Sakura dreamed of red skies over Konoha.
The color red was sometimes just enough to make her heart freeze in her chest and put tremors through her very bones. Even putting on her clothes each morning could be enough to remind her of the visions Itachi had shown her, even getting a passing glance at the soft red sheen of Gaara's hair could send her over the edge. But now, seeing red, Sakura did not feel fear.
There was a strange effect on her dream now, and not just the redness that permeated over everything like a thin film. In most dreams, Sakura moved as she would awake. Even if she wasn't completely lucid, she still acted as herself. In this dream, however, she was not herself. She was Another.
She did not feel fear at these red skies, because she was Another. Instead she felt only…
Yes, that was the emotion she felt now, faint, almost buried beneath the myriad of other strange sensations. Resentment towards the village she had grown up in and cherished. Resentment for what they had done to her allowed to happen. Resentment for those who lived in the illusion of peace while others laid in forgotten graves while wars were waged behind the scenes.
I will put this fragile world to rest.
There will never be war again.
And then Sakura's eyes turned, moving impossibly fast and yet desperately slow towards the building next to her. When she caught sight of the window, she saw…
Who are you?
Who are you?
Sakura awoke so smoothly that she was convinced she was still dreaming, her hand shooting forward to grasp at Gaara's wrist before he could touch her shoulder. The sand swirled, and her hand pummeled against the hard grains before it could reach her companion.
For a moment, Sakura was simply confused. Never before had she moved fast enough to trigger Gaara's sand, nor had she ever tried to. The sand protected him from anything it deemed hostile...was she acting hostile?
"Sakura…" Gaara's voice held a tinge of worry. "You were...having bad dreams?"
"No." Sakura answered immediately. Her voice felt strange in her throat. "I'm not sure what it was."
Her amulet felt hot around her neck. Out of instinct, Sakura pushed herself out of bed so she could look across the room at her mirror. She saw herself, bed-hair and all, wrapped in the comfortable pajamas she hadn't been able to wear since she'd left Konoha months ago. She saw herself.
"I'm okay. Just...a weird dream. Not a bad one."
She saw Sai resting on the mattress nearby, looking towards her with a gaze that was a bit too intense even for her to decipher. Confusion, or perhaps intrigue? Maybe even...distrust? Sai had always been difficult, and somehow the fact that he was learning how to express emotion made it even harder. Sometimes Sai would want to express happiness and come across as cold, and vice versa.
Gaara, however? Definitely concerned. The boy could put on the facade of a stone face, but around Sakura he was always far more open. Sakura reached out again, this time slower and more gentle, so she could put her hand on his own.
"I'm okay." She repeated.
She didn't believe herself, but for the boys, it was enough.
Breakfast was usually a quiet affair in the Haruno household. Sakura's father needed at least an hour of movement before he could even be considered awake, and her mother liked her mornings calm. It worked well even with Gaara and Sai around, who were both somewhat quiet people by nature anyway, and it gave Sakura an opportunity to think without being drawn into conversation.
At least, that was what she would have thought, until the front door was almost knocked down by the full force of Jinchuuriki enthusiasm.
"I'M LOOKING FOR SAKURA HARUNO! DOES SHE LIVE HERE?"
Sakura scrambled to get to the door, knowing full well that Fuu would wake up the whole neighborhood if she was allowed to knock for much longer. She sprinted to the door, pulling it open and narrowly dodging Fuu's next attempt at a knock.
"Oh." Fuu grinned. "I thought I smelled you in here. Shibuki told me if I didn't go get energy out of my system, he'd kick me over the wall, so I thought I'd go tell you about what I found!" She sniffed the air. "Is that food?"
"...come on in, Fuu." Sakura couldn't help but smile a little at the sight of her friend. She knew how excited Fuu had been to see new sights and people. Being cooped up in a Konoha inn was likely torture. If a loud morning was the price to pay to give her some time out, Sakura was willing to pay it. Plus, in the Haruno household at least, there was always extra breakfast.
"So I was walking around this morning looking for a place to watch the sunrise, cause you rarely get to see the sunrise when you're in Taki, you know? Underground and all. And I was watching all the Konoha shinobi get up to go start their missions and whatnot." Fuu talked as she made her way to the table, not even stopping for breath as she sat down next to Gaara. "And then I saw her, Sakura."
"The girl I'm gonna marry."
Sakura let herself laugh a little at this, mostly because Fuu's optimism was just so refreshing after the doom and gloom around planning the demise of Root. "You found your future wife, huh? Do you even know her name yet?"
"N-no. Yes. Maybe." Fuu crossed her arms. "I'm not stupid, I know I gotta know her name first before I marry her. But she's a shinobi so I didn't want to distract her from her duties by asking her out in front of her commander. She's your age though, Sakura, so I figured you'd be able to tell me who she was and maybe even introduce me!"
"My age?" Sakura only knew a couple of kunoichi her age in the village, so either Fuu was off or she meant either…
"...describe her for me."
"How could I ever even begin to describe her?" Fuu seemed to have stars in her eyes as she began to talk. "She has long, beautiful hair like midnight, and her eyes shine like diamonds...but like, it's also a little weird? I've never seen anyone with eyes like that before, so I wonder if it's like a clan thing, so she might even have some cool power, wouldn't it be awesome if she had a cool jutsu that only she could do?"
Sakura felt her heart sink. She knew exactly who Fuu was talking about now, and...she was doomed.
"That's Hinata Hyuuga you're talking about."
"Hinata…" Fuu said the name with reverence, completing missing Mebuki putting a plate of food in front of her. "That's such a beautiful name, Sakura you have to introduce me now, you have to!"
"I don't know if she's such a good idea, Fuu." Sakura countered, trying her best to be gentle. "The Hyuuga are a really powerful clan here in Konoha, and she's the heir to the main branch. I don't know if her family would let her marry a foreigner, and you're sworn to Taki."
"T-that's okay! I can be both!" Fuu insisted. "I can go half and half! We're supposed to be aligned anyway, right, so I can do both!"
"...plus, she's already got a crush on Naruto, and she's had it bad since we were kids."
"Naruto?" Fuu thought, then realized who Sakura meant. "The Kyuubi boy? Him? Naruto…" She stood up, sending her chair clattering to the floor as she held a fist to the air. "Naruto! Then that means that he's my rival in love!"
...well, she was handling the bad news well, at least.
"Sure, Fuu. He's your rival." Sakura giggled as she ate. "Though I don't think Naruto's put together that Hinata likes him that way, so please don't go charging in for a fight without explaining it."
"Oh, we're not going to fight. Not yet." Fuu insisted. She noticed Sakura eating and pulled her chair back up so she could start to inhale her own food, pausing occasionally to get her words out. "Oh no. Not yet. Because he's taking the chuunin exams too, right? That means...I'm gonna kick his butt in the exams. I'm gonna kick his butt and I'm gonna look great doing it, and Hinata will fall in love with me!"
Sakura was fairly certain it wasn't that easy, but...she wasn't going to dissuade her. Even for Hinata's sake, just having someone around who thought so highly of her from a single glance...it might do wonders for the girl's self esteem. Plus, Naruto would probably be more than happy to have a Jinchuuriki rival that could keep up with him in a match. And as for Fuu...well, it was a long shot that this crush would ever come to fruition, but who was she to say what the future held? Hinata was the Hyuuga heir, but it was a well known 'secret' that her father vastly preferred her younger sister Hinabi. Maybe the Hyuuga elder would be less strict with Hinata's future prospects if he had already given up…
It was a sad situation that Hinata was in either way. Sakura felt for the girl. Naruto had made the declaration that he would change the Hyuuga clan, once he was Hokage. She only hoped that was something he could accomplish.
Fuu, in the meanwhile...well, now she had a goal, Sakura supposed, which would be good for her. Plus, even if it didn't work out with Hinata, getting friendly with the Hyuuga clan would be beneficial for Taki in the long run, and strengthening the new Konoha/Taki alliance.
Sakura let herself bask in Fuu's declarations as she ate. Maybe her optimism for the future would be contagious.
Gaara was more nervous here in Konoha than he'd ever been before in his life.
It was perhaps exacerbated by the fact that Sakura was still having nightmares. She claimed she was fine, but Gaara knew she hadn't slept so strangely before she'd had her run-in with Itachi. And on top of that, as of the night before, now Shukaku was beginning to get worried, and the beast was vague as to the reasons why. All Gaara got were feelings of unease and a single, ominous phrase.
The energy that girl has with her...it reminds me of something.
Shukaku had been alive for centuries. Gaara still wasn't sure if the reason for his vagueness was due to forgetfulness, or simply not wanting to say. Gaara promised himself he would interrogate Shukaku further that night, but for now there were more pressing matters to worry for. This was the evening that Sakura would attempt to infiltrate the Uchiha compound with the Nara, and that alone was a second worry. The last time Gaara had let Sakura wander off on her own, she'd had a run in with two Akatsuki. Maybe it was irrational, but Gaara couldn't help but wonder what Sakura would run into this time.
The girl attracts trouble like a magnet.
And yet, Gaara couldn't bring himself to voice his concerns further. These plans were necessary, these actions necessary, and on top of that, Sakura looked so happy to see her childhood friends that he couldn't bring himself to distract her from that.
As they meandered their way through the Konoha streets, Gaara kept an eye on the surrounding people. Most were civilians, but peppered throughout were what Gaara had deduced to be several Anbu agents, no doubt ordered to keep an eye on the three of them. They were foreigners now, something Gaara was long used to experiencing at this point, but Sakura and Sai had never been 'strangers' in their own home. He wondered at first if Sakura had even thought that she might be being watched, but he occasionally saw her hands flicker in the sequence he'd come to recognize as her sensing jutsu. She was keeping an eye out, so perhaps she'd caught on yet.
They were going on an 'important errand' before their scheduled rendezvous with Ino in the evening, and Sakura hadn't yet mentioned what the errand entailed. However, it eventually became clear as they reached the edge of a vast grassy field, a Konoha training ground. In the distance, Gaara saw three shinobi running laps, egged on by an enthusiastic sensei.
"The chuunin exams are in two weeks! You're going to need to run faster than that if you want to be prepared!"
If any of the team protested, they were drowned out by the loud response of the bowl-cutted boy in front, who yelled his agreement before starting to sprint even faster around the grounds' perimeter. Sakura was quiet at first, watching with a smile on her face.
"I remember them." Sai commented quietly, so that only Gaara could hear. "Those two are...annoying."
Gaara's memory drew him back to a year ago. He remembered it...one of the first times he'd ever felt fear. A blur of green smashing through his sand with raw speed and force. The feeling of a fist breaking against his sand armor. Knowing, if he didn't move fast enough, that something would break…
Gaara felt a shudder work through him, and Sai took it for agreement.
Sakura, however, considered him a dear friend. After watching him long enough, she cupped her mouth with her hands and yelled loud enough to reach the ears of the running shinobi.
Gaara saw the boy startle, looking about for the source of his name. Then, even from the great distance, Gaara saw a wide grin grow on his face.
Lee waved and jumped in the air, clearly excited, and then he began to run towards them. Only this run was even faster than his earlier jogging had been, so fast that Gaara's memory overtook him again, and he felt the fear of facing down a foe that was moving way too fast.
In retrospect, Lee had probably just been trying to go for a rather enthusiastic hug. But Gaara, already on edge and perhaps a bit too protective of Sakura, couldn't stop his sand from doing what it had tried to do back then, and succeeded in doing now.
And naturally, moving as fast as he was, Lee couldn't help but run into his shield of sand at full force.
There was a bit of a crunch as body hit wall, and Gaara heard a startled squeak come from Sakura. For a moment, Gaara feared the worst. I hurt him...again…
But the boy popped up, looking not too worse for the wear, only sporting a small bruise where he'd met the wall headfirst.
"Ah, Gaara, your sand is as tricky as ever!"
"It is only a sign that I have been too lax in my training! Since I was not quick enough to surpass your sand this time, I will have to run another hundred laps!"
"Um, how about...later?" Sakura suggested, offering a hand to help Lee stand. "Besides, Lee, didn't you make me promise we'd do something when I finally got back to Konoha?"
Lee grinned. "Yes, that is right! A race in order to determine who has been training the hardest!"
It didn't take too many words to convince the others to take a break, and the team leader (Gai, was that the name?) was more than happy to referee. The other two teammates came and sat down on the grass next to Gaara to take a breather. Gaara remembered them both vaguely. The girl, Tenten, had faced off with his sister in the last exams. The boy, Neji, had faced Naruto. A year had done much for them; both were taller now, and the training they were enduring had started to put them into far better shape than most shinobi Gaara had seen. They'd be formidable foes to anyone at this point, even still as genin.
"I didn't realize that Sakura had enough energy to keep up with Lee." Tenten commented as she watched the race begin. "Has she really been training like he does?"
"Less lately." Gaara admitted. "With travel, she can't run laps. But in Iwa, yes."
"Well, it's a good thing I don't have to face her in the exams, then. I worry enough about having to go up against Lee or Neji." Tenten groaned. "Or...well, someone like you."
"That brings up an interesting point." Sai commented. He'd already pulled out his notebook and had begun to sketch. "Assuming we don't fail horribly in our attempts to 'unite the shinobi countries', we are going to need ways to determine rank amongst our number. Right now with the three of us, things are easy. If our numbers grow, it won't be."
"...are you saying you think we should have exams?"
"Maybe." Sai answered with a small shrug. "Beyond that, the villages will want to have a way to determine the strength of our shinobi, otherwise they might question our ability to maintain peace. I wouldn't be surprised if…"
And then Sai paused, his pencil hesitating on the page. "Oh." He said simply. "I see."
"What Shikamaru meant."
Gaara wasn't sure at all what Sai was talking about, but they couldn't discuss it here in front of near strangers. Though Gaara had to wonder why Sakura hadn't asked to include Lee and his team in the plotting against Root. Were they untrustworthy? No…not to Sakura anyway. Perhaps there was another reason he hadn't yet considered.
It was about ten more minutes before the silhouettes of Lee and Sakura became visible in the distance. If Gaara had heard correctly, they'd raced around the perimeter of the village. Now they were neck and neck, running at top speed towards where Gai was waiting for them in the middle of the field. It wasn't Lee's full speed, Gaara knew that much. The boy still had his weights on, and perhaps that was how he managed to make it fair for Sakura, who had gotten faster, but nothing like Lee. Still, that didn't seem to stop Lee from putting in maximum effort, and Gaara could tell that Sakura was struggling to keep speed.
Still, he couldn't help but be a little bit proud when the race was too close for even Gai to call.
"Just what I expected of my eternal rival!" Lee proclaimed, wheezing from the effort. "I have not had such a good run in several months, Sakura!"
"Wait...eternal rival?" Sakura questioned. "I thought that...isn't Neji?"
"Neji is my rival too, yes, but only you have succeeded in pushing me beyond my limits! Because of you, Sakura, I am encouraged to be even greater than before!"
Sakura was quiet for a moment, and Gaara could see a flurry of emotions pass through her before she landed on somewhere between surprise and happiness. Gaara might have even sworn he saw happy tears in her eyes, though it might have just been a trick of the light. She held out her fist towards Lee for a fist bump.
"Alright then...eternal rival!"
The two laughed, laying down on the grass to catch their breath. Gaara saw Sai sketching out of the corner of his eyes, now with the exhausted racers as his subjects.
"They really are strange." Sai commented. But he said it with such an inflection that Gaara couldn't help but wonder if he had started to enjoy the strangeness that Sakura attracted around her.
Either way, it was enough for him just to see her happy.
Sai had grown up in Konoha, watched its borders for as long as he could remember, and yet he hadn't known its inhabitants were so curious.
Ino and Sakura seemed like they were speaking a language all their own as they talked. There were recognizable words, sure, but they spoke so fast, sometimes answering incomplete sentences, and Sai found himself struggling to keep track of all of the information being discussed. Training, people, the neutrality project, what other countries looked like, and then, what Ino thought was apparently the most important subject…
"So are there any cute boys in Iwa? Or in Taki?" Ino got a look on her face that Sai recognized as slyness, and Sakura turned as red as a cherry with the question.
"I-I haven't exactly been thinking about that, thank you very much! There's been other things on my mind!"
Sai noticed, and it happened so quickly that Ino and Sakura didn't notice it at all, that Gaara fidgeted a small bit upon the mention of 'cute boys'. Was it possible he had seen a cute boy in Iwa? No, he didn't remember Gaara fixating on anyone other than Sakura...ah, perhaps this was the emotion called jealousy? Maybe Gaara's attachment had grown beyond that of friendship…
"Oh, I see what's going on." Ino continued to pry, still just as sly as before. "After all, you've got a cutie right here, so who needs anyone else?"
It took Sai a moment to register that Ino was looking at him now. Oh...it was him that she was calling cute. That was strange. Was she making fun of him? No...the girl appeared serious.
Sakura had warned Sai not to do anything to 'piss Ino off'. Ino was a dear friend. If Sai upset her, Sakura would take it out on him. So...he had to be careful with his response. He had to say the opposite of how he felt, that was what he had begun to figure out. Whatever his first thought was, don't say that. So…
"Ah. You're...cute as well."
Ino had turned red at the compliment, and Sakura had yelled out in protest, looking very upset.
"You call me fucking ugly and Ino-Pig gets 'cute'? What the actual hell, Sai?"
"Oh, come on, Billboard Brow, don't be upset because Sai knows true beauty when he sees it." Ino recovered quickly, blowing Sai a kiss as she talked. "He's clearly got good eyes on him. It's nice to have a boy recognize my beauty for once!"
Sakura fumed in her corner of the table, and Sai realized he might have blundered again. He'd have to confess to Sakura later...as far as he was concerned, Ino was rather plain.
They had met at this particular restaurant in the early evening. Sakura and Ino actually had wanted to catch up, beyond the plan Shikamaru had for them. Once the sun started to set, the 'four' of them would retreat to Ino's home to catch up further. In actuality, Sakura would be left behind here under a henge disguise, while Gaara used a clone to pretend Sakura was with them. That meant, for a few hours at least, Sai and Gaara would need to keep Ino entertained. Perhaps for now it was better that he'd gotten on Ino's good side.
"Alright, then, what about you, Ino?" Sakura demanded. "I mean...well…" Her demanding posture deflated with her words, and now Sakura simply looked nervous. "I mean, look, Sasuke isn't around anymore, so it's...probably time to move on, right?"
"...yeah, maybe so." Ino agreed, just as morose at the mention of the Uchiha traitor. Sakura, Sai had learned early on, had been very attached to Sasuke. Ino too seemed to have this attachment. What was it about the Uchiha, Sai wondered, that so many were eager to come to his defense? Sai found himself strangely desiring to meet the boy.
"Well, okay...I'll tell you if you guys promise to keep it a secret."
The moroseness left the table, and Sakura was suddenly all in once again, leaning against the table as she looked to Ino eagerly. "Oh Ino, you know I can keep a secret. And now you gotta tell me."
"I don't know...you're going to laugh."
"I won't laugh, Ino, promise."
"Pinkie promise." Sakura held out her pinkie finger, and Ino did similar. They shook, and Sai wondered what sort of symbolism the pinkie had behind it. He'd heard of bandit lords cutting off the pinkies of disobedient subordinates...maybe it was related? He took more notes in his book, making his own promise to research such gestures later.
"...alright, so, you know how...you know how Naruto's been on our team recently?"
Sakura's eyes widened, and she put a hand over her mouth. "No way, you're saying-"
"I-it's not, it's not like...I mean, I don't know!" Ino replied, turning red once again as she buried her face in her hands. "Listen, he was kind of annoying at first, and I didn't really like having him on the team then. He's loud and he just kind of runs into things without thinking and...well, but then he started listening to Shika and I more, and he started kind of helping out more than he used to, and suddenly I realize that if he wasn't around we wouldn't be doing missions nearly as well. And he...he's like a puppy, we kept inviting him out to eat with the team and he was always just so happy to spend time with us, and even on missions he just looked so eager to help and be part of the team and...and I think sometimes, even if I think a mission is going to go bad...I think sometimes he smiles and I know everything's going to be okay, you know?"
"Yeah." Sakura's smile had turned fond as she listened. "I know exactly what you mean."
"So...maybe he's a little cooler than I thought, that's all."
"You know, if you told him that, I think you'd make his life. All he's ever wanted is to be accepted by people."
"Oh my gosh, I can't just say that sort of thing to him!" Ino seemed to turn even redder, and Sai wondered how much blood a human face could handle rushing through it all at once. More than he'd originally thought, it seemed. "I mean...I mean I don't even know if I could…"
"Come on, Ino, you told Sasuke he was awesome all the time!"
"Y-yeah, I guess I did." Ino let out a deep breath, folding herself over the table. "Maybe...maybe if the time is right."
Sai had heard that romantic feelings were particularly difficult to manage. In Root, they were encouraged not to have them, even more so than the other feelings that were discouraged. Romantic attachment led to a conflict of interests. How could one dedicate themself to the village if they had someone else they were more attached to than the other villagers?
But for Ino and Sakura, discussing romantic attachment seemed as easy as breathing, like they'd been doing it all their lives. And Sakura, despite her attachment to Sasuke Uchiha, had not been hindered by her emotions. Gaara, despite his attachment to Sakura, had not gotten weak. In fact, Gaara in particular seemed almost stronger for it, more capable of protecting her than someone who was more neutral.
Maybe...there was more to these emotions than even Danzo had realized.
As the sun began to set, Sakura excused herself to the restroom. She didn't really need to go; it was simply a way to get into a room where she wouldn't be watched.
Sakura Haruno went into the ladies' room. A perfectly disguised sand clone of Sakura Haruno walked out.
Sakura waited, knowing that the clone would be leaving with Ino and the boys soon. Shikamaru would be waiting for her outside once the coast was clear. She gave herself ten minutes before executing a henge technique. She didn't need to look fancy. Just different. Glasses, dark hair, and different colors for her outfit. The woman who walked out of the restaurant looked nothing like Sakura Haruno, and the only reason that Shikamaru knew it was her was because of a passphrase determined the night before.
"You're the man to ask about ground antler powder?"
"Yeah, I guess that's me." Shikamaru rubbed the back of his neck. "Pretty good look you've got there. Do you think there's anyone nearby to worry about?"
Sakura let out a quick sensing pulse. There were shinobi around, of course, but none close enough to be watching her, nothing like how the Anbu had been trailing her before. "We're clear." She said with a smile. "Worked like a charm."
"Don't say that until we're back home and not in a jail cell." Shikamaru countered. "We still have a lot to do tonight."
The Uchiha clan compound was fairly open, and Shikamaru had feared if they had tried to infiltrate in the daytime that someone might catch sight of them from outside the compound borders. At night, it was easier to move about unseen, and a Nara at night was even more at ease than most other shinobi were. Shadows were Shikamaru's domain. Sakura just had to follow his lead.
As they approached the compound, Shikamaru led them to a thickly wooded area just outside the border. There was no way they could get past the Uchiha seals, Shikamaru had determined, but the seal's border was a simple dome over the complex. It didn't go beneath the ground...because the Uchiha hadn't thought anyone would be stupid enough to try and burrow in, especially when the clan had still been alive.
A tunneling jutsu, especially like the one Sakura had become especially proficient in, was the perfect way to enter the compound without triggering its defenses. It was so simple that Sakura hadn't thought it would work. But one hand sign and a quick bit of tunneling later, she and Shikamaru popped up inside the compound.
It was silent there, as silent as a graveyard, which was...fitting.
There was a hollowness there that put Sakura in a state of unease. Had Sasuke really lived here all these years alone? It was no wonder he was so haunted by his past, so driven by vengeance, having had to live here with the very blatant reminder of the clan's absence. The buildings were perfectly preserved, enough so that Sakura found herself expecting people to suddenly walk in and out of them, as though they'd been here the whole time.
"We need to find where Sasuke lived." Shikamaru told her, keeping ducked behind building walls as he moved deeper into the compound. "His father was the clan head, and Itachi would have lived there as well."
"What exactly are you trying to find out here?"
"Proof of conspiracy."
"You really think you'll find that here?"
"Not in Sasuke's house, not really, but I'd like to try searching there first before I resort to doing something really awful."
"Shikamaru what the heck are you planning?"
"Just hope we find something in the house, then I won't have to tell you."
Sakura bit her lip, nervous. She trusted Shikamaru, right? The answers would come with time.
It was easy enough to find the building Shikamaru was looking for. It was easily the biggest one in the compound, and the one that was the most maintained out of all of them. While the other buildings were covered in dust and leaves and the various wears of time, this building was relatively clean. Sasuke had lived here up until a year ago, so of course he would have maintained it.
Sakura hoped she'd feel a bit safer inside the building, knowing that they were unlikely to be spotted once inside, but knowing she was walking around Sasuke's home was enough to make her stomach sink. There was a kitchen, and she caught a brief whiff of decayed food, left behind. There were pictures on the wall of Sasuke's family, and she saw him as she remembered him as a young boy, along with what was clearly Itachi and his parents. With every creak of the floorboards, Sakura felt that an Uchiha ghost might come for them any minute.
They weaved in and out of rooms, Sakura following Shikamaru closely as he looked for...whatever it was he was looking for. Eventually, they made their way outside again to the space behind the building, and it was there Sakura saw the massive shrine.
"Ah. That's probably it."
Shikamaru headed towards it without delay. Once they were inside the shrine, he began to speak again.
"I remember hearing my dad talk a lot about the Uchiha clan. After the Kyuubi attack, there were a lot of people who believed that an Uchiha was involved in making it go on a rampage. After all, the last time it rampaged, it was being controlled by Madara Uchiha."
"Right…" Sakura thought back to her conversations with Kakashi and Onoki. Their theories, her own theories...theories she'd had yet to explore further. "So why are we here in this shrine?"
"My dad notices a lot of things, you know. He's a pretty smart guy. He always talked about how the Uchiha looked more and more anxious in the year before the massacre, like they knew something was going to happen. And at that time, people were treating them worse and worse, like pariahs. That sort of thing happening to such a strong clan...makes you wonder how the clan took it."
"How the clan took it...you don't think…" It clicked for Sakura all at once. "You don't think they were planning on splitting from Konoha, do you?"
"I can only theorize without proof. I think they were planning on either leaving or rebelling. And why wouldn't they? The village hated them, so why would they stay aligned with people who didn't appreciate what they did for the village?"
Shikamaru began to tap at the walls of the shrine, looking around and listening as he explored the small room. "Naturally, they would have had to plan things in secret. The compound is protected but you and I just proved it's easy enough to break in. They needed somewhere nobody else knew about to meet. Maybe even somewhere that other clan members didn't know about. Only the ones they thought were strong and loyal enough to the clan."
"So you're just looking for signs of a meeting place? Even if we find one, that's not going to be enough to prove anything."
"Well, that's technically not all I'm looking for." Shikamaru admitted. "I guess since you aren't a clan kid you wouldn't know, but I figure most clans operate kind of the same. I obviously won't tell you where, but the Nara's have their own secret meeting room to discuss clan business. It's also where all of our clan scrolls and records of our jutsu are kept."
"Oh!" Sakura realized. "You're not looking for the meeting place, you're looking for the clan secrets!"
"Bingo. Plus, if they were planning a coup, they might have left behind notes."
"And...if we find proof they were planning a coup?"
"Then that proves a theory of mine correct."
"That Itachi wasn't completely a crazy bastard and Danzo might have orchestrated something really nasty."
From what she knew of Danzo and Root, they worked for the protection of the village. Whatever it took to keep it safe.
The Uchiha planned a coup. The safety of the village was threatened. Itachi, who clearly had history with Danzo, was convinced…
Convinced that it would be better if the Uchiha clan died before threatening the village.
"Fuck fuck fuck, are you serious, Shikamaru?" Sakura let herself curse aloud, not particularly caring how loud she got. "You think Danzo orchestrated the massacre? And...fuck, and Itachi agreed…"
"On the condition that little baby brother gets spared and protected."
"That is so fucked up."
"We don't have any proof yet. And even if we find plans, that's still not enough proof. But it'll be a start. And...bingo." Shikamaru knelt, pulling aside a tatami mat and revealing a wooden door in the floor beneath. "Hidden meeting place is found."
"How clever of you. Now, I will need you to step away from the mat."
Sakura froze as a voice sounded from behind them. That voice…
She turned, her kunai already drawn as she faced the speaker. She hadn't even felt them approach, hadn't even heard them. But now, squinting through the darkness, Sakura realized exactly where she'd heard that voice before.
She'd dreamed it.
She'd seen that mask in the window's reflection in her dream, a swirl of black and orange that centered on a single hole around their right eye.
Sakura felt fear.
"You." She said simply.
"We have much to discuss, don't we, Sakura Haruno?" The person spoke, and Sakura could almost feel the power this man wielded from his words alone. She couldn't stop herself from trembling, couldn't stop herself from wanting to drop this stupid quest and just run.
But running was the one thing she couldn't do now.
This person wanted to talk.
"Alright." Sakura agreed. "Then start talking."