Tsunade sets out to salvage the situation in Leaf; Kankurou begins to snap in Sand; and Sakura and Sonmei meet someone in the dark.
It was buried in the rocks amidst a small copse--she'd gotten close enough to the Wind-River border that the desert itself was starting to break up into grassland and thin woods, so the trees were not particularly out of place. Somehow, though, as she approached the darkness of the cave, she felt colder than she had out in the desert.
She focused on the ground before her, felt her eyes turn on--
--and a network of winding tunnels stretched out before her, like a spiderweb ready to ensnare her.
She crept back into the concealing shadows of the trees around her. She didn't need to let anyone know she was here just yet.
I'll let it, she thought. I'll let it take me in and swallow me up. He's in there. He and I--/we will find our way out again./
Hinata pulled her jacket tight around her, and she tried not to shiver. After all, the sun was almost on the horizon.
Shizune didn't exactly open the door to Tsunade's office. It was more like she nudged it open by leaning on it. When it did open, she staggered inside more than she walked.
There was a body in her arms--one of the teenage genin, a boy Shikamaru recognized as having attempted the chuunin exam only once. He was dead, and messily so. His throat had been torn open.
Shizune didn't say anything. She just sat down in one of the chairs by the wall and set the body down in front of her. Her eyes were slightly glassy.
Ino stepped inside. "The body count is up to twenty-two and rising," she said. "Ten were genin."
"That's not that bad," Shikamaru said. He was sitting on the floor, leaning against Tsunade's desk. "I've seen much worse body counts."
"/And rising/," Ino repeated.
Shikamaru shrugged. He found a kind of relief in managing to be so detached. It was like grinding your teeth when they ached, or scratching at a healing wound.
"I was busy poisoning two Grass-nin who'd come at me from the side," Shizune said quietly. "I almost forgot that the boy was behind me." She nodded at the dead genin. "When I finished and turned around again, he was choking on his blood."
"He was choking because his trachea was gone," Shikamaru said, looking at the corpse.
"Shikamaru," Tsunade said, a warning in her voice.
"What?" he asked, tilted his head back so that he could look up in her direction.
Then he glanced back at Shizune, and he saw that there were tears on her face, and she was shaking very slightly.
Shikamaru stood up. "Look," he said, "it's not like it really matters anymore. I've been going over the reports, and there's something about the pattern of attacks--they're leaving an opening for another force to come in soon, in a matter of hours at most. It's going to be big."
"You can't comfort people for shit," Ino said.
Shikamaru shrugged. "What I mean is, it doesn't matter who dies now, because most of us will be dead when the next wave comes anyway. Happy?"
Ino gave him a sharp look. Then she strode forward and slapped him, hard.
"Ow," he said, and then he realized that there was surprise in his voice.
"I should have punched you," she said.
"Enough," Tsunade said. She pushed herself up from her chair. "Ino, Shikamaru, stay here and get the last line of defense ready. Shizune, handle healing." She hesitated for a moment. Then she picked up the Hokage hat from where it dangled on the edge of her desk, and she pushed it into Shikamaru's hands. "Hold onto this until I get back."
"What?" he said.
"Godaime!" Ino said.
Shizune stood up abruptly, her eyes wide. "Tsunade-sama--"
Tsunade paused in front of Shizune. Then she smiled tiredly. "It's all right. Don't worry too much."
Before she walked out the door, she picked up the dead boy, and she carried him out with her into the light of dawn.
"I'm sure Shikamaru has figured it out by now," Sakura said when Kakashi had finished explaining Sand's betrayal to her. "But there's only so much they can do back there. And even if we take down the entire Akatsuki, it'll take too long for the word to get out."
"Didn't you say something about explaining things to me?" Sonmei asked.
"Sand has some form of swift communication," Kakashi said.
"But first we have to get back to Sand," Sakura said.
"Hello?" Sonmei said.
"Maybe I should teach you patience," Kakashi commented to him, quite casually.
"I've been patient my entire life," Sonmei said.
"Then you should be better at it," said Kakashi.
Sonmei glared at him, then turned back to look at Sakura. "If you don't think you can deal with the Akatsuki and get word back to Sand in time to call off the attacks on Leaf, why are you so determined to go anyway?"
Sakura stopped for a moment. She gave him a long look. "It's personal," she finally said.
"That's not a good enough explanation," Sonmei snapped.
She paused. Her eyes slipped halfway closed.
"Sakura?" Kakashi said.
"The man in charge of the place we're going," she said quietly, "was once a boy I knew very well. He was my teammate. So was another boy I knew very well."
"They're dead now," Kakashi said, his tone somehow even flatter than usual. "They both are, or might as well be."
Sakura twisted around to stare at him, her eyes wide open once more. "Do you really believe that?"
He looked at her in silence. Sonmei waited for him to make some casual, cryptic remark, or to smile knowingly beneath his mask. But he did neither, and after a moment he closed his eye and turned his head away.
"I didn't think so," Sakura said. She smiled, and it was fierce/. "Has Kakashi shown you /tamashii no ken yet, Sonmei?"
"Not yet," Sonmei said. "It's all been about how to use the Sharingan, or exercises in chakra control and how to combine that with swordfighting. No practical application just yet," and he shot Kakashi an annoyed look, but his teacher was still looking away from the two of them.
"Turn your Sharingan on," Sakura said as she drew her chakra sword out from its sheath at her side.
"Now watch carefully." Sakura held the strange sword out in front of her. She narrowed her eyes for a moment. "/Tamashii no ken/."
Blue-green light glittered on the edges of the sword's twin blades. Then, in an instant, it jumped across the central gap and bound both blades together. What had been a cumbersome, oddly separated design was suddenly a single deadly weapon.
"It's a weapon," Sakura said quietly, "but with part of my soul attached to it. Over time, you...bond with the sword. Maybe even leave something of yourself in it." She lowered the sword. "Now you try."
Sonmei slowly unsheathed his own sword and held it out in front of him. He visualized the jutsu as he'd seen it performed, imagined the chakra swirling through his own body as it had his mother's--
And behind him, Kakashi stirred. "You can't possibly think you can save Sasuke now."
Sonmei let the sword fall back to his side. But when he turned to look at his teacher, Kakashi was staring at Sakura.
"I can't think anything else," Sakura said softly.
"There are no roads back from the places he's been," Kakashi said.
"Then I'll make one," she said.
Kakashi regarded her blankly.
"All this time," she said, "I've been the one who's needed protecting. It was all right when I was twelve and just a silly little girl. Then it didn't cost anything. But when I was fifteen, sixteen, when I should have been good enough--I wasn't. And it started to hurt other people. When I fought Sasori of the Red Sand, I should have been able to hold my own. Instead, Chiyo had to expend herself healing me. When the time came, she had nothing left to heal Gaara with. When Naruto and I fought to bring Sasuke back, I should have been able to fight with Naruto, not behind him. But I couldn't, and you--"
She drew in a sharp breath. There was something burning at the back of her eyes.
"You had to save me, because I wasn't good enough to stand my ground with my own teammates. And they were lost because of it. I will not accept that."
It looked almost as if Kakashi's mouth had dropped open in shock behind his mask. "Sakura..."
Sakura looked away from him. "Sonmei," she said. "Try the jutsu."
Sonmei nodded and lifted his chakra sword once more. For a moment, he felt muted by the confession he'd just heard. Then he rolled the silence into a ball on his tongue and swallowed it. He gathered up his chakra, and he focused.
"/Tamashii no ken/," he said.
The glow from the sword cast a circle of pale blue light before him.
Tenten felt scorched inside and out by the time she got through the sandstorm.
It had been small and curiously placed--right where someone coming from the direction of Leaf would approach Sand.
"I don't think that was a coincidence," came Shino's voice from by her right shoulder, cool and thoughtful.
Tenten jolted slightly. It wasn't an odd thing for him to say; no doubt the three of them had all come to the conclusion, while struggling through the sandstorm, that it was a deliberate roadblock. But she wasn't used to people voicing her own thoughts.
The last time that had happened had been when her teammates were still alive.
"No," she agreed. She started to open her eyes, but there was still too much sand in the air and on her face, and she hurriedly shut them again in the face of the sudden stinging.
"That was a pretty stupid defense," Kiba said from the left of her. His tone was smug, predatory. "They must be weaker than we think if the best they can throw at us is a pair of fumbling jounin and some sand."
"We can't get cocky now," Shino warned in a low voice.
"We also can't stop now," Tenten said. "Shino. Kiba." She took another step forward. Then--she wasn't even sure why--she held out a hand to her right, reaching until she caught hold of Shino's fingers. She reached out to her left, and Kiba grabbed her hand.
Tenten opened her eyes, and this time it didn't hurt so much. "Let's go."
The gates of the Hidden Sand were just ahead.
"She's not coming back, you know," Kankurou said. He was sprawled on his throne, tension hiding in the falsity of his very careful relaxation.
Hanabi looked up from where she stood at the bottom of the stairs. Her fingers tensed around the hilt of the sword at her waist. "That's what you think."
"That's what I /know/," Kankurou corrected her. His voice was smug.
"Kankurou-sama," Ichiru said in a low voice.
"What you /know/?" Hanabi said. She took a step up. "You don't know anything about Hinata. You weren't the one that had to watch her retreat further and further into herself over the years, who--" She caught her breath, falling silent for a moment. Then she said, "She needs to do this. For her own sake."
Kankurou smiled. "Are you telling me this, or yourself?" He stepped off the throne and slowly descended the steps. "Ichiru," he said, "go check on the defenses. See what the situation is with Leaf."
She did not move.
"Leave us," he said, more sharply.
She fixed him with a long gaze, then turned and left the throne room, heading down the hall towards the palace doors.
Kankurou returned his attention to Hanabi. "Do you really trust those three with your sister?"
She lifted her head to meet his gaze. "Yes."
"You shouldn't," he said.
Her eyes narrowed.
"Fourteen years ago," he said, "Kakashi, Sakura, and Naruto, along with an elder of our village, set out from here to rescue my brother Gaara, then the Kazekage, from the Akatsuki. Temari and I were ordered to stay here. We stayed. We trusted them to bring our brother home."
Hanabi said nothing as Kankurou approached her.
"Eventually, we managed to go after them. But it was too late. They couldn't save him, and our elder died in the attempt. Oh, the Akatsuki was devastated from the battles that ensued, but Gaara was still dead."
"Gaara was captured," Hanabi said. "Hinata goes of her own will."
"What will?" Kankurou sneered. "I saw her. She's a pathetic shell of a ninja. She was probably lured out by a trap that a brain-damaged child could have seen through."
"I wouldn't be surprised," he continued, "if she were dead already. I'm sure it's just as well--the Hyuuga will be better off with a clan head who has some idea of what they're doing. Who isn't pining after dead family every night, probably wishing they were still alive just so that they could take over her duties. That's all she ever wanted her family for, I'm sure. Being there to prop her up when she was too pathetic to stand on her--"
A fire went on in Kankurou's eyes, and he moved to block. Behind him, the clatter of the puppets intensified, and several of the little ones clicked and twisted into new, deadly combinations. He gestured, and the older, bigger puppet leaning on the side of the throne rose to his side.
"Attacking the Kazekage right in his throne room," he hissed. "That's a serious offense. Better finish what you've started or I'll finish /you/."
Hanabi moved to attack again--then paused. "Finish what I--"
There was silence for a moment.
"You want me to do this," she said slowly. "You want me to--what? Kill you?"
A flicker of irritation passed over his painted face. "Don't back out now," he said, and several puppets skittered closer to her. "I won't let you."
Hanabi stared at him, but she didn't have much time before the puppets were upon her.
That was when the doors of the throne room flung open.
"What?" Kankurou said.
Ichiru stood in the doorway. Behind her were Kiba, Tenten, and Shino, poised and ready to attack.
"Forgive your servant for this, Kankurou-sama," Ichiru said. Then she turned to the ninja behind her. "Help the Hyuuga subdue him," she said. "Now."
The three of them looked at each other, then obeyed.
Kakashi was the first to reach the small wood, but he stopped when he got there, pausing in thought.
When he did, Sonmei took the opportunity to race ahead, pushing past the underbrush and turning to take in his surroudings. He caught sight of the cave mouth quickly enough, but he didn't relax until he saw Hinata, pressed up against a tree. "Hinata-sama," he said. "You're all right." Relief uncoiled inside him.
She smiled at him. Something relaxed slightly in the set of her shoulders, and she stood up a little straighter. "I'm just fine. I'm glad you are too, Sonmei-kun."
"The sword," Sakura said. "You brought it with you."
Hinata looked down at the chakra sword in her hands. "I think it's more like...it brought me."
"No," Kakashi said. "You chose to come here." He gave her a long look. "The sword just showed you the way, didn't it?"
Hinata hesitated, then nodded. "That's how it was. And--" She stopped, her expression going distant. Sonmei straightened a little, waiting for her to say something more. But after a moment, she came back to herself, and all she said was, "This is where I need to go."
"Why?" Sonmei blurted out. He felt himself go hot at the embarrassment of asking Hinata something like that, something that somehow seemed so personal even though it was a perfectly reasonable question.
But Hinata only looked at him. For a moment, she was quiet. Then she said, "Because that's where the story--where my story takes me. Or maybe," and her voice went soft, "where I take the story."
"In that case," Sakura said, "this is where the story ends." She stared hard at the entrance to the cave. "We're going to finish it, here and now."
Kakashi laughed suddenly. It was a strange, soft sound. "I don't think so. All proper stories end with a wedding or a funeral."
Sakura's mouth pulled up into a smirk. "You need to expand your taste in books, Kakashi." She started towards the cave. "Let's go."
For the first minute or so of walking, the cave was very dark. In the last of the fading light from the surface, Sonmei could see Kakashi's hands forming seals, and then a pale green light sprang up around them.
"That should hold us until we get to somewhere with some light," Kakashi said as they continued downwards.
"How do you know this whole place isn't this dark?" Sonmei asked.
It was hard to tell, especially in the strange light, but Kakashi seemed to be smiling underneath his mask. "Sasuke can't do everything in the dark. He only wishes he could."
"Sasuke," Sonmei repeated, trying the name out. "Isn't he the man from the Sound encampment?"
Sakura stopped abruptly, then strode up ahead to meet the two of them, leaving Hinata in the rear. She gave Sonmei a sharp look. "You met him?" There was something in her eyes he'd never seen before--except maybe earlier, out in the desert, when she'd spoken of Sasuke and her other teammate.
"He said that it wasn't time for me to come to him," Sonmei said. He tried not to sound too smug as he added, "I guess I'm going to prove him wrong."
"He was right," Kakashi said. "I should have taken more time to train you. But there wasn't time." His chin dipped a little; his gaze fell. "I--"
"The enemy," Hinata said suddenly. "They're coming."
Niches on the tunnel sides suddenly flared with fire, and the illusion of rock dropped away from a section of the wall. Dark-clad ninja poured of the opening, too fast to be counted. The sudden fierce firelight glinted off of strange blades and calculating eyes.
Before Sonmei could do anything, they'd cut Hinata off from the rest of them. "Hinata-sama!" he yelled. He started back, reaching for his chakra sword. Now he'd get the chance to use it.
But Sakura grabbed his arm. "No," she said as she drew her own chakra sword. She didn't turn it on yet, but she used to blade to parry a series of shuriken. "They're a distraction. We have to keep going--/tamashii no ken/!" The chakra sword flared to life, and she lunged at an enemy ninja.
"I'll hold them," Kakashi said, "and make sure that Hinata's all right."
Behind them, there was a flurry of motion, and Sonmei thought he could make out several of their opponents falling. Then Hinata's voice broke through. "The path splits up ahead! Take the--" She paused, and there was the sound of more blows being exchanged. She was breathless when she continued. "The right-hand tunnel."
By then Kakashi had turned on his own chakra sword, and Sakura was pulling Sonmei away down the tunnel.
Two, then three ninja fell to Kakashi's sword, and then he hesitated. "Sakura," he said.
She stopped, frowning at him. "What?"
"I didn't save you back then because you were weak," he said.
She was suddenly very still.
"Even then," he said, "you had grown so much. You weren't weak. I saved you because you were the only one I could save."
"Kakashi--" Her eyes were wide.
"Sasuke's waiting," he said, and he threw himself into the fight.
Sonmei was already making his way down the path.
They didn't stop even when they came to the split that Hinata had mentioned; they just hurried on down the right-hand path.
"Do you actually have any idea where we're going?" Sonmei asked eventually.
"I know exactly where we're going," Sakura said. Her chakra sword was still on, still glowing in the dim firelight. "We're going to see Sasuke."
"And what are we going to do when we get there?" Sonmei said. "Ask him nicely to stop being mean to Leaf?"
"Asking nicely doesn't work with Sasuke," Sakura said.
Sonmei noticed the shadows shifting a fraction of a second too late. The instant he realized something was wrong, he willed his Sharingan active, but by then, the shadows had resolved into a pale-haired, dark-eyed woman with a long knife in one hand. She'd come out of nowhere, and now she had that knife lifted to Sakura's throat and her free hand gripped around Sakura's wrist, immobilizing the hand that held her chakra sword.
"Nothing works with Sasuke-sama," she said, smiling. "At least, nothing you can do. You'll be dead by the time he gets here for the boy."
A dark-haired, pale-eyed man emerged from behind the woman, but his attention was on Sonmei. "Tsue will deal with the woman," he said as he approached. "You will wait here with me." He tipped his head and stared solemnly down at Sonmei. "Ah, I see. You have the Sharingan. You are his son."
"Kazashi," said the woman, "shut up. We don't need to talk to them." She shifted, moving to slice the knife down Sakura's throat.
Blood welled up there, and Tsue grinned too widely. That was when Sakura punched her in the stomach.
Tsue gagged and retched, and while she was doubled over, Sakura took a step back and then lashed out with her chakra sword. Tsue stumbled back just in time.
"You bitch," Tsue hissed. "Sasuke-sama didn't tell me you could hit like that." She swung the knife up again.
Sakura blocked it with her sword. "There are lots of things Sasuke pretends he doesn't know about me," she said sweetly.
Kazashi moved, then. Even with his Sharingan on, Sonmei couldn't anticipate the blow. He could see a thousand complex factors behind it, and he could realize (with a sinking feeling) what the chakra gathering in Kazashi's fingers was going to do to him, but he couldn't avoid it.
The hand struck his upper chest, and Sonmei felt like he'd exploded. The bones of his ribs fractured, cracks running rampant through them. Everything /broke/. He crumpled to his knees, trying not to sob in pain. It didn't work. He was screaming and there were tears on his face.
Sakura hesitated at the sound, and she turned away from Tsue. "Sonmei!"
Tsue lunged. Her knife poised just beneath Sakura's chin, she pinned her to the wall. Kazashi moved perfectly in tandem with her. He rushed at Sakura, his fist going out--
--it was the same move he'd just used on Sonmei--
--and connecting with Sakura's chakra sword.
The blade shattered. Little fragments of steel flew everywhere. A few of them lodged in Sonmei's arm. The stinging there was a brief but welcome distraction from the pain in his ribs.
"That was a good try," Kazashi said, almost kindly. "But here in Mugenjigoku, we break things."
"Oh," Sakura said. There was a dazed look in her eyes. "Really?" She let the hand that had held her sword fall limply to her side, but she didn't let go of the empty hilt.
"It's what we do," Tsue said.
"So I see," Sakura said softly. Her fingers shifted around the hilt of the broken sword.
Where the blade had been until a few seconds ago, blue-green light lanced out. It followed the paths that steel had once formed until there was a new blade composed of pure chakra.
Before either Tsue or Kazashi could react, she swung the sword up. It slid into Tsue's chest, and a glint of its tip emerged from her back.
"You can break things here," Sakura screamed, "but you don't break my son!"
Tsue stared at her. The knife slid out of her fingers, and she fell. All the cool reason abandoned Kazashi's expression, and he flung himself out to catch her.
Sakura lashed out with the chakra sword and sliced him in half.
She stood there for a second as the blood pooled around her feet and spread around her. Then, as the glow faded from her sword, she stepped over the bodies and made her way to Sonmei.
"It's all right," she said as she knelt beside him. Her hands rested on his chest, and warmth spread from them. The pain dwindled. "I'm going to make it better."
The relief was so profound that for a moment, Sonmei couldn't say anything. Then he lifted his gaze and looked down the corridor. "Mother," he said. "Behind you."
She paused, and then slowly she stood up. Sonmei could tell by the look in her eyes that she knew what she was going to see when she turned.
Sonmei got to his feet and took a few quick steps forward as Sasuke stopped mere feet away from them. He couldn't resist looking back at Sakura.
Her eyes were luminous with intensity, and her expression was indescribable.
For a moment, Sasuke met her gaze. But it was too much, and he quickly looked away, down at the bodies at his feet. "Tsue and Kazashi underestimated you," he said calmly. "That's too bad."
"Only because you told them to," Sakura said.
Irritation flashed through his eyes. "Why would I do that?"
Sakura only smiled indulgently at him. Then she gestured for Sonmei to come closer. "Sonmei, this is--"
"--my father," he said. "I know."
"It's a bit sooner than I'd hoped," Sasuke said. "Some of my plans will have to be rearranged." He started for Sonmei. "But I'll do the best I--"
"No," Sakura said. She stepped between Sasuke and Sonmei. "You'd hurt him, and I wouldn't be able to forgive you for that."
Sasuke laughed brokenly. "You can forgive me now?"
"It doesn't matter whether I can forgive you," she said, "because I still love you."
For the first time, Sasuke actually looked angry. His eyes swirled into red and black as he activated the Sharingan. Then he reached out with one hand and grabbed Sakura by the throat. Blood trickled from the shallow cut there, flowing over the edge of his palm. "Then I'll have to get rid--" His voice faltered. "I'll have to deal with you." He lifted his other hand, and there was a kunai in it.
She looked startled, but not precisely afraid.
Sasuke stopped. He looked frustrated. The kunai vanished back up his sleeve, and he released his hold on Sakura's neck. Before she could do anything, though, he'd formed handseals, and she arched back as if pulled taught by invisible ropes. Her hands snapped behind her back as if they'd been tied there, and she fell to her knees.
"Binding jutsu are very useful," Sasuke observed as he walked past Sakura to Sonmei. "I have another jutsu that's very useful, too. Let me show you, Sonmei."
"Tamashii no--" Sonmei began as he swung his chakra sword up. But the breath fled from him as Sasuke casually knocked him back, and then Sasuke grabbed his wrist and snapped it. The sword fell to the ground.
Sasuke put one hand on Sonmei's shoulder. With the other, he tilted up Sonmei's chin and forced him to meet his eyes. They'd changed--it was like looking up into a kaleidoscope of knives and blood instead of pretty crystals.
"/Tsukiyomi/," Sasuke said.
Sonmei tried to yell out, but the darkness only fell into him and gagged him as it dragged him down.