Chapter Twenty-Three: Discovery
"WHERE IS SHE?!"
Naruto flashed his teeth at the samurai before him that was pinned to the wall by kunai knives pierced through his clothing. The man didn't even wince as the ninja stalked up to him and screamed in his face. He stared at Naruto with a burning hatred, his enraged expression never wavering.
Kakashi, Naruto, and Kuma tracked Sakura's scent for many miles until they reached a village; a strange place without ninja. Once they were able to infiltrate the town, they continued to silently search for Sakura while avoiding confrontation with the samurai that protected the village from outside threats. Unfortunately, Pakkun could not pinpoint her exact location; she had been in too many places and had contact with too many people. Her scent was everywhere, it disoriented him. Unable to use the ninja hounds at the moment, the three of them had been probing the place on their own. However, their suspicious activity caught the eye of a small unit of samurai.
They brawled in the middle of the street, much to the fright of the pedestrians. Fifteen samurai warriors versus two ninja – Kuma merely spectated in disgust since it was against his religion to engage in violent practices. Kakashi and Naruto easily disarmed the squad with their taijutsu, resulting in many unconscious samurai sprawled out on the ground – save the captain that Naruto was currently interrogating. It was obvious that he knew something about Sakura.
Naruto grabbed a fistful of the samurai leader's shirt and locked his piercing blue eyes onto the man's gaze. "You know something," he said, his voice low and menacing, "Tell me where she went."
Kakashi shifted his stance a few steps behind Naruto. "It's very important that we find her," he stated, trying to lessen the tension Naruto created.
The captain merely raised his chin in defiance, sporting a bloody and broken nose from their earlier fight. "We heed to no ninja. You people cause nothing but trouble. Leave our village!"
Naruto clenched his teeth and his fists shook in rage. He wanted to pummel the guy, but he knew that it was pointless. Ninja and samurai always considered each other enemies. Never would a samurai break their code to help a shinobi. They would be dishonored, and honor was the only thing they cared about; the only thing they lived for.
The blonde released the man and began walking away, knowing that it was useless to question the samurai captain further. "We will leave when we find what we are looking for."
Suddenly, the captain called to him. "Wait!"
Naruto turned around to the samurai. The man seemed hesitant, as if contemplating something, before he met the Jinchuuriki's blue eyes. "I am not permitted to associate with ninja, but if you promise to leave the village, then I am willing to give you some information."
Naruto's expression did not waver. "What is it?"
"I cannot tell you the information directly, but there is a man that knows the girl that you are searching for," he explained.
The blonde's eyes lit up, but he remained calm. "Where can we find him?"
"At the restaurant down the street. His name is Saburo."
The trio stomped into the restaurant with Naruto leading the way. The place was crowded, but as soon as they entered the building, everyone immediately began exiting, recognizing them as shinobi. They hustled out quickly, as if the place was rigged with explosives about to be detonated, casting fearful glances at the trio of men as they pushed through the exit. Naruto found their fear irrational, but they were taught that ninja were evil and merciless murderers in order to maintain a ninja-less society. Plus, they did just witness the samurai get their asses kicked by them.
In the crowd of people that were pushing their way out of the restaurant, Kakashi spotted the person that the samurai captain had described to them. The skinny man was trying to squeeze past two hefty women who were blocking his way. Kakashi took this chance and nonchalantly slung an arm around the man's shoulders and steered him back into the abandoned diner against his will.
"Let me go!" the man growled at the Jounin, but he was hardly intimidating. He was almost a full head shorter than Kakashi, and the masked man outweighed him by several pounds in pure muscle.
"Not so fast, Saburo. We have some business to discuss with you," the Jounin said before aggressively pushing him into a booth and sitting next to him. Naruto and Kuma sat on the other side of him, effectively blocking him in and preventing him from escaping.
The con Saburo put his head against his hand, muttering curses under his breath. He was clearly stressed as he smoothed down his slick black hair and drummed his fingers against the table. Naruto noticed that he had a bruised eye that was swollen, as if he was recently punched in the face.
"Let's just make this quick and easy for everyone," Kakashi began, professionally clasping his hands on the table. "We are going to ask some questions, and you are going to give us answers. After that, we will be on our way."
"Not like I have a fucking choice…" Saburo hissed quietly, avoiding eye contact.
"A girl came here fairly recently," Kakashi ignored him, "Young, pink hair, green eyes. Her name is Sakura."
Saburo sneered. "Yeah, I know her. We met at the bar almost two days ago. I didn't even know she was a damn ninja! I was beginning to get suspicious when she started beating all these burly men at arm-wrestling, but when the samurai came and busted our bar fight – that's how I got this black eye - they told us that she was a shinobi if she possessed such strength."
Naruto and Kakashi exchanged quizzical glances to each other. Sakura was arm-wrestling in a bar? Although it was strange to think about, they decided not to question him about an irrelevant subject.
"Where did she go?" Naruto asked the con.
Saburo rolled his eyes. "As if I know! Her husband dragged her out as soon as the fight started-"
"Husband?" Naruto interjected, his brow furrowed in confusion. Kakashi's eyes were wide, but Naruto couldn't tell if he was surprised or frightened by the man's news.
Saburo was interrupted a second time by a girlish shriek and the breaking of plates as they fell on the floor. The four of them turned to the corner of the room to see a dark-haired waitress in a tight purple dress glancing around the room in fear.
"No! All the customers are gone!" she exclaimed again, "And we were serving a food critic! This is bad for business!"
The waitress then turned to them, the only people left in the restaurant. She instantly scowled. "Saburo! This is your fault!" she stomped her foot angrily, "You brought these ninja into the restaurant and scared away all of the customers! What the hell did you do now?!"
Saburo waved her off. "Relax, Emiko! No need to be so loud! They just want to know about the tourist-disguised ninja," he groaned.
The busty waitress crossed her arms. "Oh. Those two. I didn't even know they were ninja until the samurai were going around asking everyone where they were so they could arrest them."
"Wait, you knew them too?" Kakashi asked.
Emiko strode up to their table, undaunted by the fact that they were shinobi. "Yeah. I served them here. They said that they were tourists on their honeymoon, but if you ask me, I didn't get the vibe that they liked each other."
Kakashi had a coughing fit at the word 'honeymoon.' Naruto took over the interview while the Jounin recovered. "Um, are you sure that was the person we are looking for?"
Emiko rolled her eyes and tapped her foot impatiently. "Yeah, the girl had pink hair and green eyes. That's kind of hard to miss. Then she left her husband alone at our restaurant and started a bar fight down the street. He deserves better than her…"
"Who is her… husband?" Naruto asked, managing to choke out the last word.
"Some handsome guy with dark hair and eyes. Didn't catch the name."
Naruto grimaced. He was getting a bad feeling about this. Who the hell was Sakura travelling with? It certainly wasn't some random guy she married; that was clearly just a cover. Was it an Akatsuki member? It had to be. Who else would be travelling with her, forcing her to disguise themselves as tourists in a town so close to an Akatsuki base? But what really puzzled him was why. Why were they here, what were they doing?
"Emiko, sweetheart, can you get me some ice of my eye? And a beverage, anything with alcohol in it will do," Saburo ordered.
Emiko stuck her nose in the air but walked to the back room to get what he asked for. "You're paying double since you drove away the customers with your new 'friends,'" she angrily called to the con.
Saburo grumbled, but didn't protest. "This is why we stopped dating. Because you always expect more outta me than what I got," he directed at the waitress.
"No, it was because you are a cheap bastard!" she corrected him before ducking into the kitchen.
Saburo nodded when she was out of sight. "She's right, y'know. I'm only going to pay half-price for the drink," he whispered to the ninja. Naruto sweatdropped at his response.
"Can you tell us where they are?" Kakashi asked Saburo.
The con nodded. "Most of the tourists that come to our village go to an inn that is a few blocks away from here. I bet they have a room there."
"No! Not more ninja!" a young female receptionist squealed in horror and ducked under the desk as Kakashi, Naruto, and Kuma walked into the inn. Naruto sighed inwardly. These people needed to chill out about their whole ninja-paranoia thing.
Kakashi strode up to the desk she was hiding on and knocked on it. "Hey, we are not going to hurt you. We just want to ask a few questions."
The girl peeked over the counter. "W-what do you want to know?" she stuttered.
"You probably know that two ninja are staying here. We need to know which room they are in."
"They were staying here," the girl corrected, "They left yesterday morning. The samurai stormed in here that day and practically tore down the place looking for them. I had never been so scared in my life!"
Naruto grit his teeth. Again, Sakura disappeared on them. But they were getting closer to her, now. He could feel it. They will be reunited soon.
"Where did they go after that?" Kakashi questioned, also disappointed by the news.
The girl tapped her chin in thought. "Well, they escaped the samurai by jumping out the window, and last I saw, they left the village. But I heard the samurai mention that they were travelling northeast."
Kakashi smiled – although it was hidden by his mask – and bowed to the girl. "Thank you for your cooperation."
The young receptionist blushed. "Um, you're welcome…" she responded, "You know, you ninja are not really that bad. A bit scary sometimes, but at least you have manners. I hope you find your other ninja-friends."
Naruto suddenly went up to her, "Wait, I have one more question for you. Who was the person the pink-haired girl was travelling with?" he asked, concern lining his face.
"Oh, her husband?" she blinked her brown eyes, "I don't know his name. He didn't even sign his name on the form! It's just scribbles! But he had long black hair tied in a ponytail and these defined tear-troughs under his eyes," she explained, running two fingers down her cheeks.
Naruto and Kakashi gasped in realization.
Sakura was travelling with Itachi Uchiha.
"Oh please Itachi? Can I? Pleeeaaaasssseeeee-"
Sakura pouted. "Why not? I didn't get a chance to shower at the inn before the samurai kicked us out. I just want to be clean again…" she moaned.
Itachi rolled his eyes at her immature actions. During their travel, they had stumbled upon a natural hot spring outside of Rain Country. Sakura had immediately insisted on bathing, but they were still far behind on their journey to Sound. They couldn't afford to waste more time, even if she did desperately need a bath. She smelled awful, but hygiene was the least of their problems at the moment.
"You are acting like a child. Stop whining," he muttered, "We need to keep moving."
Sakura put her hands on her hips and remained standing next to the hot spring. "It's already nighttime! We have been walking all day! We could at least set up camp here."
Itachi surveyed the area. The sun had set hours ago, but the full moon offered them sufficient light for them to travel in the darkness. The area they were in had many leafy trees that offered much protection and coverage from the chilly winds, and the heat from the natural spring melted away the snow from the area. It was a good place to set up camp. But why not make her beg some more? It was amusing to watch.
Sakura strode up to him, her jade orbs wide and sparkling in hope. "Please can we stay here for tonight? You know it's a good idea…" she pleaded, blinking her eyes innocently.
Itachi crossed his arms. "That look won't work on me."
Sakura then smiled devilishly. "Fine, then see how bad I smell! Maybe that will convince you!" the pinkette exclaimed while lifting her arms in the air, aiming her armpits at his face.
Itachi immediately recoiled and covered his nose. "Hey, stop that. I already know how bad you smell," he said sternly.
But Sakura continued to advance, laughing at his reaction. "No you don't, or you wouldn't deny me a bath!"
She then continued to chase him around the area with her arms in the air, giggling madly, while Itachi continued to avoid her. He frowned as the tables turned on him. This was no longer amusing.
"Stop. Sakura, stop," commanded a flustered Itachi, but she did not heed. Eventually, he was able to catch her wrists and she managed to calm down, but she still had a wide grin on her face.
"Ha! Take that, Uchiha!" she smirked in accomplishment, "So, can we stay now?"
The Uchiha sighed in defeat and released her arms from his grip. "Fine. We can stay. But tomorrow, we are travelling nonstop."
Sakura smiled in triumph. "Ha! I found the Uchiha's weakness: body odor!" she exclaimed before running back to the hot spring. "You should take a bath here too, y'know! You don't exactly smell like a daisy either!"
Itachi chuckled softly to himself. Sakura sure was a strange woman, probably one of the deadliest kunoichi he ever met, yet she still possessed childish behaviors. He wished he knew her secret to such moments of carefree happiness in this awful world of shinobi.
"Hey, you can't stay here," Sakura called to him as she shed her backpack and jacket. "Give a woman some privacy, eh? Go get some firewood."
"Hn," Itachi replied before sauntering into the woods, a small smile on his face. Maybe his secret to happiness could be found in the pink-haired medic.
Sakura watched Itachi disappear into the forest before she quickly undressed and jumped into the hot spring. A sigh of delight escaped her lips as her body was surrounded by the warm and soothing water. She washed the dirt, blood, and grime off of her body and raked her hands through her damp hair, dislodging the tangles. She never had such a relaxing and blissful moment like this in years.
The pinkette leaned her head against a rock near the spring and began to ponder. What a strange position she was in now, travelling with Itachi. Each passing day, they seemed to become more tolerant of each other. They started as enemies, distrustful and hateful. But now, she would almost consider them friends if it wasn't for the fact that she was only with him to serve one purpose: heal his Sharingan so he could fight against Sasuke.
Sakura pulled her legs to her bare torso, cocooning herself into a little ball. She wanted so desperately to change Itachi's mind about fighting Sasuke. One of them was going to die in that battle, she was certain. But she didn't want either of them to die. Not Sasuke. Not Itachi. She tried to talk Sasuke out of it the day he left Konoha, but he was fixed on avenging his clan by killing his brother.
But Itachi… she might be able to convince him otherwise. She might be able to sway him to not fight Sasuke. It was a long shot, but not impossible. If Itachi and herself continued to form bonds with each other, the higher possibility that he might reconsider their battle.
Sakura nodded to herself as she thought out this tactic. Itachi wasn't the only person with plans. Sakura could play his game, too. After she heals Itachi – since she already made that promise and could not go back on her word – she will persuade him to spare Sasuke. After her purpose is fulfilled, she will continue to follow Itachi until he complies. If Itachi ever tries to kill his brother and vice versa, she will be there to stop them.
A sudden rustling of bushes and footsteps to her right made her jump. Itachi must have been back from collecting firewood for their camp.
"Hey, I'm not done!" she yelled to him, submerging her body further into the water and covering her bare chest protectively. "Go take a piss or something!"
A figure then appeared from the shadows of the forest. It was definitely not Itachi.
A tall male garbed in gray hues and a mask covering his entire face except for his eyes stepped into the hot spring's clearing. Sakura gasped in fear when she realized that he wore a headband from Otogakure.
The Sound ninja clicked his tongue cynically, but she could tell that he was smirking under his mask. "Such an unladylike manner for a little girl," he commented. His voice was rough and hard, and his narrowed eyes were fixed on her far too keenly for her liking.
He took another step closer to her, his feet not making a sound as they contacted the ground. Sakura instantly dropped into a defensive battle position, but remained under the protection of the water. She had met his kind before on the battlefield when she became a Chuunin – the type of ninja that preyed on innocent civilians and took advantage of them because they were weaker. He probably thought she was just a defenseless traveler, but she would prove him wrong.
"Hm, you look like the type that likes to fight," he chuckled darkly, reading her expression. "It's such a hassle when they try to resist. But you are far too pretty to just ignore…"
Sakura glanced to her right where her backpack was. All of her weapons were in there, and it was too far away for her to access. Taijutsu would be effective, but she would have to get closer to him, and there was no way she was letting that creep near her. She would have to use ninjutsu.
"Relax, I won't hurt you… too badly," he added before cackling and taking another step towards her. Sakura scowled and began forming hand signs under the water, preparing to blindside him with Wind Style.
Unfortunately, she was the one who was caught off-guard. The shinobi quickly lifted his hands and began forming seals rapidly. The water around her suddenly lifted above her head, opposing gravity, and swirled around her form. She flailed around as the water from the spring enclosed her inside a small ball of liquid. She was trapped in the Water Prison ninjutsu.
She heard the muffled laugh of the Sound shinobi from inside her watery prison as he admired his work. Sakura could only stare at him in shock, unable to move because of the dense chakra-saturated liquid surrounding her. Dark spots began creeping into the corners of Sakura's vision. She didn't have time to hold her breath for much longer. She struggled against the weight of the water around her, but she could only move her arms slightly.
The Sound ninja strode up to where she was suspended in the sphere of churning water, rubbing his chin thoughtfully as he eyed her naked form. Sakura did her best to give him a hate-filled glare in her condition, but shivered as panic shot down her spine at his hungry gaze. "Not just a pretty face, but a beautiful body as well. Now, if you promise not to struggle, I won't kill-"
He didn't even finish his thought as a sword suddenly ripped through his torso.
Sakura stared wide-eyed at him as a figure behind him twisted the blade in his belly, causing the Oto man to gurgle on his blood and his eyes to roll back into his head before falling to the ground. As he died, his Water Style ninjutsu was undone. The sphere of liquid burst and Sakura fell back into the hot spring.
The pinkette resurfaced, coughing and gasping for air. Before her stood Itachi, his sword slick with crimson and his eyes wide in concern for his companion and rage towards the man he just killed. Sakura covered her torso defensively, the water shielding the rest of her body from him. The Uchiha immediately ran to her, treading through the water and quickly taking off his winter jacket and draping it over her bare shoulders. Sakura eagerly pulled his coat over herself.
Itachi kept his eyes directed at hers, his gaze never straying. "Sakura, are you alright?" he asked, his voice strained in unease, offering a hand to help her out of the pool.
Sakura readily grasped his arm for support as they treaded out of the spring, but she never met his eyes. "Yes, I was just caught off-guard," she inwardly cursed at herself as her voice shook, "I will be fine-"
"I'm sorry," Itachi interjected. Sakura dared a glimpse at his face to see that his brow contained creases of frustration. "I never should have left you alone. Not now when we are so close to Oto."
Sakura was a bit surprised that he was so worried for her. His voice, expression, and the way his body was shaking in fury exposed the feelings he was trying so hard to contain. She felt a strange tugging sensation in her chest.
"Once I felt a foreign chakra signature coming from this direction, I immediately ran here," Itachi continued, "If I failed to arrive any sooner…"
Sakura didn't know that they were still holding hands until his grip suddenly tightened around her palm as his thought trailed off to a subject that she didn't want to think about. She flinched at his force, but managed to gently pull her hand out of his grasp.
"Thanks," she whispered, unable to find the strength in her voice, "for coming back." Why did she feel so unnerved about Itachi's concern for her?
Itachi's expression shifted back into his usual emotionless mask as he analyzed her face for a moment. He then walked over to the Oto shinobi's limp body and hoisted it over his shoulder, sparing Sakura a sideways glance. "I will dispose of the body and give you some time to recuperate. I won't be far," he said before walking back into the forest, his bloody katana still unsheathed as if he was waiting to strike down more opponents.
Itachi continued to stare at Sakura through the darkness. He returned to the camp after an hour of sitting in the forest to find the pinkette dressed and setting up a dinner of the provisions they obtained at the noble's village. They decided that it was best to not risk a fire since there was a potential for more ninja to ambush them. Luckily, the full moon provided them with a decent light source.
Sakura had avoided eye contact with him since the incident. He wasn't sure if she was embarrassed or self-conscious, but she was definitely a bit shaken up. Her gaze darted back and forth, peering through the darkness to locate nonexistent enemies. She jumped at the slightest noise of wind rustling the branches of trees. She was even currently twirling a dagger in her hands as she ate some jerky.
Itachi had to admit that he was still tense as well. His blood boiled at the thought of the Oto scum trying to take advantage of her. He was glad he arrived to her aid when he did, or matters could have taken a turn for the worst.
His gaze drifted again to her face, watching her silently. Her shoulders suddenly tensed as his stare landed on her again, as if she could feel his eyes boring into her skull.
"I told you, I'm fine," she muttered coldly, her eyes still adverted from his own. "You can stop watching me like a hawk, now."
Itachi did as she asked, lowering his abyss gaze to scan the forest around them. She was clearly not alright mentally, but if she didn't want to talk about it, he wasn't going to probe her for answers.
"I can take care of myself," Sakura suddenly stated, picking at the ground with the blade of her dagger. "I would have stopped him."
Itachi nodded slowly, choosing his words carefully. "There is no doubt in my mind that you would have defeated him on your own. But I didn't want to sit idly by and find out."
The pinkette stabbed the blade more forcefully into the earth. "That wasn't the first time I was close to being raped, but it doesn't make it any less frightening," she mentioned quietly. "You know how it is in the field."
The Uchiha's jaw tensed. He knew what Sakura was referring to. He was well aware that there were many dangers for young kunoichi in the shinobi world. While female ninja were also trained to be seductive for certain missions or situations, things could always go awry. Even travelling as a lone female most always spelled danger. The chances of avoiding such situations at any point in a kunoichi's lifetime were near impossible.
"But I am strong. I never let anyone control me," the pinkette mentioned, as if reassuring both him and herself.
Itachi mentally agreed. After all, she was doing a damn good job of resisting him and his plans for her. "I know," was all he could manage to say at the time, but it was the honest truth.
Sakura then turned to him. He debated on making eye contact with her, but eventually chose not to. He could tell that she was trying to read his emotions, but as usual, his face was an indifferent mask. His traitorous eyes, however, were another story completely.
Sakura's eyebrows arched as if she was having an internal deliberation. Eventually, she seemed to pluck up enough courage to speak what was troubling her. "Do you care about me?"
Itachi's mind reeled for a moment at her question. Why did she want to know the answer to such a strange and personal question? Did his opinion of her matter for some reason, or was it something else entirely? But then he began asking himself, did he really care for this girl? He wasn't sure how to respond to such a thought. He had no direct answer.
None of his thoughts formulated into spoken words. Instead, he asked the only logical thing he could think of. "Why do you ask?" he questioned.
Sakura then smiled sadly and shook her head as if she said something foolish, which confused him even more. "Nothing. Forget that I asked."
She turned away from him and tucked her knees to her chest protectively. For some reason, Itachi felt as though she was disappointed with his answer. He couldn't help but feel he said something wrong as well. Now he felt forced to dwell on the subject, racking his brain for a response to her question and his actions. Sakura always seemed to provoke such thought from him.
"Hey," Sakura perked her head up suddenly, "You mentioned that you loved someone before. You promised to tell me about it."
Itachi nodded, remembering their conversation earlier that day. He had indeed mentioned that he once had a lover. Even though it was a touchy subject for him, now seemed like the appropriate time to discuss it, seeing that there was a residual tension that still hung thickly in the air around them. It would be a good distraction from the events that occurred recently, and Sakura obviously agreed since she mentioned it.
"I guess I did," he stated solemnly.
Sakura must have seen the sadness in his eyes as he recalled past memories, for she ducked her head low again. "You don't have to discuss it if you don't want to-"
"No," Itachi interrupted her, "Someone should know who she was, how she was so important to me. I never spoke of her to anyone. I never even confessed my feelings to her, not before it was too late."
Sakura looked up at him, her jade orbs gleaming in interest. She silently waited for him to gather his thoughts as he turned to face her, his dark gaze meeting hers for the first time that night.
"Her name was Kou."
A/N: What? Me? Update? Preposterous!
I actually was going to include part of the next chapter in with this one, but it was too long. So I'm going to piss you all off and end on a cliffie, as usual. Ha ha, just kidding…. Please don't be mad….
I have finals soon, so I am not going to write anything for a while, even though I want to. I will also be without a computer for a month during the summer because I am taking a class on an island with no internet service… or technology for that matter….
I just wanted to say that I am so grateful for my loyal readers and reviewers. You guys keep me so motivated!
Thank you for reading, and please leave a review! They make me really happy!