There was a chill in the air. The onset of fall, the oncoming winter. Time was passing almost too quickly for Sakura's liking, and she lamented trading in short sleeves for a thicket coat.
"It'll be chilly up in Kumo." Karin told Sakura as she helped her onto one of the strange, automated carts she was so proud of owning. "Not as chilly as Iwa, I'd imagine, but they built their city on ocean cliff sides, so it won't be warm."
"Any advice for dealing with the Raikage?"
"Be honest and straightforward. He's the kind of guy that'll see right through your bullshit. Don't embellish and don't promise him anything you can't follow through on."
That was easy enough. Sakura had learned by now that most Kage had a similar mindset. It was possible it was even a requirement for the occupation. Maybe Orochimaru had liked playing word games, but Tsunade sure didn't, and Onoki had valued honesty from her, day one.
Still, Sakura felt like every village she'd been to had held a new challenge. Other than Yu, she'd pretty much almost died in every other village's borders. It was...kind of a worrying trend, now that she thought about it.
"I'd imagine the difficulty will be getting Kumo and Konoha to get along." Sai explained to them, raising his voice over the loud starting of the cart's engine. "One of Kumo's representatives tried to run off with Hinata over a decade ago, after all."
"Bloodline theft." Karin shook her head. "Every village shits on it and every village is more than willing to do it if they think they can get away with it."
"There's some later amendments to the Pact that deal with bloodline theft specifically." Sakura pointed out. "But to be honest, that's mostly a Konoha addition. What other village has shinobi whose kekkei genkai can be stolen?"
"There's got to be more, Konoha can't be the only one. Sasuke, come on, aren't there Uchiha branch-offs somewhere?"
The old Sasuke might have gotten testy at the mention of his clan, but Sasuke now merely shrugged. "I'd have to look at family records, but nobody ever mentioned it to me."
"Look at Naruto and Karin." Sai pointed out. "Both Uzumaki, other sides of the world."
"Yeah, but the Uzumaki got invaded and pissed on years ago, we had to scatter for our safety." Karin retorted. "We were too awesome to have our own village. All the other villages got jealous."
"Still, if the Uzumaki are everywhere, the Uchiha might be as well."
"And the Hyuuga?"
"Less likely. They're a bit more possessive over the Byakugan than the Uchiha were in their prime. Otherwise Kakashi would never have been allowed to keep his."
"Kakashi was given his as a dying wish. I think it would have been tasteless to take it from him at that point, it would have been after he'd had it for the latter part of a war." Sakura replied. "It wasn't bloodline theft in his case, more like a bloodline gift. And he can't pass it on genetically or anything like that."
"That might not be true."
Everyone looked to Sasuke, both curious and amazed that he'd spoken up.
"One's genetics can be altered over time due to environmental factors, and it can affect offspring. It's possible a Sharingan implant could do the same."
Sasuke looked over at the baffled group, turning slightly red as he did.
"I do pay attention when Orochimaru lectures. He's a bastard, but he's smart."
Sakura couldn't help but giggle at that.
It was cold but...she felt warm with this group, chatting with Karin as though they'd known each other forever. She thought briefly that Karin and Ino might get along swimmingly. And seeing Sasuke now, more like how he was before that day he'd fought with Itachi...stoic, but involved, offering his two cents when he felt it necessary, sometimes flustered, sometimes confident and cool…
It really was true that Oto had been the right place for him. Sakura still hated to admit it but...she liked this Sasuke. And even with Orochimaru there, even with Itachi still naturally on the boy's mind…
Sasuke was going to be okay.
It was a weird weight off her shoulders that she hadn't realized she'd still carried. Sasuke was going to be okay. Naruto was going to be okay. Sai and Gaara were with her and well. Maybe she hadn't gotten Oto on the treaty, but she'd made connections, and...well, Orochimaru was calling her a friend, so that counted for something.
Karin had offered to drive the three of them to the border, and from there they'd be on their way to Kumogakure. It was a long drive, however, and Sakura was still exhausted from her fight with Sasori. Instinctively, she went to touch the scroll at her hip, the one Sai had given to her to safekeep before they left. It was a little hard to believe that they'd sealed a person in there, but Sasori really had done everything he could to ensure he was as far from mortal as he could get. She didn't think he'd suffocate or die in there, he had to be fine...right?
(She still had no idea what they were going to do with him, but she had him nonetheless.)
It was crisp out, yes, but she allowed herself to lean on Gaara's shoulder and close her eyes despite the cold, letting the chatter of the conversation around her fade into the background. If they had a long trip ahead of them, she could afford to let herself get a few winks. Admittedly, the rumble of the cart beneath her was soothing.
She usually couldn't tell quite when awake bled into sleep. Even Jashin-sent dreams tended to bleed into her consciousness slowly, until she realized all at once she was having one.
Not this time.
Sakura was thrust into a vision quickly, like being dunked into cold water. She felt fear before anything else, and a tightness at her throat as the life was slowly choked out of her.
I knew this damn organization would get me killed!
The thoughts forced themselves into her head, not hers, but she wasn't sure whom just yet. Her eyes opened, and she saw the strangest man she'd ever seen with his hand at her throat. His hair was a vibrant orange-red, and there were thick piercings all over his face, through his ears, nose, everywhere. No, piercings wasn't quite right...it was more like someone had shoved half a dozen metal rods into the man's face and he'd decided he'd rather not take them out.
"There is a traitor in our midst, Deidara." The man spoke. "I have learned of this, and then you return to me to tell me that Sasori is somehow dead and you have fled without any further information. Give me one good reason I shouldn't believe you haven't been the one ratting to them when my back was turned."
"H-how the hell would I even have managed without Sasori finding out?" She, no, Deidara sputtered, finding it difficult to speak with a hand around his throat. But why would Jashin show her Deidara now? Unless…
This was the leader of Akatsuki. Her first glimpse of the man who called himself Pein. Apt name at the moment, considering how Deidara felt. The man had a grip.
His eyes, though, those were the most striking features. Deidara naturally avoided looking directly at them, but every now and then Sakura caught a glimpse of the strange ringed pattern. Some sort of kekkei genkai, it had to be, but what?
"We are all aware of the reluctance in which you joined this organization. You're long distance, capable of delivering a message. You thought Haruno would be your way out."
"Fuck off, you know I'm not that stupid! And there was no way I was taking on a dozen shinobi including a Jinchuuriki without Sasori to back me up!"
Sakura's world seemed to upheave, and Deidara was thrown to the ground unceremoniously. She felt him cough; surely his neck would bruise from that kind of treatment. So Pein was a man who led by fear foremost. She could have guessed that, but…
The more pressing concern was, of course, that Pein had learned about a 'traitor', which meant that Hidan was in danger. But how? How could he have possibly found out? As far as Sakura was concerned, their communication methods might as well have been telepathy.
Deidara looked up just as Pein put a boot to his chest. Deidara kept his gaze to the side, again very purposely avoiding direct eye contact. Something about eyes that needed it to work, perhaps? Or maybe Deidara was just paranoid. Either way, Sakura found herself wishing he would just look a little longer.
"You've hidden it well, Deidara, but you can't hide it anymore. I can see her chakra in you."
...wait, what? Her chakra?
Fuck, he was a sensor type? And he could see when she connected to someone else?
"I don't know what the hell you're talking about!" Deidara protested. "Are you saying they left a tracker on m-" His voice was cut off as Pein pressed down with his foot, squeezing the air out of his lungs.
"You cannot hide from God." Pein told him. "Not forever. The truth will always reveal itself, with time. I should have known you were too much of a risk from the beginning."
The foot pressed harder, and Sakura knew Deidara was running out of breath. Pein was going to kill him unless someone intervened, maybe if she cut the connection? But no, he'd already gotten his 'confirmation' that Deidara was in league with her, what could she do? Connect to Hidan somehow? But what if he was nowhere near them?
The pressure was becoming too much, and Sakura felt Deidara moving a hand towards the pouch on his hip in self defense, only to be kicked away by…
Wait, a second man?
The man also had the orange-red hair, also had the metal rods pierced through his face. But his hair was longer, the face different...what did it mean? Two similarly adorned men? Pein was just supposed to be one man, so were these servants instead?
"You could have seen this world to a new order, Deidara. You could have been a part of it. Now, the only world you'll know is one of pain."
There was suddenly a bigger pressure, far more than the one brought about by the man's foot. It was as if gravity doubled, a weight so tremendous that Sakura could almost feel Deidara's body cracking under it. She wanted to scream, wanted to fight back, but she was trapped looking through Deidara's eyes, and the man was helpless.
Why...why would Jashin force her to sit through this?
Seconds passed, but it felt like minutes, so long that she didn't know how Deidara was still conscious. She knew getting thrown against the hard ground hurt, of course it did, but this? Slowly and methodically being compacted into it?
Pain, pain, pain…
"Nagato, stop this!"
A woman's voice rang out, and the pressure lifted all at once. Sakura felt Deidara cough once again, body aching from whatever attack Pein had inflicted upon him, but there were black spots in his eyes and he couldn't quite see who his saviour was. Still, the voice was familiar, Sakura realized, and there was only one woman in Akatsuki…
"He is not the traitor, Nagato. I am."
Konan's voice was muffled, Deidara's ears ringing as he struggled to stand, to flee if he could manage. Everything hurt, and it took all of Sakura's will to focus on the conversation happening nearby.
"...-ld betray me, after everything?"
"You've changed, Nagato, you're not the man Yahiko and I would have followed. You're sitting here using his body as a puppet!"
Nothing was making sense. Konan wasn't the traitor, it was Hidan, so why was she covering for him? Sakura needed to connect with Hidan, but she didn't want to leave Deidara now, not when he was so vulnerable. She couldn't do anything but...but she could at least be here. He should have stayed, she thought to herself, no, wait, he was thinking-
I should have stayed with them. At least I would have died with a fellow artist.
He coughed again, this time with flecks of blood appearing on his hand. Pein had crushed his lungs. This was bad. As Deidara's vision began to bleed back in, Sakura saw a brief glimpse of the two men bickering with Konan, snippets of a conversation she wished desperately she could hear more of.
"You've let that man poison your mind, and now you're turning on your-"
There was a rumble, and Deidara began to sprint as small rocks fell from whatever ceiling was above them.
He's pissed, I need to run, need to get out of here quick-
Deidara ran and ran and ran, and Sakura awoke with a jolt, clinging tightly to Gaara's arm as the cart hit a bump on the road. She was hit with the sudden relief of no longer being connected to Deidara's pain, and yet the fear of not knowing what exactly had happened to them.
"Whoa there, chill out, just a bump." Karin was saying to her, laughing slightly. "You were out, I can't even believe you can sleep that well on one of these."
"Ha, right, sorry." Sakura tried to handwave the subject away. She hadn't mentioned her visions to anyone in the Oto group and hadn't planned on it; Jashin's secrets were to remain with his followers, and her two companions, of course, who had lived for some time in the enclave anyway.
They could tell she'd had a vision, of course, she could see it in their eyes and the way Gaara gave her hand a comforting squeeze. What worried her, though, was the concerned look on Sasuke's face, like he knew something had bothered her beyond just a bump in the road. He'd always been perceptive...but it wasn't as though he could just deduce her visions were a thing. He was probably just concerned.
Either way, Sakura couldn't let herself nap again now, not without potentially attracting a little more scrutiny from her current company. She just had to hope and pray that Deidara had made it out of there alive...and Konan, too.
Oto bordered the Land of Hot Water, and on the other side of Yugakure lay the border between Hot Water and Lightning Country. Since Oto was on good terms with Yu, that meant Karin could take her automated carts through Hot Water to the Lightning border. A small part of Sakura wanted to return to the Jashin enclave, if only because a soak in the hot springs sounded so good as the temperatures around them began to drop, but it was quicker to swing north and keep straight for Kumo.
Even with the steady pace of the carts, it was a good day and a half before they reached the border. There were no Kumo shinobi patrolling there, not visibly anyway, and Karin insisted this was normal.
"They don't expect invaders to push through Hot Water without their hearing about it first. Other than that, it's just us that comes to the border recently anyway. There's more patrols on the border with Water Country."
Sakura was grateful to put her feet on solid ground. She'd grown restless with sitting about, and there was a pit in her stomach that had been growing since her vision of Deidara that pressed her to move more quickly. She'd almost asked the group to turn around, to head towards Amegakure instead, but...what could she have done? With allies, she could take on two Akatsuki members, sure. But the leader, along with who knew else, and all of the Ame shinobi loyal to him? She'd need an army to rescue Konan and Deidara at this point. She had to trust that they'd either find a way out or…
She didn't want to consider the alternative yet.
No, the best she could do was press forward and get Kumo and Kiri in on the treaty. With the five biggest shinobi countries aligned, Akatsuki would be at a major disadvantage, no matter who they held in their corner.
"Thanks for the ride, Karin." Sakura gratefully offered the girl a hand. "And, well, everything else. If you ever do get that Otokage mantle, you know how to reach me."
"It'll be the second thing I do." Karin promised. "After dumping Orochimaru's body into a ditch, of course."
It was more bittersweet when she turned to Sasuke, and Sakura realized that there was a high possibility that she may not see him or Karin again. They had Orochimaru to overthrow, and after that, Sasuke was no doubt set on seeking out Itachi. Sakura hoped beyond hope that they wouldn't kill each other, not after they'd been manipulated and forced through so much, but…
Well, Itachi had tortured Sasuke. Taken away his family. Joined an organization set on obtaining Bijuu and invoking a new world order. Sakura certainly wouldn't blame Sasuke for still wanting to take his brother down even after getting answers, and if it came to a fight...she wasn't sure who'd win.
"Good luck." She told Sasuke. "With your brother, I mean. Whatever happens."
Sasuke was silent for a moment, meeting her eyes in an expression Sakura didn't quite understand. Then, he smirked somewhat, putting a hand on his hip.
"Not going to try and stop me this time?"
Sakura laughed. "Please. Believe it or not, I can learn a lesson. Anyway, you deserve answers, and Itachi needs to give them."
Sasuke nodded at this, and Sakura was sure that would have been the end of their goodbye. But, well…
This was her old teammate, after all.
She moved forward and hugged him. Not as desperately as she had in the Forest of Death, not with the passion of a girl with an unreasonable crush. As a friend, to a friend, grateful that she'd found him alive and well and better off than she'd hoped.
"Be careful." She begged. "Promise me."
It was several seconds before he answered, and for the first time since she'd ever known him, he reciprocated the gesture.
The rain was soft but icy as it fell down, and Sakura was eternally grateful for Gaara's sand and its ability to form a fairly protective umbrella over them. Thunder rumbled across the sky but they saw no lightning yet. Sakura told herself it was likely only a matter of time.
Sai was antsy, though Sakura was sure only she and Gaara could possibly tell. The boy had retreated to his more stone-faced demeanor when she'd told him of Deidara, and she knew that Sai blamed himself for not 'doing better at convincing Deidara to join'. She tried to reassure him that there was a good chance Deidara wasn't dead yet but...well, Root seemed to push out eternal pessimists.
There had been no visions since, which was unusual. She had gotten so used to the nebulous dream about the man writing the letter that it was almost strange to not see it when she closed her eyes. Whatever was happening, that Jashin had nothing to show her only made the knot in her stomach grow.
The only good distraction she had from her thoughts was watching Emi play in the rain. Wherever the tanuki was from must have been dryer than here (though she could have sworn that Taki's forests at least had regular rainfall), or perhaps the animal simply enjoyed rain. Either way, a cute animal was at least once good thing they had in their life presently, and Sakura clung to the tanuki's happiness in an effort to bolster her own.
"Kumo hasn't sent anyone to kill us yet." She pointed out with a grin, trying to lighten the boys' mood as they walked. "So that either means they don't know we're here yet or they're amicable to us paying a visit."
"Kumo's quite deep into Lightning Country. It may be a couple days before we even reach the city border, let alone see any shinobi."
"True. But it's odd." Sakura put her hands together, sending out a sensing pulse. All she could sense were herself and the boys. "There's nobody around for a pretty good distance. You'd think they'd at least have some light border patrol, even if they don't expect anyone but Oto and Yu traders."
"Something's off." Gaara replied. "Even Suna has light patrols on the desert borders, despite the harsh weather."
...so much for lightening the mood.
Sakura made her sensing pulses more regular, scanning the immediate area but coming up dry. With the rain dulling their senses, it put her even more on edge. Kumo...it hadn't been attacked, had it? There was no way a village could be under duress without its neighbors knowing about it. No, that couldn't be it, it had to be something else.
Emi growled, stopping at a dead halt at something she'd no doubt smelled ahead. The trio halted in turn, but as Sakura sent out another pulse…
"Nothing." She insisted. "Nobody with chakra is even remotely near us yet."
Gaara took the lead, sand at the ready as they moved further down the road. Then, a splash of red caught Sakura's eye, off the road and in the nearby brush.
A corpse, bled out and riddled with holes made by weapons unknown. Another corpse was hung in a tree, impaled on branches. Both were wearing Kumo headbands.
The border patrol.
At first, Sakura put a hand to her mouth, worried for whatever had sought to kill Kumo shinobi in their own borders. But the way that first corpse looked reminded her of something, something ritual, something methodical…
The words left her mouth, as did a good portion of her anxiety. Alright, so the idiot was here doing ritual work for Jashin on some unfortunate patrol, probably because he'd been sent by Pain to investigate the two Jinchuuriki living here. Him and Kakuzu. She could handle them. At least she knew for a fact that one of them wouldn't be out to kill her. In a way, she was excited. She hadn't seen Hidan in person for over a year now.
"He certainly knows how to leave a mess." Sai critiqued as he examined the bodies. "And Kumo's going to be pissed when they find out."
"Time to go play damage control." Sakura admitted. She wasn't going to pretend the loss of life here was unnecessary, but Hidan was attempting to maintain his cover. He couldn't exactly play pacifist in front of Kakuzu without raising eyebrows.
(Though if she was being honest, he'd probably enjoyed the scrap.)
The bodies weren't exactly fresh, but they weren't old either. They weren't far behind. If they quickened their pace, they could catch up with the two easily. Make their offer to Kakuzu, reconnect with Hidan, and if all went well turn them around and finish the journey to Kumo before anyone got hostile. Out of habit, Sakura sent out a sensing pulse, bigger this time, and though it hurt her brain to reach further out, maybe she'd catch them in the periphery of the radius and know what direction they needed to head.
She caught a single response, so far at first she almost missed it. After a second pulse, however, the response was way closer...and big. Gaara big. Jinchuuriki big.
"Oh, shit." She cursed aloud. "They've engaged a Jinchuuriki."
"Pein must have ordered them out here to collect while Sasori and Deidara dealt with us." Sai deduced. "Where at?"
"Heading our way, fast."
Sai had already pulled out an empty scroll and ink, and Sakura's hand reached for the three-pronged kunai Kakashi had given her. The Jinchuuriki was likely to be panicked if they'd been attacked by Akatsuki, and as far as she knew Kakuzu was likely to come in swinging. There was a fight ahead, and-
A crash, and suddenly a woman barrelled through the brush towards them.
It was only by the grace of Gaara's sand that she didn't knock them over, though despite that Sakura was sure the impact with the sand had to hurt. There was a chakric aura around the woman that was visible to the naked eye, a dark blue color, and her fingernails had elongated into what looked like sharp claws. Her light hair and skin was a novelty for Kumo, as far as Sakura was aware, and she couldn't help but feel as though the woman exuded a sort of feline energy as she pushed away from the sand and took on a defensive stance.
Wasn't the Matatabi supposed to be feline? And by all accounts, it was Kumo that had 'taken possession' of the cat Bijuu last. The woman growled as she looked them over, almost feral in her stance, until she looked to Gaara and sniffed the air towards him.
"Tanuki." She hissed. "You're...the Ichibi?"
"Good nose." Sai commented. "You look as though you could use a hand."
"I've got some leverage on the men chasing you." Sakura explained. "Get behind us. Gaara's sand is a good shield, and if negotiations go bad, he can run you back to the village."
The woman hesitated, sniffing the air once more, but whatever hesitations she had were dismissed by the sound of footsteps in the distance. With a dextrous leap, she weaved between Gaara and Sakura until she was standing behind them both.
"You'll be a meat shield, if nothing else." She determined. Well...that was good enough for Sakura.
Now it was time to put her preparations to the test. Time to see if she had any sway over Kakuzu's allegiances...or if it was going to come down to a fight.
Fortunately for her, it was Hidan that crashed through the brush first, skidding to a halt as he realized there were more shinobi in front of him than he'd originally be pursuing. He looked disheveled, scratched up, no doubt from the woman's claws, but certainly not shaken up about it. In fact, he looked a bit manic as he scanned the area, grinning from ear to ear until he caught sight of Sakura.
Confusion, and then a certain smug grin replaced the mania.
"Well, hey there, Pinkie. Been a while, hasn't it?"