Author's Note: I have to admit this chapter was hard for me to write. It gave me a severe dose of writer's block. However, my fellow brofist member friend/cousin pushed me through it with an amazing idea. You have no idea how excited I am for this mini-arc, because it leads to another bit of sub-plot I've been itching to stick in here somewhere. c:
(A week into the writing process:) I fucking hate this chapter. XD It refuses to be written!
Eye of the Beholder
"For the record, the natural is generally preferred. And, sometimes, Mother Nature has an unexpected way of setting you up for that."
"What did you mean…?"
Sakura turned over on her shiki futon and put her back to the door.
Through the entire journey from Rice to Herb Lake in Tea she thought about everything Itachi said about her chakra nature. His words knocked around her head and more often than not confused her. At first she thought he spoke sarcastically. Then again the more she traveled with him the more she realized he wasn't that type of person. He was polite with everyone around him. He was well-mannered and didn't mince words, actions, or emotions—especially emotions. He might have been cordial, but he distanced himself from everything around him. Sakura couldn't fathom why.
That's when she decided he was being honest and kind—or helpful, she couldn't decide that one—and that it was time to figure out why he said what he said. His words were so random spoken then. He put her in a genjutsu when he said that, too, which she found ironic and mildly upsetting. Why would he go to the trouble of catching her in a genjutsu just to say some idealistic bull about nature? She flopped onto her back and glared at the ceiling. Sleep evaded her recently and these heavy thoughts weren't helping.
Yuu stayed at an uppity hotel during their time at Herb Lake. He initially planned to leave Sakura outside with the caravan, but Kisame insisted her use far outweighed any idiosyncrasies he frustrated himself with. She thanked him for this to which Kisame just nodded his head. She asked if she could do something for him as compensation.
"You'll pay me back one day, don't worry," he said.
In regards to finding a cure for the Red Death, she made no progress since her first night in Uzu. She poured over her notes, referred to messages between her and Tsunade, and agitated herself to no end with the uselessness of the medical scrolls Gaara gave her. She even snuck into hospitals in the hopes of finding a scroll that either outright gave her an answer or hinted at one. Her anger got the better of her and she couldn't help but lash out Itachi and Kisame.
"I really should have thought to bring those vials of blood," she said in a sigh.
She sat on the floor of her tent, legs folded beneath her, surrounded by oceans of scrolls. She looked around her at the parchment and blanched at the lack of progress. She felt consumed with her responsibilities and somehow more so with the storm of paper around her. She gritted her teeth and threw herself onto her back. Her breath flew out of her and her lids sagged. She wanted to go to sleep. It was late, she was bored out of her right mind, and on top of that her stomach growled at her to feed herself. She lay there and looked up at the top of the cloth tent. She couldn't even go to sleep because her mind reeled with all the information jammed in her skull.
The next morning she woke to aches and pains all over. Her bones snapped and her muscles protested when she stood up from her mat, but she did her best to ignore that. When she looked over at the notes on the wooden crate by the door, she saw three two-ounce vials of blood resting on top of a small slip of paper.
"What is that?" She walked over and carefully plucked the paper from the vials. It was a note in neat print explaining the blood in the vials. "This is Gaara's blood? But how?"
She set the paper down and looked around her living quarters suspiciously. Someone listened into her late night ramblings?
She took up the rear of the caravan during the trek across the fields north of Degarashi. Swears followed the large procession thanks to her; the horses left their waste for her to maneuver through like a minefield. The smell disgusted her and the next opportunity she had to clean herself in Degarashi, she grimaced at the stench of her clothes. The reek permeated the fabric, a pain to take care of.
A day outside Degarashi the caravan settled on a quiet evening, their fires lighting up the sky like a miniature village suddenly popped up. The horses were all tied off to the sides of the caravan much to her huge relief. She ate dinner with Itachi and Kisame and found that she enjoyed the conversations they shared. They were friendly with one another and saw eye to eye on many issues, although heated arguments did arise occasionally. However, as far as she saw they were the best partnership. Hidan and Kakuzu constantly argued over one thing or another (not that they really counted anymore because they were dead), and Kiwa and Zetsu seemed distant. She looked across the fire at Itachi. He held a bowl of some cuisine native to the Continental Divide close to his face and worked his chopsticks slowly. His eyes flickered to hers with the firelight, but somehow blazed even brighter. He wasn't so bad, she decided. She tried to smile for him, but couldn't find it in her to fight the queasy feeling twisted in a knot in her gut.
The vials of blood left in her tent proved useful. Expanding on the antidote from the place she left off with Gaara wasn't easy work, but it was better than being blind. The blood felt like a kerosene lantern left off in the distance, barely allowing her to make out her surroundings, but that was enough to deduce what she needed. The portion of the antidote that aided Type One in killing Gaara was difficult to remove from the equation, but after nearly a fortnight she understood what she had to do. Only three slides of the blood remained.
When they came upon a port city on the southernmost tip of Tea the antidote was ready. She felt her heart thud loudly when she entered the village (the caravan went around it while she snuck inside under a transformation jutsu), but no sign of the disease reached her ears. The port was safe, and she didn't know whether or not to be happy about such a thing. No progress would be made here, but at least these villagers were tucked away in a cove of safety for the time being. The bars around town gave way to rumors of a monstrous disease in Sakura Country, though—she laughed at the irony of this, but listened well to the tales of the fishermen, merchants, and shinobi. There was a Sakura Festival coming up in the island country, which revved her anxiety. Would the disease spread widely and violently before she was able to administer the cure?
Sakura, Itachi, and Kisame boated across the small sea between the mainland and the island of Sakura alongside Yuu and his court; his caravan would come in pieces over the course of the next few days while he enjoyed the festival in Cheri. Luckily, the disease described in Sakura Country fit perfectly with that of Type One, the strain she created the antidote for. She stepped onto the dock in Cheri, tasted the sweetness of fruit in the air, and smiled. The wind picked up to a gentle pace and tossed her hair around her face, but her pink tresses stayed safely tied up behind her. In Sakura Country Akatsuki was a welcome sight, so their cloaks were donned with an air of pride, a sickening façade on her part.
A parade at least a mile long tramped through town with hundreds of giddy faces decorated with smiles and sparkling paint followed by thousands more cheering fans. The entire city seemed to be on holiday for the entire week. Businesses boomed, children escaped class without consequence, and all breeds of couples flitted around town and fell over each other. Sakura thought it was the most beautiful celebration she ever saw. Smiles were everywhere, and contagious. She smiled so wide her cheeks hurt by the time she reached the hotel with her party.
"Move! Everyone move! This man is extremely ill!"
A team of medics shoved their way through a particularly quiet celebratory crowd, carrying a man on the gurney between them. Blood, vomit, and waste drenched his clothes, and his skin was clammy and stretched taut across bone. Sakura stopped in her tracks at the gruesome sight and reached for Itachi's arm. This was her chance. She didn't even feel nervous at the prospect of showing her new jutsu to her teammates; she was much too focused on ensuring this dying man's safety. Whether or not he survived, at least this meant the disease was close by, in one strain or another.
"Cover me," she said.
She led them aside and they watched.
She clapped her hands together and with its force sent her chakra fleeing from her body to find the tangible essence of the sick man. She wound her chakra around his body and felt excitement buzz like a warm fire over her skin. She sucked in a sharp breath in preparation for the dizzying sensation of being two people at once.
"Ninja Art: Dual Essence Jutsu," she murmured.
She reeled backward as soon as she felt herself leave her body and reside in it all at once. Her stomach heaved, but she held it down and fought from kicking herself out of his body. She felt her brow furrow in both bodies, one with intense agony. The jutsu was breathtaking. She felt every sensation he felt to the exact degree, while at the same time she felt herself and her presence yards away and growing. He fell ill two nights ago (that's horrible; the disease is extending its life!), and he ached all over. This was definitely Type One.
Too much physical energy poured into the man's body at once and she knew this would kill her. She would be expelled from her own body, forever trapped in this dying man; not that he would live that long. She yanked herself back and fell against a wall, but felt herself steadied before she hit the ground. Her head pounded, she felt blood tickle her lips, and every inch of her body absolutely screamed. She let out a shaky moan but bit back the pain. This time, the jutsu lasted two seconds; she was developing a tolerance, as slow as it were.
"What was that?" Kisame helped her stand on her own two feet, but she was still weak.
"A new jutsu. She molds her chakra into a separate energy and keeps it alive with her spiritual essence. She places herself in the body of the object of her jutsu." Itachi examined her scrunched face. She was obviously in a blind agony, unable to comprehend anything around her.
Itachi nodded and walked toward the rift in the crowd created by the team of medics.
"Where are you going?"
"I'm going to see where they're taking the man. She'll want to know when she comes to."
Kisame left Itachi to trail the Type One and carefully led her to their new room. She fell asleep on a small bed and when she woke up Itachi was already back. She felt embarrassed to show herself to the two. Her own jutsu proved too much for her. What would they think? But she shook her head at this and realized testing her antidote on the Type One from earlier was much more important than such childish emotions. She stopped all movement at this thought. Do I view him as the disease to be cured and forgotten, or do I actually care about his safety? She thought on this for a moment and refused to believe she didn't care about the man's well-being.
Kisame guided her to the hospital the man resided in. Itachi stayed behind due to Yuu's preference for the brooding man he deemed "captain" of their "platoon." Sakura thought he was stupid for that. It was easy enough to see how respectfully Itachi, Kisame, and Sakura interacted with one another. They were mature enough to consider themselves equals and wise enough to keep that quiet. It was of no matter to Sakura, though, because she felt no preference to either of them. Initially, she definitely preferred Kisame's company, but now gladly switched one for the other depending on their own agendas.
"They'll let me in, won't they?" She asked.
"Akatsuki!" The receptionist leapt from her chair and bowed low in greeting.
That's when one of her worst fears as a tentative member of Akatsuki came to life.
"What do you need? How may we help the Akatsuki? All of our resources are at your disposal."
Sakura gaped. Kisame stepped forward at her silence and spoke to the sweet lady while Sakura stood back and sadly watched the scene play out before her. Once they finished their conversation, Kisame led her through the labyrinth of hallways. The antiseptic smell of death and healing fell on deaf ears with her, but he obviously scrunched his nose at the stench.
"What was that?" Sakura asked.
"Evil is relative," Kisame said.
She let out a huff of air, but decided to agree with him. Depending on the person, good and bad were definitely subjective to the viewer. She found herself dissatisfied with this conclusion, but didn't ponder the thought anymore. They came upon the quarantined room of the Type One—man, she corrected. She pushed open the door and set herself to work.
The man would live. After several hours of constantly monitoring his health, the medical staff charged to her finally left his room with a sigh of relief. Now only hourly intervals would be necessary, which left everyone with the vague taste of uselessness in their mouths. After several hours of nonstop pressure and constant activity what were they supposed to do with themselves when it was all over?
"You all should go home," she said. Everyone beamed at her.
"Really, Miss Akatsuki?"
"Of course. You've all worked so hard, you deserve to rest. It's really late and some of you have families," she trailed off with a feeling of awkward embarrassment tinting her cheeks.
A couple brave nurses walked up to her and gave her tight hugs. Most others shook her hand, smiled, or even waved as they left. They all admired her, especially because she seemed to have solved the horrendous disease known as the Red Death. This didn't feel like the case for her, though. There was still a long way to go before the Red Death was no more.
She shrugged off her lab coat and replaced it with her Akatsuki robes. She wished people wouldn't associate her with the cloak. Or more, she wished they wouldn't think everyone in the Akatsuki was as kind and warm-hearted as her. What would they think if they saw Hidan and Kakuzu? The two probably never ventured this far south for that very reason, and she wouldn't doubt it. But what about the infamy of the Uchiha name? Surely they were aware of the circumstances surrounding Itachi's defection from Konoha and understood the degree of depravity related with slashing one's own headband.
"How'd it go?" Kisame quietly pushed his way into the room.
"He'll live; the antidote worked. I'll make a replica and leave it here, but carry the original with me and administer it as needed around the continent. Is there any way we can send a copy to Pain?" She felt awkward talking about someone in such a familiar way, especially since he seemed to be highly revered and was such an unknown to her.
"Yeah, Kiwa can make another trip down south."
"She's the one who brought Gaara's blood."
The several hours spent at the hospital left her with a few hours of sleep at the hotel. She woke up an hour or two before dawn, an occurrence she gradually grew accustomed to as her time with Akatsuki wore on. Unlike the set schedule of responsibilities she lived under in Konoha, with Akatsuki responsibilities could be met at each individual's comfortable pace. Itachi and Kisame were a pair that preferred a casual pace, whereas Hidan and Kakuzu finished their tasks in a more than timely manner unless otherwise hindered (usually by Kakuzu's side trips to the bounty collection office).
This morning was no exception. She woke up and saw the violet horizon painted with smudges of orange and pink hues. The stars barely started to fade out, but it was obvious the sun's light would overpower their own in a matter of hours. No matter how little sleep she got or what time she went to bed she always woke up too early, but unable to go back to sleep. She figured it was stress, but nothing she did helped. Her brain was just screwy.
"Morning," Kisame greeted.
"Good morning," she said. For once she didn't poignantly direct her morning greeting at Kisame with obvious neglect for Itachi. She simply called out to whoever listened. "We're all early birds today, huh?"
"I guess so. Are you ready to enjoy the festival today?"
"Oh yeah, that's right. We're escorting Yuu around the village for the next couple of days." She moved around the kitchenette and reveled in the fact that today was her last day of cooking. "Feel like miso?"
"Me so what?"
"Oh my gods, Kisame, that was so lame!" She laughed. Kisame laughed with her and reached for Samehada. Itachi watched the two with a curious expression.
"Let a man try," Kisame said.
"Akatsuki! Open up now, please! Akatsuki, can you hear me?!" The screeching voice preceded several booming thumps on the door.
Kisame looked over and Sakura followed his gaze. She moved to open the door.
"Miss Akatsuki, there's an outbreak in the daimyo's city-palace. It's not Type One."
Immediately Sakura swirled around to pack her things and ready herself for the small journey to the daimyo's palace. Again, Kisame planned to go with her because of Yuu's preference for Itachi's presence. Neither cared because the real priority was to secure the safety of the Sakura Country citizens. The young lady who bore this news was just as anxious to leave for the daimyo's city-palace.
"If it's not One then what is it?" Sakura asked on their way down a highly trafficked dirt road.
"We don't know. At first we thought there might have been some sort of uprising thanks to Blood, but when one of them was killed and underwent an autopsy, we found out…disturbing things."
Three? Sakura thought with a cold chill running across her arms.
"They were so violent because the disease was eating different parts of their brain. It somehow managed to get into their chakra, too. As soon as it was confirmed that this was a disease and not a rebellion, the daimyo sent me to retrieve you. Most other of his guard are protecting the daimyo's court or monitoring the quarantined hospital."
Sakura gaped in horror at her words and faced Kisame.
"I'm going to need your help," she said. He cocked an eyebrow. She thoroughly explained the extent of the terror of Type Three to the two. The woman covered her mouth, stunned and afraid. Kisame listened intently.
Begrudgingly, she tended to the daimyo first. Everyone insisted his well-being trumped that of everyone else, but the entire time she couldn't help but think, who would the daimyo be if he didn't have any citizens? A lonely madman talking to himself? More relativity, she discovered. But she acquiesced and examined the daimyo as soon as she entered his presence. She refrained from using her new jutsu to conserve her energy. Frustrated with herself for being unable to use such a helpful jutsu she resolved to focus on nothing but after Yuu and his party departed for south of the world.
The daimyo was fine, as was his family and most of his court. When she found a few sick persons they were escorted along with her to the hospital. The hospital was like nothing she ever saw. It was a horror story come to life, with blood spattered walls, shattered glass, overturned gurneys and loose medical instruments, and the occasional dead body. Kisame wasn't touched by it, but Sakura never saw such bloodshed from any single cause. The signs of a Type Three victim were so obvious it sickened her. She flashbacked to her last mission in Nature and felt her stomach turn over and her intestines melt away to some acidic liquid. She was disgusted.
"They're in the basement."
"That bad?" Kisame asked.
Sakura looked at him and she believed the intensity of the situation began to sink in right then. They all silently followed the woman down a flight of stairs. In the basement, the sick rested in cages that contained a single gurney for their use. Curtains hid most of them, but the screams and bellows gave away their evil presence.
This isn't good at all that the disease has escaped Lemon and Orange, she thought. She flinched at the slick clatter of hands tearing at chain-link so close to her head. She felt their chakra raging in their bodies, amplified by the disease. The madness felt tangible, nasty on her tongue and sticky on her skin. She ached to leave that place—that tentative hell on earth.
"I don't have a cure for this," she said in a shaky voice, "I'll need time to prepare before I can even begin administering the early stage antidotes."
"Time isn't on your side then."
"It never is."
"How much time does she have?" Kisame asked.
"Each individual has one week to live before they die."
"A week? Compared to One, that's—"
"We're the ones that kill them. Otherwise, I'm sure they'd flourish."
Sakura looked over her shoulder when they approached an office at the end of an aisle out of the dozen present. The crescendo of the raving mad sick bodies grated against her ears. Everything in that basement was so wrong. There was such an urge to bolt and never look back she held her arm for some sick way to feel grounded in that basement. She felt stuck more than anything.
"If we leave them be for more than a week, they start to grow stronger than our restraints and manpower can handle."
"Why didn't you call me in sooner?"
"Like I said, we thought this was a rebellion. You can see how these people are…"
She spent the next few days consumed with her work, the hellish cavern surrounding her, and the screaming and tearing and roaring of the dying monsters. They weren't people anymore. No, they were something entirely until she could find a way to heal them and make them the men they once were. There was minimal progress, if any made at all, to find a cure for this strain.
Eventually, she gave up working from her progress on the first strain. It was hard for her to believe this was the same disease from a medical standpoint. Scientifically, however, they were so similar. It was the way the properties built up and ionized, affected, and dissipated. But it was the same and that frustrated her to no end. Four days into her work Kisame interrupted her. She yelled at him to leave, but what he told her flushed the heat from the room.
"Yuu wants to boat to the continental divide tomorrow."
"He sent word that he wants us back immediately."
"That's ridiculous! You have to be kidding me!" She bounded to her feet and flipped the rolling chair over. "I've been working my ass off to save these people's lives the last four days and he thinks he can just boot me out of here like that? I've dedicated so much of my time and energy to these people. They're dying and if someone doesn't do something about it—by the way, who in the hell else can?—then this disease will spread all over the island countries. It's already squirmed its way out of Lemon and Orange, slowly crawled up the southern part of the continent, and now it's breaking out over here. Does he expect the disease to eradicate itself? This thing is practically sentient to the point where it's figured out a way to survive after its host is dead. I have responsibilities far greater than escorting some obnoxious asshole out of the continent!" She slammed her fist onto the desk and fumed. Her breaths came in quick, heavy bursts, and she thought she might break something if she didn't find a way to calm down.
"I'm sorry, but I can't do anything about it. Tell Yuu when we get there. Now come on." He finished his sentence softly and hoped to convince her to put this behind her and move on.
"This is crazy." Her voice was fragile and shaky. She brought her hand up and put it to her forehead, looking down at the mess of paperwork on her desk. What was she supposed to tell the medical staff? Sorry, but she had better things to do than her job. "I'm gonna be sick."
It was late into the cooling evening when Sakura and Kisame passed through the gates of Cheri. The village came to life at night if not during the day. Children ran around with spitting sparklers and threw snapping pebbles at each other. They screamed and laughed and chased and played. Sakura only felt queasy and dead on the inside. It was hard for her to let go of the daimyo's city-palace like that, but the Akatsuki placed their reputation above finding the antidote for the Red Death. She understood how this would better benefit them in the long run, but that was only if she managed to cure everyone.
"Hey, before we get back to the room, we should pick up some noodles," Kisame said.
She didn't feel any emotion in her voice or her face. She knew the smile she gave him didn't reach her eyes, but she couldn't find it in her to care. She wanted to pick up the necessities and make it to the room as quickly as possible. She had a lot of things she wanted to say to Itachi and Kisame once they were all together. She felt the words boil in her stomach and thought they might come out too soon, but held them down with her lunch. Her gut writhed painfully. Anxiety coursed through her and burned her skin. She kept looking over her shoulder and all around, expecting to see…something. She didn't really know, but she felt something staring at her, felt its gaze rake across her back.
A sharp gasp caught her attention. For some reason, she just knew the noise was directed at her, or at least happened because of her. Some intuition screamed at her that something was wrong and she needed to hide, run away, or do something. When she looked up across the grocery stand she met the brown eyes of some strange young woman. Her dark hair was pulled back into a thick, loose ponytail and she had the face of a smiling angel. At first, Sakura didn't recognize her. But when horror distorted the woman's face it was all too easy to remember who she was.
"Ayame," Sakura said.
Kisame yanked her away then, impatient because of his hungry stomach. She didn't know what to say to him, didn't know how urgent the situation was, but most of all she wanted to scream and yell at Itachi and Kisame as soon as they got back to the hotel.
"Itachi!" She screamed.
"What is it?"
"Ah, shit," Kisame swore, "I forgot a side dish."
He left when he said this, but she didn't care. She couldn't bottle the world up inside her anymore. She didn't hear the door shut behind her, didn't hear Itachi shut the door to his bedroom, and most importantly she didn't hear the lunacy in her voice.
"What the hell is going on here, Itachi?! You two haven't told me anything about the Akatsuki's involvement in the Read Death. Personally, I think I've done very well keeping my mouth shut up until now. But when I went to the daimyo's city-palace, do you know what I saw? Do you want to know! I saw people so sick they weren't people anymore. They were climbing up cages the doctors boxed them in. They wanted to kill everyone in that hospital, and they wanted to kill everyone in that palace, and they wanted to kill everyone in this country, and everyone in this world. There was something evil in their eyes, Itachi. Something terrible and scary that wanted my blood like a body wants air. What the hell was I looking at? TELL ME."
Her chest heaved hugely and she couldn't breathe properly. She felt so sick and afraid, anxious and unwilling to move any further until someone explained to her just what the hell was going on. Her situation wasn't right and neither was the position of the daimyo and his court. She pulled in sharp breaths, her heart catching each time. She was panicking and she didn't know how to stop. She honestly didn't believe she ever would, and that in itself was scary more than anything else.
"Breathe. Come here, sit down, and breathe," Itachi said. "When you calm down I'll explain everything to you."
"No! It doesn't work that way!"
She slapped his hand away and ran for her bedroom. She needed to be alone. She couldn't face him staring at her like that. The way he pitied her, like she was the one who needed pity. No, she should have pitied him. He was the sad one. He was the trapped one, the lonely one, the lost one, the damned one. She pushed everything she thought she saw in his eyes on him and slammed the door to her bedroom behind her.
And what do you think you are? TenTen put a hand on Sakura's arm and dug her nails into her skin. Sakura looked up with wide, confused eyes, and didn't know what to feel. She was so numb. You're no better than him.
"No. I am. I have friends and family and a future. I'm a talented kunoichi who should be proud, and—"
And ashamed to show her face to the world ever again.
Look at me and ask me why. TenTen dug her nails into Sakura's arm with bruising force.
"Why won't you leave me alone? I'm fine!"
Itachi grabbed her arms but she fought against him. She wailed and sobbed, fighting against his tight hold. It felt gross. It felt so gross to be held by this monster, but at the same time at least he was alive. At least Itachi was a real person with a beating heart who didn't want to hurt her. She begged him to let her go and leave her alone and screamed even louder when she was met with a wall of silence. Eventually she sank into his hold. He was warm, after all, and TenTen's hand was cold.