Second Bite at the Cherry @sakinthra
Chapter 18

Each second that passed seemed to draw out to minutes as Sakura looked to the two men who had just arrived. It seemed impossible. Akatsuki, here, now? She'd built them up so much in her that they were almost like a fairytale nightmare, something that frightened her at night but had never had any real chance of appearing. Certainly not so suddenly, certainly not right here, right now.

The one who had spoken was currently laughing. He carried an enormous weapon on his back, something that looked like a triple-bladed scythe. Monstrous and unwieldy looking. The man's hair was short and grey, slicked back, and the glitter of a necklace caught Sakura's attention. (A circle with an inverted triangle? She'd never seen such a symbol before.) The other man stood just behind the first, and had wrapped his face up with scarves and and a mask, to the point where Sakura couldn't notice anything discernable about him. (But there had been a name, Kakuzu, and part of her insisted that she had to remember the name.)

Black robes with red clouds. There was no doubting that these two belonged to Akatsuki, and Sakura's immediate thought was that, of course, they had to be here for Gaara. Without thinking, her hand moved to the kunai embedded in her thigh, and she pulled it out with a small wince. It was a weapon, and she could use it to defend Gaara, even if that was all she could do right now she had to do something.

"Just look at that guy! Broken jaw, looks like some busted ribs, and just look at the fuckin' room, man!" The gray-haired man stepped forward, and Sakura instinctively moved to stand between him and Gaara, kunai at the ready. The man did not draw his own weapon, however, merely looking even more excited. "And she's still got spunk on top of that! Say, would you be interested in converting to Jashinism?"

Sakura's mind blanked. Jashinism? What even was that? And he was asking her to...convert?

"I know it might not look like it, but I'm a pretty religious guy." The man continued, seemingly oblivious to her confusion. "Part of doctrine insists we always look for potential converts. I could teach you all about Lord Jashin if you wanted."

"R-religion?" Sakura forced herself to speak, more flabbergasted than she wanted to be in such a situation. "Is now really the best time for that?"

The man raised an eyebrow. "Is there a better time than now?"

Sakura looked over to Hiroshi, who looked just as baffled as she did, before turning back to the man. "Um...I mean. We were...we were fighting."

"Oh, yeah, I guess so, huh?" The man gave a small shrug. "Well, Kakuzu dragged me here to kill this man so, sorry, we're gonna have to take it from here. I don't want to have to deny someone a kill but...well, it's been way too damn long since I've had any sort of decent fight, you know?"

Sakura was now certain of one thing about this man: he was an absolute psychopath.

She was also now certain that, somehow, maybe by some miracle, they weren't here after Gaara, but the instant they realized who he was, that would change. She glanced back to her partner, noting that he had let his sand fall to the ground. Good. The less clues there were to his identity, the better.

She looked back to the man in front of her, and all at once, three swords embedded themselves into the man's chest.

Hiroshi had used his Magnet Release again, quicker than Sakura could have reacted. She saw sand moving at her feet (Gaara had been ready to protect her, thank goodness), but none of the swords had come towards her. Hiroshi, it seemed, had been trying to catch these new men off guard...and succeeded? Had it really been that easy? If she'd known throwing a kunai at an Akatsuki member had been all it took…

"Hey, that's really fucking rude, you know? We were in the middle of a goddamn conversation!"

And then the man was talking like there weren't three swords sticking out of his chest. Sakura couldn't help but stare, open-mouthed, as she processed the fact that three blows, three fatal blows that would have killed practically anyone she knew, hadn't seemed to phase this man.

Sakura was now certain of another thing about this man: if he ever decided to become her foe, she was well and truly screwed.

(Which led Sakura to conclude, in the heat of the moment, that no matter how this situation resolved itself, she needed to stay on this man's good side.)

"I guess now would be a pretty good time to show you the power of god, huh?" The man looked back to Sakura, his grin having returned. "You've done a fairly good job bringing on the pain, but let me show you what real pain looks like."


The masked man finally spoke, his deep voice seeming to echo throughout the room and bring all attention to him. Sakura couldn't help but shiver. If the friendlier guy was this powerful, how strong was the menacing one? She was so out of her goddamn league.

"Remember not to damage the head." The man, Kakuzu, continued. "It's only worth the million ryo if he's recognizable."

"You and your damn money. I won't touch his fucking head." Hidan retorted with a roll of his eyes, not even flinching as Hiroshi put two more swords through him. "You know, money isn't worth shit in the afterlife."

"Good thing I don't plan on dying any time soon."

Sakura subtly moved a little closer to Gaara. These men were definitely some sort of insane. She flinched as she felt Gaara put a hand on her shoulder, but admittedly was grateful for his presence. More than anything, she wanted to just run, but…

But she couldn't now, could she? If they weren't Akatsuki's current target, then this was the perfect chance to gather information about the two members, which was exactly what she had set off from Konoha to do. She already knew one thing about Akatsuki that her village definitely had not known before: one of them was seemingly immortal, and seemed to follow a religion called Jashinism. She had two names, Hidan and Kakuzu, and all she had to do was keep herself and Gaara alive long enough and…

And not only would she have defeated Hiroshi, she would have gained valuable information for herself, her village, and Naruto.

Sakura's fear seemed to ebb into the back of her mind in the face of her new goals, and she found a strange, new confidence growing inside of her.

"Hey!" She called out. "I thought you were going to show me what real pain looked like, not argue about money!"

Hidan and Kakuzu both looked to her, and if looks could have killed, Kakuzu would have ended her instantly. Hidan, however, seemed thrilled.

"I like this one. Alright, squirt, I'll show you how it's done. Just you sit right there and watch the judgment of God in action!"

From there, several things happened in quick succession.

The first was that Hidan began to move his legs in a strange pattern. Sakura looked down just in time to notice that he was using his foot to manipulate the blood that had been dripping down from his wounds. He drew lines with the blood, one line, two, three, and then connected the lines by drawing a circle around the points. Sakura recognized the pattern as the same symbol that was hanging from the man's neck.

Important, Sakura's mind insisted. The symbol had importance.

Then, Hidan, drew his giant scythe from his back and turned to face Hiroshi.

The ensuing spat was short. Hiroshi had given up trying to put weapons into Hidan, and instead resorted to a slew of earth-style techniques in an attempt to bludgeon his opponent into submission. Hiroshi had slowed down, however, and every attempt to hit Hidan ended with failure as the man jumped and dodged his way closer.

Then, Hidan lashed out once with his scythe.

It wasn't a fatal wound. It wasn't even a major once. All Hidan had managed to do was nick Hiroshi, and from there Hidan back off until he was standing in the middle of his blood circle again. From there, Hidan positioned his blade so that he could run his tongue along the bloodied edge.

Sakura had to gag a little at that.

But her nausea was quickly forgotten as she watched Hidan's skin begin to blacken, until almost all of it had completely darkened. There were a few white markings on his face and hands, but otherwise it looked as though Hidan had become a completely different person.

"You've been cursed." He spoke to Hiroshi. "And now get ready to know God's wrath!"

Before Hiroshi could retaliate, Hidan reached into his coat and pulled forth a long, black spike. Then, to Sakura's shock, Hidan stabbed the spike directly into his leg.

On the other side of the room, Hiroshi buckled and fell to one knee, moaning in agony.

Sakura paled as she realized what had just happened.

Not only was this man immortal, any damage that was done to him was being done to Hiroshi. It was an ultimate weapon. Hiroshi couldn't attack. Fatal wounds would just lead to his own death, and if he tried to walk away, Hidan would just stab himself and end it in an instant. It was checkmate, and it was the most disturbed checkmate Sakura had ever seen in her life. Akatsuki was on an entirely different level of power than she'd realized.

Hiroshi seemed to have at least put together how well and truly screwed he was. But rather than run, the man had decided to put up a last ditch effort at a fight. He summoned forth a rather large blade into the air, then fired it at Hidan with ferocious speed. Hidan didn't bother dodging, (of course he wouldn't), but instead of embedding itself, the blade went straight through Hidan's neck, causing his head to topple to the floor below.

Would that do it? Sakura thought to herself. Being decapitated was different than being stabbed, maybe this time things would be…

And there went Hiroshi's head, also rolling on the floor. The damn jutsu applied to decapitation too?

"Ah, fuck, he just had to get impatient." The head on the floor, somehow, began to speak. (And Sakura questioned how a head without lungs attached could find the function to speak at all, but this jutsu was already ridiculous enough, what was one more ridiculous aspect?) "I can't even enjoy the pain of the fucking death with my head off!"

"You should have been more careful." Kakuzu commented, walking calmly over to Hiroshi's corpse to pick up the fallen head. "But I'm grateful he made himself easy to carry." With that, Kakuzu began to walk back towards the entrance of the room, straight past the body of his fallen comrade.

"Hey, don't just walk off!" Hidan demanded. "Put my head back on, you ass!"

"You should learn from your mistakes." Kakuzu retorted. "I'll put it back on once I turn this in."

"Fuck you!"

Kakuzu didn't bother to respond further, turning around and leaving without another word.

Sakura still wasn't quite sure what in hell was going on, but Hiroshi was dead and Akatsuki hadn't seemed to realize that there was a Jinchuuriki standing right in front of them, so all in all, this was...a victory? But it didn't really feel like a victory. It just felt...weird.

"Hey. Hey pinkie."

Sakura snapped back into focus. Hidan's head wasn't facing her, but clearly it was trying to still communicate.

"Sakura…" Gaara seemed anxious, and Sakura didn't blame him. She couldn't fathom how he was reacting to all of this; she was barely keeping it together. But...this was an opportunity. An opportunity she had to take.

"I know." She answered him, reaching up to put a hand over his own on her shoulder. "It'll be okay."

"It'll be okay if you could just move my head over to my neck." Hidan added. "It'll take a while to reattach without Kakuzu's help but at least I'll be able to finish my prayers. Religion has rules, you know, help a guy out?"

She could try to kill him, Sakura thought to herself. Hidan's body hadn't moved at all since the decapitation, which meant that the head had to be attached for it to be a threat. And a head wasn't much threat at all, was it? She could...dump the head in a river. Maybe drowning would work. But seeing that the man had survived decapitation was enough to make her think that maybe there wasn't anything that would work, nothing conventional anyway. She didn't know how Hidan's jutsu worked and there had to be some mechanic that she couldn't deduce by just watching alone.

But she could get information in other ways.

"Trust me." She whispered to Gaara, and without another word she went to Hidan's head and pushed down her revulsion long enough to pick it up and move it over to where his body lay.

"Ugh, thank you." Hidan spoke as she pushed his neck up against the stump it had been cut from. (She ignored the disgusting noises the action produced...fuck this was gross.) "Listen, it'll take me a little while to get through the rest of my prayers, but once I'm done and walking again, I'll tell you about Jashin, alright?"

"Alright." Sakura agreed.

"Good. Now leave me alone, I have prayers to start."

Sakura obliged, heading back to Gaara's side on shaky legs. It began to sink in, the two wounds she'd suffered, the amount of chakra she'd expended on the fight, as well as just the sheer exhaustion that fear and fight brought onto a body after a long period of time.

The last thing she remembered before passing out was Gaara's worried face, and the last thought that went through her mind was that the two of them had to be the luckiest people alive.

Sakura dreamed of Sasuke.

They were disjointed dreams at first. Memories of their first D-ranked missions together, simple missions that hadn't required much work, other than reigning in Naruto and keeping the two boys from spatting. They were happy dreams. Perhaps naively happy, but still...there was a certain sort of calmness that came from reliving those moments, a calmness she had not felt in...months, if she was to be honest with herself. And how could she be calm now? Not after all the three of them had been through together, not after Sasuke had…

And then the dream shifted, and she saw Sasuke with his back to her, his voice ringing in her ears.

"I'm not like the rest of you. We have different paths we must walk."

But...they hadn't been so different after all, had they? She'd left the village too, after everything, and Naruto before her. All three of them had left to gain something. Sasuke for power, Naruto for training, and her for…

Well, it had simply been information to start, but now there was so much more to it, wasn't there? She hadn't just gained knowledge, she was gaining power too. Her dream changed, and she relived the thrill of pulling up the earth to her hand, of facing Hiroshi head on, only this time one punch was all that it took to make the man crumble away like sand. She felt strong, she was getting stronger, all because she'd made the decision to leave and never look back.

But it didn't feel right.

Not the leaving part, anyway, but how it felt to see Hiroshi crumble beneath her fist into nothingness. She remembered the first time she had seen Sasuke overcome by Orochimaru's curse mark in the Forest of Death, how pleased he'd looked to be crushing his enemies beneath him, the sickening, crunching sound she'd heard as he'd broken the Sound shinobi's arms with a single pull. He hadn't been himself. He hadn't been right, but that was the power he'd been seeking out. The power to dominate his enemies.

That was the power Sakura had been instinctively been seeking, but as she continued to dream, continued to remember, she wondered if she was…


"You really are...annoying."


Sakura awoke with a start, gasping as she sat up in the...bed? She had been in the fortress, fighting Hiroshi, and then Akatsuki had been there, and then…

She'd been unconscious. She groaned as she realized she'd passed out, of course she'd passed out after all of that. She still wasn't as strong as Sasuke or Naruto if she couldn't handle one stupid fight.

"Shukaku said you exhausted your chakra reserves."

Sakura flinched as she heard a voice next to her. Gaara, just Gaara. So he'd been the one to move her to wherever this was. It looked like an inn, which meant that, for the moment, there likely wasn't any danger.

"How long was I out?" She asked.

"Nine hours." Gaara answered. "I...tried to help." He looked down at his hand, a guilty expression on his face. "I wrapped up your leg."

"Oh?" Sakura had almost forgotten her wounds, though as she looked down at her leg she became aware of a dull throb both there and at her shoulder. It had been wrapped well enough, however. (She hadn't bled out, at the very least.) "Thanks." She gave Gaara her biggest grin. "I...guess I kind of passed out on you, huh? I'm really sorry."

"I should have been able to protect you." Gaara replied. "But I wasn't fast enough."

"I wasn't either. But I think if those two weirdos hadn't shown up, we would have still won that fight." One punch had broken Hiroshi's jaw, and the resulting slam against the wall had broken ribs. Hidan had said so himself. Few people could keep fighting well after sustaining that sort of damage, and if she'd gotten one hit on him at full strength, she could have gotten another...assuming she hadn't passed out from trying to pull off the earthen-fist move again. Chakra exhaustion, Gaara had said. She hadn't felt tired, not until that moment when Hidan had told her to leave. Adrenaline had probably kept her going, but that wasn't going to be good enough. She needed to improve her chakra reserves. She needed to-

Sakura took a breath. She was thinking too much. Right now, she needed to focus on right now. She was alive, Gaara was alive, Akatsuki hadn't taken them, but she was wounded and she'd been unable to protect Gaara until she was recovered. There was no point in thinking about training or…

Getting stronger.

She lingered on the dream and on her thoughts, slowly pulling her legs up to her chest. "How is everyone else doing? Everyone in the town?"

"There were six casualties outside of our group." Gaara answered. "But once that man walked out with Hiroshi's head, his men seemed to lose the will to resist. I think now the town is attempting to work out who will take charge, now that Hiroshi is dead."

"You mean, they still want to form a village separate from Sunagakure's control?" Sakura concluded. "I'd thought they'd want to return to how things used to be with Hiroshi gone."

But men came into power for a reason. Hiroshi was strong, but a united town could have stood against him and prevented him from taking power. People had wanted to follow him. People had wanted to split away from Sunagakure.

She'd helped take out a man who'd been abusing the people beneath him, but what if they elected someone just as bad as him? And if they did elect someone more suited to lead, did that mean she'd just aided a rebellion in Wind Country?

This wasn't like the Land of Waves. This wasn't like the chuunin exams. It wasn't just about being the strongest. Battles had consequences. Strength had consequences. She hadn't considered the possibility that Akatsuki might just suddenly show up at her battle. She hadn't considered that her battle against Hiroshi might lead the rise of someone equally strong or terrible.

And, come to think of it, she doubted Sasuke or Naruto thought of those things either.

Well, maybe Sasuke had thought a little. He didn't seem to care about the future consequence of Orochimaru taking over his body, but there were other consequences that had followed his leaving. His retrieval squad had nearly died. Konoha had lost, in him, a valuable shinobi, the last of a clan. By going to Otogakure, by going to Orochimaru for his own pursuits, he had weakened the village of his birth, even if only by just a little bit.

Naruto as well, and even the sage Jiraiya who had taken him away from the village...he'd taken Naruto away to train him, and potentially to keep him safe from Akatsuki's prying eyes, but even that meant that Konoha was short another shinobi that could aid them in missions, in protecting the village.

And she…

She too, Sakura realized. She too had left without thinking of consequences. In the back of her mind she had realized she was acting rashly, acting just for herself and for the sake of her teammates, but even she hadn't really thought about what her leaving meant for all of the people she'd left behind.

She had been selfish. Gaara had been selfish too. And Sasuke, and maybe, even if subconsciously, Naruto.

There was no undoing that she'd left. There was no undoing that she'd convinced Gaara to leave with her. And maybe she was still selfish, but she didn't want to go back to the village. She hadn't learned anything being there, not compared to these few weeks she'd spent away. But just because she'd been selfish, and would continue to be selfish, didn't mean she couldn't still learn from her mistakes and help those she cared about. Not just Naruto and Sasuke, not just Gaara, but her entire village. Every village.

Hidan had promised to tell her everything about Jashin, and she was going to listen. If she could, she would pry every bit of information about Hidan and Akatsuki from the man that he had. And once that was done, she was going to find a way to send a message directly to Tsunade telling her everything that she'd learned.

She couldn't bring herself to return to Konoha, but she couldn't bring herself to abandon it either. She could be both, she decided. A missing-nin and an informant. An asset without tying herself to the mediocrity she would have resigned herself to by staying.

We have different paths we must walk.

Sasuke had been right. Sakura had never been the type of person to seek out power for power's sake. She wasn't an avenger. She wasn't the one who would beat Sasuke to a pulp just to return him to the village. She was something different.

But that didn't mean she was weaker. That didn't mean she still couldn't become strong.


Startled from her thoughts, Sakura looked over to Gaara. She'd never seen so much worry from the boy before. It was...touching.

"I'm just thinking." She explained. "Thinking about what I'm doing out here. What I want to do. And I think I figured something out, I guess. Even if we were strong enough to defeat Hiroshi, that's not really the point, is it? You don't want to be a killer anymore, and I don't want to be that either. And I think...running in without thinking like Naruto and Sasuke do, that's just not going to work for me. So I think I'm going to start approaching things differently, that's all. I think the two of us can figure out a way to be strong and help others without being like everyone else."

"The two of us." Gaara looked downwards, smiling in a sheepish way. "Because we're friends."

"Not just friends. We're a team, right?"

"A team." Gaara nodded in agreement. "So where do we go from here?"

"Anywhere. Everywhere. We'll still keep following my travel plan from before, I think, but before that...well, I know it's dangerous, but I really want to hear what that Hidan guy has to say. The more we find out about our enemies, the better prepared we'll be. Plus, I don't think they recognized you're a Jinchuuriki."

"No, they didn't seem to."

"So I think if we just play it dumb, we might be able to get something good out of this." Sakura gingerly began to move her leg, wondering if she could even stand. "We you by a different name so they don't connect you with any information they might already have on you. And assuming we get away with that without any trouble, we get the hell out of here so they can't find us again."

It was reckless, yes, but Sakura had goals and purposes that she needed to stick to. Gaara, thankfully, seemed simply happy to be along for the ride. Did he have goals of his own, she wondered? He wanted to protect her, that much she had deduced, but surely even he had something more he strived for?

She'd have to find out, she decided. But for now, her immediate objective was Hidan.

By the time the pain in her leg had subsided enough to walk, about a day had passed. Gaara had brought her food when she needed it, and several of the village shinobi had come by to thank her for helping put an end to Hiroshi. As the first day ended, a woman by the name of Satomi had been elected to run the village until they 'got things back together'. (Though Sakura was fairly certain the woman would probably stay in the position for good.) Satomi seemed decent enough. She had been one of the few to become immediately proficient in the Earth Wall technique, so she'd likely be strong enough to keep those who'd been loyal to Hiroshi in check. Sakura found herself liking her the more she spent time around her, not to mention that it was nice seeing a woman in charge. If this village did decide to permanently form as the Village Hidden in the Plains, and if Satomi was picked as its Kage, that would mean that two of the Kage in the world were women! Sakura was biased of course, but there had been very few women shinobi of note in her history books, which just meant...maybe some things were changing for the better.

On the second day, the village threw a small feast in celebration of their victory, as well as a memorial service for the thirteen shinobi that had passed. It was during the feast that Sakura saw Hidan again. His head had reattached, not showing any sign that it had been removed hours before, and the only indication that he had been in a battle at all were the cuts in his robe from where he'd been stabbed.

"Hey pinkie, I'm fuckin' starved." He announced, moving to sit down right next to her at her table. Sakura felt small grains of sand move across her skin as Gaara became protective, but for now, at least, Hidan didn't seem to be a threat. "You think they'll give me some food too? I'm the one who chopped that guy's head off, anyway."

"Um, yeah probably." Sakura gestured to the table. "It's all pick what you want anyway. Just grab a plate."

"Fuuuuuuck yes." Hidan immediately did so, piling his plate high with just about everything he could reach. In a strange way, the man sort of reminded her of Naruto. Boisterous, brash, definitely with eyes bigger than his stomach.

It was weird seeing a member of Akatsuki act so...human.

Sakura turned back to her own food, trying to remain calm and casual about the man next to her. Gaara was still on edge, she could practically feel it, but this was the opportunity she'd been looking for. Her chance for information. So she waited, waited until Hidan's plate was about halfway empty and he'd slowed down he eating, and then she made her move.

"So I think you promised me a talk about Jashin?"

"Mm?" Hidan turned to her, mouth full of food. After a moment, he quickly swallowed, an eager look appearing on his face. "You really wanna listen, huh? I don't blame you, after seeing Jashin's power up close. His will is awesome isn't it?" He laughed, seemingly cheered just by talking about his god. Sakura supposed she couldn't blame him. (Not if one's god made you invincible.)

"I'll admit, you certainly showed some abilities that blew me away." Sakura answered. That, at least, was the honest truth. "So your god gave you those abilities, then? I don't really know that many religious shinobi. You'd think there'd be more, seeing what your god has done for you."

"Well, it's not quite as easy as believing." Hidan gave a small shrug. "I had to sacrifice a lot to gain Jashin's favor. His religion is pretty damn strict. Lots of prayers, devotionals, rituals, and...well, I've killed a lot of people. You don't get Jashin's blessing overnight, you know. But hey, conversion is the first step."

"I guess that makes sense." Prayers? Devotionals? Well, it didn't really make sense. If immortality was just a matter of devotion, everyone would be doing it. There had to be more to it. Killing a lot of people...well, she supposed not everyone could do that, but by that standard Gaara should have found immortality by now and she knew for certain that wasn't the case. Some combination of devotion and killing, and accepting the existence of...god? Sakura certainly wasn't religious, and she hadn't been lying when she said she didn't know anyone who was.

Well, that didn't mean she couldn't pretend, for information's sake.

"So how does one convert?"

"I'm so glad you asked." Hidan answered gleefully. "Well, true conversion requires years of learning from some of the elders, but you have to be accepted first. And acceptance requires reaching our church, which is a long way from here. But you look like you've got enough spunk to find them. That Hiroshi guy was so fucked up by the time I got to him, there really wasn't any pleasure in killing him at all."

"R-really? He didn't look that bad."

"Trust me, I could feel his pain. He was fucked. I'm almost sorry I had to deny you such a kill, but...well, I hadn't had a kill of my own in so damn long, I was sure Jashin would have been pissed if I hadn't jumped on it." Hidan shoveled another piece of food into his mouth as he talked, not even bothering to swallow as he continued. "Jashin demands nothing less than the total annihilation of one's foes. So as long as you keep that in mind, you'll always be following his will, alright?"

"Right." Sakura turned to her own food. (This man was crazy, this religion was crazy, and here she was, about to dig deeper.) "But why would Jashin make it so that you have to harm yourself to harm others?"

"See, that's the crux of it." Hidan finally swallowed his food, now, for the first time, looking very serious. "Jashin is the Lord of Pain. Pain is something that all life forms experience in one way or another. Pain is what defines us as people. How can you possibly hope to understand someone fully until you understand the pains they've been through?"

Sakura blinked, and her mind seemed to freeze.

This...this, out of everything, made sense.

Hidan continued to lecture, but Sakura's mind had already begun to wander, wander to her dream, her time with Sasuke, her failures with Sasuke. Sasuke had left because nobody in the village had understood him and what he had felt was necessary for him to do.

Sasuke had left because nobody had understood his pain.

And if she'd understood, if she'd been able to even glimpse a tiny piece of what he'd been through...would she have been able to stop him? Save him, even?

"So yeah, you can say that the only way to truly understand the consequences of killing a man is to experience his death right alongside him. You simultaneously experience the passion of an ultimate victory and the despair of an ultimate defeat. The experience is honestly pretty overwhelming, I can't even begin to describe it." Hidan hadn't stopped chatting, though it was only now that Sakura had pulled herself from her thoughts enough to tune in. "I know I'm rambling but there's just so much to explain, and I-"

"I get it." Sakura spoke. "I think...I think I get it. You're saying Jashin wants us to understand each other on every level. Not just in happiness, everything."

"You got it, pinkie."

"But then why completely destroy your foe? It seems a waste. You finally fully understand them, but then they're not around anymore. It seems like a contradiction." Sakura hadn't really intended to engage in religious debate, but, well, here she went. "You comprehend them just to eliminate them?"

"You kill them to further your own understanding of life and death. Shinobi are killers, but how can you really understand the consequences of your actions unless you experience them firsthand? It's easy to be a passive player on the sidelines, you know. You can be an emotionless killing machine and never think twice about the lives you take, but for worshippers of Jashin, every life means something. Every foe is an intimate experience. You don't just kill for no reason like some mindless animal, you have to know, deep in your heart, that killing them is what you want to do. What you have to do. And if your heart's only halfway in it, that's just a disrespect to your enemy. Jashinists don't half-ass anything. That's why it's taken me killing so many people to get to this point, to this reward. I understand death better than anybody, and don't you let that fucker Kakuzu tell you any different, alright?"

"Alright." Sakura's mind had started to go numb, processing all of this. She didn't agree with everything, not by a long shot, but still...some of it was…

She swallowed hard. Well, it wouldn't have been a very good conversion speech if it wasn't somewhat convincing, right? This Hidan was terrifying, definitely some sort of sado-masochist, but he'd worked his lecture out. She couldn't help but admire his conviction, and she couldn't help but regret that…

Well, they were enemies, even if he didn't know it. And now Sakura found herself hesitating even further. This wasn't just a man who was good at killing, he was a man who found thrill in it. Regardless of how legitimate this Jashin was, Hidan was a force of nature, both in action and in speech.

She was so up shit creek without a paddle, trying desperately to stay afloat. This was just one member of Akatsuki. One member. And it was all she could do to keep herself from agreeing with some of his points.

"So...what do I have to do, to get accepted? Other than just getting to your church."

"Still interested in converting? Excellent, this goddamn trip to the middle of nowhere wasn't a fucking waste after all." Hidan began to fish around in the pouch at his hip, stopping only when he pulled out what looked to be another necklace. It was a thin black cord, and hanging off of it was a pendant with the exact same symbol that Hidan wore around his neck. "You gotta wear this, otherwise they're just gonna kill you on sight. Plus, you can start saying some prayers to Jashin with it, you know, get yourself in the habit. Remember everything I told you and look for this symbol when you reach Yugakure, alright? You'll make it as long as you remember." Sakura took the symbol, examining it as Hidan shoveled the rest of his food into his mouth.

A circle with an upside down triangle. A simple symbol, one she'd certainly never seen before now. She hesitantly put it around her neck, solely to please the murderer next to her. He seemed happy enough that she'd listened to the lecture, so maybe she could press a little more.

"So, are those the robes of your church? The red clouds."

"Oh, fuck no, these damn robes are another thing I got dragged into by those sons of bitches." Hidan answered. "Can't really talk too much about that though, sorry. Honest to God, if you see anyone else from these robes, I'd stay clear, alright? There's some tough bastards involved in this and you're way too fuckin' fresh to deal with them."

"Right." Sakura nodded. Damn. He was smart enough to keep what he knew on the down low. "Got it. Yugakure for your church. Stay away from red clouds."

"Smart kid." Hidan suddenly reached out, and Sakura's hand had strayed towards the kunai at her belt before she realized that Hidan was just...ruffling her hair. The maniac. "I look forward to seeing you all initiated when I see you next, alright?"

"Alright, alright!" Sakura reached up to push away the man's hand, frowning. "I'll remember what you told me."

"Good. Well, I need to catch up with that motherfucker Kakuzu and give him a lecture. Tell these guys thanks for the food." With that, Hidan stood, initially looking like he was about to leave. But as he passed Sakura he stopped, leaning down to whisper in her ear.

"Oh, and by the way...there's been someone watching you this whole time, up in the trees. Might be a good someone to start learning Jashin's lessons on, hm?"

Sakura let out a small shiver. "Right. Thanks for the tip."

Hidan left without another word.

It took Sakura several minutes to calm down from the anxiety that had frozen up her body. Hidan was a terrifying bastard, someone had been watching her this whole time, and poor Gaara looked as though he'd suffered several heart attacks just listening in on the conversation. She hadn't learned anything new about Akatsuki itself, but she'd learned way more about Jashinism than she'd wanted to, and now she had a small lead. Yugakure.

She didn't know whether to feel satisfied or afraid, and in this particular case, well, maybe she'd just have to let herself be both.

"Gaara." She whispered.


"There's a lot I need to process here, but before we do any of that…"

She sent out a small pulse of her sensing jutsu. There were shinobi everywhere, almost enough to distract her from anything strange, but with focus she realized that, behind her, up in the trees, someone was lying in wait. Watching. Observing. And hiding their chakra so well that she almost missed it.

"We've got a job to do." Sakura finished. "Well, maybe like fifty jobs to do. But one that's a bit more pressing than the others."

Gaara smirked.

"When do we start?"

1. Chapter 1 848 0 0 2. Chapter 2 3162 0 0 3. Chapter 3 2532 0 0 4. Chapter 4 2819 0 0 5. Chapter 5 2551 0 0 6. Chapter 6 2767 0 0 7. Chapter 7 2188 0 0 8. Chapter 8 1950 0 0 9. A Brief Intermission 949 0 0 10. Chapter 10 4053 0 0 11. Chapter 11 3692 0 0 12. Two Worlds Away (Intermission Part Two) 1320 0 0 13. Chapter 13 3836 0 0 14. Chapter 14 2739 0 0 15. Chapter 15 2390 0 0 16. Failures (Intermission Part Three) 2824 0 0 17. Chapter 17 3234 0 0 18. Chapter 18 6529 0 0 19. Chapter 19 4214 0 0 20. Three's a Drag (Intermission Part Four) 2630 0 0 21. Chapter 21 3341 0 0 22. Chapter 22 2924 0 0 23. Chapter 23 6969 0 0 24. Chapter 24 3801 0 0 25. Chapter 25 4158 0 0 26. Alliances (Intermission Part Five) 2667 0 0 27. Chapter 27 6918 0 0 28. Act One Epilogue 30 0 0 29. Act Two Prologue 1 0 0 30. Chapter 30 7214 0 0 31. Chapter 31 3687 0 0 32. Other Worlds, Other Minds (Int Part 6) 7031 0 0 33. Chapter 33 2703 0 0 34. Chapter 34 2734 0 0 35. Chapter 35 3454 0 0 36. Chapter 36 3502 0 0 37. Chapter 37 2836 0 0 38. Sparks (Intermission Part Seven) 3351 0 0 39. Chapter 39 3664 0 0 40. Chapter 40 4064 0 0 41. Chapter 41 4611 0 0 42. Chapter 42 3675 0 0 43. Chapter 43 3720 0 0 44. Alekhine (Intermission Part Eight) 1118 0 0 45. Chapter 45 6405 0 0 46. Chapter 46 6106 0 0 47. Chapter 47 4601 0 0 48. Chapter 48 4531 0 0 49. Chapter 49 3483 0 0 50. Coming Storm (Intermission Part Nine) 7177 0 0 51. Chapter 51 4480 0 0 52. Chapter 52 5763 0 0 53. Chapter 53 3722 0 0 54. Chapter 54 4708 0 0 55. Chapter 55 5271 0 0 56. Chapter 56 5280 0 0 57. Sounding Thunder (Intermission Part Ten) 2812 0 0 58. Chapter 58 9001 0 0 59. Chapter 59 4492 0 0 60. Chapter 60 5379 0 0 61. Chapter 61 9941 0 0 62. Chapter 62 8222 0 0 63. Chapter 63 4430 0 0 64. Chapter 64 4766 0 0 65. Chapter 65 7008 0 0 66. Chapter 66 5769 0 0 67. Act Two Epilogue 2816 0 0 68. The Months Between 9232 0 0 69. Act Three Prologue 96 0 0 70. Chapter 70 5300 0 0 71. Chapter 71 5013 0 0 72. Chapter 72 4580 0 0 73. Chapter 73 5123 0 0 74. Chapter 74 3585 0 0 75. Chapter 75 3963 0 0 76. Chapter 76 4747 0 0 77. Chapter 77 3671 0 0 78. Chapter 78 2347 0 0 79. Chapter 79 5030 0 0 80. Chapter 80 3135 0 0 81. Chapter 81 4371 0 0 82. Arbitrium (Intermission Part Twelve) 3793 0 0 83. Chapter 83 3219 0 0 84. Chapter 84 2189 0 0 85. Chapter 85 2827 0 0