A/N: Extended authors notes at the bottom, don't want to spoil anything.
As always, I appreciate all of your reviews. I especially like hearing what works for people, what doesn't, and why.
It was raining in Konoha. Not the kind of pounding rainstorm that sends everybody running for cover and leaves the world feeling refresh afterwards; no, it was the kind of gray, drizzly day that was just downright depressing. Iruka couldn't help but feel that it was appropriate, considering the mood of the village.
Ninja weren't much for spreading secrets, but on the other hand they are quite good at ferreting them out. Despite the official silence on the matter, the village was buzzing with discussion of the three promising young chunin who had disappeared. The rumors weren't quite clear on why they had left-Iruka was more in the know than most and he wasn't even sure what the real situation was-but that didn't stop people from inventing steadily more outlandish theories.
Iruka sighed as he approached the memorial stone and the man who was at the center of many of the rumors came into view. Kakashi Hatake's silver mop of hair stood in defiance of the rain and good grooming while the man himself sat in seiza, all of his attention apparently focused on the memorial. Kakashi had planted himself in this position when the news came in of Naruto's disappearance, and as far as Iruka knew he hadn't moved since.
Iruka had been sent here on a mission from the Hokage, but he would have been headed this way on his own initiative anyway. He and Kakashi weren't exactly friends, but they had bonded over their shared experiences trying to teach Naruto Uzumaki, and Iruka hated to see anybody beating themselves up over something that wasn't their fault.
Iruka paused respectfully as he drew near. An elite ninja like Kakashi must have detected his presence long before, but the man made no move to acknolwedge him. After a moment Iruka coughed into his hand to get Kakashi's attention, but received no response. Finally, he decided to abandon any pretence at a polite conversation.
"The Hokage wants to see you." Iruka said.
"That's nice." Kakashi replied. Whatever might be going through his head, he hadn't lost his annoyingly flippant manner of speaking.
"If you don't come back with me, Lady Hokage is going to have to take official notice of your actions." Iruka said.
"Hmm." Kakashi replied, still not taking his eyes off of the memorial stone.
"Damn it, this isn't healthy." Iruka said. "You need to move on, you can't-"
Iruke cut himself off as Kakashi turned to face him, and he was struck by a feeling of foreboding. It wasn't killing intent exactly, it was just... Iruka already knew, intellectually, that Kakashi could kill him in about three seconds flat if he felt like it, but now he was finding himself dwelling on that fact for some reason. After a few seconds had passed in silence, Kakashi turned back to the memorial. When he spoke, his tone hadn't changed at all.
"Tell the Hokage that I will see her when I see her." Kakashi said.
It was a clear dismissal, and Iruka turned and headed back to the Hokage's tower with his hands in his pockets and his mood in the dumps. He almost said something when another ninja walked past him, obviously intent on speaking to Kakashi, but then shrugged. He'd seen from the forehead protector that the man was from Kusagakure; maybe one of those silver tongued bastards would have better luck talking Kakashi out of his funk.
Sakura had developed a habit over the past year of working in the field of rising with the sun and wringing the most out of every day. Naruto had developed rather the opposite habit in travelling with Jiraiya, who was more likely to be going to sleep in the early morning than waking up. Naruto was also, Sakura thought, a remarkably heavy sleeper for a ninja, as she finally resorted to giving him a quick kick in the ribs.
"Ow! Hey, Sakura, what gives?" Naruto groaned, as he finally started to get up, carefully shimmying his way out of his sleeping bag. The bag was secured to the branch of the tree in which they had spent the night, and getting out of it required that he take a little bit of care not to tumble down to the ground below.
"We need to get moving, Naruto." Sakura said, irritated with the delay. "We don't have any time to waste on sleeping in."
"What's the big rush?" Naruto asked, as he began performing a series of stretches to help get his blood flowing. "The bastard's not going anywhere, right?"
"Naruto! He's not going anywhere because he's been captured by Orochimaru... who knows what that freak is doing to him." Sakura said. "Also, we need to move quickly to avoid any hunter teams Konoha sends after us. Not to mention Jiraiya."
"Oh," Naruto said, then scratched the back of his head in thought. "But, if we're in a hurry, why not just take a toad?"
"Don't be stupid," Sakura replied, "riding a toad across the countryside isn't really a great way to keep a low profile."
"No, no," Naruto protested, "I mean, the toad can just 'poof' us where we're going."
"You've learned entwined reverse summon-autosummoning?" Sakura asked, staring at Naruto in disbelief.
"Eh, I think so?" Naruto said. "Sensei just called it the toad-a-port technique. Here, I'll show you."
Naruto bit his thumb and was about to perform the summoning technique when Sakura stopped him. "Wait! If you summon a toad, won't it tell Jiraiya where we are?"
"I don't know. I should check!" Naruto said, then finished performing the hand seals for the technique before Sakura could react. There was a puff of smoke, and when it cleared Sakura saw a small orange toad standing on the tree branch. It only stood about as high as Naruto's knees, and Sakura couldn't help but wonder how he was supposed to be useful as a battle summon.
"Brat! You're alive!" The toad exclaimed. "They said you'd been bewitched by some wicked she-devil and-eep!"
The toad cut himself off when he saw Sakura standing nearby and ducked behind Naruto's legs. After a moment the toad poked his head out from behind Naruto and eyed her warily.
"No, no, it's not like that." Naruto said. "Our friend has been kidnapped and we have go rescue him. We're totally heroes!"
"Are you sure?" The toad whispered, but loudly enough for Sakura to hear it easily. "She's supposed to be some kind of crazy killer."
"Hey! I'm not crazy!" Sakura protested. Both Naruto and the toad just looked at her, and after a moment she sighed. "I have killed some people, but they were all bad. It's not like Jiraiya has totally clean hands either, you know."
"Hmm," the toad replied, "what was so bad about those kids from Iwa, then?"
"Who?" Sakura asked, confused.
"The old pervert said that you killed a bunch of Iwa genin on your last mission." Naruto said, sounding surprisingly serious. "He said Iwagakure was ready to go to war over it, except you had already been declared a missing nin before they even made a fuss."
"But I never..." Sakura said, trailing off as she thought back to that mission. After a moment's thought all the pieces fell into place. "Itachi!"
"What? Where?" Naruto said, looking around wildly until Sakura bopped him on the head.
"Not here, doofus, on my last mission. While I was busy with Itachi's partner Itachi knocked out my team, then killed the Rock ninja." Sakura explained. "One of them got away, but there's no way any genin could really escape from Itachi. He must have let her go, after using genjutsu to make it look like I killed her team."
"Why would he do that?" Naruto asked.
"I don't know." sakura said. "You said it almost started a war, maybe that's what he wants."
"But Itachi's evil scheme was totally foiled by Kabuto's evil scheme!" Naruto said, pumping a fist in triumph.
"Heh, I guess." Sakura said, chuckling. "I don't know that I would have thought of it that way."
"Anyways, you see what I mean, Gamakichi." Naruto said. "We're definitely the heroes here."
There was a pause, and then Naruto snapped his fingers. "Hey, that reminds me, I wanted to ask-do you guys have to tell Jiraiya about me after I summon you?"
"What-I would never rat you out, bro!" Gamakichi protested, vehemently. "But the other guys, it would depend on whether they like you or Jiraiya better."
"I wanted to summon Gamachouyaku." Naruto said.
"Oh, he and Jiraiya go way back. He might not even take you where you want to go, and he'll definitely tell Jiraiya afterwards." Gamakichi said. His tone of voice was so matter of fact that Sakura couldn't doubt the truth of what he was saying. "He actually might not be able to take you where you're going, too. He has to spend some time at the destination meditating before he can self-summon there... something about the natural energy or whatever."
"Man... guess I have to walk." Naruto complained, then straightened up and puffed out his chest. "But no distance is too far for the great Naruto Uzumaki to journey and save his friend! Believe it!"
"You tell 'em, bro!" The toad replied, swept up in the moment. It leaped into the air and exchanged a fist bump with Naruto, disappearing in a puff of smoke before it hit the ground. After he disappeared, Naruto turned and gave Sakura a thumbs-up.
"See, I'm ok to summon the toads that I know." Naruto said. "We just have to stay away from the toads I can't trust."
"Naruto," Sakura said, "how do we know that Gamakichi wasn't just telling you what Jiraiya wants you to hear?"
"It's not like that." Naruto protested. "Summons aren't just tools for the summoner. They're people."
"People lie." sakura replied, unable to keep a trace of bitterness out of her voice as she thought of her betrayal by Kabuto.
"I know." Naruto said, placing a reassuring hand on her shoulder. "But I know I can trust Gamakichi, just like how I know I can trust you!"
Looking at Naruto's open, smiling face, Sakura couldn't help but smile back at him in return. Dealing with Naruto had a way of turning your world upside down-where most ninja saw trust as a weakness, Naruto turned his trust in other people (and their trust in him) into one of his greatest strengths. She couldn't help but feel that it was only fair that if she was asking Naruto to trust what his instincts had to say about her, she should trust what his instincts were saying about others.
"All right, all right. Hey," Sakura said, as another thought occurred to her, "that's a pretty advanced technique, even if you never learned the right name. What else has Jiraiya been teaching you?"
If she was going to get them through this rescue attempt alive, she needed to know what her team was capable of. She had had a pretty good handle on Naruto's skills before he left the village, but it only stood to reason that he would be a lot stronger after a year of training under the legendary Jiraiya.
"The old pervert won't teach me any cool techniques." Naruto replied, pouting a little bit at what was obviously an old complaint. "He just drilled me on taijutsu and chakra control over and over. It was super boring. I did figure this out though."
Naruto held out his hand and concentrated. A few seconds later a familiar swirling ball of chakra appeared above his palm.
"That's a big improvement. Maybe Jiraiya knows what he's doing." Sakura said.
It really was. Ideally an attack jutsu could be used on an instant's notice to capitalize on any openings. Sakura always made sure that she had achieved that level of mastery before she used a technique in the field, since her whole fighting style was based on finesse, creating opportunities to strike through tiny cracks in her opponent's defenses. With a technique like the Rasengan, though, a few seconds' delay was acceptable-the technique hit with so much power that it created its own openings. It had been a weapon to be respected even when Naruto needed the help of his clones to get it going, and now it was something his opponents would truly fear.
"Yeah, yeah." Naruto grumbled, apparently unhappy with mere marginal improvement. "He also had me work on getting better with the summoning technique and using my, um, special chakra."
"Oh. Ohhh," Sakura said, as she realized he was referring to the power provided by the Kyuubi. "Does that let you do anything like Gaara's sand control?"
"No," Naruto said, seeming to get more comfortable discussing the Kyuubi as Sakura kept the discussion technical, "it gives me extra chakra, and makes me faster and stronger, but nothing else. Well, it does make it harder to think straight."
"How can you tell?" Sakura asked, unable to resist teasing her teammate.
"Hey! That's not very nice," Naruto protested, laughing, but quickly sobered up before he continued. "If I take too much of its chakra, I just get angry at everything. All it wants to do is destroy."
"I see. That is a big drawback." Sakura said. And it was. Raw power was nice, but every ninja's greatest weapon was their mind-there was always somebody out there with more power, and if they could outthink you as well, it was going to be a pretty unhappy result. "But, your progress with the Rasengan really is a big deal. You shouldn't just wave it off."
"Really?" Naruto asked.
"Definitely." Sakura replied. "It's much better to have one technique you're really good at than a bunch of techniques you can only kind of use."
"I don't know," Naruto said, "all of the Hokage could do like a million techniques."
"You're a long way off from becoming Hokage. When the Hokage were chuunin, how many techniques do you think they knew?" Sakura asked, rhetorically. "Look at Kakashi-he's copied a thousand techniques, but he only ever uses four or five of them in combat most of the time. It's because those are the techniques he knows inside and out."
"Fine." Naruto said, although he didn't sound totally convinced. "It's just, Sasuke can throw fireballs around, you know? And I have to get close enough to punch people to land a hit with this thing."
"True, but one hit is all you need with the Rasengan, no?" Sakura asked. "So, did Jiraiya get you started on elemental techniques yet?"
"He tested me and found out I'm a wind-element type." Naruto said, then crossed his arms and huffed. "He won't teach me any wind techniques until my chakra control is better though."
"Hmm, I think I have a few wind technique scrolls back in Konoha. I've been working on research on ninjutsu design." Sakura said. She felt bad about lying to Naruto, even by omission, but she wanted to keep the jutsu theft squad secret. She trusted Naruto's loyalty, but she couldn't quite trust his discretion. "Once we rescue Sasuke, I can make some copies for you."
"Really?" Naruto asked, breaking into a wide grin. "I'm going to rescue that bastard in no time now, believe it!"
Several hours later, the pair of them had settled into the steady, ground-eating lope favored by ninja for long distance travel. The terrain was growing steadily less mountainous as they made their way to the edge of Snow Country. Sakura estimated that they would be entering Rice Country by the end of the day's journey.
The first sign that something was wrong came when Naruto vanished between one tree and the next. Sakura dropped down into the nearby clearing and looked around. If Naruto had just missed his jump or something he would have made enough noise that she could hear him, but as far as she could tell she was the only person in the forest, which meant... Suiting actions to thoughts, Sakura briefly interrupted her chakra flow, causing the foreign chakra of the genjutsu to lose its grip on her system. Her vision wavered momentarily and when it cleared she saw Kiba leaning against a tree on the other side of the clearing.
"That was pretty quick." Kiba commented as he lazily stood upright. "But you were always pretty smart."
"What- where's Naruto?" Sakura asked, looking around. As far as she could tell, she and Kiba were the only people nearby. His dog, Akamaru, sat at the edge of the clearing, apparently willing to simply sit and observe as Kiba walked toward her. The dog was no longer the tiny puppy Sakura remembered, but while he looked too big to ride on Kiba's head as he used to, he had yet to reach the enormous size of a fully grown Inuzaka dog. Kiba was in a similar state-like many of the boy's in Sakura's year, he had started to go through puberty and stood several inches taller than Sakura, but he still had that gangly look of somebody who had yet to reach full adulthood.
"You shouldn't worry about that idiot, you should worry about yourself." Kiba said, then stopped to look at her with a touch of sympathy in his eyes. "We always got along back in the Academy, so I'm giving you the chance to surrender peacefully. Otherwise, well..."
"You think you can take me in by force?" Sakura said, unable to keep the amusement entirely out of her voice. She would be concerned about taking on Team Eight by herself, but Kiba alone was not an opponent who worried her.
"Don't try to bluff me. They told us about the lies you guys were using to build up your reputation." Kiba replied. "If I need to, I can take you down-I don't even need Akamaru to pitch in."
"Pretty big words from the guy who didn't even make it out of the preliminaries at the chuunin exam." Sakura said, taking a ready stance.
"So that's how it's gonna be." Kiba said, preparing to charge. "Fine, then. Prepare to face the strength of the Inuzaka!"
With that, both of the combatants ran forward. On her second stride, Sakura sent chakra down through her feet to the ground, yanking up a clump of earth that she kicked up into her hands. Once she took hold of it, it quickly settled into the form of a pair of tonfa. A second later, she and Kiba collided.
The taller boy led with a roundhouse punch, which Sakura met with a straight block, stopping his arm cold as it impacted on her weapon. He obviously didn't expect her to meet him force-to-force like that, and he paused for an instant before moving to his follow up attack. Even momentary indecision could be deadly in a ninja battle, and Sakura was quick to show Kiba why.
As he was shifting his weight to prepare for a kick, the tonfa she had used to block was changing form, moving to wrap around Kiba's right wrist. Once it had a solid hold Sakura threw her weight down, pulling him off balance and sending his kick off course. She then lashed out with her other tonfa, hooking it around his plant foot and yanking him off the ground.
Even as he was falling, her tonfa changed form, looking more like a loop around his ankle leading to a handle in her hand. Once Kiba tumbled to the ground she moved to secure his other limbs, and before he was able to react he was securely hogtied, all four limbs held together by chakra-infused earth.
"You saw underneath the facade of our deception." Sakura said, quietly. "But you didn't look further and see that to maintain such a lie requires a certain degree of skill."
Sakura intended to use Kiba as a hostage to draw the rest of Team Eight out of concealment, and so pulled a kunai out of her pouch to hold against his throat as she yanked his head back. Before she could say anything there was a shout from the forest, and the enraged form of Hinata Hyuuga burst into the clearing.
For all of her improvement, Sakura wanted no part of a taijutsu duel with a Hyuuga, so her reaction was instinctive. She dropped Kiba back to the forest floor and sent a fireball in Hinata's direction. The girl had her Byakugan active and could hardly fail to see the technique coming, but her reckless charge would make it hard to get out of the way.
Hinata proved that Sakura had not been the only one training hardover the past year when she planted her feet and went into the whirling motion that was the Hyuuga's signature defensive technique-the kaiten. While she was performing the technique, the chakra emitted from her body would form a perfect barrier, protecting her from all outside attack.
Sakura saw her fireball splash harmlessly against the protection of the kaiten, but of course fire was not Sakura's only element. She quickly sent a burst of chakra down through the earth, moving underneath the technique to soften the ground beneath Hinata's feet. She watched with some satisfaction as her opponent drilled herself into the ground, coming to a halt as the mud around her prevented her from continuing to spin. A few hand signs later, a clone of Sakura rose from the ground next to the Hyuuga heiress, and quickly secured her in bonds of earth.
"Enough of this! Kurenai! Shino! Show yourselves!" Sakura called out, bringing her hand up to Kiba's head and collecting a small amount of medical chakra in her palm, just enough to create the distinctive green glow. "You can try another genjutsu, but I don't even have to move to kill your precious students now! All I have to do is think the wrong thought."
The clearing was silent for a moment, as Sakura shifted herself to be closer to her clone. Just as she was beginning to consider sending her clone out to look for Naruto, the leader of Team Eight melted out of the forest in front of her. Sakura could see the anger in Kurenai's normally placid demeanor, and more importantly could see Naruto held in front of her, apparently asleep and unaware of the kunai at his throat. Shino followed behind her, his face as expressionless as always behind his dark sunglasses.
"It seems we are at an impasse." Kurenai said.
"I didn't kill anybody." Sakura said. She wanted to tell her story to at least one authority figure, for what good it would do her. "Kabuto faked his own death, kidnapped Sasuke, and framed me."
"If that's true, you should come back to the village." Kurenai replied. "Running only makes you look guilty."
"Tsch, come back and have a nice little chat with Ibiki, while nobody does anything to rescue Sasuke?" Sakura said. "Not likely."
"Nobody ever said that doing your duty to Konoha would be easy." Kurenai replied.
"My duty? You expect me to stay loyal to a system when a traitor worked his way into the Hokage's inner circle?" Sakura said, shaking her head. "No, Naruto and I are going to save Sasuke and come back to the village with proof of what happened. Believe it!"
"And that is where we are at an impasse. Because while you may hold my students hostage, I am certainly not letting Naruto go." Kurenai said. "Eventually another team will come along to check on us, and things will not go well for you."
"That's where you're wrong." Sakura said, drawing another kunai and placing it against Kiba's throat. "You forget, I was there the last time Naruto was seriously injured. I know who he is, and what he is capable of. I think you know it too."
Kurenai's eyes widened slightly, but her voice was steady as she replied. "What do you mean?"
"I mean, that if you slit Naruto's throat, you'll just be breaking him out of your genjutsu. I don't think you can handle what that would unleash. You're holding a lit exploding tag-I on the other hand," Sakura said, tracing the kunai across Kiba's throat, pressing down just hard enough to draw blood, "am holding two hostages."
"You wouldn't..." Kurenai said, though there was doubt in her voice. "That would be unforgiveable."
"Don't you understand! The only thing that matters to me is saving Sasuke." Sakura said, trying to communicate her conviction to Kurenai. "If that means I have to throw away my chance to return to Konoha, then I will. If it means I'll have to crawl over a pile of bodies to rescue him, then that's what I will do."
Kurenai seemed to shrink back a little bit, and Sakura felt a surge of triumph. "You're ready to just walk away from here and what, trust my word not to chase you?"
"I'll leave a clone behind to keep an eye on you." Sakura replied. "Once it melts away, you're free to try to track us down again. If you try to leave early, well, it'll just be you and Shino trying to track us."
"Why should I trust you?" Kurenai asked.
"Trust that if you don't let Naruto go, Kiba and Hinata are definitely going to die." Sakura replied, keeping her voice level. "Probably you and Shino too."
There was a pause that seemed to Sakura to stretch on forever before Kurenai shook her head and released Naruto, giving him a shove toward Sakura as she released him from the genjutsu.
"Oh man, what a dream-hey Kiba, what's-Sakura, what's going on?" Naruto asked, obviously alarmed to see Sakura holding Kiba at knifepoint.
"We're getting out of here, Naruto." Sakura said.
"But Sakura, what-" Naruto said, before she interrupted.
"Not now, I'll explain what happened later." Sakura said. She held Naruto's gaze until he backed down. "Just keep heading east, I'll catch up with you."
Naruto nodded and leapt out of the clearing. Sakura turned her focus to the creation of another clone to take her place, but was unable to resist making one more comment to Kurenai.
"You underestimated us."
"It won't happen again." Kurenai replied, voice level.
"You won't catch us a second time." Sakura said.
"You should not underestimate our team either." Shino spoke for the first time.
Sakura inclined her head slightly in response, conceding the point before she left to rejoin her teammate.
The next morning found Sakura and Naruto walking along the roads of Rice Country. They were dressed in simple peasant's clothing, topped off with straw hats that kept the sun out of their eyes and their faces out of sight. They each had a sack of rice slung over their shoulder as they ambled down the road.
All of their non-essential gear had been stashed at an abandoned farmhouse. With Orochimaru in charge of Otogakure such houses were depressingly easy to find as families fled their homes or were abducted for Orochimaru's use. Sakura would have liked to believe the family that used to occupy their temporary base had fled, but the clothes and furniture left behind argued otherwise.
The way forward for her and Naruto was simple, but difficult. It was incredibly unlikely that they would stumble upon Otogakure by sneaking through the country, but quite likely that they would run into some Otogakure shinobi by walking along the road. The plan was to do their best to look like simple farmers, and then ambush whoever confronted them first-patrols looking for foreigners, Oto's "tax collection" teams, whoever.
Once they had prisoners they would be one step closer to finding Sasuke. In the mean time, it made for a lot of slow and boring walking.
"Hey, Sakura?" Naruto asked, unable to stay silent. "Are you sure Hinata and them won't catch up to us?"
"For the last time, yes." Sakura said, huffing a little bit in frustration. "The Hokage has very strict standing orders for all Konoha shinobi to stay out of Rice Country absent direct orders to the contrary."
Sakura had been offended on Sasuke's behalf when Kakashi had first reported the order to the then-newly formed jutsu theft squad, thinking that they represented a lack of trust in her teammate. Kakashi had just favored her with an amused smile before explaining that it was a village-wide order.
"I don't understand." Naruto said. "That guy killed the Hokage and we're just leaving him alone?"
"Not exactly, it's more that the Hokage doesn't want to risk losing people one by one to Orochimaru. She thinks he'll take a personal interest in any Konoha teams that show up." Sakura explained. "Kakashi told me that she said that the next Konoha team that enters Rice Country will be the one that destroys Otogakure."
"Hey, that's us!" Naruto said. "Man, that would be awesome, destroying that whole evil village."
"Don't be stupid." Sakura replied, though she couldn't keep a small smile from forming in the face of Naruto's infectious enthusiasm. "We're just going to get Sasuke and get out of here as quick as we can."
They fell into a companionable silence after that as they continued down the road. After a while Naruto spoke up again, more hesitantly than before.
"Hey, back there," he said, waving his hand vaguely back over his shoulder, "you were threatening Hinata and Kiba, weren't you?"
"Yes," Sakura said, keeping her voice level. "It was the only way to get Kurenai to let you go."
Naruto chewed on his lip for a minute, working up the courage to ask his next question. Sakura waited as patiently as she could, but she felt some worry in her gut about where this was going.
"But, if Kurenai didn't do what you said, you wouldn't have hurt them, right?" Naruto asked, a note of pleading in his voice.
"I don't know." Sakura said, thinking back to that moment. She knew Hinata and Kiba, she considered them to be friends. But in that terrible moment, with one teammate in immediate danger and the other imprisoned, she had felt nothing but a driving need to save them. The world had narrowed down to nothing more than her mission and obstacles that stood in her way. She was thankful that Kurenai hadn't called her bluff, but she still wasn't sure if she had been bluffing. Bringing her thoughts back to the present, she shook her head. "I just don't know."
The silence they fell into following her statement was noticeably less companionable than before, and Sakura found herself at a loss for words. It was almost a relief when a pair of Sound shinobi stepped out of the woods to bar their way.
"Good afternoon, trash." The red-headed girl who seemed to be the leader of the two man troop spoke first. "We'll be happy to let you pass, just as soon as you make a little donation to Lord Orochimaru. Keeping these roads clear of bandits isn't free, you know."
Sakura bit her tongue to keep from pointing out the contradiction between the Sound team's words and behavior. She wasn't here to score debating points. Beside her she saw Naruto tense up, but he at least avoided setting himself in a combat stance.
"Good afternoon to you, too." Sakura said, doing her best to sound non-confrontational. "We'd be happy to-"
Without pausing in her speech, she dropped the bag she was carrying and lunged towards the girl, burying her fist in her solar plexus. Unfortunately there was a puff of smoke and the downed form of her opponent was replaced by a log. One part of her mind noted that Naruto had engaged the male shinobi in combat while the rest of her focused on locating the redhead.
Suddenly flute music came floating across the road, incongruous in the context of the ongoing battlefield. Sakura found herself listening to it, finding something intriguing about the melody... until she came to her senses and slipped out of the genjustsu. When her senses cleared, she saw the other girl standing not thirty feet away from her, playing the flute.
Sakura sent a spread of kunai her way. The girl dodged them easily, only briefly pausing in her music. Sakura found it easier to ignore the music as she planned out the rest of the battle. Genjutsu was a fearsome weapon, but it was much more effective when used from ambush. Stopping to play a flute on the battlefield was the most obvious way Sakura had yet seen to telegraph the application of a genjutsu, and Sakura was nearly impossible to trap in illusions when she was on guard. Sakura frowned-on second thought, it was hard to imagine anybody being given a field command if their strategems were that obvious.
Sakura didn't hesitate to bite down on the inside of her cheek, hard. The pain snapped her out of the illusion and revealed the other girl to be charging towards her, prepared to land a knock-out haymaker. Sakura responded with a roundhouse kick, snapping her opponent's head back and sending her tumbling to the ground.
"Your layered illusions are cute, but it will take more than that to defeat me." Sakura said. There was no reason to pass up an opportunity to anger her opponent.
"Is that so?" The other girl asked, chuckling. "I guess it has been too long since I've had a chance to cut loose."
With that Sakura felt a wave of dark power emanating from the girl and a series of dark marks began crawling along her skin. Sakura sent a fireball at her to disrupt her transformation, but she easily dodged back out of the way. As she landed she brought a hand down to the ground, and there was a puff of smoke that obscured her form.
When the smoke cleared, Sakura saw three enormous figures standing between her and the Sound kunoichi. Her first instinct was to attempt to dispel a genjutsu, but her efforts had no effect. The other girl grinned at her before bringing her flute back to her lips. As she played, the monstrous figures moved forward in time with the music. Sakura had only a brief moment to plan as they approached.
The lead summon attacked with a horizontal swipe of the massive club in its hand. Sakura was able to leap over the weapon, forming a string of hand seals in mid-air. When she landed she slapped her hand down on the ground, activating the quicksand technique at her opponent's location.
As Sakura expected, the other girl easily leapt back out of range of the trap technique. With another instant of concentration, Sakura formed an earth clone in the place where the trap had been. It wasn't something she would usually be able to do at such a distance, but having the earth super-saturated with her chakra made it possible. She paid for her use of the technique though, taking a bone-jarring hit from the second summon.
Sakura dodged out of the way of the next strike, and the game was on. It was hard to focus on all three opponents at once, and she wished she could anticipate their moves based on the flute music she heard, but she knew she would only have to keep it up for a short while. She managed to dodge a few more strikes before the musci cut off with a squawk.
Sakura smiled as she landed among the suddenly immobile summons. Her clone had maneuvered itself underground to her opponent's position, and yanked the other girl underground. To make sure of cutting off the music the clone had pulled the bottom half of her face underground, and Sakura couldn't help but laugh at the sight. Her opponent was glaring bloody murder at her, but there wasn't much she could do from her position.
Or so Sakura thought. There was a second, even more disconcerting wave of power released as the girl's skin turned dark, her hair grew out, and a pair of horns sprouted on her head. Sakura couldn't help but feel the first stirrings of fear, wondering what on earth she had gotten herself into. Her opponent glared at her as she ripped free of the imprisonment using nothing but brute strength.
"I can't believe trash like you has forced me to use this technique." The girl snarled, bringing the flute back to her lips. "Enjoy the sight of such power, because it's the last thing you're going to see."
Sakura was strongly considering switching to more lethal techniques to deal with the situation when a red blur crashed into her opponent, sending her tumbling to the ground. When the two stopped moving Sakura saw Naruto, wrapped in some kind of red haze, grappling with the demonic form of the Sound kunoichi. Even being in contact with the red chakra seemed to harm the other girl, forcing down the unnatural power fueling her own transformation. When she reverted back to her original state she passed out from the sudden loss of power.
Naruto jumped back, and the chakra shroud around him receded, revealing the familiar form of her goofy teammate. Sakura chewed her lip as she looked at Naruto contemplatively. That power... it was one thing to hear it described, but another thing to see it in action. After a moment she realized that Naruto was looking at her as if he expected some kind of judgment.
"Good work." Sakura said, not quite sure what to say. Apparently she chose the right thing, as he brightened up and relaxed. "You took care of her partner?"
"Yeah," Naruto said, "he was persistent, but not nearly as powerful. She was really spooky."
Sakura nodded, then pulled out her bingo book. A ninja capable of a transformation that powerful should be on record, and something about the other kunoichi had tickled at the back of her mind. She nodded sharply as she found the right page.
"Tayuya of the Sound Four. She was one of the four that held up the barrier while Orochimaru fought the Sandaime." Sakura read. She saw Naruto's expression darken as he heard the news, and hoped he wouldn't do anything rash. He had been close with the old Hokage. "Captured by Konoha attempting to secure the defection of Sasuke Uchiha, escaped a week later along with her teammates, apparently as the result of inside help... Kabuto."
Naruto looked a little taken aback at the vehemence in Sakura's voice as she hissed out Kabuto's name, but he refrained from commenting as she thrust the bingo book back in her pack and moved to secure the prisoners for transport. He'd known Sakura for long enough to keep his mouth shut when she had that look in her eye.
Tayuya woke to find herself face to face with the annoying pink-haired kunoichi. She immediately attempted to attack her opponent, only to find herself unable to move. After a moment of futile struggling she paused to take stock of her situation.
She was in a room that showed the simple, sturdy construction of a Rice Country farmhouse, an impression that was confirmed by the rice paddy visible through the window she was facing. The room had been stripped bare of its furniture, and the room's only door was closed. Tayuya herself was secured against one wall of the room, her arms tied above her head to keep her in a standing position. She felt an itching sensation against her neck and a strange disassociation from her own chakra that suggested some kind of restraining seal had been placed over her curse seal.
The other girl remained silent as Tayuya looked around, waiting until their eyes met to speak up.
"Hello there, Tayuya." She said, her voice surprisingly cheerful. "My name is Sakura Haruno, and I have a few questions for you."
Tayuya knew she was in a bad spot. She recognized the other girl's name, and if even half the stories were true then tied up and at her mercy was a very bad place to be. Still, she drew some comfort from the fact that Konoha ninja were all soft: the things Orochimaru considered to be valuable anti-interrogation training were probably more extreme than any but the most battle-hardened Leaf ninja would employ.
Her first move, as always, was to try to get under her opponent's skin. An angry ninja is a sloppy ninja.
"Let me save you some time and give you the answer for all of them at once: go fuck yourself!" Tayuya snarled, and then spat in Sakura's face for good measure.
Sakura's hand snapped up and the little ball of spit stopped, floating in the air in front of her palm in a casual display of chakra control. With a flick of her wrist, she sent the loogie onto the floor by Tayuya's feet. The whole time the look on her faqce didn't change, remaining set in a slightly detached expression. Tayuya felt a chill run down her spine-this was the face of a professional torturer.
Sakura's expression remained serene as she drew a kunai and slammed it down into Tayuya's thigh. The part of her mind not occupied with the pain of being stabbed was surprised-she had expected more psychological games before they moved on to the sharp implements. Maybe the other girl wasn't as implacable as she appeared.
"Maybe you don't understand the situation. Nobody is coming to your rescue. You belong to me." Sakura said. If she was angry, it wasn't audible in her voice. She sounded like she was discussing the weather. "I will ask you questions. If you refuse to answer, I will hurt you. If you lie to me, I will hurt you. And if you are disrespectful, I will hurt you."
"I understand," Tayuya said, through her clenched teeth, "that you're wasting my time, pinkie. You should go do something useful with your mouth like polishing blondie's little kunai-"
Anything else Tayuya was going to say was cut off with a gasp as Sakura gripped the kunai and twisted, causing Tayuya to experience a temporary white-out from the pain. When she came back to her senses, she saw Sakura standing a few paces away, tapping the bloody kunai thoughtfully against her other arm. She could feel her leg wound bleeding, and thought she was already feeling a little light-headed.
Despite the pain, Tayuya felt a small surge of triumph. If she was unconscious or dead, she couldn't give any information away.
"You really are making this hard on yourself. Trying to take the easy way out?" Sakura asked thoughtfully, before taking a step forward. Her hand glowed with green chakra, and Tayuya watched as the wound knitted shut before her eyes. When Sakura took a step away, the skin was whole and unblemished.
"This session ends when I say it ends. You will not be allowed to die without permission." Sakura said. She appeared completely unruffled by the course of the interrogation so far. "Every cut, every burn, will have the same intensity as the first, since your nerves will be fully repaired in between. Are you starting to understand what's going on?"
Sakura saw Naruto flinch as Tayuya arched her back in pain. The Sound kunoichi was tied up as securely as she could manage-each individual finger was secured to prevent independent motion, her limbs were tightly restrained, and she even had a gag in her mouth to prevent her from biting her tongue. A pillow had been placed under her head so that she couldn't slam it against the floor, and overall she could move no more than a few inches as she thrashed around.
Sakura would be the first to admit that she wasn't the ideal interrogator. She was a little too impulsive and her temper was a little too easily triggered. Intellectually, she knew what to do, but she just didn't have the naturally stoic demeanor of a really top notch T&I specialist. Fortunately, Kakashi had taught her a genjutsu that allowed her to get around the problem.
It wasn't particularly useful in combat, as it didn't interrupt the enemy's control of their body, and could be broken by actual pain. However, it was not broken by the pain caused by the illusion-as long as the restraints kept Tayuya from hurting herself, genjutsu-Sakura could inflict as much pain as she liked on her captive. Even better, genjutsu-Sakura operated at a level of remove from Sakura herself that allowed her to maintain a calm facade no matter what the subject tried to do.
Tayuya hissed again in pain, and Sakura saw Naruto finally lose his patience. He shook his head and stood, striding angrily across the room to look out the window, apparently unable to watch any further. Sakura waited until she was at a good stopping point where the illusion would no longer require her direct control-Tayuya had been nailed to the wall with kunai while the illusionary Sakura left the room to get a drink of water-and walked over to her teammate.
"This is wrong, what we're doing." Naruto said as she drew near. She met his gaze, seeing the pain in his eyes as he examined her, looking for something.
"We need to know what she knows, if we're going to save Sasuke." Sakura said. It was true. They had captured Tayuya's partner as well, but she was clearly the higher ranking of the two, and would possess the most valuable information. Right now they needed everything they could get-they didn't even know where Otogakure was located.
"We're the good guys, Sakura." Naruto insisted. "We shouldn't be hurting people who can't fight back."
Sakura looked at her teammate, surprised. She could kind of understand where he was coming from-she wasn't completely comfortable with inflicting pain on a helpless prisoner-but being a ninja meant she had to do a lot of things she wasn't comfortable with. She involuntarily flinched as she remembered the sensation of medical chakra tearing through flesh and bone, watching the life seep out of her opponent, and a brief glimpse at the fourteen names on her own personal memorial stone.
But at the end of the day, the choice between inflicting pain on an enemy or risking a comrade's life was no choice at all. That wasn't just Sakura's opinion, that was the considered judgment of the Village Hidden in the Leaves.
"The village has a whole department dedicated to Torture and Interrogation." Sakura said. "Remember Ibiki, from the chuunin exams?"
"Yeah, but..." Naruto paused, gathering his thoughts. "It shouldn't be like that. There has to be a better way!"
"Tayuya is going to be a tough nut to crack. Orochimaru doesn't hand out those crazy seals to just anybody, you know." Sakura said, folding her arms over her chest. "You think if we just ask her nicely, she'll lead us to her boss?"
Naruto had nothing to say in reply, and she continued. "If we don't get the information we need, there's no way we can rescue Sasuke. He's going to be stuck as a prisoner until Orochimaru is ready for whatever sick experiment he's going to do with the Sharingan. You said you were willing to do whatever it takes to Sasuke-did you mean that?"
"Of course! I don't go back on my word." Naruto said, then looked down. "I just wish we could do something else."
Sakura felt her heart break a little at the obvious pain in Naruto's voice. She stepped forward and put a comforting hand on his shoulder. When he looked up and met her eyes she gave him a small smile.
"It's ok that you don't like doing this kind of thing-I don't exactly enjoy it myself." She said. "Why don't you go outside and help your clones stand guard? There's no need to come back until dinner time."
Naruto's face openly displayed his emotions as he wrestled with her offer, wavering for a moment before settling in a resolute expression.
"No," Naruto said, shaking his head. "If we have to do this to complete our mission, I'm not going to pretend that it's not happening. Lying to myself is not my ninja way."
Sakura held his gaze for a long moment. Seeing nothing but sincerity in his eyes, she nodded and lead him back to their prisoner. She had a feeling this was going to be a long day.
A long five days later, Sakura and Naruto sat around the kitchen table putting the finishing touches on their plan. Sakura would have liked to take more time to think things through, but Tayuya had inadvertently let them know they were working on a deadline. Due to the time dilation caused by being almost constantly held under genjutsu, their captive thought she had been under interrogation for a week and had recently let slip that the village would be on alert now that her squad had failed to report in "yesterday" as expected.
Other than that they had obtained the location of the village and a rough map of the first two levels. That information checked out with what was provided by Tayuya's subordinate. She had provided some other bits and pieces of information that Sakura was unable to corroborate, along with some obvious lies about Sasuke's willingness to join Orochimaru that Sakura didn't bother to relay to Naruto.
One of the advantages of their relative dearth of information was that, while they didn't have much time to plan, they didn't really have much they could plan for. Sasuke was almost certain to be in the lower three levels of Otogakure, the areas not accessible to most of the shinobi force. They were going to have to play this by ear once they were inside the enemy village.
Finally Sakura was satisfied that they had planned out as much as they could. Standing, she stretched out her back before drawing a kunai and heading back into the room with their captives.
"What are you doing?" Naruto asked.
"Tying up loose ends." Sakura said, meeting his eyes evenly. She wasn't exactly eager to kill their prisoners, but she knew she couldn't show any hesitation in front of Naruto.
"Tying up-you mean you're going to kill them?" Naruto asked, clearly horrified.
Sakura nodded in response, and Naruto actually recoiled backwards. His shock only lasted for a moment before he rebounded, pointing an accusing finger at her.
"Absolutely not! We're not going to just kill somebody in cold blood." Naruto said.
Sakura was again a little bewildered by his reaction. She thought it had been clear from the moment she outlined the plan that the Sound ninja they captured would not be surviving past their usefulness to the two of them. She could understand discomfort in the face of the more vigorous methods of interrogation, but this was just a simple matter of making sure an enemy was out of the picture.
"Naruto, you don't understand," Sakura tried to explain, "we've gotten all the information we can out of them, and it's just common sense not to leave enemies running around who know your plans. Oh, and who probably want revenge."
Naruto might be strong enough to knock out his enemies and go about his business, but Sakura really didn't want to have people running around who knew her fighting style.
Naruto stared at her, obviously unmoved, and Sakura tried another tack. "Didn't you say you agreed to do whatever it takes to rescue Sasuke?"
"I said I would do whatever I had to do. This isn't something we have to do, it's something we want to do." Naruto said, crossing his arms. "When you kill someone, you take away everything they have, and everything they're ever gonna have. I won't agree to it just to 'tie up loose ends.'"
Sakura stared at him for a moment, but it was clear that he would not be moved.
"Fine! We'll let them live." Sakura said, throwing up her hands in frustration. "I think I have enough knockout drops to keep them under for a couple days, and after that I guess it won't matter. But if Tayuya ever comes after me seeking vengeance, I'm totally blaming you."
Naruto broke into a wide smile, and Sakura felt a weight lift off her shoulders. She hadn't had to kill anybody in cold blood yet, and she was just as happy not to have to make today the day she finally did. And really, even with her curse seal active, Tayuya had only been as challenging as she was because Sakura had been trying for a capture rather than a kill. It was nice to think that she might be strong enough now that she could sometimes choose to show mercy.
Naruto looked like he was about to speak, but before he could say anything another voice floated into the room.
"Maa, look at my cute little students, all grown up and dealing with moral dilemmas." Kakashi stepped into view from where he had been hidden in shadow. Naruto's response was to immediately fall into a defensive stance, ready to fight off any attempts at capture. Sakura responded with a smile.
"Sensei! You got my letter?" she asked, receiving a nod in return. "What are you going to do?"
"Well, my mission is to drag my students back to Konoha." Kakashi said, scratching the back of his head thoughtfully. "If I return with just two out of three, that would make me trash, wouldn't it?"
OMAKE: Team Seven
NARRATOR: One year ago, a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn't commit. The team promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Elemental Countries underground. Today, still wanted by the village of Konoha, they survive as soldiers of fortune.
Featuring: Sakura "Face" Haruno
::Cut to two disreputable looking men having a heated conversation in an alley. After a moment they settle down and shake hands. One of them walks off. Once he's gone, there is a puff of smoke and the remaining man is replaced by a pink-haired teenage girl, who raises a fist in triumph.::
Naruto "Howling Mad" Uzumaki
::Cut to Naruto surrounded by a red chakra cloak as he tears through a horde of bandits. As he attacks, the men are flung aside and roll on the ground, clearly unconscious.::
Sasuke "B.A." Uchiha
::Cut to Sasuke and Naruto, standing in a room.::
Sasuke: I told you, I'm not riding on any stupid toad.
Naruto: Oh, I know that. I would never try to get you to ride on a toad. It's just, I have this extra juicy tomato and I thought you might want it...
Sasuke: I do like tomatoes...
::Cut to an enormous toad leaping across the landscape. Naruto is standing on its head and whooping with excitement. Sasuke, unconscious, is tied in place on the toad's back.::
And Kakashi "Kakashi" Hatake
::Cut to a room where Kakashi is reading his little orange book. There's a pause. Then another pause. Finally, Kakashi looks up at the camera.::
Kakashi: Did you say something?
NARRATOR: If you have a problem, if noone else can help, and you can find them, maybe you can hire... Team Seven.
A/N: Just to anticipate what I expect to be the lightning rod issues:
- The torture thing. Konoha does canonically have a Torture & Interrogation department, but of course we never really see it in action. I think Sakura's position here is pretty solidly in the canon mainstream (basically it's ok in ticking time bomb cases, or really important cases, and use is constrained by practicalities and personal squeamishness rather than morality), I'm really not trying for any bonus edginess here. With Naruto I'm shooting not for Ninja Jesus, but maybe Ninja William Wilberforce-I think anybody in canon Konoha who has a moral objection to torture is going to be viewed kind of like how mainstream society views the guys who want US soldiers reading Miranda rights on the battlefield.
- Power-level wise, what I'm trying to do with Naruto is take where he winds up shortly after the timeskip, and pro-rate his development evenly over time. So instead of learning nothing from the training trip and then perfecting the rasenshuriken over a weekend, there's a steady improvement of skill that gets him to where that kind of thing is plausible. I think a one-handed rasengan is plausible after a year and change of work on it.