the greatest pretenders
Chapter Four: Dissemble
The following morning had been quiet, almost peaceful. Even as Sakura used her scalpel to carefully cut through skin and conduct her second autopsy of the day, she could not feel more energized. She was absolutely in her element, just like Tsunade and Shizune had been. She had always looked on and helped at crucial moments, and vaguely thought about people not-so-secretly calling her the Second Tsunade. Of course, other factors came into play: Sakura was living as an adult in a world without war being waged on them. For the most part, the autopsies she conducted were more research-based, as opposed to law-based, like the ones that her shishou and senpai often did. Swiping at the sweat on her brow, Sakura blinked, her vision becoming blurry.
"Ms. Haruno, perhaps you should take a break." Yuzuru uttered, his tone concerned. "You didn't take a break between these two autopsies."
"We need to find something to fill the research files."
"But pushing yourself when you're tired won't do you any good."
"Okay," Sakura sighed behind her surgical mask, "I promise I'll take a break after we're done with this one. Okay?"
Yuzuru made a noise in the back of his throat that sounded like vague agreement, but he didn't say another word. They had been working on the few bodies that were recovered for the mission, looking for causes of death and finding different ones each time. Two or three bodies had been declared as death by long-lasting poison, while only one was death by an explosive jutsu - both of which were incredibly graphic and violent ways to die, but on opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of how long it took. It seemed to Sakura that whoever was conducting these experiments had an undecided pattern, and was extremely temperamental. Whoever was on the receiving end of their tantrums were either very lucky, or unlucky as hell.
Sakura did not share the same phobia of blood that her shishou had, but she did get faint if she was exposed to the smell for too long. With a gloved hand, she pointed at the internal organ that she had worked to expose, signaling Yuzuru to take a look. His brown eyes widened in shock, though being in this line of work was going to desensitize him eventually. At least, Sakura hoped so.
"See that? The lining on the stomach there?" she asked.
"That means our victim was poisoned."
Yuzuru's wide eyes welled with an emotion similar to regret. "Do we know what poison it is?"
"Thankfully, yes," Sakura breathed, "but… the problem is curing these people with antidotes before it's too late."
A low, hesitant rumble resounded in the back of his throat. "How do we know the antidotes work, then?"
"The composition is something I've seen before," she answered as she started cleaning up, handing her tools for him to wash and zipping up the body bag for it to be put away, "with just a few tweaks. It wasn't too hard."
"Has it ever been hard for you?" he rolled his eyes. Even with his surgical mask on, Sakura could imagine the way his mouth twisted whenever he was teasing. She chuckled.
"At some point in my life," she joked, "but it seems so far away now."
They carefully placed the body back in its place before cleaning up everything else and removed their gloves. Yuzuru was silent as he washed his hands beside her, a knit in his brow that meant he was deep in thought. Sakura cleared her throat as she wiped her hands on a paper towel next to the sink. "You okay?"
"If the smell of blood is too much-"
"I'm your apprentice, aren't I?" he said with his teeth gritted. "What good would I be if I couldn't handle it?"
"Lady Tsunade couldn't handle it," Sakura mused, "so don't worry about it."
There were a few heartbeats of silence before Yuzuru opened his mouth, his voice barely audible. "No. That's not it."
"Then what is it?" she questioned as she led him to the room situated outside that overlooked the surgery room. "I understand this upsets you-"
"No!" he exclaimed, "You don't."
A piercing silence settled between the two, Sakura's eyes wide with surprise; Yuzuru's with a great sadness. He cleared his throat, seeming to correct himself.
"I'm just… angry."
"Clearly." Sakura sat in a chair and gestured for him to sit across her, but he bit his lip, guilt written all over his face.
"I didn't mean to-"
"I know," Sakura reassured, "just have a seat. It's been an eventful morning."
"All we did were autopsies."
"They can get pretty tiring."
After about a minute of contemplation, Yuzuru finally sat down and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees, cupping his head in his hands. Sakura hadn't forgotten how shaken she was the first time she was assigned an S-ranked mission, but just the sight of her student caused her throat to close up, as though she was sixteen again, traveling for her first S-ranked mission without her shishou to save the Fifth Kazekage. She had been a chūnin at that point in her life, but she was still getting used to how physically, mentally, and emotionally demanding S-ranked missions were. For what it was worth, she knew exactly how Yuzuru felt.
"All those innocent people," he breathed, "and with kekkei gengkai? It's so…"
"Cruel?" Sakura offered.
"Yes," he uttered in reply, a sigh at the end, "they don't deserve this."
"That's why we're doing research," the pink-haired woman surmised, "so that we can understand this situation better and report it to the Seventh. That's why we were given this mission."
Her disciple quirked an eyebrow. "I thought you didn't call him the Seventh."
She gave him a sad smile. "I often forget that he's just… Naruto. My teammate. It's sometimes unbelievable that he's sitting up in the Hokage Tower, living out his dream."
"Are you living out yours?"
Raising her eyebrows in surprise that he would think to ask her that, she looked at him as though he had made her have an epiphany. "I've achieved my long-time dream of protecting people. Of course I am."
"But is that the only thing you ever dreamed of?"
Taking in a deep breath, she regarded him with caution. Not that she needed to exorcise that action since he was her disciple, but Sakura had always been the type of person who attempted to mask her feelings, and was sometimes very bad at it. It was pretty obvious to her that he would learn to read her emotions quicker than she had anticipated. "How old are you again?" she asked, changing the subject.
Her expression turned into a distortion of incredulousness. "What? You're nineteen and you didn't decline drinking with me at Senya the other night?!"
Chuckling, Yuzuru waved his hand at her, as though telling her not to worry about it. "I turn twenty in a few weeks."
"Still," she said hesitantly, "it's not your birthday yet."
A silence ensued between them as Yuzuru leaned back against his seat and closed his eyes. His eye bags were growing deeper with each week, but Sakura had made sure that their training was not so intensive that he was this exhausted. Her own training with Tsunade hadn't been so physically demanding that she was losing sleep. In fact, she had finally been getting more of it. "Are you training by yourself in secret?"
He opened one eye to look at her. "What? No."
"Are you getting enough sleep, then?"
Sakura blinked. "You're not supposed to push yourself so much."
"How will I get better if I don't?"
His answer surprised her, though it probably shouldn't have. Maybe it was the fact that she was also stubborn when she was training under her shishou, or maybe it was because Sarada had said the same thing to her last night. Whatever the reason, it was certainly no coincidence that she was starting to see herself in him. Her face softened but she smiled, making her best attempt at being encouraging.
"Getting better doesn't mean doing things that could put your health at risk," she said softly, "otherwise, you'll get hurt."
At her words, Yuzuru's mouth curved into a slight frown, his brow furrowed. Surely, it was almost naïve of Sakura to think that he wouldn't be able to notice when she was feigning contentedness. She was one of the most formidable kunoichi in the era after the Fourth Shinobi War, sure, which meant that she was an expert at hiding her true emotions and true motives, but there were lapses in time where she couldn't help but let a little sadness leak out. It was only natural. As she stood up to walk towards the water cooler, Yuzuru cleared his throat.
"How's Sarada-chan doing?" he inquired softly.
"As good as you can expect," she replied as she grabbed another paper cup for him, "which is barely."
"She's not talking to you?"
"No. I'd be angry, but I know why she's acting out."
"I don't have much experience in this," he mused, "but I have a younger sister, and when she lashes out, I just give her space."
His words didn't have time to sink in, as the door that led into the hospital hall opened, revealing Sai's masked face that he wore around her only as a formality. Sakura stood up and took slow steps towards him, the atmosphere in the room growing tense. As she approached him, he removed his mask and pushed it to the top of his head, revealing a forlorn expression that would never have existed when she first met him more than a decade ago. "Report," she said curtly, still unused to being in a position of authority.
"I know you wanted me to gather information first," Sai said cautiously, "but I had to tell Lord Seventh first, before I came here."
A dreaded feeling settled in the pit of her stomach. She gulped. "What happened?"
Sai winced, then gestured for her to follow him outside. In the hallway stood two of his ANBU agents, whose masks had stayed intact. Between them was what appeared to be some kind of tarp that wrapped something small, compared to the two adults that stood on opposite sides of it. Sakura felt her fingers start to tremble as she looked at Sai, waiting for some kind of explanation, and when it didn't come, she parted her lips to let out a derisive chuckle. "You're kidding, right?"
"We were doing our daily patrol."
"And then what happened?" she replied, crouching down closer, hand close to the tarp. "Did you find any information?"
"Yes," Sai affirmed, "I brought this here for a reason."
"And what reason is that?"
"Lord Seventh's orders."
Sakura clenched her jaw. "Which were?"
"For your investigative purposes."
"Sai," Sakura said cautiously, "what's going on?"
The pale man did not utter a word and watched Sakura reach to open the tarp. She felt her heart thumping as she unwrapped it, revealing a sight that still shocked her, no matter how many times she saw it.
"We found her near the border," Sai said solemnly, "but it was too late."
Before Sakura's eyes laid a girl who was barely a few years younger than Sarada, who had died with her eyes open in horror and desperation. At the back of her throat, she felt an intense lump build up as she reached forward and gently closed the little girl's lids, and made note of the fact that her skin was translucent enough that she could see her veins. She must have died a slow death, Sakura thought to herself, feeling the tears brim her eyes before she sniffled and blinked them away. Standing up, she looked towards Yuzuru, whose horrified expression wasn't making the situation any better.
"Take her to the autopsy room," Sakura whispered, "I'll meet you there in a minute."
Her words gave Sai a cue to dismiss his agents, who left after bowing and heading out, silence filling the halls except for the sound of their sandals walking away. Sakura placed her hands in the pockets of her lab coat, running her mostly healed hand through her hair. She bit her lip as Sai approached her. It had been a while since they faced each other like this, but she was reminded of how intense his job was, and how sometimes, it brought more bad news than good. She cleared her throat.
"Are you mad?" he asked.
"No," she shrugged, "the first person you answer to, in any case, is Naruto."
"I just had to do my job."
"I know," she sighed, "but right now, what I'm worried about is what the hell I just saw."
"We were shocked too," Sai replied, a lack of emotion in his voice but written perfectly in his dark eyes, "even though ANBU trains my agents to show no emotion, I couldn't help but notice it as they were wrapping up the body."
"She looked so young."
"Why was her body found so close to the border, anyway?"
"The most obvious answer would be-"
"-to get Konoha's attention." Sakura let out a sharp sigh, her emotions in disarray. "I guess now, I do my job."
The two adults stared at each other, very clearly anxious with the prospect that someone was working extra hard to cause tension and chaos. With each passing day, and with each time that she felt she didn't have enough information to find the person who was committing such heinous acts, Sakura was growing weary. Although the war had ended so many years ago, she felt as though she was on the brink of a new one. Unless it was stopped right at the source, she would continue conducting autopsies, trying to understand something that would end up being further and further away from her grasp.
"Don't stress yourself so much," Sai said in that familiar soft tone, "you know that this was out of your control."
"I know," she agreed, "but it's still murder, Sai. No matter how hard we close our eyes." After a short pause, she looked at him, spearmint eyes filled with fervor. "I'll do whatever it takes, I swear. These people won't have died for nothing."
"I believe you."
Sakura didn't say another word to Sai as she walked back into the surgical room, pulling latex gloves onto her hands and placing her mask over her nose and mouth, automatically back in her element. Her hand reached for the girl's hair and stroked it, silently promising herself that she would try her absolute best at completing this mission. Her brow furrowed as she started by lightly touching the protruding veins all over the girl's body.
Sai, who stood outside the window, watched as his old teammate - the girl who taught him about real and fake smiles - worked tirelessly and passionately, determination and perseverance at her side. He smiled to himself and left her to her work, thinking vaguely that the Seventh Hokage must have felt so proud of the woman he loved.
The internal examination took longer than either Sakura or Yuzuru anticipated. While the external examination merely took a few minutes, it was the girl's internal organs that were so puzzling that even Sakura was having a difficult time trying to conclude what the cause of death was. There was only one thing that Sakura was absolutely certain of: the girl's veins had been corrupted in some way.
"What're we gonna do?" Yuzuru asked worriedly.
"Her other organs are infected, too."
"But it's not poison."
Sakura thought for a moment, her eyes not moving away from the girl's protruding veins in her arms and across her neck. "I think… the source may be coming from her veins."
Yuzuru whipped his head to stare at her in disbelief. "Are you crazy-"
"Listen," she explained, "sometimes, this happens. Sometimes, we can't know things for sure, but we can make deductions based on the information that we have been given."
"Isn't that just jumping to conclusions?"
"Sometimes," Sakura replied as she took a deep breath, "but our jobs as shinobi, and as medical shinobi, is to try and piece the information together, so long as we have something - anything - to go off of."
"So what are you saying?"
"The person who killed her…" Sakura whispered, "...they want us to be unsure."
"So they can buy some time."
An unsettling sense of horror filled the room and out of the corner of her eye, she saw Yuzuru walk over to the sink, resting his hands there, trying to calm himself down. Being a medical ninja carried all the honor that it deserved, but no one could ever possibly warn you how difficult, how emotionally taxing, and how heartbreaking it could be at times. Trying hard to understand something was one deal, but coupled with not being able to find an immediate solution made shinobi like Sakura feel, at times, absolutely powerless.
"Yuzuru," she said finally, "for now, all we can do is take some of her skin as a sample so we can look at this specific case closely. Maybe we can figure out the cause of death after running some tests."
Without hesitation, the brown-haired man did as he was told, expertly removing a piece of skin from the body and storing it in a cylinder for them to look at. "What should I do with this?"
"We look at it now," she explained, "because there is no way I'm leaving here tonight without having some kind of answer."
Motivated by his shishou's determination, Yuzuru quickly began running tests on the sample without waiting for Sakura to give the okay. After the war, the medical facilities had improved tremendously, which had helped Tsunade to create a medical department that was more well-rounded and had significantly more resources than it previously. In the first few days that he started working for her, Sakura showed him the ropes just as Tsunade had taught her. Of course, their resources almost always paid off.
"You get anything yet?" Sakura asked as she threw away her bloodied pair of gloves and fished for a new pair.
The next ten minutes were excruciating for the both of them. They paced around the room and listened to the technology for any changes, but they were so slight that no real conclusions could be made yet. Sakura tapped her fingers against the table and Yuzuru hummed a song that, after a few times, his shishou could memorize it, and started humming along with him, too. They were beyond tense, anxious to see what secrets they could manage to find out, when they both heard the mechanics finally come to a halt. They stayed in their spots in disbelief, worried that if either of them moved too soon, that they would wake up and realize it was all a dream.
"Should we…?" Yuzuru barely whispered.
Slowly, Sakura moved to look at the screen that displayed a bunch of numbers that surely would have been jargon to anyone else, and out of fear that she was still dreaming, she blinked once, then twice, and then her face distorted into an expression filled with confusion. She sucked in a breath and held it for ten second before letting it out harshly in frustration.
Yuzuru blinked from behind her, moving to look at the screen himself. "What? How's that possible?"
"I don't… but it's not liquid."
"More like acid?"
"Kind of?" she replied, growing more confused with each minute that passed by. "But, I think I figured out why her organs didn't show as much damage."
"I don't get it."
"Yuzuru," she said carefully, "whatever this poison is, it's the kind that only attacks the veins. It corrupts the victim."
"How do you know that?"
Sakura bit her lip. "Call it a hunch."
"Just trust me for now." Sakura quipped, her words cutting. "Okay?"
The young man did not say another word, but nodded instead, his expression filled with worry and with things that he wanted to say, but simply couldn't. Sakura listened as he put away other equipment and felt a little guilty that she couldn't share what she felt was a working theory. It might have been far-fetched, which was why she needed to present to Naruto whatever she found, even if it was only grabbing at scraps. While she trusted Yuzuru, her inner shinobi was telling her that this time around, her job and duty came first.
"This means we're getting progress… right?" Yuzuru asked uncertainly. Sakura couldn't help but think that he needed to believe in himself more.
"Yes," she answered, "even if it's one small step, we're getting there."
After having locked away the evidence they had, they left the surgical room and turned off all the lights and locked the doors. The hallways were eerily quiet except for the sound of them walking on the linoleum floor, and as they reached the hospital exit, Yuzuru turned to look at her. He cleared his throat.
"Are you going to tell Lord Seventh yet?"
"Technically," she said, "I kind of have to. I don't think this is a situation where I should keep it from him first."
Wordlessly, the teacher and student parted ways, Yuzuru walking into town; Sakura walking towards the Hokage Tower. She looked up and saw that his office's lights were still on, which wasn't really an indicator of whether or not he was there. What she had found was unnerving, and what she knew was going to make it hard for her to sleep was the fact that whatever theory she was starting to form in her head might actually be the truth about this girl's death. Begrudgingly, she admitted that there were times that she feared her own knowledge, which she was taught to always trust.
It was still early in the evening, but autumn was gradually turning into winter, making the skies dark more often than they were bright. The Hokage Tower was still bustling with jōnin who were talking amongst themselves and looking at the mission board for jobs they wanted to take, giving Sakura polite bows as she passed by them, whispers of 'she's a hero' trailing behind her. She acknowledged them politely by slightly nodding her head at them, quickly making her way to the Hokage's office. She needed to tell Naruto about the development of information, even if it wasn't confirmed yet. As she approached the door, she took a deep breath and knocked.
"Enter." Naruto's raspy voice answered.
"Am I interrupting anything?" Sakura asked as she closed the door behind her, referring to Shikamaru hovering over Naruto as he signed mountains of papers.
"He's just a little late on his paperwork," Shikamaru replied tacitly. "If you'd finished earlier, you could be at Ichiraku right now."
The blond made a noise in the back of his throat. "Jerk."
Sakura walked forward, unsure of how to begin. It was only when Naruto looked up at her with a curious expression that she felt the best way to tell him was to be honest - something she hadn't been with him in a very long time. "Sai came to me today," she whispered.
At her words, even Shikamaru looked up, his expression just as tense as the Hokage that was beside him. Naruto, upon seeing Sakura's furrowed brow, leaned back in his chair and set down his pen. He sighed, evidently preparing himself for what he was about to hear. "Did you find anything?"
"Actually," she replied, "I did."
"What was it?"
"The thing is, it's still a working theory."
"Tell me," Naruto quipped, "even if it's just bits and pieces. We have to keep moving."
The pink-haired woman hesitated, looking at him, then at his advisor, and back to him. She bit her lip. "Naruto… I've studied something like this, and… it's not as simple as we thought it was."
"Then explain it to me."
"I don't have enough-"
"Make it simple for me to understand, Sakura-chan."
She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, looking straight at his face, telling herself that this was part of the job description, no matter how difficult it was. "It's a type of fūinjutsu."
The harbor was always peacefully quiet in the evenings. It was a setting that allowed for contemplation, for reflection on things that were too big to think about in normal circumstances. She often found him here, back when there were rumors that Sasuke had inevitably started the Fourth Shinobi War. He soaked his feet in the water as he sat on the wooden ledge, an action that was known amongst his teammates that he wanted to be left alone.
Except that tonight, she didn't want him to be alone.
"Are you sure?" he said quietly. "Maybe you're making a mistake."
"I know it's hard to take in," Sakura said softly, facing his back as he stared out onto the water, "but I'm still getting information. For now, this is what we have to assume."
Naruto stayed silent as the sound of the water filled both their ears. Not daring to sit next to him, Sakura stayed a good five meters away from him, looking out at the water that way. Not being able to imagine the way he felt, she could do nothing more than just stand behind him, supporting him wholeheartedly, but silently. It had always been this way: she had never been able to do a thing for him. She frowned.
"It's gotta be a joke, y'know," Naruto hollered at no one in particular, "it just… it can't be true."
Sakura's lips felt heavy, unable to form any words to offer comfort or solace.
"All that murdering, all that slaughtering," he trembled from rage, "and now the working theory is that they're using fūinjutsu? What a fucking joke."
"I'm sorry," Sakura said quietly, "I didn't want to believe it, either. Fūinjutsu was one of the most powerful techniques out there, and yet…" she trailed off, not knowing how, or even wanting to, finish her sentence.
It was silent for the next couple of minutes before Naruto turned around, his blue eyes filled with remorse as he looked at her. Something in her stirred and reacted to his expression, a reminder of how absolutely painful it was, and still is, painful to see him so upset. She looked away, reminding herself not to get caught up in it. "Sakura-chan," he said softly, "why are you over there? Come sit here."
"Oh, I don't-"
"Wanna know why this pisses me off?" He took a quick pause, but wasn't really waiting for an answer. "My mom's clan specialized in fūinjutsu." Sakura blinked, surprised, and subconsciously moved closer. "She lost her family because of it."
As they were growing up, Sakura had always seen him as someone that was as bright as the sun. Whenever he was upset, she wanted to kick herself for not being able to provide him with comfort. It seemed to her that in situations like those, just her being beside him was enough. He would express his disdain, or anger, or hopelessness, or great sadness that rendered him feeling useless, but her words of encouragement had always lifted his spirits and kept him going.
This time, she was at a loss for what to say.
"Remember when you came here to clear your thoughts before the war?" she asked softly. "You wouldn't come back, even when Kakashi-sensei came to console you."
"I like it here," he answered simply, "it gives me clarity."
"It does that for me, too."
"You came here when I wasn't here?"
"Only a few times," she admitted, the day of his wedding looming in the back of her memory, "but each time you came here, I always wished I could do something."
"You've done everything you could for me."
"No," she shook her head, "that's not true. I wanted to do so much more."
"What more could you have done?" he chuckled softly. "You protected me as much as you could, which is something I've always appreciated."
In the distance, she heard the honks of the ships that were returning to the harbor. "Maybe it's just a bad habit I have. Thinking that I haven't done anything for you."
She turned to look at him, thinking that his eyes were still looking far out at the water, but their eyes met and locked for a few moments that were too long to be called "moments". The lump that she had been holding back all day rose in her throat again and her eyes brimmed with tears that she tried to blink away with all her might. Instead, what ensued was her best friend reaching forward to wipe at her wet cheek, letting his thumb linger on her cheekbone. The intensity of the mission she had been given, the information that she had found out so far, and the sadness that she felt when she opened that tarp that Sai had brought her all seemed to come forth now, making her tremble.
"I'm sorry," she whispered as Naruto moved closer, "I wanted you to have everything."
"No," he uttered, his lips barely a whisper upon hers, "I wanted you to have everything."
The sound of the water around them could not drown out the sound of their thumping hearts.