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

In which Seven is back together only to split up again when Sakura volunteers to go undercover with Orochimaru. Drama, I-3

Sakura flopped down under one of the trees that ringed the twenty-sixth training ground, panting and laughing a little as Naruto and Sasuke larked off across the clearing. Where “larked off” involved the two of them trying to, variously, incinerate, electrocute, suffocate, and dismember each other.

It was good to train with her team again; it pushed her, and it made her push herself. But she knew she’d never have quite the kind of stamina and reserves they did, even if she trained and conditioned for years. Not least because they’d undoubtedly spend the same time also training and conditioning! She wasn’t sure they could actually make themselves stop, by now, not when they were in each other’s company.

She was glad that Sasuke was back with them, too. Back where she and Naruto could protect him, not that she would breathe a word of that to him. Or to Naruto, for that matter, who probably didn’t need any encouragement. But some of the things she’d read in the secure files had not made her sleep any better at night. Orochimaru was increasing his pressure on the village, and it had only been luck that Hagane Kotetsu hadn’t died five months ago, retrieving Shizune from the hands of four Sound-nin who’d seized and tortured her for Sasuke’s location. Only the fact that Tsunade-sama had shouted down her advisers and gone with the mission herself had saved him, and ensured that Shizune could still walk.

And still they didn’t know where Orochimaru’s hideout, which she refused to dignify with the name of “village”, was. One research facility had been located, and several nodes in his message system, but the only Leaf agent to get any further had been killed before he could report back.

Sasuke was still in danger, and so, increasingly, was everyone around him. It was Sakura’s job to figure out how that could be stopped. For her team and, these days, for the village.

Naruto finally buried Sasuke under too many Shadow Clones to dodge. Sasuke gave in with bad grace, and they came to collapse beside her in the shade.

“That’s good,” Naruto declared after a few swallows from the water bottle. “Training with Neji just isn’t the same.”

“Of course not.” Sasuke swiped the bottle from him. “A one-trick pony like that.”

“So is Jiraiya-san going to stay for a while?” Sakura put in, sliding easily back into the habit of deflecting them from conversation-interrupting scuffles.

Sasuke looked disgruntled. “Who the hell knows? I think he thinks it’s good for me to deal with the unpredictable, or something.”

“Well,” Naruto said after a moment’s thought, “it is, isn’t it?”

Sasuke groaned just a little as he passed the water back to Sakura and let an arm fall over his eyes. “Why couldn’t it be you that went off with the pervert, instead of me? Tsunade has got to be easier to deal with.”

“She totally is not!” Naruto insisted roundly. “She’s a fiend. A demon! She actually turned my jacket pink!”

"It was only an illusion," Sakura noted in the interests of fairness. "And only after you bleached her coat lime green."

Sasuke was looking at them with an expression of faint betrayal. “The whole world is insane, except for me, isn’t it?”

Sakura leaned back on her elbows laughing softly as the boys argued, warmed by a wave of affection for her teammates. And, at the same time, frustrated, because just loving her teammates wouldn’t help her do what needed to be done. It certainly wouldn’t have any effect on Orochimaru.

Now maybe, she mused, thoughts turning darker, if she’d been like Sasuke had once seemed set to become, if she’d done nothing but resent them, resent the attention they got, maybe that was something Orochimaru would take notice of. She was pretty sure he’d been at least partly to blame for that episode of Sasuke’s. And, in all honestly, there were times when she did feel some of that, when she wanted the same brute strength they had on tap, when she wanted to be as flashy and eye-catching as they were. But she dealt with it, let herself feel it deep inside and then went on, because she loved them a lot more than she resented them. She’d never let herself fall to the level of the slime Orochimaru seemed to take delight in hiring on. Potential wasn’t reality or execution; feelings weren’t actions.

But I could use that.

The thought whispered through the back of her mind, where plans and strategies lived, and her eyes slowly widened, staring up at the rustling leaves and their shadows.

The Hokage was frowning. “How do you think you can get in, though?”

“We know where some of Orochimaru’s message drops are,” Sakura stated, hands folded behind her as she stood straight in front of the Tsunade-sama’s desk. “If one of Sasuke’s team leaves a message for him, I think he’ll at least agree to meet me.”

“If I recall correctly,” Tsunade said dryly, “that was how the last agent of ours to try this got killed. What would make your plan any more than throwing away another of my people?”

Sakura looked over at Kakashi-sensei, leaning against the wall and half hidden by the coat rack. He was the one who’d gotten her this meeting after all, and her sponsor in Intelligence. He just opened a hand, palm up. So it was up to her to convince the Hokage.

All right, then.

Sakura closed her eyes and reached for the place she kept the things she didn’t let out. Anger, mostly, the part of her that wanted to crush things into nothing or rip them into shreds. She thought about all the passing flashes of resentment, when Naruto and Sasuke both got extra training and she didn’t; when Sasuke executed the techniques her research turned up, the ones she just didn’t have the chakra capacity to perform; when Naruto effortlessly made Sasuke respond to him; when people murmured about the success record of their team and never once mentioned her; when her parents cheerfully assumed that she was doing filing for the Intelligence center, and she was forbidden to correct them.

She unlocked the cave she kept all that in, all the curses and spitting rage and pure, unadorned selfishness, and she opened her eyes and looked at the world through spite.

Tsunade rocked back in her chair. “Sakura…”

“Why shouldn’t I go to Orochimaru?” Sakura asked, hard and raw. “No one in this village will ever take me seriously as long as the boys are there. Why shouldn’t I go somewhere they will? What has Sasuke ever done but reject and ignore me? Orochimaru can have him.”

And then she wrapped her arms around herself and shivered and let the panic growing at the back of her mind that insisted she loved her teammates and she was important to them sweep away the coldness. When she looked up again, Tsunade was staring.

“I see why you recommended her for Intelligence,” she said to Kakashi, not taking her eyes off Sakura.

“I thought she’d be good at it, yes,” he murmured, and came to rest a steadying hand on Sakura’s shoulder.

Sakura took a few deep breaths. “If you give permission, I’ll need some help from one of the specialists in deep cover. I can do it, I can act like that for a little while, but I know there are ways to make it stick better than I can right now.”

“Make it stick, huh?” Tsunade didn’t look happy with that.

“The techniques in question also help buffer the agent,” Kakashi put in. “There needs to be something real there to work with, though, otherwise the altered consciousness is too obvious to someone who knows what they’re looking at. The risk, here, won’t be Orochimaru. It’ll be Kabuto. And Sakura’s ability to act as though that resentment is all she feels is our best potential weapon against his knowledge.”

Tsunade growled, eyes flashing hot. “That bastard.” She brooded for a long moment and finally looked up at Sakura. “Are you sure about this? Really sure? It will take months, at the least, possibly more than a year before you can get word to us about where Orochimaru’s bases are, and we can gather enough strength to attack without warning him. I’ll believe you and Kakashi, if you both say you can do this. But are you really sure you want to sacrifice this much?” She reached a hand over her desk and finished softly, “We can find another way.”

“We’ve tried other ways,” Sakura said quietly. “They haven’t worked. And it’s getting worse. My team is in danger, and they’re one of the things I care most about in the world.” Her mouth twitched in a not-entirely-successful smile. “I know it’ll be really hard to remember that while I’m busy denying it. I know I’ll probably need… help, after. If I survive. But I want to do this. Just…” she swallowed. “Don’t let the boys know where I’ve gone. That I’m undercover, yes. But not where.”

“Not until the end,” Tsunade promised. “They’d both kill me if I didn’t let them go along to finish it and extract you.”

That thought made the tightness in her heart relax and settle, and Sakura smiled for real. “Yes.”

Tsunade sat back with a sigh. “All right, then. Do it.”

“This technique is a subtle one,” Miuhara lectured, as if this were just another exercise. “It doesn’t force any response, it just encourages one or another, according to the key we set today. You’ll probably have to make pretty continuous, conscious decisions about what to say and present; this is just a little aide. It should also help you hold part of yourself free of the new template. That said, the longer you use it, the more it burns in, and the greater the backlash when you break it. If you can, try not to break it until you’re back in the village and our own division’s medics can support you.”

Sakura clasped and unclasped her hands and nodded quickly. “I understand.” And she was glad she’d been assigned to Miuhara, for this. Having some instruction from a familiar agent, one she knew was experienced, helped her hold on to her resolution.

“All right, then!” Miuhara clapped his hands. “Let’s get started.”

Sakura seated herself in the center of the bare, underground room and concentrated on her breathing while Miuhara drew circles of seals around her on the slate floor. She could do this, she told herself firmly.

“Now.” Miuhara knelt at the gate of the seal. “Find the thoughts you need to encourage, and we’ll imprint them as the key.”

Sakura nodded and folded her hands into the Snake, closing her eyes to concentrate.

What she needed for this, she had decided, was to pretend that the past two years hadn’t happened. That she was still the weak one, taking what comfort she could in controlling her little puddle of chakra precisely. That she was still the ugly one, compensating as best she could with soft manners and girlish clothes, and always right on the edge of snapping, of shouting at someone, of shouting at the whole world because she was the one who was smart, who was right, who knew what she was doing. And no one ever noticed, because she had to not put herself forward, had to be hesitant and only halfway offer help, and then be self-effacing when someone asked; otherwise everyone would think she was showing off, and she’d be twice as ostracized as before. And here she was teamed with Naruto, who was an absolute idiot and bulled right through all those nets of expectations and didn’t seem to care; she’d been able to tell herself it was just him compensating for being a dreadful ninja, up until they went into the field and she saw him use techniques she knew were A rank! And then she was so jealous she could hardly breathe. All the more so, because the other member of the team was the boy she wanted to notice her; if Sasuke noticed her, then she wouldn’t have to feel like trash in front of the prettier girls. And it just figured that this one hope of hers, dropped right into her lap when every other girl in class would kill to be on Sasuke’s team, ignored her completely. Acted like she was totally useless. Paid attention to Naruto but never to her! And the more she tried to hold on to the hope of romance, the more furious she got, deep inside.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to show all that on the surface, for once, instead of hiding it away? To show them all.

“Now the Ram,” a calm voice broke into her reflections, and some part of her had been waiting for this, and she slid her hands through to the Ram instead.

It felt like a douse of ice water over her brain, and she yelped.

“Yeah,” Miuhara said, scribbling one more seal across a paper laid over the gate. “The closing kind of stings. Hold still, now.” The paper burst into flame and Sakura held herself still against the tingle that itched down her nerves and through her mind. “Done.” Miuhara sat back, satisfied. “Okay, come out of there and try it.”

Sakura picked her way through the lines of ink and wove her hands through the thirteen seals that initiated the Heart In a Net technique.

“I’m Orochimaru’s agent,” Miuhara said, cold and suspicious. “Why should we trust you?”

Sakura drew herself up and gave him a look of utter contempt. “Because I can give your master what he’s failed to get for himself all this time. Sasuke won’t come after me on his own, but Naruto is enough of a fool to do it, if they get wind of where I am. And he’ll bring Sasuke with him.” She leaned against the wall and smiled, hard. “But I’d better get a lot out of the deal. More than the Leaf would ever give me.”

She knew it wasn’t true. But it could have been. And it felt exhilarating to let the rage and contempt show, like flying, unsupported and without anchor on the wind.

Miuhara nodded. “Good, that rang true. Now break it.”

Sakura formed the five seals of closing with precision and had to shake her head vigorously as the film of anger/strike back/bitterness/show them all slid away. “Ugh.” She pressed her hands over her face and said, fervently, “I am so glad I’m not there any more.”

“Mmm. You’re going to be there for a long time, on this mission.” Miuhara dusted his knees off, watching her narrowly. “Still think you can do it, now you know what it will be like?”

Sakura touched the love for her team that she held in her heart, and the bright rage against those who threatened them. Those, she was reassured, wouldn’t go away no matter how she covered them up or disguised them. “Yes,” she said quietly, straightening. “I do.”

Miuhara smiled. “That’s the last test, then. Go look over your notes one more time before you burn them, and have your farewell with your team. I’ll make sure even your sealed records say you’ve been a clerk, and that’s already your public cover. You’re ready to go.”

As ready as she’d ever be, at any rate.

She went out for yakiniku, that night, with Sasuke and Naruto, and all three of them scuffled over the food like kids. They tossed little illusions at each other and wove complicated wire traps, competing to see who could snatch the most perfectly cooked meat. Sakura and Sasuke decreed that Naruto couldn’t use more than one Shadow Clone, and Naruto insisted in return that Sasuke couldn’t use his Sharingan to see which bits of meat were illusions. Sakura agreed with a virtuous air, and promptly attached chakra threads to three pieces while they were arguing. She captured all three of them, too, to loud protests from her teammates.

When the last bite had disappeared, they sat together over their tea, quietly.

“So, you’re gonna be gone for a while, huh?” Naruto asked, finally.

“A couple months at least.” Sakura sipped her tea, rolling the heat over her tongue. “If it’s a harder nut to crack than I hope… maybe a year.” Somewhere in between the two was her own guess, but they should know her worst-case estimate.

“Had to happen just as soon as we’re all back,” Sasuke grumbled under his breath, and wouldn’t look at them. Sakura smiled softly.

“Take care of each other while I’m gone, okay? Since I won’t be here to keep you both out of trouble.”

That made them both look at her, Sasuke with eloquently raised brows and Naruto with an open mouth. “Keep us out of trouble?” he echoed in disbelief. “Who was it who made the plan to hold Kakashi’s books hostage against a candid photo, huh?”

Sakura laced her fingers under her chin and batted her eyelashes. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Sasuke snorted. “So the trouble won’t be as well planned until you get back, is what you mean. You’d better hurry, then.”

“I’ll do my best,” she said, wrapping the warmth of their confidence around her.

She was unfortunately sure that she’d need it.

And all her plans and preparation had come to this moment, to an underground base and a carved stone hall, and one of her village’s legendary Sannin watching her from the shadows of torchlight with a small, cruel smile.

“So? You say you can bring me Sasuke, for a price. What price is that?”

Sakura shifted her shoulders under the weight of her chuunin uniform, minus the forehead protector, and pulled up a glare out of the hot, sullen reservoir in her stomach. “Power. That’s what you offered Sasuke, isn’t it? So I’ll claim the bargain instead.” She smiled a little, hard and sardonic. “But not that seal’s power. I’m not interested in anything that will make it easier for someone else to control me. Not ever again.”

“Hmm.” Orochimaru made an interested little sound. She thought he was amused. “And in return for this, you will serve me?”

“I’ll serve my own interests,” she answered coolly. “You should understand that’s a lot surer.”

He actually laughed. “Well, well. Perhaps I’ll like this bargain better, after all.” He came closer, looking down at her, predatory. “Very well, little kunoichi. I’ll give you power, and you’ll give me Sasuke. After,” he added, “I’m sure of you, of course.”

She shrugged a shoulder. “I expected that. Just don’t push it too far.”

Rage and the freedom of saying exactly what she thought whirled in her heart, and if much of that rage was against the creature in front of her… well, he didn’t have to know that.

Not until the end.

She pushed those thoughts down as far as she could, underneath the older anger at the limits her village had hung on her, and followed him deeper into the complex.