Author's Note: Finally, another chapter done. I feel pretty happy with this chapter overall, but I'll let you all be the judge of it. And thank you so much to everyone who favorited, alerted and especially reviewed last chapter. Seriously, just hearing your thoughts means more to a writer than you know, keep it coming!
It had been bothering him for a few days. And the longer he was away from Konoha the stronger the feeling became; the nagging sense of urgency that chafed at his mind and made it difficult to focus on anything else. It wasn't like him to be so paranoid, but all Naruto wanted was to return to Konoha right away, just to reassure himself that everything was fine. Then he would be able to stop worrying and concentrate on his training, like he should.
However, when he said something about it to Fukasaku, he told Naruto point blank that he was being ridiculous. If something had happened in Konoha, Fukasaku reminded him, Tsunade would have sent word of it. And in any case, the village's shinobi were perfectly capable of handling things on their own.
Naruto knew Fukasaku was right and he felt silly for being so anxious. His training was the most important thing right now and had to be his priority if he was going to have a chance against Pein when the time came. He couldn't let himself be distracted. Sakura-chan, Baa-chan, Kakashi-sensei and everyone could take care of themselves and Naruto would just to trust them to handle anything that might happen in his absence.
So he pushed the unsettling feeling to the back of his mind and threw all his energy and concentration into finishing his training as soon as possible.
After Naruto learned how to gather and use sage chakra without a problem and nearly mastered the katas and other sage techniques – as well as secretly honing his skill with his own jutsu – Fukasaku explained to him that there was still one last they needed to do. Because the process of gathering the natural energy for sage mode required absolute stillness, Naruto would not be able to replenish his sage chakra in the middle of a battle without forcing a retreat.
The solution to this handicap was to use the fusion technique so Fukasaku could do it for him, but it even that proved to come with its own setbacks. The Kyuubi refused to cooperate and interfered with every attempt at the fusion technique, and following just so many tries Fukasaku said it was simply no use and fusion would not be possible.
But Naruto wasn't about to let all his hard work go to waste and he decided he would just have to find another way. There had to be something. First, he tried gathering nature chakra while moving, without any success. At one point Fukasaku told him what he was attempting was impossible.
"It's like trying to look left and right at the same time," he said.
And it was that statement that finally gave Naruto the inspiration he needed. Shadow clones. The shadow clones could collect nature energy for him and whenever he ran out, Naruto could dispel them one by one.
Immersed in his training, Naruto had forgotten all about his earlier concerns for Konoha until word reached them that Kosuke – the messenger toad send to the village as a go-between for Tsunade and Fukasaku – had been killed, his name vanished from the records. Fukasaku immediately decided it was time to return to Konohagakure in light of this news. If their messenger had been killed chances were the situation had taken a bad turn.
Naruto felt his impatience grow, knowing he would soon face Pein as an equal in battle. His grief had settled, replaced with righteous anger that the Kyuubi readily responded to, its chakra stirring at his navel before he checked it roughly, shoving it back behind the bars of its cage.
He wanted to fight Pein and avenge his master, but he was determined to do it with his own power.
"Sakura-san, let me take over for now. You need to rest for a moment," the concerned voice came from behind her and Sakura turned as another medic-nin stooped down beside her and her current patient.
The woman was a few years older than her, with long black hair in a single long plait draped over one shoulder, and a kind, easy smile. Sakura knew the woman well, having worked with her often since she began her occupation at the hospital.
"I can't stop now, Yumi-san," she said, shaking her head. "More injured keep coming in and there're not enough medics to keep up."
"I know, but you're running low on chakra Sakura-san," Yumi said pragmatically, her tone patient. "If you keep pushing yourself as you are now, you won't be able to do any good. You can't heal without chakra and it won't hurt to take a short break and let the rest of us handle things for a bit."
Sakura released a sigh, knowing Yumi was right. Her chakra was weak and draining fast, she knew that before long she would start feeling the effects of chakra depletion and by that point she would be completely useless. Lifting her head, she looked around at the sea of wounded civilians and shinobi and was overwhelmed responsibility she felt to each of them. They needed her to heal them, but she couldn't do that if she drove herself into the ground.
"Alright, but only for a few minutes," Sakura said, conceding.
Rising to her feet, she let Yumi took her place at the patient's side, the other medic's hands glowing with soft green light as they hovered over the man's battered body. Yumi coaxed the half-conscious patient to tell her where his pain was most intense and nodded her head at his whispered response, which was too quiet for Sakura to hear.
Reluctantly, Sakura turned away and started to wade through the mess of cots spread over the floor. She forced herself to ignore the injured and the low moans of pain that emanated throughout the room, slipping past scurrying nurses until she made her way to the corridor.
The air in the hall seemed a little bit fresher, cooler and less suffocating. Separated from the commotion and the frantic atmosphere, Sakura found the quiet almost unnatural and out of place. But at the same time, it was also a relief.
Sakura let out a breath and wiped the beads of perspiration from her forehead, brushing her bangs off her face. She walked over to the bench situated across from the reception desk and sat down, slumping back against the wall in exhaustion, the last dregs of energy leaving her body. Her shoulders were tense and achy and Sakura massaged the knotted muscle where her shoulder met her neck until it began to relax.
If Yumi hadn't pointed it out to her, Sakura imagined she probably wouldn't have realized how worn out she was before it was too late. And now that she had the chance to think about it, she was more than a little embarrassed by her negligence. She should have been paying more attention to herself; her training had taught her better than to be so reckless. A medic-nin without chakra could only do so much after all and she had to keep an awareness of her own wellbeing if she was going to be able to take care of others.
Sakura wondered how things were going outside the walls and relative safety of the hospital, if any progress had been made in stopping Pein's assault – or if Naruto had made it back yet. A small, perhaps selfish part of her hope he hadn't and that Tsunade and the other shinobi would find a way to stop Pein without Naruto's involvement.
She had seen the affect Jiraiya's death had on Naruto, it was a terrible blow and she doubted he'd completely recovered from it by now. If Naruto were to actually face Pein in battle, she was afraid his emotions would end up getting the better of him. And if he lost… she couldn't let herself think about it. Naruto wouldn't lose, not when it mattered, she must believe that.
The front doors of the hospital opened with a heavy groan and Sakura raised her head at the sound, just as Iruka and a couple other chuunin rushed in and brought with them a gust of foul, smoky air. The three of them looked frazzled and hurried, their clothes and hair messed, but they appeared to be largely unhurt, as far Sakura could see.
"Iruka-sensei, is something wrong?" she said, straightening in her seat with a sharp jerk and trying to ignore the dizzy feeling the movement gave her.
"Sakura," Iruka said as he turned to her. "We have orders from the Hokage to start evacuating everyone here."
Sakura's fingers gripped the fabric of her skirt, her knuckles pressing into her thighs. "What's happening out there?"
Things had to be serious for Tsunade to order the evacuation of so many injured people, the condition of some critical enough that moving them would be more harmful than helpful.
Iruka shook his head despairingly, his expression careworn and weary. "It's taking all we have just to hold them off. It's impossible to determine the mortality rate at the moment, but a lot of people have been lost. And a lot of good shinobi have died."
He gave Sakura a look that made her chest tighten with anxiety and she knew she wouldn't like whatever Iruka was about to tell her next.
"I know now isn't a good time for this, but I thought you should know that Kakashi is among the casualties," he said and Sakura felt the breath leave her lungs.
Kakashi was one of the best jounin Konoha had, if even he had been overpowered and killed; the situation was definitely very bad. Sakura tried to process the news, but it all seemed too surreal to believe. Unfortunately, she couldn't sit around mourning her former sensei's death at a time like this. They needed to start clearing out the hospital immediately and move the patients to a safer location.
Sakura made an abrupt motion to stand, only to be assaulted by a wave of lightheadedness. Her knees nearly gave out under her and she reached out for the wall the steady herself, but instead felt hands grasp her shoulders to keep her upright.
"Sakura, are you alright?" said Iruka, sounding alarmed.
"I'm fine. I just overdid it a bit," Sakura said faintly and stepped away from him once she decided she could stand without support.
She still felt unsteady on her feet and knew her body needed to rest longer. However, time was of the essence and she would just have to ignore her body's demand for rest. That would have to come later, when all this was over.
Careful to not move too hastily and cause herself another dizzy spell, Sakura made her way down the hall to the large room where the wounded were gathered together and called out to one of the senior medics. The medic, an older woman with light brown hair peppered with silver-gray streaks, looked around and hurriedly excused herself from the nurse she was speaking with to approach Sakura.
"Sakura-san?" she said curiously. "Is there something you need? Yumi-san said you were resting."
The older medic-nin gave off a manner of calm professionalism even in middle of so much chaos; a mark of her years of experience that only Tsunade herself superseded. Sakura also knew the woman's levelheaded temperament made her reliable under pressure and garnered her much the same respect as Shizune. It was for that reason Sakura chose her to share Iruka's message with first. She would be able to organize the other medics and nurses and keep everyone calm, while Sakura would be free to focus her efforts on the patients.
Sakura shook her head. "No, I'm fine. Naomi-san, listen please," she said urgently. "Tsunade-sama has given orders for everyone to evacuate here, immediately."
Naomi looked surprised, but only for a moment, and she was quick to compose herself. "I see," she said. "Am I correct to assume you would like me to take command of the evacuation, Sakura-san?"
"Yes," Sakura said, emphasizing with a nod. "I'll take care of the people who are too injured to be moved right away."
Naomi agreed to the arrangement and before long she had the medics, nurses and staff organized to begin evacuations. Iruka and his team stayed to offer assistance, moving people from the hospital at Naomi's direction. And Sakura returned to healing those not well enough to be transferred immediately, though her chakra was hardly replenished.
Sometime later, Yumi called Sakura over to help her move one of the wounded shinobi. The two of them supported the young man on either side, looping an arm over each of their shoulders as they helped him limp toward the door, when the wall on the far side of the room shattered in a rain of broken brick and mortar.
Sakura heard someone scream as she, Yumi and their cargo were pitched forward onto the floor by the force of the blast. Thankfully they were far enough away to avoid serious harm from the shower of debris, but Sakura did feel a bit winded by the impact with the hard ground.
"Are you alright?" Sakura said, turning to the other medic and the injured shinobi.
"Yes," Yumi said, coughing from the dust that filled the air.
The young ninja groaned, the fall jarring his injuries. "I think so," he said. "What was that?"
"I don't know," Sakura said. Slowing, she sat up to look for the source of the explosion.
There was a sizable hole in the wall, a shaft of sunlight pouring in, and the area surrounding it was covered with chunks of rubble. But when Sakura caught sight of black and red fabric, she froze, her eyes pinned on the back of tall figure in a long black cloak embossed with a pattern of red clouds.
She could not see the man's face, but she knew it must be Pein – or at least one of him, be it an illusion or clone of some kind. He had one of the shinobi from Iruka's team trapped against the wall, his large hand holding the chuunin off the ground by the throat.
"Where is Uzumaki Naruto? Where is the Kyuubi?" the deep voice of the cloaked figure intoned, even and detached, carrying easily across the room.
Sakura strained to hear the chuunin's answer, though she only saw his lips move and the words were indecipherable. Time seemed to slow, every second dragging by like an eternity, yet Sakura noticed that her mind was stunningly clear and she knew exactly what she had to do. She looked to Yumi, meeting her gaze with a firm expression.
Yumi's eyes widened fearfully when she recognized Sakura's intentions. "No, Sakura-san, you can't fight him. Not as you are now," she said.
"I know. I don't need to beat him, just keep him distracted," Sakura said in a whisper. "I'll attack him while he's not expecting it, and when I do, you get as many people out of here as you can. Don't look back and don't worry about me. You can't change my mind, so please don't try."
"Alright," Yumi said, resigned.
The heavy thump of a body hitting the floor brought Sakura's attention back to the cloaked man and his captive and she saw the chuunin lying at Pein's feet, motionless. She didn't know what had happened or if the ninja was dead or simply unconscious – she could see no blood or obvious wounds on his person.
Sakura knew she couldn't waste any more time, she had to act before Pein directed his interest on someone else. She had enough chakra for maybe a single attack if she gave it all she had and while it might not do her much good, it might give everyone else the time to escape. With her mind decided, Sakura stood and tightened her fist at her side. Her heart was calm in her chest, made steady by her resolve.
She sprang toward at the man while his back was still turned, extending her chakra-infused fist to strike, but somehow he seemed to have foreseen her attack and her punch only grazed her target's jaw. Sakura had no chance to register her surprise before a hand seized her throat and she collided with the wall. The blow left her momentarily dazed, a burst of pain shooting through the back of her head and black spots blurring her vision.
As her vision began to clear, Sakura peered over the Akatsuki's shoulder and saw Yumi ushering a group of people out the door. A wave of relief washed over her, numbing the pain pulsing at the base of her skull. Her attack was a complete failure, but she hadn't really expected success. She was on the verge of exhaustion, her chakra was low, and Pein was just too strong an opponent for her. Still, if her diversion gave the others an opportunity to reach safety then it was worth it.
"Where is Uzumaki Naruto? Where is the Kyuubi?" the cloaked man said, reciting the same questions she'd heard him ask the chuunin minutes earlier.
Sakura looked into her captor's face for the first time, and she was instantly transfixed by the strange ringed pattern of his irises. She felt paralyzed and exposed under his stare, those unsettling eyes boring straight through her and she couldn't bring herself to look away.
She dug her nails into his skin, clawing at the hand grasping her throat in a grip like a vise. The flesh under her fingers was stiff and cold, not at all like living tissue and the man seemed impervious to pain, his hold on her not yielding even a fraction. This was no illusion. It was very, very real.
"Where is Uzumaki Naruto? Where is the Kyuubi?" he repeated again, his tone unchanged. The words sounded rote in the monotony of his voice.
Her lungs were starved for oxygen and she struggled for breath, but Sakura pressed herself to speak. "I wouldn't tell you," she said, gritting her teeth.
Pein stared at her, his expression stony and his eyes unblinking. Then he tilted his head to one side, as if listening to something Sakura could not hear. The large hand wrapped around her throat suddenly released its hold and Sakura collapsed to the floor on her hands and knees, gasping and coughing for air. And when she lifted her head, she found that Pein had disappeared, leaving her alone in the demolished room.
Sakura touched her tender throat and a chill ran through her body at the memory of Pein's ice cold skin. A living person could not possibly be so cold.
Where had Pein gone? One moment he seemed prepared to interrogate her and likely try to coerce her into revealing Naruto's location – because she certainly wasn't about to give that information willingly – and the next he just let her go? No, something must have happened.
Catching a glance of a still form in her peripheral vision, Sakura remembered the chuunin lying face down just a few feet away from her and crawled over to his side. She eased him over to lie on one side and placed her fingers to the pulse point on his neck, but she found nothing. He was dead.
Sakura noted the drying blood around his mouth with some curiosity and on closer inspection, she made the gruesome discovery that his tongue was missing. The acid burn of bile slithered up her esophagus and Sakura quickly swallowed it back down. She knew that she'd come perilously close to ending up like this poor man but she pushed the thought aside, trying to figure out what this could mean.
What could be the purpose of removing the tongue? She wondered clinically. Maybe it had something to do with information gathering? Since Pein had been questioning people on Naruto's whereabouts, it seemed the most likely assumption. There must be a jutsu of some kind involved, Sakura concluded. That, or Pein was just especially sadistic.
Either way, it seemed like something she should tell Tsunade. If it was a jutsu, the information could put them one step closer to understanding Pein's abilities.
Sakura attempted to stand but dropped weakly back onto her knees, feeling nauseated and weary. She curled her hand into a tight fist and pressed her knuckles into the linoleum floor, the surface cool against her heated skin. She felt frustrated with herself for being so impulsive, and now she couldn't even stand under her own power because she'd recklessly exceeded the limits of her endurance.
She didn't have a large chakra pool to work with as it was, but Sakura was usually more cautious to use what she had efficiently so nothing was wasted. But she had never healed so many people in such a short amount of time, the delicate work of knitting muscle, flesh and bone back together taking more out of her than she would have estimated. And as the extra boost of strength provided by adrenaline drained from her body, she was left with nothing at all.
Hearing the sound of footsteps echoing through the corridor Sakura lifted her head, her spine stiffening. She half anticipated the tall form of Pein to emerge around the corner, draped in black and red. But as the footsteps come closer, the figure that appeared in the doorway and revealed itself as Yumi.
Sakura let out an alleviated sigh at the sight of the other medic-nin, the tension leaving her body. "Yumi-san, what are you doing here?"
"I wasn't just going to leave you here," Yumi said, kneeling down beside Sakura to aid her to her feet. "I'm glad to see you're all right, Sakura-san."
"Me too," Sakura said, realizing she meant it.
In the moment, she'd been ready and willing to die if need be. However, now that it was over and done she was glad it hadn't come to that. There were still people who needed her, and people Sakura wanted to be there for – Naruto not the least among them.
"I think something might be happening though," she told Yumi while she helped Sakura walk to the door and out into the hall, acting as a crutch for her weakened body. "He left very suddenly. I have to talk to Tsunade-sama; I think I might have a clue about a jutsu he uses."
Sakura expected Yumi to argue and tell her she should rest, but she seemed to understand the significance of the situation and gave a nod of consent. "Do you know where Hokage-sama would be?"
"Yes, the Hokage tower. It's the best place for her to look over Konoha and she wouldn't leave there unless she was forced to," Sakura said.
She knew Tsunade would avoid direct involvement in the conflict if possible. From the vantage point of the Hokage tower, she could monitor the village and its citizens; trusting the subordinate shinobi to handle heavy fighting and providing the leadership and guidance they required from their Hokage.
With renewed determination, Sakura pulled away from Yumi and placed her hand to the wall as she walked to keep herself from falling. She felt stronger with each step, spurred on by a sense of purpose. Yumi had to break into a jog to catch up before she was left behind.
"Sakura-san, you should let me help you," Yumi asked with an edge of pleading in her voice.
"No, we have to hurry," she answered, uncompromising. Sakura appreciated her friend's concern but having Yumi half carry her all the way would only slow their progress.
Yumi shook her head. "I think you must be the most stubborn person I know," she said.
Sakura fought the impulse to smile. "That's only because you've never met Naruto."
Upon seeing Pein for the first time, Tsunade was not prepared to recognize his face. He was older, certainly, than the face from her memory but there was no mistaking the similarity. It was one of the young war orphans from Rain that Jiraiya had taken under his wing all those years ago, she was sure. But his eyes… the boy from Rain had not possessed the legendary Rinnegan when she'd last seen him.
"You are –" she started to say, anger simmering in her gut. It was a cruel irony that the man who killed Jiraiya in cold blood would turn out to be his own one-time disciple.
"It seems you remember me," Pein said, his voice ringing out in an authoritative bass tone. His head tilted ever so slightly to one side, his hypnotic eyes never straying from Tsunade despite the circle of ANBU around her, poised to defend her if Pein made a move to attack. "Where is Uzumaki Naruto? Where is the Kyuubi?"
"Who knows," Tsunade said vaguely.
Unperturbed, Pein went on. "I've captured almost all the hosts. The ninja villages have lost the equilibrium of the bijuu. It's no use hiding the Kyuubi, the embers of war are smoldering and the fighting will soon begin. And we will control the war," his words were spoken as a simple statement of unchangeable fact, telling her resistance would be a futile exercise.
"If you cooperate, I would be willing to help you. You must be aware of the situation, of the power we possess," said Pein, one part cajoling and another part thinly veiled threat.
"Don't underestimate the Godaime Hokage!" Tsunade said, enraged. "You're nothing more than terrorists trying to destroy the stability our forefathers worked for. Nothing you say will convince me to give you what you want."
Pein closed his eyes as if deep in thought. And when he opened his eyes again a hot gust of wind, saturated with tremendously powerful chakra, whipped at Tsunade's face, the intensity of it nearly upsetting her balance if not for the chakra at the soles of her feet. The ANBU guards raised their arms as if to shield against the heat from the sudden gale, but Tsunade remained still, her hair lashing in the wind.
"Don't be so haughty," Pein said, the conjured wind dying down. His eyes burned with fury, though his face betrayed no expression. "Your peaceresults in violence towards us."
"I'm not saying everything Konoha has done has been right, but I won't accept your way of doing things," Tsunade argued, trying to reason with him even though she knew it was pointless. Jiraiya had probably tried the same thing and if he could not influence Pein's mind, there was little chance of her swaying him.
"Watch what you say. This is your last warning from God – tell me where Naruto is," Pein said in clear demand, no longer playing with requests.
"We will fight you with everything we have," Tsunade said. "You'll never get what you want."
"If you think your ninja can protect Naruto forever –"
"That's not it," she interrupted and said with confidence, "Naruto… is strong."
Pein said nothing and closed his eyes again, opening them after a moment. "I see. It looks like Naruto isn't here. Myobokuzan. That's the hidden village of the toads, isn't it? There's no reason to waste time here anymore."
Tsunade stared at him in shock. There was no way, no possible way he could know – unless he had a mind reading jutsu. But she was the only one here who knew Naruto's exact location, and Pein had not even touched her. He could not possibly be able to read her mind from a distance.
"You bastard," Tsunade said in a low voice and clenched her jaw.
With a rustle of fabric, Pein turned his back, unconcerned about leaving himself open to an attack from Tsunade or the ANBU at her side.
"Tsunade-sama, we should let him go for now and use that time to strengthen our protection of the village," the feminine voice of the masked nin to her right said.
Tsunade did not respond. She knew taking the chance to fortify the village's defenses was the most sensible thing and that her duty was to the whole of Konoha over any one individual, but she hated to let the enemy go without a fight.
"One more thing," said Pein, his back still toward them, motionless except for the gentle swishing of his cloak in the breeze. "The chakra in your feet, is that to guard against my technique? I guess that means you know all about my powers. No matter, everything is meaningless in the face of overwhelming power. You 'great nations' have proven that."
Furrowing her brow, Tsunade curled her hands into fists at her sides. There was no mistaking the sting of bitterness and hatred in his tone or the intended insult of his words.
"You think you're the only ones who matter," he continued. "You think you can escape death, but peace has made you foolish and careless. If you kill someone, someone else will kill you – it is the cycle of things. Your hate binds you together."
"Enough of your nonsense," Tsunade said, scowling at the back of Pein's head. "The great nations have suffered too. Don't attack us with false accusations!"
She was repulsed by this man who seemed to have long ago discarded whatever humanity he may have had and thought the pain he'd endured in the war justified violence against countless innocents. Tsunade had done things in the war she was not proud of, she would not deny that. But she had also lost a great many things as well, as had everyone. None of the great shinobi villages were unfamiliar with the suffering of war.
Pein crouched to the ground and a small vortex of wind swirled around his feet, humming with chakra. "How ignorant. You must feel pain, think about pain, and accept pain, to know pain," he said and launched into the air. "Those who do not know true pain can never know true peace." He rose higher and higher until he was little more than a dark speck against the bright blue sky.
Tsunade felt her heart sink as she watched Pein hover above the village, his arms outstretched. What was he planning now?
"What are you doing?" Konan said when she found herself standing in a small clearing encircled by the lush green trees of the forest outside Konohagakure's walls.
Around her stood four of the incarnations of Pein and the fifth – the Demon Path – lay in a demolished heap on the ground, both arms torn from his body and circuitry exposed.
"I'm going to use that technique," the Animal Path said as she rose from her crouched summoning position.
Konan was ordinarily meticulous in keeping up an unaffected front, her emotions closely regulated, but a glimpse of the alarm she felt managed to sneak past her control and she knew it showed in her expression. She had not thought the battle here would come down to that jutsu. It was too extreme and the risk was too great. Surely he was not thinking sensibly to resort such a measure.
"Don't do it. That technique will shorten your lifespan," she said. But Konan had barely finished speaking before the four remaining bodies folded lifelessly to the ground as the chakra that animated them was cut off.
"The power of all six of them," she remarked to herself. "So you're determined to do it no matter what, Nagato."
She looked off to a point in the distance and waited with bated breath for what she knew was about to happen. Konan understood that she could not stop him, no matter what she said. Nagato did not care about his own life, not anymore, and the only thing that mattered was seeing his dream for the world to fruition. And for that dream, Konan would stand beside him, as she always had, until the end.
AN: These last couple of chapters have been largely Sakura centric, but I swear Naruto will be getting his spotlight soon. I had meant to include at least part of Naruto vs. Pein in this chapter, it just didn't end up happening though. Next time, for sure. And I promise there will be more NaruSaku interaction before long ;) Leave your thoughts down below, and please do let me know if there are any parts of this chapter that feel rushed. I would like to know for when I do a more thorough editing job later.