It’s Just That Any One of Us Is Half Without Another One Is You – Chapter Eight

Sakura and Orochimaru conclude their bargain, and their betrayal. Sasuke and Naruto do their best to catch Sakura as she falls out of this mission. Character death. Drama, Action, Porn, I-4

“Once more,” Orochimaru told them.

Sakura nodded and wove her hands through the six seals for activation. She rocked on her toes as the interlocking seals spread over her back and shoulders roared to life with wild power that flooded her whole body. This time, at least, she was expecting the jumble of elemental “tastes” in it and they didn’t dizzy her. She rode the upsurge, feeling her seal like a typhoon wind at her back. But this wind blew through her, poured out of her hands and feet, driving them against the floor and walls of the stone arena as she tumbled and flew, evading every one of the blades Kabuto threw. Her hands flickered through the seals for the Violent Wave, faster than she could have even seen before, and water crashed down where he’d been.

Sakura spun on her toes, tracking him, holding the inrush of energy with a light hand, balancing it against the part of her that still tasted of her own spirit. This was like playing a game of shoji against Shikamaru and playing the koto at the same time. She could do it, though. She could do it.

She saw Kabuto gathering himself for another attack, caught the faint haze at the corner of her eye that often showed up when someone laid illusion on her, and leapt just as a wire trap snapped down. “Kai!” The dispelling swept the arena, blowing away the seeming of rock Kabuto had hidden himself behind, and she touched down, braced a foot, and drove herself towards him like the wind.

The hint of something coming was barely a crinkle down her nerves, barely a suspicion, but in this state it was enough. She turned in mid-air, arms crossed and guarded by her kunai, and Orochimaru’s snake lashing toward her back got a knife in the mouth instead. The force of the attack drove her back against the stone wall, bruisingly, but she got her feet under her in time and her body held, coiled, absorbed the force. Hidden for that one still moment, she exchanged herself with blinding speed for a loose stone and drove her knife toward Orochimaru’s unguarded back.

Kabuto caught it on his glove-guard, just short.

“Good,” Orochimaru purred, eyes alight, and Sakura knew her own were glittering back at him. She could feel the air on her bared teeth. She loved this, that he would expect her, prefer her, to attack him from behind, to test him exactly the way he tested her.

It took a moment to draw herself back and disengage from Kaubto, and a longer one to make herself fold her hands into the Horse and send her seal to sleep once more.

“Very good,” Orochimaru approved as Kabuto straightened and Sakura sagged against the wall behind her, wobbly with the sudden release of that pressure on her own chakra. “Because of its construction, you will always require hand seals to activate this, but that seems a minor drawback all things considered. I think we may call this operation a success.” He folded his arms, smugly pleased.

Sakura nodded. “It doesn’t give me any skill I don’t already have,” she reported wearily, “and the effort of controlling the nature energy is very wearing. My absolute endurance is still the upper limit on this; it’s hard to feel my strength depleting directly, too, I have to pay attention to the stability of the balance I’m holding. But while I can hold out, everything is stronger, faster, clearer.”

“Your abilities are boosted at least threefold,” Kabuto confirmed, brushing himself off and straightening his tools back into their usual impeccable array. “That was more than the final test subject achieved.”

Sakura hauled herself upright and stretched; the release took some getting used to, but she thought she could see already how to balance her new strength, its duration, and the weakness after it in her strategy.

“So?” Orochimaru cocked his head at her. “Are you satisfied?”

Sakura straightened her shoulders and nodded. “I am. Have you decided where you want me to show myself, to draw Naruto and Sasuke in?”

“Hmm.” He tapped a finger against his lips. “It should be something showy, of course.” He smiled slowly. “I’d thought to send you against one of Akatsuki. Kabuto might enjoy the chance to kill his old master, and Sasori’s grudge has become wearing.”

Sakura gave him a skeptical look. “And how were you planning to get one of them alone? Every mission of theirs we’ve spied on was a pair.” And even with the seal she wasn’t about to take on two of Akatsuki, not with only Kabuto to back her up.

“Unfortunately, yes. They’re getting more consistent about that. A shame.” Orochimaru waved it off. “Well, then. Two renegades from Cloud seem to have crossed through Hot Springs Country to our eastern border and be harassing our border post. At least one of them is jounin; Karajin Ryouta, if I’m not mistaken. Vanquishing them should be a good debut for you.”

Sakura snorted, amused by this phrasing of it. “I’ll want another week or two to train, if I’m taking a jounin plus helpers. But that should do.”

“Excellent. I’ll have a letter sent to the Daimyou, then, he’s been getting really quite tedious about the matter.” Orochimaru swept out the door, leaving Sakura mouthing “tedious?” at his back with raised brows.

“Orochimaru-sama does like to apply all his attention to his researches,” Kabuto murmured, but Sakura thought she could hear a thread of laughter under his bland respect.

“He should pay better attention to politics, or else get someone who can,” she said firmly. “Or even he won’t stay ‘Otokage’ long.”

“Well, perhaps that will be you, Sakura-san.” While she was processing the combination of pleasure and wariness that answered his suggestion, his recognition, he added, “You know, you might be able to activate your seal without the hand seals.”

(What agenda of his will that serve?)

(useful for when I turn on them)

Sakura crossed her arms and leaned back against the stone wall, eyeing him curiously, not shaking her head like she wanted to a little from the echoing under-persona thoughts. “In time, I suppose. I know a technique one is very familiar with can be formed without seals eventually.”

Kabuto smiled. “Ah, but even before that, if your control is fine enough, you can form the seals in your spirit without using your hands.”

Sakura whistled softly. “Seriously, no wonder you make such a good spy.” He laughed.

“Indeed.”

Did Kabuto think her loyal enough to Orochimaru, now, that this would serve and not harm his master? Or was this another step in Kabuto’s own game? Always that question, with him.

Well, there was no way to know but to play it out.

“So I need to form the seals without actually forming them?” Sakura frowned, thoughtful. “That… makes sense, actually. I suppose familiarity couldn’t make the hand motions unnecessary, otherwise. I hadn’t quite thought that out before.”

“All you’ve ever needed is a little pointer here and there,” Kabuto murmured.

“I’ll do my best to justify your confidence,” she returned, meeting his eyes. They gleamed.

“I’m sure you will, Sakura-san.”


The shinobi at the eastern border post were definitely glad to see her.

“The second one isn’t jounin rank, I don’t think,” Tomita, the chuunin in charge of the post, reported to her, “but he’s still strong, especially with illusions. Two caravans have been plundered because we just couldn’t find them.”

“That should make things interesting,” Sakura murmured, turning over possibilities in her head. “I understand that Karajin is a taijutsu specialist?” That was a strong team, if they cooperated at all. She had to assume they did.

“Yes, ma’am.”

There were advantages, Sakura reflected with some amusement, to Orochimaru’s habit of giving her a new team every month or so. Many of the genin and chuunin of Sound knew her or knew of her from a partner.

“…know about her?” one of the post’s two genin was whispering to the other, behind her, in fact. “They call her Orochimaru-sama’s left hand!”

The rage and thirst for strength in her heart drank that in and purred.

“All right,” she said at last. “We need to take out Karajin’s partner first. How long can you keep Karajin busy for, while I stalk the illusionist?”

Tomita’s mouth twisted. “Five minutes, at the most.”

“I’ll organize some traps and maneuvers for you to use against him, then. That should be long enough.” She pulled a fresh sheet of paper across his desk and started sketching the ground in front of the border crossing. “Once I’ve dealt with the partner, fall back to here.”

“That far?” Tomita stared at her. “Haruno-san… we won’t be able to support you at all from that far back.”

She smiled tightly. “Don’t worry about that.”

She could tell he wanted to argue, but in the end he kept his mouth shut and only offered a few insights on the terrain around the post and the border, and showed her to her room himself.

The next caravan came two days later, not coincidentally one from Fire Country, returning from Lightning Country and still trailing its Leaf escort. Since Hot Springs had dissolved their village, no one trusted local escort across that land. And even traveling through a country whose village one’s own village was at odds with was better than a country where no one was keeping the bandits in check.

Sakura perched on the gate pillars that marked the border, observing the caravan as it approached. She’d wagered with herself on just how Karajin’s partner was disguising himself or the target caravans. He almost had to be hiding in the wagons themselves; the longer someone had to weave an illusion, after all, the more strongly it took and the less chance of anyone pulling free of it.

Which was why Sakura crouched with her eyes closed as the caravan passed under her, hands in the Snake, watching her own chakra. The one skill that using her new seal had sharpened fastest was sensing the flows and small differences in her own chakra, and, sure enough, she felt the brush of another influence against her as her ears told her the third wagon passed under the pillars. She traced the touch back, narrowing down the location of its source slowly, feeling like she was squinting to pick out details at dusk, and wishing she had Sasuke’s eyes present to do this faster.

(Don’t think about that.)

But there. There it was, the source of the subtle disturbance, which she was sure she wouldn’t see if she opened her eyes. Not without performing a dispelling, and that would make her far too obvious. Instead she waited, concentrating, following the trace she’d found.

The moment the caravan passed all the way into Sound, the ground under the front wagon exploded. Now, Sakura thought fiercely at Tomita and his team. And, indeed, she heard them coming, heard them ordering Karajin to halt, heard the Cloud-nin’s laugh.

Felt the flare of chakra from her target, brushing over her own as he reached out to confuse their senses.

Now. She dropped down from the pillar without opening her eyes, feeling the tingle of exhilaration and terror as the world whirled around her in un-solid flashes of chakra. She suddenly had far more respect for the discipline the Hyuuga must exercise to fight like this. She had to open her eyes at the last moment, to land safely, but she had burned the location of her target into her memory and came out of her landing crouch with an unhesitating thrust at, apparently, thin air.

The world wavered just faintly, and there was a shinobi on the end of her knife, bleeding and glaring at her. Sakura bared her teeth and whirled, heel smashing into his temple.

Few genjutsu specialists trained to fight without the aid of their illusions. Their loss.

“Get the caravan under cover!” she ordered as she sprang down from the wagon and bounded toward the whirl of combat where Karajin was throwing Tomita and the genin, now including one from Leaf as well, around with careless ease. She set her feet at the edge of the fight, wove her hands through the activation of her seal, and shouted, hoarse with the rush of strength, “Get back!”

The battered Sound ninja sprang away from Karajin, Tomita hauling the Leaf-nin with them as she’d directed him to, and Sakura launched herself forward.

It felt like the world should blur with the speed of her strike, his guard, her rebound, the whirl of blows before they broke apart. But everything was clear, almost etched in her vision: Karajin’s surprise, the narrowing of his eyes, the way he set his center to take her on seriously.

Not that she was such a fool as to face a taijutsu specialist head-on. She feinted another rush only to veer aside, hands flashing, and slapped her hand down to initiate the Rock Pillar Prison. While Karajin was busy breaking the pillars, she sank herself into the power of her mixed chakra and wove an illusion. Sight, sound, scent, touch, all of them told Karajin that she was not where she was—now ten degrees to the right, now fourteen to the left, always shifting. Exaltation surged through her as she completed the technique; this was more powerful, more complete, than anything she’d ever have been able to do before. And once the illusion closed around him it was easy, so easy, to slide past his misaimed strike and drive her knuckles into his throat. Cartilage crunched under her hand, and his eyes snapped to focus on her for one breathless moment before he attempted to inhale and passed out.

Sakura stood over him for one moment, savoring her victory. But she could feel her endurance starting to wane, and folded her hands through the release of her seal before it got any worse. She’d timed it right, this time, she thought, taking deep slow breaths as the world-energy flowed past without touching her again. This time she didn’t fall down.

So she was on her feet and only a little worn-looking when the caravaners crept out of hiding, starting to chatter with relief. Tomita and his genin were approaching from the other side, the Leaf-nin trailing behind them.

“Um, shinobi-san,” the caravan master started hesitantly, bobbing a bow to her, “the body…”

“Yes.” Sakura waved a hand at one of the Sound genin who trotted over to haul the illusionist’s body out of the wagon. “We’ll take care of them.” Orochimaru would want both, no doubt. She mustered a smile for the caravan master. “I’m sorry you were troubled by this. I think I can assure you the rest of your route is safe, though.” She nodded at the Leaf genin, who nodded warily back.

Tomita’s genin had clearly spent some of the fight filling his ears with tales of her—also as she’d directed. The man was no one she knew personally, which would make things easier. He’d have no personal stake in trying to persuade her back to Konoha this moment, and had just had a vivid demonstration of why he didn’t want to try anything other than persuasion. She could almost see the moment he reached the decision to let well enough alone and just report when he got home.

Tomita saluted her, crisp and correct. “Thank you, Haruno-san!”

His tone startled her. It took her a moment to realize that this wasn’t just putting on a good face for outsiders. Everything, from the straightness of his spine to the glow in his eyes, said that this was real.

Real respect.

The tautness of her old bitterness eased another notch even as her thoughts jangled against each other.

(Useful for keeping my cover in the end-game.)

(it’s not right, not here…)


“That will do very nicely,” Orochimaru said, rather distractedly as he prodded at Karajin’s body with a chakra probe and scribbled another note. He finally looked up and cocked his head at Sakura, where she leaned against the lab wall. “And what will you do, once I have Sasuke and perhaps Uzumaki as well in my hands, and our bargain is ended?”

Sakura hesitated. “I’ve… been thinking about that.”

His smile was knowing. “Hmm?”

“I haven’t done badly out of my time here,” she admitted. “Even aside from the seal. Hidden Sound respects me.” And it was very sweet, that respect, that deference, the speed with which any Sound-nin under her command obeyed her. It tasted sweet to every part of her, and the aftertaste of wrongness in her heart was easy enough to hide.

“So?” he murmured. “Would you swear yourself to Sound, after all? To me?”

Sakura returned his gaze for a long moment and finally nodded. She stood away from the wall and touched her fist to her heart in salute, straight-backed and on her feet. “I offer myself as a shinobi of Sound, and my life into the hands of Sound’s Master.”

A flash of annoyance broke through the lurking amusement in his eyes at the title she used, but Sakura just looked back blandly. She wasn’t calling the village leader for a country the size of Fire’s peninsula Kage. In the end, Orochimaru’s lips quirked, acknowledging the fact. “I accept you as a shinobi of Otogakure,” he murmured. “Your life will not be spent lightly.”

Kabuto looked up from across the room, where he was working on the illusionist’s body, with a cheerful smile. “I’m so glad you chose to stay, Sakura-san. Welcome!”

That open, friendly smile sent a chill down her spine that was harder to hide than her gut’s protest over swearing to Sound. “Thank you, Kabuto-senpai,” she answered softly, wondering yet again what his game was and what her place was in it.

(We’ll all know soon.)

(soon)

She wondered how Naruto and Sasuke would react to the news that should be reaching Konoha in just another week or two.


“She’s what?!”

Sasuke stood very still as Naruto surged to the edge of the Hokage’s desk, feeling ice settling in his stomach. “Are you telling us,” he said, very evenly, “that Sakura has been with Orochimaru these last eight months? That was the undercover mission she left on?”

“Yes,” Tsunade answered, sober.

“Are you all crazy?!” Naruto howled, and Sasuke was glad because that was just what he wanted to say and Naruto could say it louder.

“She volunteered and planned the infiltration herself,” Tsunade snapped. “She was working with Intelligence; she knew just how much pressure Orochimaru was putting on the village.”

To find me. She did it for me. The thoughts weighed down on Sasuke like lead, and pressed out the rough whisper, “Why?”

Kakashi finally stirred by the shelves he’d been leaning against since they got here, apparently reading. “Because her team means more to her than anything else, and she has the courage to act on that.”

“No one else could do the job as well,” Tsunade added as Naruto started to round on Kakashi, bristling. “Her cover… well. Anyone looking at it from the outside would find it very convincing.”

“What cover?” Naruto demanded, voice hard.

Tsunade looked back at him levelly. “The cover of a very skilled shinobi who nevertheless has very little power, teamed up with an acknowledged genius and the host who controls the chakra of the Nine-tails.”

Naruto flinched back, eyes wide. “But… but Sakura doesn’t…” He spun around to stare at Kakashi, openly appealing. “She doesn’t, does she?”

Kakashi reached out a long arm and whapped Naruto over the head with his book. “Idiot,” he pronounced. “Of course Sakura doesn’t resent you. Either of you. She loves you. But,” he added as Naruto visibly melted into a puddle of relief, “anyone who didn’t know you all, and know you well, would find it easy to believe she did. Especially someone as obsessed with power as Orochimaru.”

That made sense, even though Sasuke felt like his brain was frozen, his thoughts crystallized. Finally one thought made it through that felt important and he cleared this throat. “Why are you telling us this now?”

There was compassion in the Fifth’s eyes as she met his. “Because you two are part of the end of this. The bargain she struck, as her cover, was that Orochimaru would give her the power he once promised you; in return, she would bring you to him. We’ve just received a report that Sakura has surfaced, acting openly for Hidden Sound. For Orochimaru’s consumption, the story is that Naruto, hearing this, drags you off with him to reclaim your teammate. That’s what Orochimaru is counting on, and what Sakura has been preparing him to think all this time.”

“In reality of course,” Kakashi put in, propping an elbow on a shelf. “You’ll be the front of the extraction and execution team. The three of you together should be able to kill Orochimaru, and there will be a support team shadowing you to help get you out after, while our largest force strikes for his major bases as soon as his death is confirmed.”

Naruto was settling down as they listened to this. “All right, then,” he half-growled. “You should have told us sooner, but I guess this is okay.”

Sasuke listened to the whispers eight months and Orochimaru running round and round his head, and wasn’t so sure. “Is she… all right?” he finally asked, low. “Do we know?”

“We won’t know for sure until you get there,” Kakashi said quietly.

Naruto frowned again, ferociously, looking back and forth between Kakashi and Sasuke. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Kakashi and Tsunade exchanged a long look and Kakashi stood. “Come on down to Intelligence, and we’ll get you briefed.”

Sakura was the only thought that came through the jumble in Sasuke’s head clearly. The rest was just a slow twisting in his heart, where the friendship he’d acknowledged and the tenderness he hadn’t quite put a hot, cutting edge on his fear. Sakura!


Orochimaru was deeply amused as he read over the message scroll. “They’re racketing through the south of the country like a charging boar through underbrush.”

“That’s Naruto,” Sakura muttered, arms crossed. “So, how are we doing this? Ambush?”

“Of sorts, of sorts. You and I and Kabuto will go to meet our impetuous young shinobi, I think. Quite openly. Kabuto can take the young Uchiha undamaged, I imagine. I wish to see what Uzumaki is made of.” He turned from his pacing through his shadowy main hall and captured her gaze, smooth and hypnotic as one of his snakes. “And will you be able to fight your former partner beside me? Sakura?”

Sakura looked back at him, silent for a moment. “You’re the one who gave me power. And…” she looked aside, “a place. A real one, fit for a real shinobi.” She lifted her chin. “It’s the place I chose. I’ll stand here.” It was all the truth, except the last part, and even that was true enough the way she meant it. She would stand here, because her duty demanded it.

(and strike from here)

“Excellent,” Orochimaru purred. “Let us prepare ourselves and be on our way, then.”

Sakura bowed her head and went to pack her gear.


All it had taken was one message, left in the rooms Naruto and Sasuke had reserved, to bring them here, to this clearing in the southern forests of Sound Country. Sakura stood just behind Orochimaru’s shoulder, controlling her breathing carefully. She couldn’t control the pounding of her heart, and only hoped that it seemed reasonable to the two men next to her.

“Sakura!” Naruto took a step toward her across the clearing, and halted as his eyes flickered up to her forehead protector and the device of Sound on it. They hadn’t expected that, then. (Good; it will help him react better.) “Sakura? What…?” He looked genuinely lost, and Sakura held hard to her persona, to eight months of practice. They made her voice convincingly hard when she answered.

“Sound gave me real work, and a real place. Should it be a surprise that I swore to them?”

“To that?” Naruto hollered, absolutely incensed, pointing at Orochimaru.

Sakura flicked a glance at her Master, gauging how soon he would move. “He understands me.” She looked back at them, cool, and caught Sasuke’s eye for just a sliver of an instant. His mouth tightened and Orochimaru made an interested sound.

“Hmm. Perhaps I left off courting you too early, Sasuke-kun?” He smiled slowly and opened a hand, palm up. “My offer is still good, as Sakura can tell you.”

Sakura didn’t miss the faint crook of his fingers in Kabuto’s direction, though, and she took one last breath for balance, courage, hope, and sank her mind into the concentration Kaubto had taught her, pressing her very soul into the forms to awaken her seal. Now. It had to be now. Dog. Monkey. Slowly, feeling her nerves creaking, Horse.

“I think I have power enough already,” she heard Sasuke say, distantly.

“Against Itachi?” Sasuke stiffened and Orochimaru chuckled. “Indeed, I could tell you a great deal about that man.”

Monkey. Serpent.

“Why?” Naruto challenged, suspicious. “You took Sakura away from us! What do you want with Sasuke?”

Orochimaru sighed. “Ah, I should have taken you three years ago. You didn’t question so much, then.”

Naruto’s eyes narrowed, starting to burn. “You don’t want anything good, then,” he growled, hands slamming together, and two Shadow Clones appeared, leaping to form a Rasengan.

Wait for it. Wait for it. Hold on. Sakura set her teeth, sweat starting along her hairline and trickling down her back as she held on to the shape of the Serpent in her soul. The next seal would be the last. She unfocused her eyes, watching all of them, watching Kabuto especially.

Orochimaru eyed Naruto with interest. “Mmm. That’s nothing I haven’t already learned from that buffoon, but I suppose there might be more to you. We shall see.”

Sasuke’s eyes were red, piercing and watchful. Naruto was growling as he crouched to drive the Rasengan forward. Kabuto was relaxed and smiling. Orochimaru laughed and crooked a forefinger at her, not looking around as Naruto started to move. “Sakura."

Horse.

Power roared through her like a river bursting a dam and Sakura drove a spear hand hardened with chakra, with all the strength and speed the seal could give her, straight through Orochimaru’s spine and out his chest, blood flooding hot around her arm.

Naruto shouted, Sasuke vanished, she caught Kaubto’s hands lifting in the corner of her eye. She punched the base of Orochimaru’s skull, spinning around as his body jolted off her hand, using every bit of speed she had to form a Fire Wall to meet Kaubto…

Who leapt back.

They all froze, the Rasengan blowing into nothing as Naruto plowed to a stop. Sakura held the Wall just short of release, poised.

“Ah,” Orochimaru’s hoarse voice broke the stillness, and Sakura’s eyes widened with tangled horror and frustration and guilt. “I see I didn’t quite have you long enough. I salute your cunning, little kunoichi. I thought I had you when you swore to me.”

Not before that? But Sakura pushed the thought down, pushed all her thoughts down under the needs of this moment, and snapped, “Naruto. Make sure he dies. Sasuke, Kabuto.”

“Already there,” Sasuke’s voice came from the trees above Kabuto, and a rush of gratitude that he remembered her strategy-shapes so well, and still trusted them, shook her.

“Naruto,” Sakura repeated, husky, when he didn’t move. She could hear the breath he let out.

“Yeah. Okay.” His voice was tight, but she knew he’d do what he had to. She knew it, down in the heart of her, where she was burning and aching.

Orochimaru’s laugh was wet and raspy. “I salute you, indeed. Sakura.”

Despite all the control she could muster, a shudder raked through her and one word wrenched out. “Yes.” She knew.

There was a faint, silken sound, and she gave thanks that medical ninja were thoroughly trained in giving mercy. The open glow of Naruto’s chakra washed past her and a burst of flame followed, actinic and scorching. “Done,” Naruto said, rough.

Kabuto, who hadn’t moved yet, eyes locked with Sakura’s, sighed. “Ahh. That was a waste, Sakura-san. There were years of use left in him.”

“My game had to conclude before yours,” she said, low. She was starting to feel the strain of balancing her seal’s chakra; how was this going to end?

“So I see.” He smiled and spread his hands. “Well, so it goes. But, you realize, this leaves you alone to face the greater threat.”

“Itachi?” Sasuke asked, voice as harsh as Naruto’s.

Kabuto laughed. “Oh, goodness no. Well, not in and of himself. No, no, Akatsuki. Orochimaru was one of them once, you know. He knew some of their plans.” He sighed, sounding sincerely rueful. “I don’t think I’d quite gotten all of what he knew. It really is a shame.” He shrugged as if to set it aside. “Well, you’re on your own against them, now, since I have no intention of standing in their way myself. Few of them would be of any interest to me; afterward… well, we’ll see.”

“You talk like you think you’ll be walking away free,” Sasuke observed.

Kabuto smiled into Sakura’s eyes, and she remembered that he’d been part of all those exercises to time her endurance under the seal. “You didn’t find the location of the last remote base, Sakura-san,” he said softly. “The one that holds most of the experimental subjects. The woman in charge won’t let them go, you know, even with his death.” An artful pause, and she could see exactly what was coming. “But I could free them.”

After a stretched moment, trying to weigh morality against morality, as her control pulled tighter and tighter, Sakura said, thinly, “All right.”

“Sakura!” Naruto stared at her. “He can’t possibly escape all three of us! Interrogation can get it out of him.”

Sakura shook her head, feeling time bleeding away, and with it her margin of survival. “It’s about to be just two of you and a casualty, and he knows it. He’ll keep his word on the deal. I think it’s the best we’ll get right now.”

“Acute as always, Sakura-san,” Kabuto murmured, and Sakura bared her teeth.

“If we ever meet again, I’ll get something better out of you.”

He gave her a genuine smile, dark and pleased, and bowed to her. "Afterward, then." And vanished.

Sakura let Fire Wall go, wove her hands through the release of her seal and sagged to her hands and knees, panting.

“Sakura!” It was Sasuke beside her, holding her shoulders. “Naruto, get the flare up to call the backup squad in!”

Fire burst again, far overhead, and Sakura hauled her head up to look at her teammates. Her… her friends. Yes. The ones she’d done this to protect, and that had been her desire, her free choice, her need. Even though eight months whispered that it could only have been misguided guilt or the need to prove herself, mustn’t it?

Naruto flung himself down beside them, eyes wide and worried. “Sakura, are you okay? What’s wrong?” Even as he spoke his hands were passing down the line of her spine, and he frowned deeply. “You’re completely drained, what did you do?”

“Seal,” she panted. “Nature energy. Hard to control.” And then she laughed and flung her arms, one still red with Orochimaru’s blood, around their shoulders. “Finally. It’s finally you… you came.” Her certainty that they always would pulled hard against her whispering knowledge that they only would because they understood nothing of her, pulled like scar tissue and she gasped with the inner pain. She freed her hands, swaying until they caught her shoulders again, and formed the first seal to undo the Heart In a Net technique, struggling to remember the second through the growing pain.

“Haruno!” Miuhara was suddenly beside her, dropping from the trees with a whole squad of Leaf-nin, and he grabbed her hands. “Wait, not yet!”

“Have to,” she gasped. “It’s pulling loose anyway!”

“Shit.” He stared at her in the babbling swirl of the squad splitting, some dashing on. After Kabuto, she thought fuzzily. Of course. “All right,” he said at last and grabbed for Naruto. “Uzumaki! You’re a healer. Listen up. She’s been under a neural realignment technique for the past eight months, and we have to release it now. You’ll have to stabilize her.”

“I don’t know how to do work that fine!” Naruto exclaimed, a little panicked, but he knelt beside her, hands reaching out anyway.

“That’s why you listen to me. Uchiha, hold on to her. Haruno. You understand this is going to be more work for you?”

“Need to re-key on my own?” she gritted through her teeth through the nasty, tearing ache. “Yeah. Just… leave me with them. Be okay.”

“I’m taking your word for it, and you’d damn well better be right. Release it now. Dog, Boar, Dog, Horse, Bird.” For a moment, breaking through the intensity of his orders, he grinned. “Go ahead and scream if you need to. This will hurt.”

Sakura formed the seals, one after another, almost mindless, focusing only on the shape of them. And as her hands folded into the Bird, something snapped loose inside her and lashed through her mind like fire.

She did scream.

When she could make the sounds around her make sense again, Miuhara was speaking low and quick to Naruto, talking him through one seal after another, and her hands were clenched bone-grindingly tight on Sasuke’s shoulders. Sasuke held her tight, one leg hooked over hers to keep her from thrashing out from under Naruto’s hands. At least she thought that was why. Her mind felt bruised.

“All right,” Miuhara said at last. “That’s as good as we can do for now.” He drew a long breath. “She says the two of you can help her re-establish her normal pattern of thought and response, so you’ll need to stay with her. I’ll get a few of the squad to escort you to a secure site.” He stood. “Anything you can do to remind her who she usually is, you do it, understand?”

Sasuke’s arms tightened around her. “We understand. Come on, help me get her upright,” he added over her head.

Sakura wobbled to her feet, an arm over each of their shoulders, looking around at the quiet bustle of the squad. “Feel like a dishrag,” she panted. “With a headache.”

“You’ve earned it, so just let us take you somewhere safe for a little, okay?” Naruto looked torn between scowling at her ferociously and giving her puppy-dog eyes. The alternation made her giggle.

“Kay.”

Three of the squad closed in around them and Sasuke said quietly, “Let’s go.”


By the time they reached the nearest town, Sakura had her breath back, though she still ached all over. She was very glad to duck in the window of the house their escort directed them to.

“Food first,” Naruto declared. “You drained yourself way too hard, and I want a look at that seal.”

“Bath first,” Sakura countered, trying not to look too hard at what still spattered her chest and arm.

Sasuke rolled his eyes, reassuringly normal. “You get food,” he told Naruto. “I’ll make sure she doesn’t drown before you get back.”

He seemed to take that seriously, too, helping her get undressed and insisting she sit down before he pulled off her sandals. “I’m not really injured,” she protested.

“I think you are, actually.” He touched the base of her skull, very lightly. “Up here. That Miuhara guy said you’d been under a technique that affects your mind and nerves, and you said it was pulling loose. Besides,” he set her sandals aside and tugged off his own shirt, “Kakashi-sensei said to do whatever we could for you, on the way home, and not to let you overextend yourself. He’s done this before, right?”

Sakura’s mouth pulled into a crooked smile. “Yeah. He probably makes a better senpai than Kabuto.” But thinking about that made her head hurt more, so she ignored Sasuke’s choking sound and concentrated on getting all her tools out of her pants so she could throw them in the wash.

Sasuke was quiet for a few breaths, but seemed willing to follow her lead. “Come on, the water’s hot now. I’ll get your back.”

They were both halfway through scrubbing down by the time Naruto got back with what looked like half a kitchen. “Hey, no fair!” he told Sasuke, who was indeed washing Sakura’s back at the moment, but he was grinning.

“You can get her hair,” Sasuke told him. “She hasn’t said so, but I think that headache’s still there.”

Sakura blushed. “Okay, okay, I probably did hurt something, but seriously—”

“You hush,” Naruto scolded her, and she blinked. He gave her a medic-scowl. “I can’t do much about healing the actual nerves yet, but I can sure take care of bruising and muscle damage. So eat this and quit arguing.”

Sakura took the steamed bun he put in her hand and ate, blinking back sudden tears at that rough, straightforward care while Naruto hopped from foot to foot getting out of his clothes.

She hadn’t cried in eight months.

Naruto’s fingers really did feel good, moving over her skull, draining away little bits of heat and pressure until it didn’t hurt when he worked in some shampoo. “Thanks,” she sighed, as she reached for the sprayer to rinse off. “That did help.”

“Eat some more,” he told her, and when she glanced over her shoulder he was blushing a little.

“Water’s ready,” Sasuke said from the other side of the room.

Sakura sighed with pleasure as they sank into the steaming tub and giggled when Naruto pointedly put a glass of cold water and a plate of dumplings beside her. “Tsunade-sama has been training you well.” She leaned back and asked, softly. “Tell me about it. Talk to me. About the village and everything.” She needed to remember.

“It’s really cool,” Naruto started, only a little hesitantly. “I kind of suck at the chemistry, so she finally gave up on antidotes and taught me how to cleanse blood with chakra techniques instead. I won’t be able to do Mystic Palms for another year, she says, but I think she’s hedging. I bet I can do it in another six months!”

“Your control isn’t good enough yet,” Sasuke observed, dampeningly, and Naruto glowered.

“So I’ll use Shadow Clones for that too!”

“I’ll look forward to hearing what the Fifth has to say about that.”

Sakura sipped her water and nibbled her dumplings and let herself float in the familiarity of their bickering, of Naruto’s boasting which wasn’t just boasts any more, of Sasuke’s dry, quiet humor. It warmed her, like the water did, deep inside. She could feel her heart finally relaxing.

And that was when she completely dissolved into tears.

Naruto and Sasuke left off their argument over whether Jiraiya was a more annoying teacher than Kakashi, and gathered in around her at once. Naruto just held her and made really kind of funny soothing noises while Sasuke rubbed her back, slow and quiet.

“I liked it,” she wrenched out past the sobs, past the unsteady ache deep inside. “I hated it, I hated him, but by the end I liked being there, I liked that he wanted me, he respected me, I hate this!”

“He was good at finding what you wanted and using it,” Sasuke murmured. “It isn’t your fault.”

“Yeah, look how long you went, and you still did everything you needed to,” Naruto put in, anxious. “I mean, he never corrupted you, not for real, and that had to be really, really hard! It’s okay.”

That made her cry some more, but she was laughing a little too. Naruto really was good at seeing to the heart. And Sasuke… Sasuke understood.

“Come on,” Sasuke said, gentler than she thought she’d ever heard him. “Let’s get out before we really do drown.”

They didn’t seem to want to let her out of arm’s reach, now, which made drying off a bit comical, but that was okay. She wanted to be close. When they spread out the futons and lay down, she was glad to be held again.

They’re my team. They love me, and I love them. It’s okay again. She pressed closer against Naruto and tugged shyly on Sasuke’s wrist, and made a contented sound when he slid up snugly against her back. It felt good, they felt solid and made her feel solid too, and, oh wow, Sasuke’s hands felt really good rubbing her shoulders. She sighed happily and it was the most natural thing in the world to lift her head and brush her lips against Naruto’s.

Naruto made a slightly startled sound, but he kissed her back, shy and soft.

“Sure you’re ready?” Sasuke asked against her shoulder, and she buried her head in Naruto’s chest and laughed, suddenly remembering their last year at the Academy, and the pedantic recommendations in their textbook for how to handle “intimacy within a field team”.

“Textbook,” she managed to gasp, and that set Naruto off too. Sasuke just snorted at both of them. When she’d recovered a little she leaned her head back against Sasuke’s shoulder and said, softly. “Thank you. Yeah. This is a good time, I think.”

“Mm. I think so too.” He slid his hands down her body and spread them across her stomach, and her breath caught at the little rush of heat between her legs. “Naruto?”

“Yeah,” Naruto answered, husky, and bent his head to nuzzle the arch of her neck.

It felt good, so good, to feel their hands on her, to feel their skin under her palms, to know she was wanted and they were hers and it was all going to be okay. All of their hands were calloused, from knives and wire, but Naruto’s were warm on her breasts and Sasuke’s fingers sliding carefully between her legs made her gasp. She tightened her arms around Naruto and pulled him down to kiss her, wet and open-mouthed, breath coming deeper as Sasuke made a satisfied sound and rubbed his fingers against her.

She freed her mouth at last to gasp, “I want…” and Sasuke left off mouthing her shoulder and said, husky, “Yeah, just let me…” His fingers slid back further and she moaned as two pressed into her. Sasuke just about purred and slid his fingers free, reaching under the curve of her rear this time to press three in. That stretched a bit, but it felt good too. Sakura wrapped her leg around Naruto’s hip and rocked against him, panting; well, so was he, and she liked the feel of his arms locked around her. She shivered when Sasuke nibbled on her ear and murmured, “Ready?”

“Very,” she said, fervently, and Sasuke reached forward, and she heard Naruto gasp as Sasuke guided him against her. When she looked up, Naruto’s eyes were so wide she had to smile at him and ask, a little teasing, “Ready?”

“Yeah,” Naruto whispered, and that made her feel warm all the way through. And then he pushed against her, biting his lip, and the solid feeling of him inside her made her press closer, breathless. “Oh.”

“Okay?” Sasuke asked, softly, hands kneading her lower back, stroking over her thighs, and she nodded. “Yeah. Mm, more.” Naruto gasped a quick laugh and pushed in, and she moaned openly; it felt good. So good, to have them both pressed up against her, all of them moving together. When Sasuke’s fingers slid between her folds again she shuddered with the tighter twist of pleasure. “Oh… oh yes.” Naruto was rocking against her faster, kissing her hot and open and breathless, and she kissed back, liking it when he moaned, jerking hard against her.

“Fuck,” Naruto muttered. “That was… um.”

Sasuke laughed. “Good thing there are two of us.” Naruto stuck out his tongue and Sakura laughed too, a little light-headed, and it really was funny as they fumbled around a little, and then Sasuke was sliding into her instead and oh that felt good. She arched in their arms, and smiled up at Naruto, and he grinned back, just a little mischievous. When he bent down to kiss her breasts, open-mouthed, hot and wet, she arched harder. “Ohh…” Someone’s fingers were rubbing her firmly, and Sasuke was thrusting deep into her, and it all made her body feel like it should be glowing, hotter and hotter.

She gasped when the heat in her flashed like fire and rushed through her veins, and Sasuke groaned abruptly against her shoulder. It felt so good, the solidness of him inside her, and she jerked her hips hard to get more of that.

Suddenly she was past the crest, and all the sensation was too much. She grabbed for, yes, it was Naruto’s wrist to still his fingers and buried her head against his shoulder, panting as Sasuke shuddered against her back. “Oh. Oh wow.” Finally, they were all still again, pressed up against each other.

“That was… really good,” Naruto murmured against her hair. “I mean, um. Thanks.”

Sakura giggled. “Thank you too. Both of you.” This was new. It wasn’t just the past; right here and now, her team cared for her and wanted her. And she loved them back. It settled into her mind, solid and soothing.

Now, now she could think about going home.