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

In which Sakura insinuates herself into Hidden Sound and the dance of mutual deception and seduction commences among her, Orochimaru, and Kabuto. Also featuring the beginning of Akatsuki’s plan emerging. Drama, Angst, Horror, I-5

Kabuto tapped politely on Sakura’s door before looking in. “Orochimaru-sama wants to see you.”

“About time.” Sakura rolled up off her bed, where she’d been examining her ceiling and getting increasingly bored, and strode after him down the hallways of Sound’s hidden heart.

She blended into the torch-shadows like they did, now. The one thing Orochimaru had done, in the three weeks she’d been waiting, was give her the run of Sound’s outfitting supplies. Sakura suspected it was a test of sorts, but that was all right. She was done hiding what she was (and that made the best cover of all). She’d tossed her chuunin uniform into storage and chosen instead a snugly zipped leather vest, loose pants, and half gloves. All in black. She was done trying to be pretty and unthreatening, too. Orochimaru had chuckled.

Today he waited for her in one of his laboratories, smiling and cold-eyed and avid. “You’ve been wanting an opportunity to prove yourself. Here’s a bit of research that I believe your skills might assist me with.” He waved a hand at the table spread with diagram scrolls.

Sakura studied them and gave him a faintly disgusted look as she flipped them into what had to be the proper order. What was this, an exam? She ignored his smirk as she read. The heart of it was the Earth, Wind and Fire seal, but so woven into grounding channels that all its force seemed to be siphoned off. A strange approach for a technique that was supposed to tear a whole battleground into fissures and rubble. But the grounding also seemed to circle back. A feedback loop? “A power source,” she finally said, slowly. “Looping the explosive energy until it’s concentrated in one path. There’s no outlet, though.”

“Well, that’s up to the subject, isn’t it?” Orochimaru asked.

Sakura’s world flipped over and she imagined the seal drawn on a person, not the ground. She snorted and let the scroll under her hand roll up. “I didn’t come here to be your guinea pig.”

“It’s a technique still in development. You wouldn’t be the first tester, of course,” Orochimaru purred. “But I’m sure you’ll wish to oversee the stages of testing and refinement.”

(I can’t do that, I can’t…) Sakura forced down a twist of sickness and curled her lip. “I didn’t come here to be your own personal torturer, either,” she said and jerked her chin at Kabuto. “That’s what he’s for, isn’t it?”

Orochimaru raised his brows. “Scruples, little kunoichi?” he murmured, and there was danger in his voice.

Sakura crossed her arms. “What you do is your business. What I do is mine. I’m here because you have something I want, and I have something you want; don’t think that means I’m going to swear myself to Sound or follow your path. I’ve got my own.” She stared back at him with all the fury of finally speaking and acting her mind, after all those years of muffling herself; she wasn’t going to just accept a new blanket to throw over her own will, having finally fought free (it only made sense that she wouldn’t).

“Hm.” He studied her, finally smiling again. “I suppose I’ll have to send you on a field assignment, then, to see what you’re made of.”

Sakura shrugged. “That’s what I like best. Just as long as whatever goons you assign me know the difference between ‘betraying Sound’ and ‘halfway decent strategy’.” She smiled back at him, chilly. “I wouldn’t like being killed by accident, and you wouldn’t like how many you’d lose doing it.”

He laughed low in his throat. “Very practical. How refreshing. Kabuto,” he waved a hand, turning back to his diagrams, “introduce her to Sakon’s new team. She can plan the trip into Earth Country.”

(Sakon, only survivor of the snatch for Shizune, has one of those seals like Sasuke’s.) Sakura prepared herself to show no sign of recognition as she followed Kabuto out into the halls again. Filing clerk, she reminded herself; pissed as fuck not to have known about the attack despite working for Intelligence, if they mention it.

“He seems to like you,” Kabuto said conversationally. It took Sakura a moment to remember he was talking about Orochimaru, not Sakon. “I think he sees himself in you.”

After the conversation they’d just had about testing (torture), that was a jab. Sakura snorted and jabbed back, as he’d surely expect her to. “What, because I finally figured out, after years of trying, that what I am is never going to be good enough for the precious Leaf? Never acceptable, no matter how good I am? Never right and normal? I suppose I can see how that would seem familiar, yes.”

She could feel him stiffening beside her, just for a flash of an instant, and for that same instant his glance was dangerous. And then he smiled again and murmured, “Perhaps.”

“I’m very good at what I do,” she said softly, feeling for her footing in this exchange, remembering Kakashi’s words about Kabuto being the real danger to her cover. She had to convince him, and that meant pushing back against him. “I hid it for years and years under sweet, soft manners. I know what can hide behind a polite smile. Kabuto-senpai.”

His smile turned more genuine for another flash, dark and sharp. “Will that knowledge keep you alive?”

She shrugged one shoulder, starting to enjoy this sparring though it made her pulse run faster. “You said yourself that he sees himself in me. As long as he can get something he wants out of me, there’s no reason to kill me. And,” she added, gambling that a man who kept that sweet mask, even here, would have his own agenda, even here, “as long as I’m not a threat to your ends you’ll enjoy me while I’m around.”

Kabuto’s smile was inscrutable again and he laid his hand on a door. “Perhaps. Here we are.” As she walked past him into the room, he murmured, “Just remember that I did swear myself to Sound.”

So. Either he was saying that he didn’t actually have any agenda separate from Orochimaru’s, and was genuinely loyal; or else he was saying that he was even more ruthless in pursuit of his separate agenda than she was, even to giving an oath he meant to betray. If her answer assumed either one, and the other was true, Sakura would be dead. Sakura felt a flash of the same thrill she’d felt facing Fuunotora across the sands of the Exam arena, and smiled back.

“I’ll remember, senpai.” And let him make what he would out of that.

Sakura didn’t like Sakon, or his team. They were arrogant. They were careless. They were idiots. She found herself wishing, a little wistfully, that they really would mistake her sensible precautions for sabotage and try to kill her, so that she’d have a really good excuse to activate the trap seals she’d prepared for each of them. Unfortunately, she suspected that Orochimaru, who was mad but not stupid, had told them to just report her actions back, whatever she did.

(It nauseated her, at night, when she was falling asleep and sliding down deeper than her persona, to feel that callous urge to eliminate them and know it was at least partly real. She buried the disturbance under her persona as soon as she could, every morning.)

She’d certainly have preferred a more subtle group with which to track two of Akatsuki, who were reported to be, in turn, tracking the host of a tailed beast. Especially considering that one of those Akatsuki seemed to be Uchiha Itachi.

A field test indeed. Her lip curled. Orochimaru was subtle, even if his tools weren’t.

(She wanted, so very much, to get this information back to the Leaf; another sighting of Itachi, after years of traceless silence. But she didn’t dare. That would be just what Orochimaru was watching for.)

“What the hell, so we only get to watch them?” The one called Kagura lounged back against the sandy rock of their vantage point. “Boring.”

“Orochimaru-sama’s orders.” Not that Miyu was watching anything but her knives as she sharpened them.

“You and your weird crush on the boss,” Kagura muttered, turning over to take a look over the edge of the boulder again. “If we’re watching, we should be closer.”

“Not while Uchiha Itachi is down there,” Sakura said flatly. Again.

“Like he could handle all three of us.” Sakon paused and added. “Well, all four, I suppose.” He gave her a smirk that said, clear as words, that he meant his brother-self as the fourth, not her.

“Don’t be more of an idiot than you can help,” Sakura directed, cold. “I realize that may not be much, since you apparently can’t read a background briefing. Itachi has a new level of the Sharingan; one look and you’ll be down for days with the after-effects. None of you are careful enough to be trusted to avoid it.” Ah, it felt so good to just say that.

“Illusions,” Kagura sneered.

“Physical effects,” Sakura corrected. “Now shut up and watch; I think they’re making their move.” At least they were finally approaching the tall shinobi in the red armor they’d been tracking. They seemed to actually be talking to him. Trying to recruit him?

Apparently not, since the Rock-nin leaped back, steam suddenly spinning around him like a vortex. Itachi’s partner tossed his head back as if he’d laughed and pulled his enormous sword off his back.

“So if the Uchiha is all that, why’s it the sword guy going in?” Kagura demanded.

“The swordsman seems to be enjoying himself,” Miyu observed, fortunately before Sakura gave in to temptation and strangled Kagura.

It was true enough that the swordsman—one of Mist’s Seven Swordsmen according to the briefing—seemed to be amusing himself, fighting with broad, showy strokes whose flash didn’t conceal their brutality. (Sakura remembered Zabuza with a shiver. But she could feel that glee, that enjoyment inside herself, now.) And Itachi stood quietly aside, waiting with every appearance of patience.

“Huh,” Sakon commented, elbow on their concealing boulder. “That’s some chakra the red one’s got going.”

Sakura wondered if that was what Akatsuki was after; the chakra of the tailed beasts, the greatest weapon of the hidden villages. But how did they think they could control the hosts? Surely the beast’s chakra would overwhelm any brainwashing technique attempted on the host.

…or perhaps that was what Itachi was for, with his strange, new Sharingan.


Sakura watched the fight below with narrowed eyes and hoped the white knuckles of her hand gripping the rock would be taken for fear. Her breath hissed in as the host started to manifest visibly and she said to her temporary team, low and tense, “Be ready to move back.”

“What, more?”

Sakura didn’t even look at Kagura. “You weren’t there when the One-tail got loose, were you? Stay if you want; I’ll report back on how small a smear you left.” Chakra was whipping around the red armor below, though the Swordsman’s strange blade seemed to be keeping him clear; absorbing chakra, or deflecting it? She couldn’t tell from here. Hints of a long, narrow head rose above the host.

And then Itachi stepped forward. He just stood there, unmoving, but abruptly the gathering chakra blazed, ragged and wild. And collapsed.

“What the fuck did he do?” Sakon demanded.

“I told you,” Sakura said through her teeth, trying to keep her voice from shaking with the sudden knot of cold fear in her belly. “Come on,” she added, as Itachi’s partner hauled the tall Rock-nin over his shoulder. “We’ll follow them as far as we can. But if any of you get too close and get caught, you’re on your own.”

“Yeah, fine,” Kagura muttered, looking unsettled.

Sakura directed them out into a tracking formation and started after the two Akatsuki as soon as they were out of sight. Which took a while as the two strolled across the plain below, careless of concealment.

She would report all her suspicions to Orochimaru. And would not seek any of her message drops to Konoha. Not yet.

(Naruto! Sasuke! Oh, stay safe, be careful, don’t let them catch you!)

The wind, here in Earth Country, was making her eyes tear up and she blinked to clear them.

A scream rang down the hall and in an instant Sakura had her back to the thick stone wall and a knife in hand. Another two weeks of waiting after her "test" mission had pulled her nerves tight.

“Admirable reflexes, Sakukra-san,” Kabuto murmured, “but unnecessary.” He looked down the hall. “Shall we see if the latest tests were successful?”

(Because of me, no, no, no…) Sakura took a slow breath. She couldn’t pretend she hadn’t known from the start where the power Orochimaru promised came from. She made her kunai vanish and followed Kabuto down toward where greenish light spilled out of an open door.

Inside, Orochimaru stood with folded arms, watching a man in the middle of the bare, stone room with an expression of dissatisfaction. He looked up as they came in and made a small tch of annoyance. “The Eight Gates won’t do for this at all, Kabuto; I was on the right track with the first seal. If the power released is internal, there’s no chance at all of limiting it.” He waved a hand at the man.

Sakura swallowed hard, knowing her eyes were stretched wide. The man looked like he was on fire, crouched on the floor with heat and sweat and chakra boiling off him, shedding themselves into the visible spectrum. He made another sound, hoarse and desperate, and abruptly collapsed onto the stone. The raging heat and light around him died down and down and finally out, along with his last, faint movements.

He wasn’t breathing.

Orochimaru sighed. “No, that won’t do at all. But don’t worry, little kunoichi,” he smiled at Sakura, slow and more than a little mad. “There’s always a way, if one just searches for it deep enough.”

(Deep enough in nightmare, no, don’t think, don’t think, don’t feel, anger, that’s all there is) Sakura cleared her throat. “I hope so. I certainly have no interest in power that’s too unstable to use.”

“I assure you, I’m working diligently on it,” Orochimaru murmured, watching her with dark amusement. "And for your part?"

Sakura folded her arms, looking down at them. “All right. As long as you’re working on that, I’ll work for you.”

“Excellent!” He clapped his hands, sounding pleased. “I’m sure there will be plenty of missions that will suit you, here.”

She knew it was true. (Would have to be true.) That was why she’d come here. She was shinobi, and she’d killed before. She would again. She clung to the bitter anger she’d fanned up in herself and turned her back on the body sprawled over the floor.

It was a little strange, how familiar missions made life. No matter the country, the wants of the people never seemed to change that much. Some people wanted protection, and some people wanted others gotten rid of. Someone always wanted to know what someone else was doing or saying. And all of those people came to the shinobi for help. So here she was, with a new team, lounging in the most upscale baths in Sound’s capital and waiting for the mistress of the mayor to make her daily visit with her friends so that Sakura could find out where the mayor would be tonight. Even Orochimaru couldn’t wring financial support out of a Daimyou without taking on some political jobs.

Kikyou slipped through the curtains and murmured, for Sakura’s ears only, as she passed, “She’s coming.” Sakura nodded just a hair and swished her fingers under the water to send ripples toward the far corner. Kikyou waded that way and sank down into the water with a contented sigh, apparently indifferent to the two women already in the pool.

There was the one difference from her old familiar missions, though. This time, Sakura was in charge. Openly and officially, with no hidden orders to watch her.

(And so the message, finally dropped for Leaf after two and more months of waiting: the location of Hidden Sound, the tight-coded map, the warning about Akatsuki on the move, the don’t-come-yet signal because he hasn’t trusted her yet with the locations of more than two of the other bases. One tight roll of onion-skin paper she’d dropped blind and had to believe would be picked up.)

She liked the taste of being in control; it was a delicious contrast to her previous missions.

A drift of laughter preceded four beautiful women through the curtain.

“…and he brought the most gorgeous flowers, but I suspect it was his assistant who actually picked them out.” Kotone of Kamura, the mayor’s mistress waved one elegant hand, her laugh sweet and low even as she heaped scorn on her client. “I imagine the poor woman is relieved when I take up his attention.”

None of the women had brought anything in with them and Sakura stretched her left arm out along the pool edge, signalling. Akemi slipped out of the pool and by the four women, bobbing her head timidly as she passed. She would check their clothing and things for any written assignations.

“So where is he taking you tonight?” one of the other women asked, coiling up her long, sleek hair.

Kotone touched a soft fingertip to her red lips. “It’s a secret.” She laughed as her friends protested. “Well, I’ll tell you this much. It’s in Fujiura territory.” She slid into the water and leaned back with a full, pleased smile as her friends gasped with scandalized delight.

So it was true; the mayor was using his mistress’ contacts to make deals with the city’s yakuza clans. It remained to be seen whether he really thought he could replace the country’s lord, as the Daimyou feared, but it was starting to look like that was the plan. Sakura closed her eyes and leaned back more comfortably, listening as Kikyou took the signal and stood. Under her lashes, she watched Kotone’s gaze sharpen and follow Kikyou, and nodded to herself. Kikyou would lay a false trail, ending in perfect innocence, while Sakura and Akemi slipped into the Fujiura-run Mana restaurant to find out the details of this deal.

Everything was running smoothly, and exactly to her orders. Sakura relaxed into the water and fed her inner bitterness on satisfaction, drawing its veils more firmly around her heart to suppress worries about her message.

Yes. She liked the taste of this quite a lot.

Sakura stared at the twisted flow of stone in front of her. “This is what you call working?”

“It demonstrates that the principle is sound,” Orochimaru lectured, as if this were a classroom. “Despite the subject’s failure to control the process, it is, in fact, the correct process.”

At least she didn’t have to listen to any screaming this time. Actually, insofar as the thing still had a face, the statue (statue, not person, statue, think that) looked rather peaceful. It just wasn’t human. “I’ve seen plenty of transformations before,” she said, pushing down her flickers of queasiness and distress, “but none that ended in stone. Not unless it was a bloodline talent.”

“Mm, yes. I do have samples of such things, but grafting them is always touch and go. In this case,” Orochimaru flicked casual fingers at the statue, “the petrification is the result of an overflow of energy. The body can no longer withstand it and crystallizes.”

“I trust,” Sakura said dryly, “you can think of a way around that problem.”

“In time.” He looked down at her with the predatory edge she was actually getting used to. “There’s a way around every problem in time, my little kunoichi.”

Working with, and for, Orochimaru could be troublesome and disturbing, but it had been four months and she’d managed to get used to that. Traveling with him, on the other hand, was turning out to be unexpectedly and utterly exasperating. Orochimaru was finicky about where they stopped to sleep and would press on for extra hours to reach a town with lodgings he considered acceptable, but he was also distractable as a cat when some new thought struck and would stop them nearly midstride in a tree to write up experimental possibilities. Sakura was having downright (painful) flashbacks to Naruto in pursuit of ramen. And she could not, no matter how she protested or lectured or, eventually, in desperation, cajoled, get Orochimaru to keep to his alleged travel schedule. (So familiar, miss it so much, but not, no, never Orochimaru…)

And that wasn’t even mentioning the actual route.

“How do you ever manage to visit your other bases often enough to keep them running?” she demanded as they rounded yet another switchback to a hidden gate. “It’s going to take longer to get in than it does to inspect the place.”

“If it bores you, I suppose I can bring Kabuto along as I usually do, instead,” Orochimaru murmured, fingers flickering over the door, completing seals of unlocking.

Sakura ground down her sudden flare of alarm, checking their backtrail so he wouldn’t see anything she couldn’t conceal, and managed to grumble, “Why didn’t you bring him this time, then?” (Have to be here, have to find all the bases.)

“Kabuto has a job of his own this month.” He glanced at her sidelong, slyly. “One of the places I’m afraid I can’t send you.”

Spying in Konoha most likely, then. (Have to trust my cover holds.) She shrugged. “If this is what you need me for, fine. But, honestly, this is overkill.”

“You’ll see.” He completed the seals and the door opened.

There were at least ten ninja behind it.

“Orochimaru-sama!” One of them hurried forward. “Suigetsu has escaped, please be careful!”

“Again?” Orochimaru sounded more intrigued than worried and Sakura fought the urge to roll her eyes, keeping a sharp eye on the room around them. “Show me the container. How did he get out this time?” He turned back to close the gates, head cocked at the man who’d warned him, and a silvery shimmer flashed out of the shadows, striking for his back.

Sakura was moving before she thought, following hard on her thrown kunai, watching as it went through what was attacking, driving her hands through the seals for Earth Wall even as she dove forward. She rolled and slapped a hand down to initiate the technique and breathed out as a thin wall of stone shot up just in time to intercept the attack.

And now, as the other ninja present started shouting and throwing around earth and lightning attacks, calculation actually caught up with her, murmuring in the back of her mind. (Chance to kill him, but might not, escapee, captured before, surprise attack but how often is Orochimaru really surprised? fifty-fifty chance, not good enough, defend him.)

That calculation wasn’t why she’d moved.

Sakura crouched by Orochimaru, most of her waiting, poised, to defend again if necessary. But a little part of her, hidden and sheltered as long as she’d been able, was shivering. (exasperating, familiar, my team, miss it so much, acted to defend that memory, he’s not them, but it feels so close…)

As the base ninja finally blasted earth through the attacker, who resolved into a half-liquid human figure, Orochimaru stepped up beside her and touched her shoulder in passing. “Well done, little kunoichi.”

Satisfaction edged his voice and the base ninja nodded respectfully to her as she stood. It was the same way the people at the Sound village looked at Kabuto, Orochimaru’s right hand. Trusted. Sakura took a silent breath in and deliberately pushed the wail of (not them, not the same, not!) further down inside.

(I’m shinobi. Whatever it takes. Use it.)

She followed Orochimaru into the base, alert at his back as she would be to guard any shinobi she was assigned with.

(not team!)

Her new team, she supposed.

Another month, another experiment. Whoever had given Orochimaru a science kit as a child had a lot to answer for. There was an unholy light in the man’s eyes as he explained the changes he’d made since his last experimental subject had exploded all over his lab.

“Absolutely not,” Sakura said flatly, stepping back from the table full of diagrams and seals. “This one draws on your control to supplement mine. The instant you let that lapse, I’m either soggy shreds or else a stone statue. An extremely strange one. You’re just circling back around to the conclusion you reached with the elemental seals.”

Orochimaru gave her a sour look, seeming right on the edge of pouting, and Sakura leaned her hip on the counter and snorted. “You like challenges,” she reminded him. It was a lot of why she was still alive, she sometimes thought. That and his amusement at her measured insolence. “This approach is stalled; you need another. Tell me how the core of this works.”

Orochimaru’s brows rose. “I beg your pardon?”

Sakura sighed and rubbed a gloved hand over her face. He could be such a temperamental, pain in the ass, diva to work with; worse than Sasuke, honestly. (Want it back. Don’t think about that.) “For one thing, I’m not letting you do anything to me that I don’t understand. For another, I’m a damn good researcher, and I’ve been reading your library when you don’t have any missions for me.” She waved a hand at his papers. “I can already see what you’re doing with the outer seals, channeling and looping the force to stabilize it. But why use a glorified explosive tag as the core in the first place?”

Now he smiled, slow and pleased. “Ah, but it isn’t. The Earth, Wind and Fire seal is far more than that." He settled into a chair and crossed his legs. “Do you know the actual power source for that technique?”

Sakura cocked her head. “Isn’t it the shinobi’s own chakra? The warnings on it make it look that way; it draws chakra out so abruptly and in such volume that it can kill the user if they’re not strong enough.” That was, in essence, how every technique worked.

His smile got wider. “Oh, no. The reason the warnings call for only jounin rank to use this is because it requires that much strength to control the power source. Which is the energy of nature around us, you see. That is what kills the users.”

Sakura blinked. “But… wait a minute. There are plenty of techniques that link the user with the energy of the world around them. That’s the source of every elemental technique there is!” She paused in thought for a moment and added, slowly, “Though… not the power source, I suppose…”

“Precisely.” Orochimaru leaned back in great good humor. “Ninja use the resonance between their personal energy and that of the natural world to form techniques. But not to power them. Because, unless the user has both great power of their own to balance the inrush, and also phenomenal control to shape what is, after all, an alien energy… well. The results can be very interesting.”

Sakura reflected on what kind of thing Orochimaru found interesting and had to hold back a shudder. “And this is what you want to draw onto me, like I was some kind of really big parchment tag?” she asked. It wasn’t actually a rhetorical question, considering who she was talking to.

“Ah!” Orochimaru held up a finger, eyes brightening again. “But you have the control. You will be able to shape it, once you have it. What must be supplied is a backstop, as it were. Some bracing to hold you steady against the flow and aid you in cutting it off before it runs out of balance.”

“Hm.” Sakura gave him a long, narrow look, and finally turned back to the diagrams, examining them with a new eye. “Are there any other techniques that use that source?” she asked absently, and looked up, startled, at the disgusted sound he made.

“The so-called ‘Sage’ techniques. That fool only made it work by having helpers, though, summons who could feed the energy to him. That seems to tame it a little.” He smiled, very unpleasantly. “Though it also transformed the user a little bit into the form of his helpers. Very appropriate, I thought.”

Sakura considered Orochimaru’s sour expression, and the only person she’d ever heard referred to as a sage, and nodded to herself. Jiraiya. Interesting. “Well, then, what we need here are some ‘helper’ seals, isn’t it? Separate seals to receive the force from Earth, Wind and Fire and feed it into a whole different channeling system. I bet I know one that would work, too.” She grabbed some paper and started writing, chewing the end of the brush now and then as she thought back to how, exactly, these had gone. “Not the Summer River seal; that will contain it but not smooth or slow it at all. Channel it through the Three Gates and the Dragon at Dawn, and then smooth the output through Summer Rain.”

(Seals that Tsunade had used to let Sakura channel Naruto’s—no, the Nine-tail’s—chakra to her. With Tsunade’s work to contain the force, just maybe Sakura could trust this to be used on her.)

She smiled with tight satisfaction as she wrote the last line. “There.”

Orochimaru examined her work closely, brows slowly rising. “Hmm. An unusual approach, but, as the source is external, this might work yes.” He glanced at her, eyes gleaming. “It will rely wholly on your judgement, to stop the inflow before it burns you out.”

Sakura raised her chin. “My control is second to none. I can do it.”

(It will work, oh god it will work, this is it and it’s too soon, can’t delay any more, wait!, yes, can…)

“Well, then,” he murmured, and she cut him off.

After that’s been tested to my satisfaction.” She crossed her arms and stood firm against his burning excitement, hard and unmoving. No one was going to control her or burn her out for his own amusement. No one. That was her only concern. (Has to be.)

He looked at her for a long moment and finally laughed, low. “Very well, then.” His mouth curled. “Sakura.”

It jolted her. He’d never used her name to her before. Never… recognized her like that. The change struck her breathless and flustered, habitual anger easing. Whatever else Orochimaru was, he was one of the Leaf’s Sannin, and he acknowledged her.

“Come.” He gathered up the papers and swept out the door. “Let us see how this works.” Knowledge lay dark under his smile as he looked over his shoulder at her.

(can’t go there!)

(Have to go there.)

She nodded silently and followed him down the shadowy halls toward the sturdy stone testing areas.

Sakura slung her pack into the corner by her bed and stretched. This had been a long mission, though at least her subordinates were finally jumping properly when she told them what to do. Orochimaru had assigned her yet another team (not her team, remember somehow) over a month ago, and it had taken her a while to harry them into shape. She suspected Orochimaru of using her to train the less experienced shinobi of Sound, but she couldn’t do a very fast job of it when he was also pulling her aside after every mission away to watch people attempt to use the seal he’d… they’d created. Attempts that had failed so far (Good, it’s an excuse to wait, to build more information.), and when he asked, she’d chosen a mission over watching the latest round.

(she’d dropped the next message, they’d be ready to come when she showed herself, would brief Naruto and Sasuke to play their parts)

At any rate, the rural lord whose ambition the Daimyou of Sound had been worried about was dead, and the country’s leader bound that much tighter to his “Otokage”. She rolled her eyes a little over that self-bestowed title. Though Orochimaru did have the ability to match it. Not the clout, not the influence, and not the country, but the ability. No one could deny that.

“Sakura-san?” She turned to find Kabuto standing in her doorway. “Good timing! I think your procedure is ready for you.”

Adrenaline spiked through her. “The seal? It’s ready?”

He smiled. “The final tests went very smoothly. The subject managed to halt the power before he lost control, and showed significantly increased speed and reserves.”

She took a slow breath. Power. Orochimaru’s half of their bargain, she was going to have power to match almost anyone. And once the bargain was fulfilled, she’d agreed to show herself openly enough to attract Naruto’s notice and bring Sasuke in his wake.

(Over half a year, this is it.)

(counted every day)

(Still don’t have the last base location, but have to keep him from suspecting, have to be trusted, have to do it…)

She looked Kabuto in the eye, flushed with anticipation. “Let’s do it, then.”

Kabuto set down a small box on her table. “Take these before you sleep. They’ll help calm your chakra in preparation for binding the seal to you.”

“‘Calm my chakra’ hm?” She flipped open the box and eyed the two pills inside. “You’re saying I have to make myself vulnerable to the imprint of the seal for it to take?”

For a breath, his eyes glinted. “I’ve admired the quickness of your understanding from the start, Sakura-san.”

Another move in their constant sparring, always full of double and triple meanings. Did he mean she understood him? Understood Orochimaru? Understood only the surface, the technicalities?

“I’m flattered, Kabuto-senpai,” she murmured. She only called him that when they spoke alone like this. Double and triple meanings.

“Only the truth.” He slipped back out, closing the door softly behind him. “Sleep well, Sakura-san,” drifted back through it.

She took the pills and slept deeply and walked into Kabuto’s operating room the next morning with a firm step. She thought he’d probably put sedatives in there, too.

Orochimaru turned, smiling. “Ah, Sakura. There you are.” His eyes were bright, but more focused than was usual when he was in the grip of experimentation and invention, which was reassuring. He’d already gotten the early, jittery excitement out of his system, apparently.

Kabuto made a reassuringly normal medical fuss around her, getting her prepared and onto his table. “I’ll need to work along your spine, so if you’ll lie on your stomach,” he directed, draping a sheet modestly over her.

“I have watched this before,” she pointed out, settling herself. Kabuto laughed, warm and comforting.

“I know; it’s just medic patter. We’re trained to do this, you know, to set people at ease.”

“No wonder you’re such a good spy,” she muttered. “You were trained to lie.”

Kaubto paused and she could imagine the quirk of his mouth that went with his suddenly darker tone. “Well, yes, I suppose I was.” He chuckled and added, “I won’t downplay how much this will hurt, then. It’s chakra re-alignment, after all.”

“I’ve noticed that, yeah.”

“And have the will to pursue your strength, even so,” Orochimaru murmured, and a startlingly warm hand rested on her back, almost as soothing to her nerves as that acknowledgment was to her anger. “Let us begin, then.”

Sakura set her teeth into the bite-pad under her chin and closed her eyes. As ink traced over her shoulders and down her spine and wrenched harder and harder at her nerves and soul, she held tight to her purpose. She would have power, and she would never be ignored and set aside again.

(She would keep what was important to her safe.)

(love them, love them, kill him...)

As the seal sank into her, burning like fire, the screams broke loose, layers of her self running together in the unified rush of pain. Orochimaru’s voice followed her down into the dark.

“Everything will be well, Sakura.”

It actually helped.