulder blade, and he stumbled. Ducking low, she swung her leg out and knocked him in the ankles. He tumbled to the floor with a loud crash that made her wince, fearing the sound would attract more Root operatives.
Smashing his nose in with the heel of her boot, Ino turned and dashed around the nearest corner, ready to initiate Shinranshin if he or his partner pursued. Her face pounded where the kunoichi from earlier had punched her, but there was no helping it right now. Seconds ticked by, but there was only silence. Ino began to worry that they had retreated to get backup, but she was sure she would have heard them moving around. The corner she'd hid behind was a dark niche, just big enough for her to fit unseen. Looking now could jeopardize her position, but waiting was a less appealing option. To be safe, she readied her chakra in case she would have to use one of her mind techniques on the fly.
She poked her head around the corner, squinting through the dim lighting to get a glimpse of her attackers. The one she'd knocked out lay unmoving just where she'd left him, but there was no sign of the other one. Ino gritted her teeth. He was either lying in wait for her or bringing backup. There was only one way to find out. Slipping from her hiding place as silent as a shadow, she kept her back to the wall and searched with her eyes and ears. When she found something, it was directly behind her.
Whirling, Ino didn't hesitate in releasing her Shinranshin technique to steal her opponent's motor skills. Just as she felt her chakra connect, however, she found that she, too, could not move. It was like something had frozen her in place. Swallowing her rising panic, the first thing she thought was that her opponent had reflected her own technique and used it against her. But she quickly dismissed that option because she was controlling someone. She hadn't missed.
Struggling to control her breathing, Ino squinted through the gloom at her stalemate partner. All she could make out, however, was a dark silhouette. He was too far away.
"You're not dressed like them," he said, his voice soft but reaching her loud and clear.
"No fair. You can see me but I can't see you," Ino shot back. "Come into the light."
She manipulated her technique to force him to step closer, but as soon as she did the invisible force holding her in place tightened. Pressure built on her arms, her legs, her neck. Like hands gently squeezing the life out of her the closer she forced him to come. Realizing it was him, she stopped.
"How are you doing that?" she demanded.
"How are you?"
Ino didn't respond. She couldn't tell if this person was friend or foe, possibly neither. She didn't know him, that much was certain. But he hadn't killed her yet, and because of this she hadn't killed him yet, either. Curious, she manipulated him into walking closer once more, and this time he didn't resist, though he forced her to walk, too. Two puppet masters pulling each other's strings.
When she saw him in the light, Ino was surprised at how unsurprised she was. She'd never met this man, never seen him in person. But she'd seen him through the eyes of another, many, many times.
"Akasuna no Sasori," she said.
Honey eyes held her gaze, steady, but Ino knew what to look for. Never the eyes. They knew how to regulate their eyes. It was in the lips, how they twitched just so, the eyebrows, the tilt of the head. She knew him, but he didn't know her. And it made him nervous.
"No fair. You know my name, but I don't know yours."
Ino smirked at his mimicry. "Yamanaka Ino," she said. She eyed the translucent chakra threads connecting them. "I'd shake your hand, but I find myself a little tied up."
The way he watched her, almost bored or even sleepy, made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. He was really looking, reading her, searching for the cracks in her armor. Thinking about everything Sakura had recounted to her, both in memories and in their late night conversations, it was so easy to see how this man kept Sakura up at night, confused and frustrated and totally captivated. Sakura couldn't read Sasori, not like he could read her. But Ino had an idea.
"Rather than waste both our time and Sakura's, why don't I just bring you up to speed," Ino said. "I know about your relationship with Sakura, how she's been helping you and Deidara take down Orochimaru."
This got a reaction, but Ino kept going.
"You probably don't believe anything I'm saying, so let me break it down for you. I have the ability to transfer memories. You'll see that I'm telling the truth and that we both want the same thing: to help Sakura. I assume that's why you're risking more than your life being here in Konoha the moment she's in real trouble, at least. Am I getting warm?"
Sasori chuckled, but he neither confirmed nor denied her conclusions. "I'm sure you've taken into account the fact that I don't trust you not to use this as an excuse to get close enough to attack me."
"Little old me against a former Akatsuki? You flatter me."
Sasori's gaze shifted to the Root shinobi still lying prone just a short distance away, his nose leaking enough blood to drown him in. Ino followed his gaze.
"That guy? He looked at me funny."
He took a moment to think, but only a brief moment. This was a man who wasted no time, not on friends and certainly not on enemies. If he was half as smart as Sakura had made him out to be, he would take Ino's offer.
"If you try anything, I'll kill you. And I don't make light threats."
"I would never peg you being light on anything," Ino said. "So, how do we do this? Should I count to three?"
Her body moved on its own without warning, and Ino resisted the urge to sneer. Asshole. She maneuvered him closer, too, and before they knew it there was only an arm's length of empty space between them. Ino's hand hovered just above Sasori's forehead, suspended.
"My technique is vivid. It goes fast, but you'll get the idea," she explained.
"Just get it over with. The next five seconds determine whether you live or die."
Ino frowned. "Charming."
Another breath of hesitation, hers or his, she couldn't tell, and her fingertips connected with his forehead. The memory transfer activated immediately, and Sasori gasped at the influx of mental stimulation. Ino showed him everything: her childhood meeting Sakura and defending her from bullies, their petty squabbling over Sasuke, the Chuunin exams, late-night dinners, parties, laughter and tears, and finally secrets. Secrets about Sasori himself, secrets Sakura had confided, secrets Ino had erased Kakashi's memory to keep. How much was her life worth? Was it worth Sasori's secrets?
She severed the connection after a few seconds and let Sasori catch his breath. He didn't take long to recover, and once collected he stared her down once more.
"All right," he said. "On three."
They released each other at the same time, and Ino immediately backed up into a defensive stance. He bared his teeth in a grin.
"If I'd wanted you dead, I would have done it while you were still hiding from the Root agents."
"You're pretty confident in yourself, huh," Ino said. "Instead of taunting me with your false bravado, how about you help me find Sakura and get the hell out of here?"
He straightened and waited for Ino to lower her hackles. No sense in wasting any more time, not when more Root agents could be on their way to foil this rescue attempt. Ino held out a hand toward Sasori.
"So, friends? Between you and me, I'm a pretty great one to have."
Sasori averted his gaze up in a slow arc. After a moment of calculation, he brushed past Ino and jumped onto a rafter, uncaring that he stepped on an unconscious Root shinobi's hand. "I don't have friends."
Ino rolled her eyes and tailed him. "No, I suppose you wouldn't."
Together, they made their way deeper into the bowels of Root's underground network.
The Root agents were nothing to worry about. So long as they had no idea Sasori was coming, he had little trouble taking them out. Unlike another blond partner Sasori had to work with on a regular basis, Ino was an ideal ally in their current endeavor. She stayed in the shadows, unseen, and attacked with a kind of vespertine silence even Sasori had to appreciate. No one saw her coming until she'd already taken full control and turned friends against one another.
However, like Deidara, Ino had an annoying penchant for filling silences with conversation. When she wasn't busy incapacitating the enemy, that is. A stocky shinobi's eyes rolled back so far in his head under her touch that Sasori could have sworn they must have severed from the optical nerve. The enemy fell to the ground in a heap at Ino's feet and she stepped over him without a second thought.
"So, what exactly do you have Sakura doing? What's her part in all this?"
Sasori resisted the urge to roll his eyes. However, he had made it a point never to shun conversation when the alternative was far worse. He'd learned that lesson that hard way many years ago. "She's the medic. It's self-explanatory."
Ino snorted. "Yeah, right. Maybe it started out that way, but things have changed, including your plans. You seem like the kind of guy who takes the unaccountable into account. So, what's really going on?"
Sasori led Ino around a corner and over a drop-off of about twelve yards. He jumped with ease, landing quietly on the balls of his feet, and Ino followed suit, almost completely silent save for the wind in her hair.
So unlike Sakura.
"You ask too many questions."
"And you certainly hate to answer them. Sakura might not call you out on what you're doing, but I am. I'm not about to send my best friend on a suicide mission, buddy."
Sasori whirled, but Ino was ready with a chakra blade should he attempt to harm her.
"It's not a suicide mission. Have a bit more faith in your friend. She's stronger than you think."
Ino's expression fell with her weapon. "It's because I have faith in her that I know she'll go all the way for someone she believes in. That idiot only thinks of others. So I have to be the selfish one."
"What the hell do you think a human life is?! What family is?"
"Why is that the only way you can see the world?"
Sasori rubbed his eyes, tired. Sakura's impassioned words from that fateful day so long ago continued to haunt him even now. Someone has to be selfish.
"I have no intention of throwing her away," he said. "I never have."
Ino sheathed her weapon and frowned. "Good. Because she's not just some pawn, you know. She's a queen. You don't throw your best pieces away when they're winning the war for you."
"No," he said, turning away and starting down the dark corridor into which they'd fallen. "You don't."
Ino watched him disappear, hesitating a moment before following.
"What the hell did you get yourself into, Sakura?" she whispered. Shaking her head, she followed at a jog.
You and your big heart.
The last thing Sakura remembered was the earth falling apart and taking her with it. The ground was hard and smooth, too smooth to be natural. She wasn't outside. The smell cemented her theory. The air was redolent with metal and turned earth, damp, like she was far underground. She tried to sit up, but she hissed in pain when her arms flared up. They began to bleed.
Her hands were cuffed behind her back with chakra-sapping shackles. Her arms were scraped up and had begun to scab, but the renewed pressure upon them reopened the wounds. She bit her cheek to blot out the pain, cursing whoever had imprisoned her without at least healing her first.
Sakura's head pounded, but the memories returned loud and clear. This was his doing, no doubt. He was a traitor, and he had to be stopped. She took stock of her surroundings and tried to figure out a way to escape. The walls were stone, chiseled. This cell had been carved out of the very earth. The bars entrapping her were metal, and though she could not guess just by looking, Sakura didn't need to be a genius to know she was not busting through them without the aid of chakra. She scooted toward the barred exit and tried to peer outside. Halogen lights lined the floor at spaced intervals, but there were no guards.
So I'm not even enough of a threat to warrant a guard?
She made a face at the thought. Not that it mattered. She was not going anywhere without chakra. Sighing, she rested her head between two metal bars and tried to think. What way out was there? What options did she have? Who could help her?
No one even knew she was here. If she had the power to read minds like Ino, she could reach out to someone, but she did not. She was just Sakura, no special techniques to speak of, and no means to contact anyone for aide. No one knew she was here. Even summoning Sasori had proved too much for her.
"Shut up," she hissed. "Just shut up."
She knew she was here. And she could do something. Anything at all. Leaning back from the bars, Sakura resolved to bring her cuffed wrists in front of her for better access. Perhaps she could get these shackles off if she could see what the hell she was doing. The rips in her flesh stretched like smiles, grinning and bleeding the more she tugged at them.
"Ah!" she cried out.
Who knew skin was so fragile? Changing her tactic, she hunched over and bent her elbows. There was nothing big about Sakura except her forehead, and right now that didn't matter.
"Come on, come on," she cheered herself on.
The stone floor scraped her white knuckles, clenched so tight to divert pain from her lacerated arms that even if the floor tore them up, surely they would not bleed. Leaning forward, Sakura balanced on the balls of her feet and collapsed her chest inward, fighting to make herself hollow and flexible. Inch by agonizing inch, her bound wrists slipped past her rear and under her thighs. Her blood smeared on her shorts, warm, and sweat beaded on her forehead as she tried to block out the pain. The skin of her ruined arms folded back on itself like pancakes, fried and yellowing at the edges, pulling back to expose muscle and bone and so much blood. Until finally, after a couple agonizing minutes, her hands met no resistance and her arms swung freely beneath her bent knees.
Sakura panted. "Hell yeah."
With her hands in front of her, she got a good look at the damage. Light bruising, blood drying in between the metal grooves of the cuffs, and a faint glow denoting the damn things sucking up her energy. Now what?
"Come on, Sakura. Think. You're good at that."
"Well, you're not that good at it," a voice said somewhere above her.
Sakura snapped her head up, a moment of fear and adrenaline fueling her legs to prepare to jump back. But the sight of her best friend in all the world leaning lazily against the cell bars almost made Sakura cry.
"Ino," she said, breaking into a smile. "Man, am I glad to see you."
Ino gripped the bars and poked her nose in between them. "That looks pretty nasty. How long have you been down here?"
Sakura shook her head. "I don't know. A while, I guess? Just get me out of here."
Ino smirked. "Way ahead of you." She paused and, frowning, turned to her right. "Hey, a little help over here?"
Another figure stepped into view, and Sakura could only stare. Sasori cast Ino a glance askance, but he said nothing. A wave of his hand and the metal cell door whined as it bent, until suddenly it flew off its hinges altogether. Ino raced inside the cell and crouched down in front of Sakura.
"Yeah, so he showed up, like, out of nowhere. Weird timing, huh?" Ino spared her a look that said I-know-you-had-something-to-do-with-this, but mercifully she didn't press the subject. "Good thing, too, since it would have taken me at least a few more seconds to pick that lock on my own."
She deactivated Sakura's chakra cuffs as she spoke, and once they were off Sakura sighed in relief as her energy returned in waves, like coming up for air after too long underwater. She gasped and gagged, but Ino was way ahead of her working on the lacerations on her arms. Sakura was tempted to lean against the nearby wall, but she forced herself to stand. Ino followed, never breaking contact as she stitched Sakura back together.
"What did you tell her?" Sakura asked.
Sasori caught her eye, though he made no move to approach from the cell's entrance. "Nothing you didn't already."
Understanding dawned, but Ino said nothing. There was nothing to say. At least they hadn't tried to kill each other. Sakura channeled her own medical chakra to her arms to speed up the healing, and after a minute or so her arms were back to normal, like nothing had been amiss at all. Only a phantom pain remained, a reminder of what had been there just moments ago. She flexed her fists.
"Let's get out of here," Sasori said. "Quietly."
Sakura followed Ino out of the cell.
"Can you walk?" Sasori asked as Sakura passed him.
Without another word, the three of them broke into a jog and headed away from the cells. Other prisoners shouted at them, yelling to be let out, but the group paid them no mind.
"If they keep that up, we'll have all of Root on our asses in minutes," Ino hissed as they rounded a corner.
Sakura tried to keep her breathing steady, but having only recently awoken from unconsciousness, she was having a little trouble keeping up. When they jumped up on a rafter at least nine or ten feet up, Sakura lost her footing. Sasori's strings caught her just before she could fall and hauled her up. His hand was warm in hers, and she looked up at him.
"My summoning failed," she said. "I didn't finish it. So why are you here?"
"Do you want me to lecture you on chakra mechanics right now, or shall we get out of this place?"
She put a hand on his chest over his heart, the same heart she'd put back together on the brink of death not too long ago. It beat strong and steady under her fingertips.
"Uh-oh," Ino said from just ahead. "We've got company, kiddos."
Five Root shinobi raced toward the group from above, jumping across metal grates and rafters with murder on their minds. Perhaps someone had been watching over Sakura's incarceration, after all.
"Stand back," Sasori said, reaching for a scroll tucked snugly over his lower back.
"No, you stand back," Ino said, racing ahead. "Shinranshin!"
The five Root shinobi staggered as Ino's jutsu hit them full-force. They converged and began beating the living daylights out of each other. It was over in about fifteen seconds.
"There'll be more coming," Ino said, straightening. "Let's get out of here." She took off without waiting.
Sasori stepped over an unconscious Root operative, and Sakura smirked.
"She reminds me of you a little," she said.
He looked positively aghast. "No she does not."
Sakura laughed and took off after Ino, energy renewed a little now that she had a chance to get out of this place. Sasori lagged behind a bit, but Sakura thought little of it as she caught up with her friend. Ino was examining a spot on the wall and running her hands over it.
"Pig, what's up?"
Ino continued to run her hands over the bit of stone wall, which Sakura now noticed looked out of place against a backdrop of metal staircases and walkways.
"I think I found our way out," Ino said. "There's a seal on here. Strong chakra."
"If it's a seal, we can't break it without knowing what kind it is."
Just as Sakura moved to join Ino in examining the stone wall, more Root shinobi descended upon them. Some were speaking into radios and alerting more operatives.
"Damnit," Ino swore. "No one invited you to this party!"
Two enemies fell upon Sakura and Ino with sharpened chokutō, ready to cut them to ribbons. Sakura moved to defend them both, but before she could make contact something oblong and fleshy cut in between her and the enemy, taking the attack in her stead. A Root operative, one Ino had taken out previously, sprayed blood left and right but still lunged at the attackers, ramming them with expert taijutsu for a dead guy. Sasori appeared nearby, his jaw set and fingers fluttering as he flung the dead Root shinobi at the attackers.
Sakura covered her mouth in horror. That guy hadn't been dead before, merely knocked out. Now, there was no saving him. Sasori grabbed her wrist and yanked her back from the commotion.
"You two fend them off," he commanded, eyeing the stone wall. "I'll break the seal."
"How the hell're you going to do that?" Ino asked. "We don't even know what kind of seal it is."
Sasori put a hand on the wall. "Stop arguing and buy me a few minutes."
Sakura nodded and took Ino's hand. "Let's do it."
"Okay, fine. Go, I'll cover you!"
Sakura took off and channeled chakra to her fists. Five minutes. That's all Sasori would need.
A Root kunoichi came at her with a pair of nunchucks glowing with chakra, and Sakura suffered a graze to her thigh from the end. Lancing pain threw her off course, but she compensated with a bit of footwork and willpower, ignoring the pain. One chakra-laden punch and the kunoichi was out cold on the ground.
Three Root operatives ganged up on Sakura, and she looked around for something to help fend them off. But one convulsed midair and changed into something else. He corrected his trajectory and rammed the shinobi next to him with a tantō through the abdomen, pinning him to the floor and then stabbing himself. Sakura took advantage of the distraction and pummeled the third with an elbow to the back of the neck. He hit the floor and didn't move. Ino joined her, panting, and they exchanged a look of grim determination.
Sasori channeled chakra through his strings and caressed the invisible doorway, looking for the crux of the seal. It wasn't complicated, but unless he found the crux this would take longer than they had. And he hated to waste time. Top left corner. That was where the chakra circulated. He performed a round of hand seals and sent his chakra into the cornerstone of the seal, overloading it.
Back to back, Ino and Sakura faced seven Root operatives. One fell, and two more took his place. There was no end to them. Ino Shinranshin'd four for help and they assisted Sakura in plowing through the stragglers, but the numbers were against the girls. Ino drew her chakra blades just in time to catch a stray kunai one of her mind slaves could not deflect.
"You owe me for this one, Forehead!" she said as she cut through another Root shinobi's kenjutsu and severed his ACL, grounding him.
"Can't we consider this a favor?" Sakura changed the chakra output in her right hand to medical chakra and scraped at an enemy kunoichi's chest. The medical chakra cut through muscle and blood vessels, sending her into cardiac arrest.
Another kunoichi managed to get too close to Ino and stab her shoulder. Sakura whirled in midair to deliver a sickening punch to the enemy's solar plexus.
"You okay?" Sakura asked.
"Yeah, yeah." Ino pulled herself up and cracked her neck, ignoring the blood on her shoulder. "Focus on them."
"That's it," Sasori announced.
Sakura and Ino turned back to him, ready to make a break for it, but the stone was still in the way.
"Sakura, break it down," Sasori said, stepping out of the way.
Sakura nodded and ran toward the wall. Sasori passed her and assumed her previous position, latching onto the nearest two Root operatives and causing them to collide into each other.
"Nice one!" Ino said.
Chakra rushed Sakura's right fist and she propelled herself forward on heavy feet, boom, boom, boom. The metal made her steps echo throughout the space, louder than her heartbeat. This was it.
"Take this!" she shouted, pulling her fist back and letting the wall have it.
The impact was deafening. Chakra spider-webbed among cracks in the rock and forced them open, little doors, until all that was left was an empty space behind. She coughed and stepped back as dust filled the area. And light. A light shone up ahead through the darkness.
"Come on!" she called out, already jumping ahead.
Ino bolted after her, and Sasori hung behind another minute to take care of their pursuers. Latching onto the architecture, he commanded metal and stone alike to collapse upon their pursuers. Root shinobi fled, noticing his intentions, but they were too late. Metal twisted and snapped apart, revealing jagged edges and blunt stone heads. They fell upon the Root operatives like a hail of man-made vengeance.
"So much for your wild card, old friend," Sasori said as the dust settled and the screams died down.
Slowly, he backed away and turned to follow Ino and Sakura out, his pace sedate.
The sun was not yet up in Konoha when Sakura, Ino, and Sasori emerged from the underground Root base. Ino immediately reached out to both Neji and Sai and communicated to them that Sakura was safe. Root was up in arms due to her and Neji's infiltration, but as a member of the Hyuuga clan, Neji would be safe from any sort of retaliation for now. If the clan politics were good for something, it was protecting their own.
Getting out of Konoha was a priority for Sakura at this point. She'd known it the moment Danzō had revealed his Sharingan arm to her, and she knew it now with Sasori running beside her. However bleak the revelation, Konoha was no longer safe for her, not with Tsunade still out of commission. Once the three of them made it past the outskirts, Sakura slowed to a halt and doubled over, panting from exhaustion.
"Ino, let me heal that," she said of Ino's ravaged shoulder.
It was quick work, but from the look of her, Ino was reaching her limit. Near-constant fighting and chakra use throughout the night was beginning to take its toll on her. On both of them. Only Sasori appeared calm and relaxed as he looked to the sky, searching.
"Whatever you're going to do," he said, "do it now. Deidara's here."
Sakura looked up and, sure enough, Deidara circled high in the sky and slowly descended. She ran a hand through her hair, racking her brain for anything that made sense. Anything at all. Konoha as she'd known it was gone.
"What'll you do, Forehead?" Ino asked. "Because you have to do something."
Sakura shook her head. "Tsunade-sama. I have to make sure she's okay."
Ino frowned. "She's fine, she's just recovering. We're not under attack anymore."
Deidara touched down nearby just as Sakura was about to answer and hopped off his bird. He sauntered over and Ino stiffened.
"Another one," she said.
"It's okay," Sakura said. "He's okay."
"Aw man, did I miss everything? Didn't you leave me just a few Leaf punks to blow up?" Deidara complained.
"Deidara, shut up," Sasori said.
The forest here was thick, but it was too close to Konoha. If they lingered too long, someone would surely stumble upon them. Dawn was fast approaching. Sakura had to make a decision. But first, she needed to know if it was the right one. She approached Sasori and yanked him down by the collar. He didn't even flinch.
"Did you know about this?" she asked, eyes wide and misty. "Did you know Pein would attack Konoha?"
Ino and Deidara looked on. Sakura thought back on the horror she'd witnessed, the hundreds of lives she'd lost.
Sasori covered her hands with his, so gentle. Oh so gentle. "No."
A few seconds passed as Sakura waited for him to elaborate and he waited for her to be satisfied. Neither got their wish.
"Just no?" she said. "You were in Akatsuki for how many years and you had no idea this would happen?" She pulled away, frustrated. "And Deidara, too? I supposed you had no idea about this, either?"
Deidara crossed his arms. "Hey, don't you bring me in the middle of your shit, yeah."
"Deidara didn't know," Sasori said. "And neither did I. This must have been an impromptu move on Madara's part. With so few Akatsuki left to do his bidding, he's growing desperate. And a desperate man is a sloppy man."
"Sakura," Ino said, eyeing the two former Akatsuki with a wary eye.
Sakura shook her head. "No, I need a guarantee. I know you don't like making promises, but I need to know, I need you to swear to me that you had nothing to do with Pein attacking Konoha."
She'd worked herself up into a bit of a frenzy, and her heartbeat raced. Dizziness tickled the edges of her consciousness, but Sakura had never felt more awake and ready to fight. She would fight him if she found out he had anything to do with this. So help her, she would do it. All those innocent lives...
"Sakura," Sasori said.
"Swear to me."
He stared her down with those empty, honey eyes so cold and bereft of kindness despite their warm allure. And she wondered how she could ever stand this man. How could she even consider feeling anything for him other than contempt when he couldn't even promise her he hadn't had a hand in destroying everything she held dear? This man who kept secrets, who refused to share them with anyone, least of all her, in his stingy arrogance. Didn't he know he couldn't do this alone? Didn't he know he didn't have to do this alone?
Sasori leaned in close so the others would not overhear. "Do you honestly think I would have left you here had I known I was signing your death warrant?"
She gritted her teeth and fought back the tears of relief. Sasori never lied. And in the end, she could always count on him to be selfish. One of them had to be. "No," she said. "I don't think you would."
"Sakura, I hate to interrupt, but I have to get back to my dad and the Hokage," Ino said. "Before I do, you wanna tell me what happened to land you in a Root prison?"
Sakura faced Ino and Sasori took a step back to give them some space.
"Yeah," Sakura said. "In fact, just have a look for yourself. The Hokage's going to need to see this."
Ino frowned but initiated the Mind Reading technique regardless. Sakura took a deep breath and tried not to throw up while Ino rifled through the memories from earlier that night. It was over in a few seconds, and Sakura gasped for breath, doubling over on her knees to regain her balance.
"Holy shit," Ino said. "Danzō murdered Uchiha for those Sharingan. How could no one have known about this?"
"Uchiha?" Sasori said, overhearing.
Deidara rolled his eyes. "More like Ewchiha, yeah."
"Yeah, that's what I figured, too," Sakura said. "He wanted me to heal his arm, something about Senju DNA, but I refused. That's when he threw me in jail."
"I don't get it. Why would Danzō do such a thing? How could he even have the resources for it? Senju DNA? That clan's pretty much extinct besides Tsunade-sama."
"Because Danzō is still working with Orochimaru," Sasori explained.
"He implied as much," Sakura said. "This whole time he's been a traitor just waiting for a chance to take over. I can't imagine a better time to do it than in the wake of Pein's invasion." She turned on Sasori and Deidara. "Do you know if Danzō had anything to do with Pein's attack? Or Orochimaru?"
Sasori shook his head. "Orochimaru, definitely not. Pein is not the type to collude with the enemy. This was all Madara's doing."
"Un-fucking-believable. I still can't believe Tobi's actually Uchiha Madara. That's some BS if I ever smelled it," Deidara said, crossing his arms.
"Wait, what?" Sakura looked between the other three. "As in, the village founder? That Madara?" Her time fighting Tobi had been odd, now that she thought about it. His attitude didn't match his incredible level of skill, and the fact that he possessed the Sharingan was highly suspicious. But to think he was the Madara of legend was crazy. Surely, no one could live so long... Surely, there was no such thing as immortality.
"That's what he called himself," Ino said. "He showed up here when Naruto and I were talking to Pein and Konan."
Sasori narrowed his eyes. "Madara was here? Why? What did he want?"
"He beheaded Pein, I mean, Nagato, right in front of us. He claimed he was just disappointed that Nagato failed to capture the Jinchuuriki."
"What about Konan?" Sasori said, revealing nothing of his thoughts about Nagato's brutal murder.
Ino shook her head. "She left. Naruto insisted, and it seemed like she wanted to trust him. I don't think she's Konoha's enemy anymore."
Sasori chuckled. "It's happening faster than I thought. How fortunate."
"What could possibly be fortunate about Madara decapitating his own ally?" Sakura asked, unable to hide her offense at Sasori's nonchalance.
Sasori said nothing, to Sakura's frustration, but Ino watched him carefully.
"He's thinking that Madara's basically out of Akatsuki members to round up the Jinchuuriki. He'll be approaching Orochimaru soon," Ino said.
Deidara burst out laughing, and Sakura paled, mortified and dreading what would happen next. Ino held her ground, but Sasori didn't move.
"That little trick could get you killed if you use it on the wrong person, you know," he said softly.
"Wait, that was perfect. Do it again, come on," Deidara said.
Sakura stepped in between Sasori and Ino just in case. "Is that true, Sasori? Is that what Madara's planning?"
Why wouldn't you just say so?
He hesitated a moment before responding. "It's the most likely scenario, yes. Orochimaru is the only one left with the resources to extract a Bijuu from its host."
"What do you mean, 'resources'?" Sakura asked, not sure she wanted to know.
"It's a long process," Deidara said, gaze darkening at the memory. "Days of constant chakra output. It'll take a lot outta you if you're not strong enough, yeah."
"The point is, the fewer participants, the longer the process," Sasori interceded. "The longer the process, the more dangerous it becomes for those performing it. The only ones left now are Madara, Zetsu, and Kisame. That isn't enough to perform an extraction."
Sakura bit her lip. "Sasuke and his team disappeared with Madara after we tracked them down."
"Che, that kid's a goddamned fungus. Can't get ridda him," Deidara said.
The sun was beginning to rise, and soon Root agents would be out searching for Sakura, if they weren't already. Lingering too long would only worsen the situation. Ino sensed the urgency and put a hand on Sakura's shoulder.
"I need to get back to the Hokage and warn her. When she wakes up, she'll have my memories and yours already in her head. It should make taking care of Danzō easier," Ino said.
Sakura stepped closer to Ino, but caught herself. Sasori and Deidara stood behind her, clearly not intending to stay. What now?
"If you're having second thoughts about what to do, my vote is to go with them," Ino said. "Tsunade-sama's not waking up anytime soon, and until she does Danzō's still the de facto authority in charge. If he finds you in Konoha, we'll be back to square one. You can't do anything more here."
"But I can't just leave her. Not after what happened to Shizune," Sakura protested.
Ino pulled Sakura into a hug and made the conversation more private.
"I'll take care of it. I'll share what I found out with my dad and Ibiki. No one's getting near the Hokage."
Sakura hugged her back. "Naruto, and Sai."
"It's safer for Sai if he's not implicated in your arrest. And Danzō's not stupid. He knows he can't touch Naruto right now."
"Thank you," Sakura said, eyes welling with tears.
Ino smirked and tapped Sakura's forehead. "Just remember what I said. You can't win a game when you don't know all the rules. Find out what you need to stay alive."
Sakura nodded. "I have to do this. Danzō, Orochimaru, Kabuto, I can't let them get away with any of this."
"I know. Just make sure you come back in one piece."
"Sakura," Sasori said.
His question went unspoken, but his meaning was clear: it was time to leave.
"I'm coming," Sakura said, giving Ino one last hug.
Sunrise over Konoha was normally a spectacular sight with the morning rays diffusing through the forest leaves and collecting on the floor in a thousand pools of gold on green dew. The whole forest came alive, and the town followed with the smells of fresh fruit and baking bread. Now, there was only a desolate hole in the ground where a proud city had once stood. Seeing it from this far out broke Sakura's heart. The thought of leaving behind the people she loved hurt even more.
"You women sure like to talk," Deidara said as Sakura joined them and Ino took off to find her father. "That was pretty awesome how she got into Sasori's head like that. Did you see his face? Fuckin' priceless!"
Sasori gripped Deidara by the back of the neck and shoved him toward the clay bird awaiting their departure. "Get us out of here, Deidara."
"Yeah, yeah, whatever. I'm not letting you live that down, yeah."
Sakura said nothing as she took a last look back at Konoha, wondering when she'd see it again. Was this what it felt like to be a missing nin? To look back and wonder if this would be the last time, for better or for worse?
"Hey, Sakura," Deidara said as she hoisted herself aboard his transport bird. "Hope you brought a raincoat where we're going."
"Where are we going?"
Sasori climbed aboard after Sakura. "Water Country. But not for long."
The bird flapped its massive wings and took to the sky. Sakura watched the ground disappear below her, the crater Pein had created and the ensuing decimation of the forest and houses that had once made up Konoha proper. A part of her could not help but feel like she was abandoning it and all the people in it to chase after Sasori's mission. But it wasn't just his mission anymore; it was Deidara's and Konoha's and hers. Pein's invasion, Madara's involvement, Danzō, Sasuke and his team, Orochimaru and whatever had come between Sasori and him. All of it, connected. She didn't know how yet, but she did know that this was not the last time she would see Konoha.
I'll see it again, she promised herself. When this is all over, I'll see it again.
Deidara had not been kidding about that raincoat.
It was like one minute the sky began to darken with stormclouds on the distant horizon, and the next Sakura was soaked to the bone.
"Well," she called to Deidara as he navigated between falling sheets of rain, "at least it's not snowing!"
"Oh, that's real fucking optimistic!"
It just didn't let up. Sakura's only consolation was that it was warm and she wouldn't catch hypothermia. Nevertheless, when Deidara landed she could not say she wasn't relieved to find some respite from the storm. Sasori slipped off the bird without a word and made his way toward the edge of a small lake where a short but wide dwelling sat. In the distance, Sakura could make out the lights of a settlement, red and yellow and blurry through the rain. She and Deidara hurried after Sasori to get inside.
The place was traditional and nothing to write home about. Most likely, this place had once been a fisherman's house given its proximity to the lake. Every surface was hardwood, worn from years of use. Sasori kicked off his boots at the entrance and walked deeper into the structure.
"I don't think I'll ever be dry again, yeah," Deidara grumbled as he peeled off his jacket to hang on a hook by the door.
Sakura pulled off her boots and ran after Sasori. "Sasori, wait!"
Deidara watched her run off. "Typical."
Sasori didn't wait, but she tracked his water trail to a room down the hall on the left, a bedroom constructed of the same hardwood flooring as in the hall and simple furnishings. When she arrived he had already removed his vest and grabbed a towel to deal with his damp hair. Sakura hovered in the threshold, aware that this was his room.
"It's rude to linger in doorways, Sakura," he said as he dabbed at his head with the towel.
She entered, not wanting to be told twice, and he tossed her the towel he'd been using. "Thanks," she mumbled, drying her own hair.
They stood in silence a moment, only the sounds of the towel and their clothes dripping on the floor filling the space. When she was satisfied, Sakura set down the towel and approached him.
"There's something I want to say, and I don't know how else to say it, so I'm just going to come out with it."
He gave her a pointed look. "By all means."
Sakura clenched and unclenched her fists. She thought about everything they'd been through in the past year. A year of knowing Sasori and not really knowing much about him at all.
"There are things I know about you," she said. "Terrible things, and good things. I know you've killed people who didn't deserve to die. I know you've also saved a lot of people you didn't mean to save. Maybe even some you did. I know you want to destroy Orochimaru and you'll never stop until you do. And I know I'll help you do it."
Sasori said nothing as he watched her, the way her mouth moved, her eyes looking through him, remembering, perhaps forgetting, reflecting on her choices and his.
"I know you've always believed in me, even when we were enemies, and I know that's helped me in ways you can't even begin to imagine." She laughed nervously and wiped her nose. "And I know it's crazy for me to follow you in this, but I want to help you. Not because I owe you anything, but because I want to do it. I know Ino wants me to find out what's really going on with you, because this could kill us all. I've always wanted to know, on some level, just...why.
"But, well, what I want to say is that I don't need any of that anymore." She wrung her hands and looked at the floor, but thought better of it and forced herself to look him in the eye. "I trust you. I trust your judgment. So whatever happened in the past, with Orochimaru or with Akatsuki, it's your secret to keep. I don't need it."
"Trust is a very precious thing to give," he said softly.
"If you can trust me to bring you back to life, then I can trust you not to get me killed."
Sasori raised a hand to her cheek and ran a finger over her wet hair, still dripping despite her earlier toweling. "Is that all?"
"Yeah, that's all." Sakura looked down and noticed the sizeable puddles they were forming just by standing here in wet clothes. She shivered. "So, where's my room?"
Sasori stepped closer and moved his hand to her neck. "What's your rush?"
His shirt was plastered to his body, which looked a little better than the last time she'd seen him not long ago. The guy couldn't stay hurt. Sakura had no doubt that if she lifted up his shirt to examine him, there would be nothing but scars left over from his near-death experiences. Without thinking, she rested her hands on his stomach, which pulsed with warmth despite the chill in his dampened shirt.
"You're staring," he said.
Sakura turned beet red and immediately moved to extricate herself. "I was not!"
When she looked up at him he was fighting a laugh at her expense. Those pretty, honey eyes normally so cold and uncaring danced with something that made her forget the chill of carrying wet clothes. Even though he was laughing at her, she couldn't help but smile.
"Well, maybe a little, I guess. But you should still be resting after what you went through up north."
He shook his head and forced her to walk backward until her thighs bumped the edge of the bed. "Later," he said against her lips.
He tugged at her soaked shirt to get it off, and her fingers found his bare shoulders, damp from the rain and sinewy with muscle, alive. Sopping clothes fell to the floor with heavy slaps, creating more puddles around the room wherever they landed. But the sheets were soft and the lamplight on the nightstand was warm, almost as warm as he was.
A wandering hand ran across the scar on her abdomen and traced it all the way around to its companion on her lower back. Old memories stole her breath as he traced the old wound tenderly, almost reverent, and she dug her nails into his back to pull him closer. He drowned her deeper than the torrents flooding the world beyond these walls.
The rain fell, and they fell with it.
Sakura couldn't remember drifting off to sleep, but when she woke the sun was shining and she was dry and warm. Lazy as a Saturday morning, she yawned and stretched out. Her clothes were scattered across the floor in moist heaps. Beside her, Sasori was nowhere to be found. She rolled over on her side and breathed deeply. His scent was everywhere, the pillows, the sheets, and places she wouldn't have imagined it to be when this all started. Staring up at the wooden ceiling she smiled a little, amazed at how little she thought of this. There was just the lingering warmth in the sheets and the traces of him.
Such a beautiful dream.
"Sakura," he called from somewhere in the room.
But like all good dreams, this one had an ending.
She sat up in bed and gathered the sheets around naked body. Sasori stood by the room's lone window looking over the lake. The rain had let up, but dark clouds on the horizon warned of its return. He wore a fresh pair of pants and a distant expression as he stared at nothing at all out that dreary window. He wasn't here in this room with her; he was somewhere, sometime far away.
"I left Suna when I was fifteen," he said. He didn't bother looking at her. "It didn't take Akatsuki long to find me."
Sakura gaped and covered her mouth. She dared not speak, dared not break the moment, whatever it was. He'd never spoken to her of his past aside from what she already knew.
"My first partner in Akatsuki was already a legend. Orochimaru didn't teach me everything he knew, but he taught me enough to pique my interest. We were," he paused, searching for the right word. "I suppose we were friends."
Sakura wrapped the sheet tighter around herself so it would stay and listened to the secret Sasori had carried with him all this time.
Sasuke slipped his arm off Karin's shoulder to stand on his own. One emergency healing had not been enough to reverse the damage Killer Bee had done, but it was adequate for now. While comfortable with his own limitations, Sasuke was unnaturally averse to showing weakness in front of Madara. He didn't want to give the man any ideas. Karin glared at him, but he ignored what would surely amount to an earful later. Juugo threw down the unconscious Jinchuuriki at Madara's feet like a sack of old fish.
"There, we did what you asked. Now, I want to talk to my brother," Sasuke said.
The base was the same one where Sasuke had woken up, far underground and plunged into darkness save for the wall torches burning in sconces. Madara jumped down from his perch on a raised platform and paced around Taka's prize. Suigetsu began to fidget, itching for his sword. None of them trusted Madara, but Suigetsu downright hated the guy. No real reason other than that he gave Suigetsu the creeps.
"It looks like you all fought hard," Madara said.
"Enough of this," Sasuke said. "We're going to see Orochimaru with or without you. We did our part, now do yours."
"In due time, my boy." Madara stopped and bent down. Somewhere behind that swirled mask, his Sharingan glowed with a sight beyond the real world. "Unfortunately, you haven't done your job. This isn't the Eight-Tails Jinchuuriki."
He touched a hand to the unconscious Jinchuuriki and it popped, revealing a sliced bit of tentacle. A substitute.
"Oh, fuck me," Suigetsu grumbled.
"He must have gotten away when you went back for Karin," Juugo said.
Sasuke watched Madara stand, every muscle in his body taut and ready to fight should this man attack his team now. The switch must have happened sometime between when Karin had pulled the three of them out of harm's way and Sasuke had awakened Enton: Kagutsuchi.
With Killer Bee fully transformed, Juugo, Suigetsu, and Sasuke were barely keeping their formation together. In the end it had proved too much for them. There was no comparing to the colossal power of a Bijuu. Out of nowhere, Karin raced into the heat of things and hauled them out, piling them over her strong shoulders, and outran a falling tentacle that would have crushed them all instantly. How she had the stamina or pure physical strength to carry them all, Sasuke did not know.
"Karin, you saved me," he said, breathless as he leaned on her for support she had always given without ever having to be asked.
But just when they thought they were safe, Killer Bee launched a new assault. Amaterasu kept him at bay, but it cost Sasuke. His vision blurred and his eye bled, not to mention the pain. But then, disaster struck when Karin got caught up in the flames. Juugo tried to pull Sasuke out, there was no saving her, she was a goner at this rate, but Sasuke insisted.
I won't let you go!
The flames screamed as they were forced to extinguish. The pain was tremendous, like vermin crawling behind his eye and eating it from the inside out. But it worked. Somehow, he'd done the impossible, what even Itachi could not do. It was one thing to call upon the fires of hell; it was quite another to banish them. The price didn't matter so long as Karin was safe. They had made it out in the end. For Sasuke, that was all that mattered.
"I made the right choice," he said.
"A man who puts his team before the mission. I can't say I admire that about you, but what's done is done. Clearly, you lot couldn't handle this. I'll send Kisame."
"What about Itachi?" Karin demanded. "Your request was to battle with and capture the Jinchuuriki. This is a part of the Jinchuuriki, so technically we fulfilled our obligation."
Madara laughed. "Clever girl. Don't worry, I have every intention of paying Orochimaru a visit. This just sets us back a bit. Nagato failed to capture the Nine-Tails Jinchuuriki, too. It seems my hand is forced now."
He was safe. It was none of Sasuke's business, but he couldn't help the relief at knowing Naruto was strong enough to resist Madara's goons.
"Let's leave now," Sasuke said.
"Dude, we just got here," Suigetsu whispered. "And I'm kinda hungry."
"So hasty. Don't worry, we'll leave in the morning. Sound is a good distance from here. But I assume you need to rest after that...debacle."
Chakra rushed to Sasuke's eyes, unbidden, and a surge of black hatred swept through him. Hatred for this man, for anything that stood between Itachi and him. Karin put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed in warning, her grip firm enough to hurt. Madara strolled past them, but instead of leaving the room, the space in front of him folded in on itself and opened up, revealing a portal to another dimension like the black eye of a whirlpool with no bottom in sight.
"Bright and early, children. Be ready," he said before stepping through it and disappearing.
"Man I hate that guy. When this is all over, I'm gonna cut him up limb from limb," Suigetsu said.
"Be my guest," Sasuke said.
"Sasuke, I don't know if this is a good idea," Juugo said.
"It's a terrible idea," Karin said. "But it's all we've got if we're going to revive Itachi."
"Karin's right. For now, we'll go along with him."
"Yeah, uh, newsflash, Fearless Leader. The last time we 'went along with' Madara's ideas, a giant octopus almost ate us for lunch." Suigetsu wriggled his arms like tentacles, as though this would prove his point.
"It doesn't matter anymore. We're Taka, first and foremost. Don't forget the mission."
"Sasuke," Karin said. Her gaze lingered on his eyes where the beginnings of blood tears had formed during his almost-outburst at Madara.
Sasuke turned away. "If you have the energy, I could use another healing session."
"Sure." She looked back at Juugo and Suigetsu. "Don't you even think of spying."
Suigetsu put up his hands and grinned. "Who, me? Please, I got better things to do than watch you and Sasuke not make out."
Juugo grabbed Suigetsu by the collar and yanked him back. "Come on, Suigetsu. Enough talking."
"Hey! Unhand me!"
Sasuke led Karin deeper into the underground base to the room where he'd spent many nights recovering in darkness. He slumped down against a wall, not bothering to retrieve the bedding. Karin kneeled down next to him. Like this, when they weren't in the midst of battle, they were silent. She was like magic. Just a taste and she could bring him back from the worst beatings, the ones where all he wanted to do was close his eyes and sleep forever.
"What'll you do when we revive Itachi?" Karin asked him as they sat together in darkness.
He leaned his head back against the wall, eyes closed. The light these days was too bright to bear.
"Ask him why," Sasuke said finally.
Karin sat with him, supporting his tired weight, until he drifted to a place where 'why' didn't matter and Itachi kept no secrets from him.