the greatest pretenders @snowyseas

the greatest pretenders

Chapter Eleven: Pursuit

There was no sound at first when the door creaked open. A man sat alone in the middle of the room, his back facing both Sakura and Kakashi, and he stared out at the open windows before him. The silver-haired man walked in first, his expression warning her to keep her guard up. Stepping inside the frame, they stood on either side of the door, Sakura closing it behind them, her guard so high up she could feel the fine hairs on her arms stand on end. Kakashi cleared his throat.

"Shin-san," he said in a low voice, "I apologize for being late."

"I don't normally take last-minute meetings," the man said slowly, his voice mildly bored, "but you want to have a hand at dealing utsushō?"

"We know the addictive properties of the substance," Kakashi said coolly, "and the more addictive something is, the more people are willing to pay for it. I hear you're the man around Suiren that knows that fact the best."

"I do."

"My partner and I think we might wanna have a part in that."

At Kakashi's words, Shin rose from his chair, taking what felt like years for him to turn around to look at them. Sakura felt her breath catch in her throat at his icy cold blue eyes - too light for them to actually be useful for him. He had a gash across his cheek that was certainly not recent, but it wasn't old enough to be a simply faded scar. Sakura examined it, thinking of a vague timestamp of the wound - definitely one that occurred just a few days ago. She watched him move, feeling uneasy as the lightness of his eyes until it dawned on her that he was barely able to see.

"Your partner? A woman?" Shin said as he turned to look at Sakura, his tone slightly entertained.

"Yes," Kakashi answered simply, "we've been in business for a long time and wanted to expand."

"So you chose to do utsushō with a woman?" Shin scoffed. "I don't know if she can handle it. Women can't handle watching civilians go through the symptoms. They're too sympathetic, don't got the stomachs for it."

Sakura quietly took a few deep breaths, her mind flashing back to the autopsy of the young girl found at the Konoha border. Pulling herself together, she put on her brightest smile - though Shin would not be able to see it, he would be able to hear it - and decided to speak up. "Utsushō is a valuable product that can definitely go far, and we hear that Kirigakure is where it started."

"So what do you need me for?"

"We don't want anyone being able to track where we're going, do we?" Sakura said sweetly. "Especially with that long queue of people, those of us who wanna engage in business can't be on borrowed time."

"She's right," Kakashi chimed in, "we have to get to Kirigakure before dawn, and the lines are extremely long. We also don't wanna leave a trail for people to follow us."

"So you're asking for passage without ID check?" Shin asked, facing Sakura.

"It's just for us fellow dealers and business partners, like mine and I here," the kunoichi replied sweetly, her voice lilted.

Shin smiled, revealing a set of teeth that was filled with tar. Must be from smoking illegal substances, Sakura thought to herself while keeping her composure. "Going to HQ is a big deal," Shin remarked as he took a few steps closer to them, "y'all sure you're not trying to do something funny?"

"Like what?" Kakashi said casually.

"Shut down the operation maybe?"

Kakashi and Sakura chuckled at the same time - thankfully. "Hardly our intention. Like I said, my lovely business partner and I are simply wanting to engage in the utsushō business."

Shin stared at the two of them through what little vision he seemed to have left, mulling over his decision as he looked between them. He let out a huff, but seemed to believe Kakashi and Sakura. "I'll signal my guards to let you two pass through without ID check, but once you're in Kiri, you should be careful."

"What's going on there?"

"The Mizukage has been keeping a pretty tight ship in busting us and putting our asses in prison. Y'all have to be careful when you get there."

Deep down inside of her, Sakura sighed in relief.

"We appreciate the information," Kakashi said, "thank you."

They watched as Shin sent off a hawk with a note attached to its leg, presumably headed towards the docks. After a few seconds, the man turned to look at them again, his expression unreadable. He took a few steps forward, and eyed Sakura up and down, as though looking for something. She felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end.

"Thanks for doing business with us," Kakashi commented, "we really appreciate it."

Sakura bowed slightly and turned to walk out the door, making sure Kakashi was behind her. She listened closely to what Shin said to her sensei - because maybe for whatever reason, he didn't trust her. Waiting outside the door, she heard the man chuckle.

"That's your business partner, eh?" Shin asked Kakashi, his tone different than before. "Pale skin, fit frame?"

"Yes," Kakashi answered cautiously, "we work well together."

"I hope you are," Shin replied, his tone now devious, "I bet you're fucking her brains out too, huh?"

Although she was only supposed to be listening, Sakura whirled around and was about to go past the doors to give Shin what he deserved - but Kakashi was a few steps ahead of her and the man was already on the ground, unconscious. Sakura let out a sharp breath and placed her hands on either side of her hips. Glancing at her sensei, she suddenly felt more gratitude that he was there with her.

"Thanks, Kakashi-sensei," she whispered, "I really appreciate it."

"Anyone who talks about women like that is scum." Kakashi answered, the sentiment very clearly something that bothered him. He glanced at his student, his expression irritated. "Especially you. No one talks about my students that way."

The pair walked by the receptionist's desk as they left the inn, and she merely bowed at them before they headed out. Sakura vaguely wondered if she was also someone whose life was being threatened by Shin, and was perhaps silently thanking them - or more specifically Kakashi - for giving him a knockout that he deserved. They hurried their way out of the inn, which was still surrounded by the unconscious guards that Kakashi had put under a genjutsu. Sakura giggled as she remembered the days when she and her teammates thought that he was the coolest sensei for executing plans like this so easily. Her nostalgic streak came to a halt as they approached the crowds of Suiren, Kakashi squeezing through people right in front of her, to get to the docks, and the other side of the harbor, where there were hopefully some answers to the questions that had been plaguing her mind the entire time that this mission was assigned to her.

Trying to make their way through the bustling crowds, strangers' backs and shoulders continuously bumped against Sakura, and she became increasingly irritated every time they didn't apologize. Keeping her sights on Kakashi, she tried to focus on the silver hair instead of how she was bumping left and right. It was only when she was shoved to the side that she felt her patience wear thin.

"Hey dumbass," she hollered, "if you're gonna shove-"

The man who had shoved her turned to look at her, his expression surprised. Apparently people in Suiren weren't aware of their surroundings during the Oniyo festival. Sakura let out a sharp breath and waved her hand as though to say 'never mind'. As she kept walking, a loud voice at the docks boomed, and the crowd went from shouting over each other to murmuring amongst each other.

"Those of you who are traveling to Kiri for business purposes, line up on the left! Everyone else, to the right!"

A groan was heard from the crowd, and vague words of protest resounded around Sakura. She watched their faces and figured they were probably people who needed to get to Kirigakure to visit family or to get to work before dawn. Making her way to the left side of the docks, she saw that there was still a large number of people who were supposedly business merchants who were most likely in business with Shin. She glanced at Kakashi who was looking out onto the harbor, his expression unreadable.

"Sorry, Miss," the man whose voice boomed earlier, "this line is for merchants only."

Sakura raised an eyebrow. "Women can't be merchants?"

"They can," he guffawed, the sound making her cringe with disgust, "but no woman so beautiful as ya would ever line herself up with this business. Only women who have nowhere else to go would do this."

Spearmint eyes looked him over, noting his pudgy beer-belly, the shirt that he probably hadn't changed out of in weeks, his unshaven and unkempt beard, and the same tar-filled teeth that Shin had. He didn't have any scars, but he was apparently missing an eye, as he wore an eyepatch. He most likely didn't get a lot of action, working for Shin at the docks, but Sakura couldn't bring herself to charm the man the way Lady Tsunade would have, back in the day. Guilt crept up on her as she watched Kakashi swagger over to where she stood, clearly about to help her out.

When am I going to get completely used to being on missions again?

"She's with me," Kakashi said plainly, "she's my business partner."

The man glanced at Kakashi, then turned one eye back at Sakura. He scratched his chin.

"Ah," he said in a low voice after a few moments, "you're the ones Shin's allowing passage to."

"That's right."

He looked once more at Sakura. "Brave of ya to be in the utsushō business."

"Just like anyone else," Sakura said flatly, "I need money."

The man nodded, surely relating to the sentiment. Gesturing to the queue behind him, he let her pass through without another word. She let out a small sigh as she and Kakashi walked together, and she glanced at him in the hopes that he would understand that she was apologizing.

"Don't worry about it," Kakashi said quietly, "you'll get back into the hang of things."

"I better," she said plainly, "otherwise there's no point in sending me here."

"He knows what he's doing," the older man replied coolly, "just believe in him like he believes in you."

At those words, Sakura suddenly found herself speechless. Spearmint eyes stayed locked on the sight before her, as groups of men and women stepped onto boats and rowed off. The queue was moving swiftly and she glanced behind them to see how many people were left, only to acknowledge that she and Kakashi were at the end of the line. As they approached the front of the line, they were stopped once again by the man who had stopped Sakura earlier. She clenched her jaw, her guard immediately going up.

"Since Shin specifically asked us to let ya through, we're gettin' yous a smaller boat." He paused, then smiled, showing his dirty teeth again. "Special guests, after all."

Sakura thought back to the body that lay unconscious at the inn, hoping that he didn't regain consciousness in time to let his lackeys know that the silver-haired man and the pink-haired woman weren't allowed through. Quietly, she took a deep breath and watched the man signal to a few other men to bring a smaller boat to the docks. They rowed it over and stepped onto the docks, gesturing for Kakashi and Sakura to step in. Not once did Sakura's heartbeat stop palpitating, and not once did her panic concede, even as she stepped in to sit across from her sensei.

"We rowing ourselves?" Kakashi asked the man standing at the docks. "Thought we were special guests."

"We don't have enough manpower," the man answered, "plus, it's too small a boat. Yous gonna have to row it yourselves."

"You trust that to us to do that alone?" Sakura asked, almost amused at how easily he took Shin's words and had no sense of suspicion whatsoever.

"Shin's given his okay. I don't see any reason why I should send someone with ya."

At his own words, he saluted and, without any more questions, Kakashi began rowing the boat away from the docks. It took a good ten minutes for the harbor to only be a speck in her line of vision, and when she was absolutely one hundred percent sure that there was no threat around them, she looked at Kakashi.

"Do you want me to row? You haven't been on missions for a while either."

"I want to row."

"You're not as strong as you used to be."

"I'm plenty strong, thank you very much."


"Just enjoy the waters, would you? Let your sensei row you across the pretty lake."

Spearmint eyes rolled and Sakura reminded herself that Kakashi only became this way after Naruto became Hokage. Sasuke had apologized to him at the time, feeling some kind of remorse that he had betrayed his teacher. From the very beginning, he had always given off an air about him that he expected you to take care of yourself, but eventually, as the three of them learned, it was just a front. He cared deeply about his students, and although they stopped being children a long time ago, some part of him would always see them that way. The thought made Sakura feel a deep sadness, but she turned her head to look at the water instead of at Kakashi's face.

A lot of things had changed, but at the very least, their mentor stayed the same.

Eventually, Sakura noticed that Kakashi was rowing a lot slower than he was before. Her eyes turned to look at him, worried that he had pushed himself too much already. When she looked at his face, he was merely smiling. They were dab-smack in the middle of the waters, and he was smiling.

"Is this the part where I find out what you've been doing for the last fifteen years? Because that smile is creepy."

"I'm creepy when I don't smile, and I'm creepy when I do. You guys just don't change."

"Your fault for not being warmer more often."

"I am now though, aren't I?" He chuckled.

Sakura's face softened. "Yes, you are."

Kakashi looked at the dark skies above them, and Sakura followed suit. They were silent for a few moments, not daring to break the silence that felt so serene. Spearmint eyes searched the stars until she heard the crackling of what sounded like thunder, then she watched bright colors fill the sky in various shapes. Though they were far from the docks, she could still hear the cheering and the music from the drums that celebrated the Oniyo festival. The fireworks were only delayed by a few minutes, probably partially due to Kakashi knocking out Shin back at the inn, but none of that mattered as Sakura glued her eyes to the sky.

"Lady Tsunade once told me you can see these fireworks from the Hokage Tower," she said idly, "because the fireworks were so big and extraordinary."

"She's right," Kakashi murmured, "it was always a special sight to see."

She pictured Sasuke, somewhere that Naruto sent him off to, looking up at the same sky. A blonde man clad in his white Hokage cloak, standing at his window, potentially watching the very same fireworks she and Kakashi were watching right now. Tears filled her eyes at the image of the other two important men in her life being so far away from her. She could only hope they were looking up as well, and thinking of her and Kakashi.

Love was rarely simple for her, but somehow, the heavens that lit with bright colors cleansed her heart, and all she wanted in that moment was for the four of them to be together again, staring up and sleeping under the same sky.

Despite his many protests - mainly through grunting and sighing - Sakura finally managed to coax Kakashi into letting her row them the rest of the way to Kirigakure. It was still dark out, but on the horizons, she could see that daybreak would soon come.

Kakashi sat across from her, always keeping one eye open as he watched her. She didn't know if he kept one eye open because he was saving energy for potentially having to use the Sharingan later, or if he was exhausted but was too worried to actually fall asleep. Clearing her throat, she decided to test her theory.

"You can sleep, you know," she said quietly, "I'm just rowing a boat."

"All the way to Kirigakure," he responded, "and without an extra pair of oars, we can't get there faster."

"Blaming me?" Sakura chuckled.

"No," he shook his head, "just making sure to stay alert in case you wanna swap."

"You've been staying alert for the better part of an hour," Sakura groaned, "I think you can rest. Everything will be fine." She pursed her lips at the thought of their mission, and what they were going to Kirigakure for in the first place. "You have to stay sharp for later."

"We're seeing Chōjūrō-kun first."

"Even then," the kunoichi sighed, "we won't be getting a full day's rest. We're seeing him to get a feel for the operations in Kiri."

The silver-haired man stared at her with his darker eye, his expression unreadable. He opened his other eye then, revealing the bright red eye that Sakura had grown familiar with as she was growing up. She sighed again, the sound weary and slightly annoyed.

"You don't have to try and predict what face I'm going to make. I'm fine. Get some rest."

"Fine," he said finally, "but you're missing out on some great company while you row."

"You getting enough rest first is good enough for me, Kakashi-sensei."

Without saying another word, Kakashi turned to his side and closed his eyes, slowly drifting off to sleep. It was peacefully quiet for the first half hour, but when Sakura began to hear Kakashi snoring softly, she felt herself begin to lull to sleep. Stifling a yawn, she looked around them to gage how close they were to the gates of Kiri, and was relieved to find that they actually were almost there. Glancing at Kakashi, she felt relieved that he would at least have gotten some rest, compared to rowing the whole way from Suiren.

Worried that she would lull to sleep before they got to the docks, Sakura gently focused chakra into her hands as she rowed the boat. A small breeze blew through her short hair, the smell of the lake calming nerves she didn't know were so frayed. They eventually came upon gates that, when she was younger, were so threateningly unwelcome. Now, Kiri nin who were a generation younger watched them, their expressions cautious, but never hostile in the same way the old Kirigakure was.

Sakura rowed them gently to the docks where she made a note of the people that were getting off. They were mostly the same people from Suiren who came to Kirigakure to either visit family, or because they had jobs in the Water Country's capital. The dock workers' voices resounded in her ears as they pulled their boat in, tying it to the dock with rope. The kunoichi was surprised when she turned to her sensei to see that he was already awake, despite how deep in sleep he was he seemed just half an hour ago. Kakashi placed one foot on the dock before hoisting himself up, then waited for Sakura to follow suit.

The waters were still a little unstable for their boat, but she still hoisted herself up and they walked towards a queue of people. Reaching into the satchel that she carried on her back, she pulled out a few documents that Naruto had prepared her with before she left.

To avoid suspicion, he had told her.

She quickly flipped through the pages, and surely enough alongside her photo were her details. Her fake details. She smirked as she thought of Naruto planning it this way, knowing that despite good relations with Kirigakure, they still wanted to stay as low-profile as possible. She glanced at the name and had to wonder if it was Naruto who chose it, or if his advisor was tasked with these things that were so troublesome. Spearmint eyes glanced over at Kakashi's documents, and the same thing had been done. He gave her a meaningful look before folding the documents neatly back into his bag.

"You know the reason for these fake identities, right?"

"To avoid suspicion," Sakura murmured, "especially at the immigration queue. We don't want them to know who we really are."

Kakashi nodded. "A lot of these people have only heard of our names, but have never seen our actual faces." He chuckled. "Gotta hand it to the Lord Seventh. He never used to give a shit about this kinda thing, and would just charge in heard-first."

Sakura laughed. "Who would've thought we'd see the day he'd be preparing documents for us?"

"Maa," Kakashi sighed, "I guess that's what fifteen years in the job does to you, eh?"

The pink-haired woman let out a soft chuckle, but Kakashi was right. Naruto had been in office for the last fifteen years, so why was she so surprised that he provided fake documents for them? It was his job as leader of the Village to protect his people, It was a long period of time for him to get used to the job, so naturally, by now, everything he could do was quite literally at the tips of his fingers. Sakura sighed as they approached the front of the queue.

"ID?" The immigration worker asked flatly.

Sakura didn't say a word as she handed her documents.

"You in Kiri for business or pleasure?"

"Pleasure," Sakura smiled sweetly, "just a little vacation."

The agent looked over the documents carefully before he was finally satisfied and gave her a visitor's pass stamp on her documents. As she walked forward, the man called out to her "Have a lovely stay at Kirigakure, Miss!"

Kakashi waited for her just a few meters ahead and Sakura raised an eyebrow as she approached him. "How are you always done with this stuff before me?"

"They didn't look at my documents real hard," Kakashi shrugged, "like your officer was there. Probably was committing your name to memory."

"Or checking the authenticity of the documents." Sakura rolled her eyes.

"That, too." Kakashi smirked.

Sakura kept her eyes peeled for the merchants that traveled before them, only to find that they were disguising themselves as tourists and merchants who sold herbal goods. They stood patiently in the immigration queue, willingly opening their sacks that only revealed herbs and medicines. The kunoichi reeled at the thought that some merchants were hiding utsushō at the bottom of their sacks, knowing fully well that immigration officers wouldn't dig so far down.

Something to bring up to Chōjūrō, she thought to herself idly.

Averting her eyes to their surroundings, she watched the people who weren't classified as merchants as they made their way through the crowd, glancing every now and then at the group of people whose bags were being checked. Civilians that weren't involved in the operation of smuggling utsushō were clearly aware of the drug circulation, even when it came as far as the immigration checkpoint at Kirigakure. Spearmint eyes scanned the people working once more, trying to see if she could figure out who the traitor was.

"I know what you're thinking," Kakashi said quietly when he leaned in, "but we can't show what we know yet."

"I know that."

"We've already been cleared," he reminded her as he pretended to fix his jacket, "so for now, we keep moving. We deal with all that later."

He was right. He was absolutely right. Sakura drew in a small breath and expelled it slowly, walking alongside her sensei as they crossed the border, finally, into Kirigakure.

Not a lot had changed in the last fifteen years, save for infrastructure that provided public transport for the people. Motors and vehicles were deafening, but there seemed to be more smiling faces than back in the day, which was thanks to both Terumi Mei and Chōjūrō's efforts to eradicate the country of the Fourth Mizukage's totalitarian reign. The scars were healed, but only the ones that the people of Kirigakure wanted to be healed. There were signboards that pointed in different directions for tourists who wanted to understand the history of one of the most formidable nations, consisting mostly of museums and landmarks that were once known for great battles.

One of the signboards, Sakura realized, was pointing to the very landmark that she and her teammates had fought a battle on a long, long time ago. She frowned as she read the "Naruto Bridge" signboard, knowing that that mission had caused the three of them nothing but pain. Forcing herself to look away, she caught Kakashi looking at her, his expression somewhat concerned.

"They still have the bridge," she said quietly, "I was just surprised."

"That was the first time any of you had experienced the prowess of a Swordsman of the Mist." Her sensei responded somberly.

"We were just kids," Sakura's voice trembled slightly, "and we watched two people die."

Kakashi didn't say anything for a time, seemingly at a loss for what to say. Maybe that was better than saying anything at all, because Sakura knew that he had been there with them. She gave him a look as he patted her shoulder in reassurance, and she nodded before they decided to keep moving towards where Chōjūrō waited for them.

Sakura had expected Naruto to have already laid down the groundwork, so it was no surprise that she and Kakashi didn't meet Chōjūrō at his office, where there were a ton of witnesses - some of who might recognize Sakura or Kakashi. Even if they thought this visit had nothing to do with an S-ranked mission, neither Konoha or Kirigakure wanted the risk of a traitor to find out what Sakura and Kakashi were really doing here.

Instead, the two Konoha shinobi took a short trek through the woods, searching for a lookout location near one of the outposts. It was entirely risky, but it was what had been decided. They walked on steep land and made their way through difficult terrain and if Sakura was being completely honest with herself, she was finally starting to feel that, like Naruto and Kakashi had been telling her all along, she would be able to complete this entire mission with the best of her abilities.

Eventually, they reached a campsite in which they were supposed to meet the Mizukage, filled with a few Kiri nin who swiftly bowed to them and greeted them. Sakura walked through the camp ahead of Kakashi - mostly at his insistence - and smiled politely at the men who stared at her with awe in their eyes.

"Think they know who I am?" she whispered to her sensei behind her.

Kakashi scoffed. "If they're in this line of work and specifically working for this mission, they'd be crazy not to."

She ignored the sarcasm in his voice and kept walking, bowing slightly whenever she was bowed to. Naturally, Sakura wasn't accustomed to being treated this way - but maybe Kakashi was at some point while he was the Sixth Hokage. Unofficially, she was guided to a tent that was larger than the others in the campsite, and when they came closer, she spotted the familiar, soothing blue of the Mizukage's cloak and hat.

Chōjūrō looked up then, the corners of his eyes creasing as he smiled wide at the two of them.

Certainly, the shy boy had changed a lot since taking up this position.

"Kakashi-dono! Sakura-dono!" He said jubilantly. "I'm so glad you could make it."

"We apologize for being late, Lord Mizukage," Kakashi bowed, "and if there are any delays in the operation, that would be on us."

The Mizukage swatted his hand as if to say 'no big deal' and invited both of them inside his tent. Sakura nodded towards the two guards that stood outside the tent with bows and arrows in their hands, and they acknowledged her by bowing their heads slightly before going back to standing straight and on-guard.

Pushing her way through the tent, Sakura found that it was a lot bigger than it appeared on the outside. In one corner, there was a desk filled with documents that Chōjūrō had neatly stacked. There was only one photo frame facing outwards, and Sakura smiled when she laid her eyes upon a smiling Mei hugging her then-pupil Chōjūrō. In front of the desk were two chairs, ready for Sakura and Kakashi to prop themselves on. The Mizukage sat in his seat, one that he had been nervous about sitting in when he was first appointed, and gave them a shy smile.

"Please," he said kindly and gestured towards the two chairs, "have a seat."

Kakashi sat first, his back pressed against the back of the chair and one arm resting on the arm rest. He touched his face with the other hand before leaning his elbow on the other armrest, pressing his knuckles to his cheek. Sakura gently cleared her throat, bowed slightly, and sat down next to him, crossing and uncrossing her legs and leaning her weight towards one arm rest and lacing her fingers together. She felt a sudden burst of anxiety, not sure of how to sit properly, or even what to do with her legs. She finally settled for uncrossing them and placing her hands in her lap as the Mizukage looked through documents the entire time.

"It's been a while since I've seen you both," he said politely, "how have you two been?"

"We've been good, Lord Mizukage," Kakashi answered, "the war has brought a lot of change for all of us."

"Indeed it has," the blue-haired man nodded, "and as you've seen, Kirigakure is trying to change with the times." He paused then and winced slightly. "Especially because we've been trying for so long to have things go back to before the age of the Fourth Mizukage."

Sakura merely nodded and felt surprise when he turned to look at her.

"What about you, Sakura-dono?" he asked. "The last I heard of you, you had just had a daughter."

"I apologize for not keeping in contact more," Sakura replied guiltily, "but yes, she's fourteen years old now."

"Has it really been that long?" the man exclaimed. "We've all gotten quite old, haven't we."

Kakashi cleared his throat then, but the Mizukage merely chuckled. He gave his advisor - who stood on the opposite end of the tent - a look and a nod, and the man left the tent so that it was just the three of them.

"Are you in here everyday, Chōjūrō-kun?" Kakashi asked, dropping the formalities.

The Mizukage shook his head. "They keep the tent here for when I have to come, but most days it's just the ones who have been assigned to this mission."

"How often do you check up on things?" Sakura asked. "It seems like it's a pretty well-run camp."

"I come in three times a week," he replied earnestly as he leaned back in his chair, "or whenever it is necessary. With S-ranked missions - as you know - things can change at a quick pace." He took a deep breath then, his expression suddenly tense. "It's my duty to know how to protect my people in times like those."

Both Kakashi and Sakura nodded then, understanding his words on very different levels. Sakura thought back to the intel that was being shared when the war first started, and how just the arrival of a body at the hospital's doorstep had changed the nature of the mission she was on now. She let out a small sigh then and watched the Mizukage carefully. He was a different man than when she first knew him as a teenager, and she was really quite impressed with how he grew into his role as a leader.

"How's the situation in Konoha as of right now?" Chōjūrō asked as he poured three cups of what smelled like jasmine tea.

"We've been able to do our research without word getting out so much," Sakura responded, "but the stuff that we are finding aren't exactly bits of information that we want to share just quite yet."

"How do you mean?"

"As of right now, I know that utushō is used for locking and sealing external sources into the victim's veins."

The Mizukage's eyes widened in horror. "How did you figure that out?"

"My apprentice and I had to do an autopsy on a girl whose body was dropped near the Konoha border."

The tent fell silent for a few minutes as Sakura watched the Mizukage's face twist into an expression of horror and rage. He shifted in his seat, as though the new information triggered a restlessness he couldn't shake off. His gaze shifted between Kakashi - who nodded and confirmed the information was accurate - and Sakura - who could merely look at him with a somber look. She was the one who led the autopsy, after all. The person who saw what utsushō did firsthand was her and Yuzuru.

"With all due respect, Lord Mizukage," Sakura began, "what's been the situation in Kirigakure? Since this is a mission that seems to endanger all nations, we also would need to know what's going on here."

Chōjūrō nodded slowly, then straightened his back. "As I'm sure you've been informed, there are a number of outposts in Kirigakure that are managing operations for this part of the continent."

Sakura blinked. "What?"

"Meaning there are more elsewhere?" Kakashi chimed in.

"We can't be sure," the Mizukage responded, his expression worried, "but since Kirigakure was once known for being formidable, they've decided to set up base here."

"Is that really okay?" Sakura asked.

"I know that some people thought I was too weak when I was assigned this position," he said calmly, "but the whole point of being in this position is to oversee what's going on. If they've chosen Kirigakure as a base, then so be it. We can monitor the situation."

"What will you do if the situation gets out of hand?" Kakashi asked.

"We have our countermeasures, don't worry," the man said plainly, "but for right now, we're just watching them."

Sakura made a face.

"Something wrong, Sakura-dono?" the Mizukage asked. "Anything to do with the operations here?"

"Actually," the kunoichi enunciated, "I was wondering about the merchants that come from Suiren and travel here."

The Mizukage nodded. "The ones who go through different immigration procedures than those who are tourists or those who come here for work?"

"Yes," she nodded, "if they come here for the outposts, why are immigration officers not checking their things properly? Even when we came in as supposed merchants, they didn't look through our things properly."

"It saved our asses, since we don't have anything that proves we're merchants," Kakashi muttered."

"But the point still stands," Sakura rolled her eyes at her sensei, "that people aren't being properly vetted. These can't be your people, right?"

Chōjūrō nodded, moving to rest his elbows on his desk, then his chin on his knuckles. "They aren't. They're Shin's people."

"Ah," Kakashi exhaled, "you know who Shin is, then."

"Only recently," the Mizukage admitted, "the guy has been pretty good at covering his tracks, considering he's not even a trained shinobi."

"Is he perhaps one of their guys?" Kakashi asked.

"No," he shook his head, "he was originally a Kirigakure civilian."

Both Sakura and Kakashi froze. "Was?" they asked in unison.

Chōjūrō let out a heavy sigh. "He's become stateless."

"A civilian has become stateless?" Sakura exclaimed. "That's insane!"

"Does he know what a stupid mistake he's made?" Kakashi growled. "Whoever is controlling him surely must feel that everything is going according to plan."

"We're keeping an eye on him right now," the Mizukage nodded as though in agreement, "but I suspect that's why he was assigned to Suiren. If we were to take any action, it would put the entire port in danger, and innocent lives would be jeopardized."

Sakura nodded. "That, added onto the fact that Shin pretty much is blackmailing whoever is a business owner there."

Chōjūrō moved to go through a stack of papers, examining each of them before he finally found the one he was looking for. He cleared his throat. "There's a report from a few days ago that we were able to get. Says that they got an import of materials from another port town."

"Does it say where?" Sakura asked cautiously.

"Unfortunately no," he shook his head, dismayed, "and we currently don't have the resources to send any of our people to trace the source."

Kakashi sighed. "Seems like we're gonna have to check it out ourselves."

"There's an outpost just a few miles north of here," Chōjūrō said, "it's one of their bigger ones, so please be careful."

"We always are," Sakura smiled as they stood up, "and we'll find something that we can work with."

The two bowed to the Mizukage, thanking him for his help before they stepped out of the tent. Once more, Sakura nodded to the ninjas in sight, acknowledging their place in the camp. All of them bowed to her and Kakashi, and if she heard correctly, she heard them thanking her and addressing her by name. She gave them a smile and pulled the straps of her backpack tighter, preparing herself for what was to come.

"Are you nervous?" Kakashi asked, once they were out of sight of the camp.

"Terrified," she responded, though she kept her eyes on the road ahead.

After a few minutes of walking, she focused her chakra into her feet and climbed up one of the nearby trees. She took a deep breath as she and her sensei breezed through the air, reminding herself to calm down. She pictured what would be found there, how many people would be there, and if it was going to be a bloodbath. Remembering the girl that had been dropped off at the borders of Konoha, she felt rage begin to simmer in her blood. She thought of her daughter, of Naruto, and even of Naruto's children.

There was no way in hell she was going to let any of them, or anyone else, meet the same fate.

Sakura knew that they were getting close to the outpost when she saw people with bows and arrows near the bottoms of the trees. Just as the Mizukage had told them, she suspected that a lot of them weren't trained shinobi, and were perhaps hired mercenaries. They wore helmets and garnered heavy armor as they patrolled the area, making sure that no outsiders were able to get in. Kakashi looked to Sakura then and gave her a look of determination before he opened opened his left eye, revealing the brilliant red of the Sharingan.

"What's the plan?" she whispered.

"There's too many of them," the older man said, "so we need to take them out quick."

"I'll be the decoy?"

"No," he shook his head, "I'm gonna put them under a genjutsu, and in that time, you need to take them out."

"What?" Sakura exclaimed softly. "There's way too many! I can't work that fast!"

"I know you can." Kakashi said plainly, then looked beneath them. "You got your kunai?"

Sakura gulped and nodded.

"Good," Kakashi breathed, "I'm gonna head down and put them under it, and then the rest is up to you."

She watched as Kakashi quickly made his move and skillfully planted himself in a position where the mercenaries could not see him. Reaching into her pocket, she fingered at four, maybe five kunai, that would be just enough to take them all out at the same time. There was no room for mistakes, there was no room for blunders. Sakura knew that, like her sensei, she had limited time. Although she had done this a hundred times before, she felt her heartbeat in her ears. After all, fieldwork had not been her usual forte. It was incredibly different than staying in a hospital and doing her work that way.

Anxiously, she watched and waited for Kakashi's signal. She watched as the men slowly became aware of his presence and readied their weapons. As they were about to strike, they froze, and instantly, she knew that Kakashi had worked his magic on them. At a fast pace, Sakura made her way down the tree using the chakra in her feet, and pulled out all the kunai in her pocket. Holding them in one hand, she lifted herself off the floor for leverage, and flung the weapons in the directions of various pressure points. She heard the sound of the metal slicing through skin and she winced, finding it hard to remember that she was an iryōnin at all.

The mercenaries were slewn, and Kakashi gently laid their bodies on the floor. Hastily, he began taking off the armor of one of the enemies, and Sakura quickly followed in his lead. They quickly put on the helmets and grabbed the bows and arrows, but not before pulling the bodies to the corner and leaving them in a bush. If those bodies were going to be found, it would be much later, and hopefully while they were long gone.

Making their way to the outpost, Sakura was beginning to feel more anxious than she was already feeling. There was no way for Kakashi to communicate to her that things were going to be okay, other than an affirmative pat to the shoulder. Sakura took it though, and reminded herself that it was better than no reassurance. Kakashi walked ahead of her, towards the person who seemed to be in charge of the outpost. She had silky, long, black hair that was tied up into a bun, and there was a scar on her upper lip.

"Tetsu," she said in a scolding tone, "you're late. Any reports?"

"None, ma'am," Kakashi replied quietly, "there hasn't been anything for miles."

"Good," the woman smiled, "as there shouldn't be. What about you, Rika? See anything from our suppliers yet?"

"Not yet, ma'am," Sakura almost squeaked, "but I'm sure they'll arrive soon."

"They better," the woman scoffed, pushing a lock of her long hair behind her ear, "utsuhō is an expensive, imported product. They can't be messing with it."

Sakura eyed a few tables throughout the outposts, all with documents on them that could be very useful to her own operation. Slowly, she made her way through, glancing at documents here and there, looking for something that would hold traction in her reports. As her eyes scanned the documents, she finally found something that read something like 'transfer routes' and other outpost information. Still holding the bow and arrow that she had "borrowed" from the mercenaries before, she began cleaning the arrows and the string of the bow, trying to appear busy.

Her eyes scanned a few lines of how dangerous the herb utsushō was, citing symptoms that went so far as absolute insanity if someone was exposed to too much of the substance. She furrowed her brow then, as she read more into what the substance was, and that it was surely a poison. Spearmint eyes moved to the bottom of the document, and finally, Sakura found what she was looking for:

'The use of utsushō in fūinjutsu'.

Checking her surroundings, she noted that there were more mercenaries that were busy with maintaining the outpost and their own tasks, that they wouldn't notice her take a document or two. Swiftly, she grabbed a bunch of papers and managed to temporarily stuff them inside the armor she wore. She looked up when she heard the noise of what sounded like crates being rolled on wheels, and when it entered the camp, the woman from earlier had a wide smile on her face.

"Our long-awaited product," she beamed, "must be the really good stuff, eh?"

"Took it a while to smuggle it out of that place," a man with a deep voice answered, "especially with the port town for criminals right next to it."

"They weren't helpful to you?" the dark-haired woman asked curiously.

"Said we were taking their resources."

The woman nodded as though she understood, but there was a grimace on her face that told Sakura that she was merely plotting easier ways for them to get utsushō out of its native land. She waited anxiously for them to mention the name, knowing that if they so much as uttered the first few syllables, then Sakura was right all along. There were clearly ties between Kirigakure and whoever was allowing these ties to exist. The pink-haired kunoichi continued to pretend to clean her bow and arrow, but she kept her eye on the package that came in.

"The port town there should be helping you," the woman said coolly, "that's where the HQ is. They should know what's going on."

"The HQ is in a run-down part of the Land of Waves, secluded in itself."

"Uzushiogakure was once powerful, for such a small nation. We need to respect that whoever is running the operations there now, is willing to do business with us."

Sakura didn't hear much else of the conversation, screaming in her head that she knew she was right the whole time. Slowly, she made her way over to Kakashi, who was working hard to make his presence unknown, but Sakura could feel his chakra flow from all across the outpost.

"We have to go," Sakura whispered, "if we stay any longer, they might figure us out."

"But we don't have enough information."

"Believe me," she responded hastily, "we do. We need to get out of here."

"We can't leave while they're still watching us."

"We have to make a run for it."

"Sakura, no," Kakashi pulled her arm, "we have to stay here until the sun goes down. Only then will it be safe."

"Are you kidding me, Kakashi-sensei? Naruto is waiting for us -"

"And he would understand that we shouldn't be risking our lives anymore than we already are."

No matter how she looked at it, they were outnumbered. Even if Kakashi put everyone under a genjutsu, it was still a great strain on him, and it wouldn't guarantee that they would stay hypnotized. Not only that, but Sakura would surely find it hard to manage to get any other documents or evidence they might need to take back to Konoha. Through the slits in her helmet, she watched the movements of all the other mercenaries on-site and resolved to copy them. She didn't know if her teacher could see her calculating her movements, but he was definitely smart enough to blend in, and to keep from standing out like a sore thumb. They stood in one place for extended periods of time, only moving when it was required. Despite her anxiety that they would be found out, Sakura and Kakashi stayed until dark, playing the parts that they accidentally stumbled into before quickly making their way back to Suiren under different disguises, then finally making their way home.

Still feeling her own heartbeat in her ears, Sakura could barely hear when the Hokage called her and Kakashi inside his office.

"Take deep breaths," the older man reminded her as he stepped inside before her.

The kunoichi took her first steps inside the Hokage's office, only to see him facing the window that overlooked the city. He wasn't the type to keep his anger inside of him, but he also wasn't the quiet type in general. The man she had known was always fiery, always boisterous, and the fact that he didn't even flinch as the door clicked behind her was beginning to scare her. Taking a few steps forward, she took her place beside their teacher, awaiting a lecture, or a scolding - or anything that wasn't just silence.

Spearmint eyes glanced to the man next to her, but Kakash didn't make a move. He stood with his arms to his side, his expression unreadable. It had been a long time since protocol was practiced on her end, but still she straightened her back and placed her arms at her side, focusing on the blond hair and orange clothes before her.

"Status report?" Naruto asked without turning around.

"We have some information," Sakura squeaked, "that I think can point us towards the next step."

He turned his head slightly then, but didn't turn around completely to look at them. Shikamaru, who was standing off to a corner, cleared his throat as though to prompt Naruto.

"Are you safe?" the Hokage whispered.

"Yes," Sakura breathed, "we're fine."

At that point, from the corner of her eye, Sakura saw Kakashi shift his weight from one foot to the other.

After another few minutes, Naruto finally turned around to face them, his cerulean eyes more alive than the last time she saw him. They held a fervor that she had seen before, back before he became Hokage and was fighting to be acknowledged. She recognized the determination, the decision to not give up, etched into that look he wore on his face.

"I'd like a full report tomorrow afternoon," he uttered, "with all the details, and whatever you can give me that counts as evidence."

"Yes, sir." Sakura and Kakashi said in unison.

Sakura turned on her heel to leave the office, but Kakashi grabbed her hand firmly until she turned around. She couldn't describe the look on his face, but when he turned to look at Shikamaru, she realized he was signaling for her to stay while they left. Looking to Naruto, she saw him examining documents that she presumed were from Sai, who was probably watching from the shadows. Anxiety spread through her veins as Kakashi and Shikamaru left her behind, the click of the door suddenly louder than her heartbeat.

Naruto didn't utter a single word for the longest time and kept his eyes glued to the documents in front of him. Watching him reach up to rub his neck occasionally, Sakura thought to leave him alone, except that he never actually made a move to prop himself in his seat. She waited patiently, too afraid to move, and merely watched as he began to pace left and right. When he finally looked up at her, it was unexpectedly so that her body jolted.

"Are you sure you're fine?" Naruto asked, his voice hushed. "I know it's the first S-ranked mission you've been on in a long time."

"Kakashi-sensei being there helped," she replied hastily, "but it didn't come without its challenges."

The Hokage nodded, but kept his eyes on her face. "And before I get an official report from you, you wanna tell me what you found out?"

Sakura cocked a thin, pink eyebrow. "Expecting some specific intel?"

"Just wanted to see if your hunch was right."

At the somber look in his eyes, she felt her heart sink to her stomach. "You always hated it when I was right."

"Doesn't mean I didn't listen," he smiled sadly, "so you can tell me."

Staring at the man before her, she felt a lump in her throat. No part of this mission was easy, and it had been that way from the start. Something about looking at him before her now had her heart beating to a rhythm she had long forgotten. She cared for him and his well-being and had always wanted the best for him, hoping that he would no longer have to feel any form of hurt after the day of his wedding. Pursing her lips, she felt tears begin to well in her eyes.

"They got a shipment today," she whispered, "and there was a lot of it."

Pausing, she waited for a response from Naruto, but he merely stared at her, his eyes weary. Sakura sighed.

"I got a look at the documents on the tables while everyone was hauling it into the outpost," she continued, "and it looks like Kirigakure isn't the biggest outpost for utsushō."

Naruto leaned his palms on his desk and took a deep breath, as though preparing himself for the weight of her answer to his question. "Were you right?"

Hesitantly, Sakura nodded. "It's originally in crystal form, native to what used to be Uzushiogakure."

In all the years she spent with him, he had never been one to throw tantrums to show his anger. He had always let it simmer inside of him, so much so that he would begin to succumb to the Kyuubi inside of him. It had hurt him from the inside out, and she had always wished she could do more. She watched him now, a man who had become one with the beast inside him, and was confused when he gave her a smile.

"So," he said, "you were right, Sakura-chan. The trail points towards the port town near Uzushiogakure."

"Naruto," she began, "I didn't do any of this to prove a point."

The man that stood before her took a few steps towards her, and before she could utter a single word, he wrapped his arms around her, burying his face in her short hair. She felt his chest rise and fall once, likely a sigh, before she felt her body begin to go limp.

"You never do anything to prove a point," he said gently, "I just wanted you to be wrong for once."

At his words, the lump in her throat formed again. "Why? This is all for the mission, and if solving it means-"

"I know you're a jōnin and that you have a ton of experience," he uttered, "but I can't imagine how terrified you were today, and I'm sorry."

"Sorry for what?"

Naruto tightened his arms around her. "To have to send you somewhere I don't want you to go."

What was wrong and what was right was beginning to blur into a very thin line, and with that thought in mind, Sakura raised her arms, wrapping them around Naruto's waist, burying her face in his shoulder. They stayed that way for awhile, simply feeling that the other person was there. Tears spilled from spearmint eyes, and he wordlessly let her wipe her eyes on him by stroking her hair. It was overwhelming, and the stress of the mission was finally starting to get to Sakura, but all she could do - instead of wishing him goodnight and sleeping alone - was hold him as she sobbed.

"I don't know why you chose me," she whispered, her voice thick with sobs, "I'm not the person for this."

"You've already proven you are," Naruto chuckled, "and you're not the type to prove yourself and then say no. You always give it your best."

"You think I'll be fine?"

"You always are."

Just a few minutes later, Sakura slowly tore herself away from the man who was once her best friend, and she gave him a sheepish smile. She didn't know if he felt like that was wrong, or that it should've felt wrong, but she personally wanted to kick herself at how right it felt for her. Bidding him a good night and reminding him not to work so late, she walked out his office door, letting it click quietly behind her. There were still some late-night workers in the Hokage Tower, and they bowed to her as she passed by them on her way to the elevator.

Maybe it was because she was trying to walk off the guilt she felt, or the denial she felt that what was in that office was definitely not an embrace, but the journey to her house felt shorter than usual. Sarada was still at Chouji's, probably eating snacks with Chouchou and watching movies. She smiled at the thought that at least something was stable in her daughter's life. As she walked up the path that led to her house, she fumbled for her keys and jingled them in the door.

The lights were off when she left just a day before, but the living room lights were on, and as she approached closer, she saw familiar black hair watching the television. She sighed, making him turn around in his seat.

"What are you doing here?" she asked rather impatiently.

"We need to talk," Sasuke said plainly, "please. I've been listening to your demands this whole time, just hear me out."

"Oh, now you want to talk?"

"It's an inevitable discussion."

"Really?" Sakura scoffed as she made her way to the kitchen. "And what would that be?"

She had quickly pulled a drink from the fridge and faced her husband now, his expression calm. He had always been that way, and it was one of the things that made her fall for him in the first place. But he never showed passion or love for her when it was called for. She leaned against one of the kitchen counters, her patience wearing thin again.

"What do you want, Sasuke?" Sakura asked firmly.

The father of her child stood before her, gently taking her free hand so she would look up at him. He wore an expression that she had never seen before, and her heart became frantic. When he had her full, undivided attention, he parted his lips and spoke:

"I want to meet our daughter."

next ⇥

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