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Dirt and Ashes, or: The One-and-a-Half Body Problem

Chapter Text


There was no light in Sakura's cell. She kept time to the beat of her heart and the angry throb of her ribs. Somewhere just at the edge of hearing, water was dripping. When it rained outside, it sped up to a trickle.

She worried she'd been forgotten. She also worried she hadn't been forgotten. Dehydration was a bad way to die - but she'd heard of worse.

Adjustment wasn't linear. She panicked, calmed, and then panicked again. Sometimes she couldn't hope to contain her racing, distressed thoughts. Sometimes she could shut down all her feelings and think with flat clarity.

Escape from this cell wasn't going to happen. She'd ascertained that within the first hour of being awake. Unless they remembered her and moved her somewhere, she wouldn't get the opportunity.

She didn't know where anybody else was. She didn't even remember who'd captured her. Her head wound had been healed - poorly - at some point, but she couldn't remember anything of it.

Sakura remembered Naruto turning into that enormous fox and beating Gaara of the Desert.

Then, waking here.

The boys had been wiped after the fight, too. The three of them were all easy pickings. She hoped they were all right. Even if the invasion had been successful - and maybe it was, she didn't know - there were rules for prisoners of war and if they'd been captured by Sand there was some chance of those rules being followed. She... rather doubted Sound honoured that sort of thing.

Sakura's worry over the rest of her team lasted right up until Sasuke walked into her cell.

"Sakura-san," he purred, and she knew - she knew - that wasn't Sasuke. The body language was all wrong, and the voice was raspy but languid in a way that raised the fine hairs on Sakura's neck.

"Kai!" she yelped reflexively, flaring what was left of her chakra.

Nothing changed - except the smile on Sasuke's lips.


Sakura's life took a dramatic turn for the worse.

It was the first time Sakura had ever seen a table with drainage channels cut into it. The sight of that gleaming metal, all polished and ready to drain out whatever leaked across it, terrified her.

But then Orochimaru paid her particular and special attention, and Sakura had so many more important things to be frightened of.

"Comfy?" he asked with heavy eyes and a narrow, inviting smile, running Sasuke's pale fingertips over her restraints.

Orochimaru was a conversational torturer. He liked the sound of his own voice. He asked questions, but she didn't know the answers to any of them and that didn't even really seem to bother him.

He frightened her until she soiled herself and he rubbed her face in it and laughed at her. He taught her to beg to eat her own vomit. He broke parts of her she hadn't even known she'd had, and he did it with a fierce and possessive joy.

Sakura had fantasised about Sasuke's deft hands before, and now they were on her skin, just as she'd always wanted. She dreamed about those hands. In the good dreams she cut his fingers off.

"But don't you like it, Sakura-san?" he purred to her once, leaning over her naked body with bloody hands braced on either side of her face.

Orochimaru's words came from Sasuke's mouth and they dripped upon her like poison. She couldn't see properly, but to her dizzy, drugged, dreaming mind they were acid, smoking in the air and peeling away her skin. Noises spilt from her without meaning, and she arched against her restraints.

"Don't you love him, Sakura-san?"

Sasuke's tongue - long, so long, too long - left a wet trail down her jaw. Colours cracked in her vision when she whimpered.

Sakura's eyes rolled into the back of her skull. She seized.


"You'll have scars," Kabuto told her. His chakra was soothing, even though he only healed what would kill or maim her. "Maa," he said after a second, adjusting his glasses with the tip of one finger, "I don't suppose it matters anyway."


"Muscle relaxant," Orochimaru told her indifferently. Sasuke's hair shone dark and glossy under the bright halogen lights, and he flicked a syringe to rid it of any air bubbles. "Among other things. I want to keep you lucid, you see."

She didn't see, not right then, but four hours later there was nothing she wouldn't have given for the freedom to move.

He had a mirror. She could see it when he cut into her, the wet tear of flesh, the gleam of bone. She'd seen bones before, used models in the academy, but - they were bleached white, usually. Hers were stained.

"You have to be careful with vivisection," said Orochimaru, pressing chakra-laden fingertips to one of the biggest bleeding vessels.

Sakura knew that one hard jerk on the restraints would make him cut too deep. She'd never wanted anything so badly in her life. Please, she thought to her muscles, just a little. Give me something.

But her body remained lax and Orochimaru had regrettably steady hands.

"You must be hungry," he said conversationally, much later.

Of course she was hungry. It was one of the ways they were controlling her chakra production. No food, no chakra.

Orochimaru pressed one bloody finger to her mouth. It was slick and bright and the thin rusty taste of her blood burst upon Sakura's tongue.

When she could move and swallow properly again, he hand-fed her something fleshy and bloody in tiny delicate pieces. It smelled like offal.

"You didn't really need it anyway," he assured her.

"Just... stop," Sakura croaked. Her voice was gone. Her eyes wouldn't focus and, frankly, she was edging ever closer to being too tired for torture.

He clicked his tongue. "You know I won't," he said softly, like he was terribly disappointed.

"You're not even asking questions anymore," she slurred.

"Hm?" he paused. He peered down at her. "Poor child," he said finally, with a smile that looked all wrong on Sasuke's face. "There's nothing you could tell me about Konoha that I don't already know. It's not even about you, not really. Sasuke-kun is just... unusually stubborn."

He tapped the side of his head meaningfully.

Sakura hadn't thought she'd had any horror left to give him, but - oh, she did. There was ice in her veins. Sasuke was in there.

Orochimaru made a delighted sound. "Are you crying, Sakura-san? All my hard work, and you still have tears left for Sasuke-kun?" he leaned in so close she could taste the blood on his breath, and she closed her eyes against it so she wasn't looking straight into Sasuke's face.

"If you have tears left, Sakura-san," he rasped quietly, "you should save them for yourself."

"Orochimaru-sama," came Kabuto's voice from the door, smooth and uninflected. His eyes drifted over Sakura without pause or concern, and when he tilted his head toward Orochimaru his glasses glinted in the bright overhead lights.

It was the first time she'd had any hint of the world outside these walls and her own black cell. It smelled of forest and rain, and something particularly rank, like formaldehyde - something Kabuto had been working with, perhaps.

The smells hit her and despair punched her in the gut. She wanted to be out there. Would she ever get there again?

Was this it?

She struggled to breathe through her sudden panic.

"-some losses, and Hidan-kun is in pieces, but -"

"I'm sure he'll be fine," Orochimaru said dismissively. He was looking at Sakura, but his dark eyes were distant. "Bring him to me when he arrives."

Kabuto nodded and then disappeared in a swirl of leaves.

Sakura choked on a sob.

"My, my," murmured Orochimaru, watching her intently.

She squeezed her eyes shut tightly. Let him watch - she just didn't want to see.


Chapter Text


Sakura let her fingers play over the scars of Orochimaru's neat stitches, all the way from her pubic bone to her collar. He had a delicate hand with the sewing, an idea that sort of troubled her. And Kabuto was a good healer, whatever his bedside manner.

A hundred and fifty thousand heart beats between visits meant they were messing with her feeding schedule, although not even the long stretch between food could make her look forward to thin rice porridge and a kick in the ribs.

There were things she could do - mental techniques she was meant to employ - to stop herself from going nuts in precisely these circumstances. She remembered Iruka-sensei, clear as day, telling them how to focus on tasks and mentally go through them; little things to occupy their minds. She remembered how to notice small changes in routines, analyse anything her captors said. She remembered that in a pinch she could drink her own urine to conserve water.

Nothing she'd been taught really prepared her for the impact of it, though. Oh, the pain was difficult - Orochimaru was good at causing pain. But he had, with very little apparent effort, tapped into the system that operated behind the pain: fear, self-preservation, panic. That was where he really shone, where torment became an art.

She counted heart beats.

She counted stitches.

She ate her watered down gruel, was hosed down every four days, didn't even flinch anymore when Orochimaru snapped her fingers. They'd heal. Or be healed. Or perhaps they wouldn't.

Sakura wasn't sure if she'd ever have enough energy to have feelings again.

She was counting heartbeats and hours between meals, but she truly had no idea how many days she'd been stuck in her cell when she got her cell mate.

Weeks, at least. Long weeks.

At first she wasn't quite sure that cell mate was the correct designation. It was a box. A wooden box, reasonably large. The ninja who brought it in sneered at her as she flinched in the sudden light, gave the box a hard kick and slammed the door.

Sakura did not touch the box.

She had no idea what was in it, and she wasn't at all interested in finding out. Probably, she thought, pieces of somebody she loved. That was very much Orochimaru's style.

She didn't feel anything at the thought. Just... tired.

But as time passed, ninja came to collect the box. They left with it and brought it back, over and over. It seemed much too elaborate to be a ploy to hurt her - would anybody really waste this much effort when there were easier ways to do it?

Still, it took Sakura three hundred and sixteen thousand heart beats to muster the curiosity to look inside, and another thirteen thousand to gather the motivation necessary for the effort.

She found the box when she walked into it in the dark, and then she spent a few minutes trying to work out the opening mechanism.

Sakura heaved the lid off. She could hear herself breathing, but everything else was quiet. Now that she'd opened the box, she wondered if maybe this was a bad idea. There were a lot of things she wasn't entirely prepared to stick her hand in, no matter how bruised and broken it already was.

Carefully, gingerly, she reached out in the blackness.

Something shot out of the box and smacked her hand.

Sakura yelped and jerked away, heart hammering.

Oh, god, it moved. What the hell was it?

A soft noise came from inside, oddly muffled.

Sakura inched closer again. It hadn't actually hurt her, after all. She touched the side of the box with her fingertips, feeling the painful pressure on a swollen part of her hand. Fracture, she thought clinically. Nothing terribly out of place.

Cautiously, she tapped gently on the box.

A hand snatched hers.

Sakura did not scream, but it was a very near thing. The hand was warm, rough, large. It wasn't gentle.

"Hello?" she said in a cracked voice. Her lips were dry, and her voice had been mostly gone for weeks from a combination of silence and screaming.

Another muffled noise, this one louder, and the hand tugged on her, which - "Are you gagged?" she muttered, forcing her throat, and followed the long lines of that arm - wrist, forearm, bend of an elbow, biceps, shoulder - ah.

"Give me a second," she said. Hopefully she shared a language with whoever this was. Who was so unlucky that Orochimaru felt the need to keep him in a box? He was already in a box: their cell. She frowned uncertainly.

The gag was smooth on the outside, knotted around a head of thick hair. Even with both hands free, the box was too shallow to allow a person to manoeuvre enough to get it undone - and the angle would have been awkward as hell even if he had been able to reach it.

When she drew it away, she found the inside was something like - a plug maybe? Something broad and metal, made to depress the tongue and fill the mouth. It was wide and sharp, and she could smell that there was more than saliva on it.

"Fucking hell," croaked a voice in the dark. From the arms, Sakura had thought it was a man, but the voice confirmed it. "That hurts. Where the hell are we?"

"I have no idea," said Sakura. "You're not tied, are you?"

"No, but -" a pause, then a tremendously annoyed noise. "Have you seen my legs?"

Sakura blinked, once, slowly. She realised with a sudden swooping sensation in her gut that the box he'd arrived in was not big enough for a grown man.

"No," she said, and was astonished to find her voice flat and even. "There was only the one box brought into this cell," she added.

The voice in the dark swore. He was quite creative, in his way.

"You've been here for -" six hundred thousand heart beats, give or take a few, she thought, "- nearly a week."

"A week -" there was a pause, and then a snarl. "Fucking Kakuzu," he growled.

"Orochimaru," she said, because she wasn't sure who Kakuzu was, but he certainly wasn't the one doing the torturing. "How high up did they cut your legs?" she wondered, thinking about - infection, infarction, all sorts of merciful possibilities.

He grunted. "Dunno." There was an odd, exploratory noise, and - he swore. Again. "Goddamn it, they got my guts-"

"What?"

His hand took hers, and her whole stomach turned upside down when he dragged her fingers over the jagged edge of his spine. There were other things around it. Squishy things. Tacky, sticky things.

Sakura made a noise. She wasn't sure what kind of noise it was, just that it was alarmed and upset and shocked all at once. The box really had not been big enough. "I -"

"Stop whimpering. It'll be fine. I just - need to find my fucking legs."

It'd be fine? Dear god. Sakura swallowed. "If I hear anything," she said slowly, "I'll let you know."

"Great," he muttered, and smacked her forearm in the dark. It stung, but she wasn't sure he knew she was injured. "Now piss off, I've gotta pray."


His name was Hidan, and he was possibly the single most irritating human being on the planet.

He was loud. He was obsessive. He was crude. He was violent.

Sometimes he insisted on eating and then he smelled completely rank for days because - oh yes - his stomach and bowels were torn open and everything inside him, at some point, leaked into the air.

He also talked almost non-stop. It wasn't even usually to Sakura. She was just his unfortunate and captive audience.

She gathered a few things from his endless chatter, however: one, that he was a missing nin and had no village to come looking for him; two, that somebody had been paid to betray him and deliver him to Orochimaru; three, that he was somehow functionally immortal; and four, that he was religious.

He was very, very religious.

Religion was an interesting thing among ninja. Shrines to the dead were common, as were assorted superstitions and localised beliefs, and every ninja believed in the death god. But other than those, organised religion was pretty uncommon.

If a ninja had that kind of faith in anything, it was usually her village, and the villages did tend to encourage that.

Hidan worshipped Jashin, the god of suffering, and he was absurdly dedicated to his religion. He was clearly more upset about missing ritual sacrifices than he was about missing his legs.

The worst thing was that Sakura was grateful for his being there. When Orochimaru was trying to discover the secrets of Hidan's immortality, he wasn't torturing Sakura. That did mean long stretches of time alone in the darkness, of course, but it was better than the alternative.

He was also there when somebody escorted her back to her cell. Orochimaru usually did not seem to have the time, so it was mostly a three-man guard of grim-faced Sound ninja. Sometimes - often - they had to carry her, and they dumped her into the cell and didn't look back.

The first time it happened, all he said was: "You stink. Don't they ever bathe you?"

Sakura coughed wetly - she had a broken rib, and she was fairly certain a punctured lung was imminent, if it hadn't already happened. Maybe she'd die before Kabuto fixed her? She rolled over laboriously, and was strangely satisfied by the hideous grind in her chest.

"Sometimes they use water jutsu," she said.

"Not very often," he muttered.

"Mmm," she agreed. "Believe me," she said with an ugly indrawn breath, "it's not by choice."

He laughed. Hidan's laugh was a terrifying thing: wild and mean and strangely high. There was always an edge of hysteria in it.

He prayed aloud a lot - enough that Sakura felt she could probably have recited the words with him, and he had a great many opinions about heathens - which was, as far as Sakura could tell, anybody but him.

"Are there any other Jashinists?" she asked, interrupting one long rant about how Yakushi Kabuto would be force-fed his own organs by the almighty god for his blasphemies - which, as somebody who had already been forced to eat her own organs, Sakura felt very ambivalent about.

There was a short, surprised pause. "Of course there are," he said. "Are you stupid? What kind of religion only has one follower?"

"Probably all of them, when they started out," she mused. Her voice hurt to use since she'd spent too much time screaming, but talking to Hidan was a lot better than counting heart beats in the silent dark.

Hidan snorted. "There aren't many of us, but that's just because a lot of people can't handle the truth."

She made a noise of acknowledgement. "Truth, huh?" she murmured. She was tired.

"Sure. Suffering."

"What?"

"Are you deaf or just stupid? I said: suffering. It's the only truth there is. All of Jashin-sama's rituals require the mutual experience of suffering because it reminds us of the one thing that connects us all."

It would not have made sense to her, back when she didn't crave the touch of sunlight or measure pain on a scale ranging from bruises to unanaesthetised surgery. But here, in the dark of their cell...

She could almost see it.

Her silence was evidently construed as enthusiasm, because Hidan went on. He told her about rituals where each participant was injured equally, how he had become immortal specifically so he could feel the ultimate suffering for his god.

"Jashin-sama suffers with us, of course. That's why we sacrifice. We deliver to him the experience of suffering, the taste of humanity; we give him life, he gives us death. Sometimes," he added, with a smile in his voice, "he gives us freedom from death."

"Is that really what it is?" Sakura wondered curiously.

"Of course it is!" Hidan growled. "You think people can come up with a way to keep me alive like this?"

No, Sakura reflected, probably not. There were some strange forbidden techniques out there, but if there was one that could allow a man to survive for weeks having been cut in half, it would certainly be more popular.

Initially, she thought Hidan's religion was weird. It wasn't so much that it didn't make sense - she could understand his attachment only too well. It was just that it didn't seem to be a very useful way to make sense of things. She wanted to avoid suffering, in general, not to roll around in it.

She told him as much, once, when she was drugged to the gills. Her nerves fired inconsistently: sometimes she couldn't feel at all, and then a staggering wash of pain would hit her so fast she couldn't even tell if she was crying out.

She crawled to him where his mangled body lay, and slumped against him. He protested and smacked her, but she couldn't feel it properly and he was warm and alive and she hadn't touched anybody but Orochimaru and Kabuto in months.

"I don't like suffering," she complained - slurred, really, feeling dizzy but listening to Hidan's pulse hammer slow and even against her face. "It's gross."

"Don't be a coward," he said in a hard voice. "Suffering is literally the only thing you and I have in common."

She squinted at him. She couldn't see him and it hurt her neck, but she did nonetheless. Part of her was still hoping to catch something: the gleam of an eye, the shadow of a face, something. Instead all she knew of him was warm skin and the stickiness of coagulating blood and fluids.

"It's different anyway," he said after a long time. "Torture isn't the same as ritual suffering. Maybe one day I'll show you."

"Mm," she said, uncommitted.

But as the time passed, Sakura grew to understand more and more precisely what he was talking about. She knew that part of her was only attached to Hidan because he was all she had right then, but...

He was right, after all. When everything else was gone there was still suffering.

"Your pain is sacred," he told her. "Your suffering is beautiful."

She didn't believe him. But she wanted to.

Until, eventually, she did.

"If that's true," she said, "then yours is, too."

"Of course it is," he said dismissively. "And when I free myself, Orochimaru's got it coming to him. And it'll be true for him, too."

Sakura thought about Sasuke's body rent and bloodied as Hidan's was.

She found it didn't bother her.

"Aa," she sighed.

"Are you falling asleep on me?"

"No," she slurred.

"You fucking are, you -"

"Shhh," she said, curling closer.

"I swear to god, if you drool on me -"

"Hidan-san, your feces is leaking out your guts onto my thigh," she muttered. "We've got bigger problems."

He laughed, shrill and crazy.

She rubbed her face on his shoulder.

It was amazing what you could get used to.


"Ahhh," said Hidan, arching awkwardly. He got like this sometimes, like he suddenly remembered that he was missing half his person. "It hurts and hurts and hurts." His voice was thick and guttural and rose up rumbling from his chest.

Sakura stretched her fingers, broken and swollen, and breathed deeply to feel the awful pull where her muscles had been sliced through. "At least you know you're alive," she said neutrally.

"I'm always alive."


Neither Sakura nor Hidan had much recourse to escape, not really. Hidan wasn't of a character to be brought low by that, because he was almost too stubborn to function, but - well - Hidan had no legs, which was, any way one looked at it, a disadvantage.

But Sakura didn't think it would make much difference if he was able. Their captors were practised.

Of course, neither of them had been banking on an incursion from outside Orochimaru's base.

It happened precisely like that, though. One moment they were alone in the silent dark and the next - the side of their cell collapsed with a thunderous shuddering impact.

There was yelling - cries of rage and aggression, the sort that shinobi made when stealth was useless.

It took very little time for them to turn into screams. Sakura was very familiar with screams of pain and terror by now, and these were - helpless. Helpless and high and desperate, the noises a person made when there was nothing else they could do.

Then they, too, began to be silenced.

Light came through the destroyed corner of their cell. It wasn't easy for Sakura's eyes to adjust to, but Hidan seemed to have a better time, because he recognised one of the shadows moving out there.

"Itachi!" he yelped, flailing one arm. There was a pause, and a figure edged closer.

Blinking, Sakura made out some of the details.

The man silhouetted in the broken wall looked at them, red eyes gleaming. He had dark circles beneath his eyes, and his face was haggard like he'd lost a lot of weight all at once.

Sakura didn't know him by sight, but she knew who he was. Every Konoha genin did. His gaze drifted over her and she flinched.

He was perfectly clean, but she had no doubt that he'd been the source of the screaming. Black fire coiled around him like something very much alive, wreathing him in smoke and ash.

His eyes burned.

He looked like the wrath of god.

"Hidan," he said in a soft, mild voice. No expression flickered across his face.

And then... he ignored him and kept going. Somebody shouted, and the sound was cut off with a soft grunt. "Could you direct me to Orochimaru-san?" murmured Itachi's voice from somewhere down the corridor, just as soft and incongruous.

She didn't hear the reply, but then: more screams.

"That bastard." Hidan started swearing and didn't stop.

"Thank you," murmured Itachi's voice.

A gurgle.

A thump.

Sakura swallowed hard. "Just shut up for a second," she hissed, edging toward him and - well, she couldn't take the box. She wasn't big enough. She slung one arm over her shoulder and heaved him up, but almost stumbled under his weight.

"You're a fucking midget," said Hidan helpfully, squinting at her in the light. Sakura hated to think what she actually looked like. "How did I not know that?"

"You're half a person," she sniped back, "so I don't think you've much room to criticise."

There was the shriek of tortured metal, the boom of broken stone. Sakura peered into the corridor, wincing in the light. Bodies, bodies everywhere. She supposed that oughtn't surprise her. Itachi was sort of known for massacres by now.

But the important thing about retracing Itachi's footsteps via a trail of fire and destruction was that there was nobody - nobody - left alive.

Except them. Which was nice.

"We gotta get my legs," hissed Hidan.

"Don't be ridiculous," Sakura shot that down. "We have to get out of here. I'm not going searching for your legs in the middle of this."

"What the fuck? You little idiot, what the hell am I meant to do without legs?"

"You can come back for them." She paused to snatch the field pack off a dead body, but she could smell fresh air and forest out there somewhere and she was determined to be long gone by the time Orochimaru regrouped - if he regrouped.

"I'd be walking into a trap, moron!"

"Well, maybe Uchiha will win. I don't know!" Her voice cracked, high and aggrieved, because, yes she understood his position but - "Do you want me to leave you here?" she asked suddenly.

"What? No! I want you to go fucking find my legs! Are you stupid?"

So Sakura ignored him and moved on.

Chapter Text

 

Once Sakura got them out, she knew her first priority had to be to get them somewhere defensible. She wasn't well enough to run hard for very long and Hidan couldn't run at all.

It was raining outside, which was probably a good thing - scent tracking would be almost impossible, and if it rained hard enough it would wipe their tracks. It also meant that she was damp as well as injured, exhausted and hungry, but it seemed like a small price to pay for the extra security.

She was pleased, when her eyes finally stopped watering and stinging at the sudden light after so long in the dark, to see that they were still surrounded by towering trees and familiar flora. That meant they were probably in Fire country, or very near is borders. With no memory of where she'd been taken and no obvious landmarks in sight, though, she still ended up picking a direction at random and hoping for luck.

Hidan was heavy, even though he was only half a Hidan, and he was braced on her shoulder. She shifted him uncomfortably. One of her calves had some deep slices in it - in the shape of a coiled snake where Orochimaru had gotten bored, although he was not a particularly deft artist - and she suspected from the weakness and pain that her muscles there weren't in good shape.

"Okay," she said quietly, finding her voice oddly hoarse. She wondered if it would ever be the same again. Maybe not. Whatever - she was alive, and they had bigger problems. "There isn't anything for miles that I can tell. They have to have a water source - a river or something. It must be nearby. Do you hear anything?"

She felt the muscles in his arm tense, heaving himself up higher against her, so the curve of his rib was against her shoulder. She balanced him carefully, running as fast as she dared, and very intentionally did not look at him. She wasn't squeamish - or, if she had been, she wasn't any longer! - but that didn't mean that the sight of his bare spine jutting out of a bright bloody mass of muscle and organs and -

No.

Some things she did not need to expose herself to right now.

The brief thought occurred to her that she was being quite cowardly, but - no. She'd seen her own innards. She had nothing to prove.

"Hidan?" she prompted.

"Shut up, I'm trying to listen," he snapped.

She fell silent. Before - and it felt like a lifetime before - she would have been offended. Now she didn't care enough to be offended. All of her higher mental functions had been funnelled into surviving and she was taking Hidan with her. That was all there was to it.

They kept running. The forest smelled of wet leaves and rain, and Sakura wasn't sure she'd ever smelled anything so good. The air was freezing but it was also fresh air. After months of captivity, she had a new appreciation for - well, a lot of things. But definitely for life outside the cell walls.

"I can't believe you left my fucking legs behind," Hidan muttered, minutes later. "How the fuck am I meant to find a proper sacrifice now?"

Sakura frowned. "To Jashin-sama?" she wondered.

"Of course," said Hidan, as though that was the only possible reason and she was an idiot for asking. "He's gonna be pissed that I missed so many. I've gotta - make it up, I guess. I..." he sounded honestly distressed for a moment.

Sakura was silent for a few seconds. "Haven't you been suffering, though? Isn't that..." she took a deep breath between strides, "something?" she finished lamely.

He sniffed. "That's not how it works," he said impatiently. "It's not about individual suffering. It's -"

"Right, but we've both been -"

"Look, until you get your fucking legs cut off, it doesn't mean anything."

Sakura made a wounded noise. "That's not what you said, Hidan!"

The sound that came from him was frustrated and his hand awkwardly smacked the back of her skull. "It's different in a ritual!" he growled. "And -" a sudden pause. "Water!" He pulled on her hair, as though he could steer her with it.

Sakura ignored that insulting tug on her head and veered left, where the sound of water did indeed become quickly louder.

Once they reached the stream, Sakura had a much better idea of where they were. She knew her geography - she'd scored top of the class in it at the academy. "We're in Grass," she muttered, scowling. She'd thought -

Well, it didn't matter what she'd thought. She'd probably feel even worse if it turned out they were in Fire country and nobody had come for her. She licked her lips. They should have come for Sasuke-kun, at least.

"Okay, water is good," she said.

One step at a time.

The ration pack had several objects inside that would help with water - litmus paper, among several other indicators, to help determine if the water was potable. There were also a few water purification tablets, although they were finite and she should use them sparingly.

"Clean," she decided, having tested the water to the best of her ability, and she took the opportunity to drink her fill and refill their water supplies. "Do you need-?"

"Probably not," muttered Hidan.

For the first time she turned to get a good look at him. He was - well, he'd been wearing a top, at least, although the bottom edge of it was soaked with blood and thicker things. Beneath that was - colon, intestine, some seriously heavy muscle. She could see spine and something vaguely pelvic, held in place by still-wet muscle.

She was... less upset than she'd thought. It was actually sort of interesting to see. She knew, in theory, how all that stuff worked - she'd learned basic anatomy just as she'd learned where to throw a kunai.

"Would it be better to keep those injuries clean?" she asked, and found herself surprisingly calm.

Hidan shrugged. "Doesn't matter. I don't get sick."

She blinked. Well, that was... useful, she supposed.

It was still drizzling, and she shivered a little. Cold. She was cold. She'd been cold for a long time, but it was different when she could feel the wind biting at her and the rain trickling down her neck. "We need to find shelter," she said, glancing up at the ominous sky.

They moved on.

Sakura found a cave further down the stream, eventually. It looked too good to be true: deep and dry and near a water source.

"Looks good," she said hoarsely to Hidan. Internally she thought it looked like a trap. It wasn't likely, but at that moment anything that looked like good luck seemed untrustworthy.

"Looks like a shit hole," said Hidan.

"Hidan!" she growled, jostling him a little on purpose. He swore at her and swatted her head. "You can go back to Orochimaru's dungeon if you want. I'm taking my chances with the cave."

"It's a nice shit hole," he elaborated, "looks dry, near water. Great. Still a shit hole."

Sakura did not respond to that. He wasn't, you know, wrong.

Hidan grunted when she put him down, adding what was doubtless very painful pressure to his exposed spine. "Fucking ow," he muttered but he was more or less quiet. Sakura wondered if the escape had taken something out of him... even if she'd been doing most of the work.

Of course, when she checked the cave she found a hibernating bear.

"So?" Said Hidan, sneering. "You're not gonna find a better place. Are you telling me you can't beat a bear?"

"I-" she paused. She'd never killed a bear before, but she'd killed animals. And it couldn't be any scarier than that awful mission to Wave - she'd been prepared to fight the demon brothers with barely a blink. "Well, probably," she said.

She was injured, yes, but Kabuto had been working hard to keep her in shape for the next round of torment. A couple broken fingers, some heavy bruising, some cuts in geometric shapes over her ribs, a snake carved into her calf - Sakura was hurt but she wasn't - well, she certainly wasn't hurt like Hidan was. In honesty, she was probably vastly more debilitated by how hungry she was.

"'Probably'?" Hidan sounded baffled. "What the fuck, are you a ninja or not?"

"I've never tried to kill a bear before," Sakura said defensively. He opened his mouth to say something, but she let him say it to her back, turning on her heel to head back to the cave.

Her steps were unsteady, muscles achy and deprived, but she was quiet enough.

The bear was huge, a giant furred shape breathing slowly in the dark. It snuffled uncertainly while she stood looking at it.

She didn't want it to wake before she'd killed it.

Sakura took a stolen kunai and shoved it straight through the sleeping bear's eye socket. She was fast enough, and shoved hard enough, that by the time it had lurched awake, all she had to do was get out of its way for a few moments.

Bam. Dead. "That wasn't that hard," she said to the bear's leaking face. She had to brace her foot against its skull to get the kunai out. It came with an ugly squelch.

"Okay," she said, coming to retrieve Hidan.

"Took you long enough. 'Probably'," he mocked, rolling his eyes.

"I'm not -" Sakura scowled at him, took a deep sighing breath, and then chose not to engage with him about this. Instead she rolled her eyes right back, hauled him to the cave and set him down again with some relief. The carcass of the bear was still there, but it wasn't too messy since the wound she'd killed it with didn't result in a lot of bleeding. It wasn't hurting anybody to leave it there, and she and Hidan could carve it up for food later, when she found the energy. You couldn't eat bear livers, she knew - but most of the flesh was probably good.

But her first priority had to be traps.

Since her disastrous efforts in the Forest of Death, Sakura had taken the opportunity to read about and practice her traps. She had very little else to do while Sa- while her team mates were training for the tournament. Traps, at least, were the sort of skill any ninja could become reasonably proficient at with enough time and patience.

Sakura had limited supplies and no chakra, but she was pretty sure that unless Orochimaru came after them himself, they'd at least have warning of somebody's approach. Her traps were definitely improved, she thought.

"Your traps are shit," Hidan told her upon her return, as though he could even see all of them. "And you're a fucking midget. What are you, ten?"

"Twelve," she corrected and he made a face like that wasn't any better. "And if you have a better idea for the traps, I'm happy to hear it."

"Twelve? The fuck is a twelve year old doing in Orochimaru's base? He a pedophile now?"

"No," said Sakura, and, frankly, thank god. She paused, wondering if she should tell Hidan. She stalled while digging through her stolen field pack for a ration bar. She couldn't eat the whole thing at once, probably, but it'd be a good thing to start with - they were nutritious, calorific and long-lasting.

There didn't seem to be any reason not to tell Hidan about Sasuke, though. She licked her lips, folding herself down and breaking the ration bar in half. It smelled of nothing, tasted like cardboard, and filled her too quickly.

"He's... that body he's in. It's... Uchiha Sasuke is - was - my team mate. Orochimaru... needed me, to hurt him... so he'd..." She stopped. The words stuck oddly in her throat.

"Spit it out," Hidan rolled his eyes, plainly annoyed at her halting explanation.

Sakura clenched her jaw and looked up from her hands to meet his gaze head on. Hidan's eyes were red. Not sharingan-red. A colder red, one that seemed strange against his skin and hair."There were parts of Sasuke-kun still inside," she said. "He needed to hurt me to hurt Sasuke-kun's mind."

Hidan looked briefly puzzled. "Is that why Uchiha was there?" he said after a second, and it took Sakura a few moments to realise he meant Itachi.

"I..." Sakura's brow furrowed. "I don't know. I know Sasuke-kun wanted to kill Uchiha Itachi. I don't think he'd be worried about..."

"Worried," Hidan scoffed. "No, I wouldn't call that worried."

Sakura thought about that black smoke, those burning eyes. No, she supposed. It was hard to attribute such a human emotion to such a fearsome thing.

"I don't suppose you heard anything about anybody else from Konoha?" she wondered. Naruto had a habit of turning up unharmed whether she wanted him to or not, but - well. She hadn't heard anything of him, and that seemed... oddly surprising.

She felt like, if he was okay, he'd have come for her no matter what.

Hidan scowled. "Nobody except Orochimaru and that Yakushi shithead."

Sakura clicked her tongue uncertainly. "I've - my other team mate. He was fighting Gaara of the Desert -" she nodded when Hidan's eyes narrowed. He'd heard that name, and that did not surprise her, " - and I think he... well, I was injured in the fight. I'm not sure what happened to him, so..."

"Hah," said Hidan, low and with a smile that was unpleasantly ironic. "Uzumaki Naruto, huh?"

Sakura felt the hair on the back of her neck stand up. "How do you know -?"

He started laughing, and his laughter was just as scary and crazy sounding as usual. Sakura was immune to it. She didn't even care anymore.

"Hidan," her voice snapped in the cold air, and with its hoarseness and her anger, her echo was - oddly threatening. She didn't apologise. "What the hell do you know about Naruto?"

"Uzumaki Naruto is the host of the nine-tailed demon fox," he said, still grinning. "And he was traded to the Akatsuki by Orochimaru. He's dead by now."

"Dead? Orochimaru - the-" Sakura swallowed and stopped yelling random words.

She focused on the gleam of wet organs and muscle and the exposed jut of Hidan's spine, just so she didn't have to look him in the eye.

"What's the Akatsuki?"

Hidan tilted his head back. "Bullshit, mostly," he said, and shrugged. "They're a bunch of lunatics trying to collect all the tailed beasts to take over the world or something. I wasn't really listening," he admitted with a shrug. "I was part of the group for a while, though," he admitted, flashing her a ring that she supposed was meant to mean something. "Until fucking Kakuzu sold me out," he added in a really ominous tone.

Sakura had heard that name before, several times, but Hidan was not always clear about who he wanted to kill and why. She frowned. "Kakuzu is also a member?"

He snorted. "Bounty hunter, treasurer, advisor, financial planner - Kakuzu does a shit load of work for them. He's older than dirt. I'm going to rip his spleen out when I find him," he said.

There was a time when that would have upset Sakura, but honestly she wasn't troubled by the idea much anymore. It was gross, sure, but she was pretty sure she could watch that and never even flinch. "Probably go for something more vital, first," she suggested, more for need of something to say. "These people sound - strong."

"So what? I'm strong too."

Sakura said nothing. She didn't doubt it.

Hidan grunted. He shifted position a little, and then seemed to rediscover his exposed innards and jerked in pain. There was more swearing before he settled.

Overhead, the rain was increasing. The mouth of the cave was darkened and the world outside nearly obscured by the heaviness of the downpour.

"So -" Sakura frowned. The Kyuubi wasn't exactly unfamiliar to Konoha school children, but she hadn't really put together the fact that this meant that all the other beasts existed too. In her mind, they were mostly relegated to mythology and folk lore. "Gaara was - one of the beasts?" she asked haltingly.

"The one-tailed beast," Hidan agreed. "Bad match up for him, really, coming up against the nine-tails."

"Naruto's definitely dead?" she asked, frowning. "He... he heals really fast," she said slowly, "and he's..." she frowned harder. "You wouldn't think it when you looked at him, but he's... powerful."

"Well, yeah," Hidan said, rolling his head back against the cave wall. "Strongest of the tailed beasts and all, right? Must have been a hell of a sealing job to keep him contained and quiet for this long, too. But," he added, looking at her with heavy lidded eyes, "he's no match for Pein and Konan. And worse still, Itachi was assigned to capture him. He's..." he paused.

"He's dead," he said. Then he shrugged. "He suffered. He died fighting, no doubt. Jashin-sama will accept his spirit after death, and he will have peace."

Sakura wondered if that was true. She wasn't sure if she believed in Hidan's god, but the idea was - promising. Suffering, she believed in. It seemed sensible that any real god would be invested in it. "I hope so," she muttered.

She wondered what had happened to Kakashi-sensei. She doubted he'd have allowed his students to be captured or killed without a fight. He was - dedicated. She wondered if he, too, was dead.

It seemed like everything had fallen apart. "Do you -" she stopped.

She wasn't actually sure if she wanted to know.

"Mm?"

She had to find out sometime. "Do you know what happened - after? Did Konoha-"

"Burned," he said flatly.

She swallowed. "What?"

"Are you deaf, too?" he wondered sharply. "Orochimaru manipulated Sand into invading alongside Sound. Konoha got caught in the middle and they burned it to the fucking ground. It's gone."

Sakura stared at him, uncomprehending. "A- All of it?"

"Anything inside the walls. I didn't see it myself but - Deidara did, flying over. He reported. It was a massacre. He said there were some survivors, but not many. Dumb asshole didn't bother to find out which survivors or how many, but that's Deidara for you."

Ino, Sakura thought, unbidden. Suddenly, powerfully, she wanted to see her. The idea that she was dead was - Sakura's hands clenched by her sides. Her teeth ground together and they ached when she spoke through them. "The Hokage-"

"Orochimaru killed that old geezer, one on one."

Sakura closed her eyes. They stung, but it was tiredness, not tears. She didn't really cry anymore. Hadn't in months.

She could almost feel Hidan's next comment coming for her. "You're going to say that they died in a glorious battle and there was suffering and destruction and they're with Jashin-sama now, aren't you?"

He heaved a huge sigh. "I've never had anybody worth losing," he said flatly, "but I've been told - other believers say - when shit like this happens, knowing the truth doesn't mean you have to like it."

Sakura opened her eyes.

Hidan looked oddly distant. "Just because you believe in Jashin-sama, in the truth, doesn't mean... I never said it was easy."

There was a long silence. The rain fell outside their cave. Sakura braced her elbows on her knees and tried to still the fine tremor in her hands.

She took a deep breath. "Yeah, all right," she managed. Another long silence, then: "At least they're not rotting in the death god's stomach." She gave a thin, watery laugh. The shaking didn't go away.

Hidan's grin was fierce, though, and his approval seemed like a lifeline. "Right."

"Okay," she said, taking a deep breath and exhaling. "So. We're going to recover - or, I am - then we're going to go find your legs -"

"Hell yes we are,"

"-and then we're going to track down Orochimaru and -" her voice caught, but not from fear or distress at the idea of killing him.

Sakura had never, ever felt rage like that before and for a moment it paralysed her. She felt swollen with it, like it was something alive and huge and ready to burst from her. Her bones ached with it.

"Then we're going to kill him," she finished, with false calm.

Hidan didn't look particularly fooled by her attempt at remaining calm. He watched her with a cruel smile and then licked his lips. "Sounds like a plan," he agreed.

A memory flashed: Orochimaru's tongue, too long, cool and slithering, as he licked a wet stripe down Sakura's face.

"First we're going to rip out his tongue," she amended.

Hidan laughed. The sound was high and crazy and friendly and comforting. A second later, Sakura covered her mouth with one hand to stifle a tiny giggle of her own.

 

 

Chapter Text

Declaring a thing did not actually make it so, unfortunately. Sakura believed wholeheartedly in their plan, but that did not necessarily mean that she enjoyed working toward it over the next few days. Bears, for a start, were tremendously hard to carve up properly. They had a lot more dense muscle than most of the things she'd hunted and cooked. Give her a bunny rabbit any day.

"Rabbit's gross," Hidan pointed out. He was helping, because losing other body parts didn't prevent him using both hands and a knife, and also because he was going a bit stir crazy.

The cave was dry and large and big enough to stretch out in, and the field packs Sakura had filched contained a few very helpful odds and ends - like little tubes of chemicals that glowed bright and pale when snapped, and a foil blanket. She wished there was some provision for preserving meat, but the bear would only last as long as anything lasted in the cold weather.

Sakura was completely unsurprised to notice that Hidan carved up the flesh with enviable ease - she had noticed that he had a lot of ropy muscle in his arms and shoulders, but that didn't always go hand in hand with functional strength. For Hidan, apparently it did.

"Rabbit is... not my favourite," she said, because she could think of things she liked less - she'd never again look at watery rice porridge without wanting to throw up, she was sure, "but at least I know how to skin and prepare a rabbit."

Sakura wasn't a very good cook, but she felt as though even she could handle cooking meat on a slab of iron over a fire until it was no longer raw inside. They ate with their hands, and the meat was sweet and rich and a little bloody. Sakura knew she had to be careful how much she ate - no matter how much her body demanded food, if she ate too much too fast after so long without she'd be sick. She watched, disgruntled, as Hidan dismantled about five times what she could stomach without concern.

At least, she thought morosely, eyeing the meat, she had her legs.

Aside from food and water and shelter, Sakura needed medical attention. She cleaned and bandaged the things she could, but she had the sinking feeling that there were some steady, nagging aches that she was just going to have to accept as part of her life now. One of them was in a weak ankle. She was keeping it bandaged to stabilise the joint for now.

That led her to certain questions. Sakura had seen - and felt - Kabuto's chakra while he'd been healing her. She did wonder precisely how he'd done it. That would be a terribly handy skill - sealing up cuts and dispersing bruises with a touch of her fingers. It was, however, a particular kind of chakra. She could tell at least that much. She dearly wanted to experiment but now was, perhaps, not the time.

"What we need most is information," she said one night, stretching her stiff joints before engaging in a short evening kata. She hated the way Hidan watched her do it, but she also knew there was nothing terribly wrong with her basic forms. And she had to do them, because she needed the conditioning.

Her muscles hurt every morning, and there was an ache in her chest when she breathed too fast.

"What we need most is my fucking legs," Hidan said, tilting his head back against the cave wall. He'd wrapped one of the huge foil blankets around himself for warmth and he looked rather cosy there - if you ignored that he was half a body.

"Yes, all right," Sakura agreed, stumbling through a progression she hadn't struggled with since she was eight, dammit, "but we need information to get your legs. We never figured out where Orochimaru was keeping them."

Hidan made a rude noise, mostly from exasperation. Sakura shot him a look.

"Your footwork's shit," he said critically - and rather obscurely.

Sakura peered at her feet for a second before realising her knee was too far over her ankle. She shifted, but the new stance made her muscles tremble. They felt like they were going to give out. Frustration made her want to lash out.

She shoved her sweaty hair away from her face instead. "Okay," she muttered, and began again.

Hidan yawned, but his half-lidded eyes didn't leave her.

"We need a plan," she said between slow, even breaths, hoping that the distraction would make him stop staring at her.

It didn't, but he did start throwing out ideas.

Unfortunately, all of Hidan's plans were terrible. He wasn't necessarily stupid - although he was certainly no genius, that was evident - but he was used to having a certain amount of raw combat power at his disposal and, perhaps more relevantly, he was used to being immortal.

It showed.

"No," said Sakura for what felt like the hundredth time, once she'd stretched and slumped against the cave wall not far from him. It was raining outside again, but their fire was glowing warm and red in the dark.

"I can't just walk into that base, disable everybody Itachi didn't kill and shake them down for information. I'll get killed. Or captured." Her voice went hard on the last word.

Capture hadn't worked out very well for her last time.

Hidan swore at her. But then, Hidan swore with such frequency that she was starting to read into it a whole lot less. "Is there anything you can do?"

Sakura gave her own hands a dark look. In the Academy she'd been so proud of herself - she'd mastered the basic ninjutsu with ease, had clean if unremarkable taijutsu forms and good all-round knowledge of the workings of the shinobi world. She was excellent at first aid and navigation, understood geography and history and her knowledge of field procedure was nearly perfect.

Now, as she bent and stretched that finger on her left hand that wouldn't quite straighten, all she could think was -

Well, it turns out I'm pretty good at standing up to torture.

Sakura had come to terms with certain facts during the Chuunin exam. Now she clenched her fist, ignoring the pang in her left hand. Stupid finger.

"No," she said. "Not really. I'm a newly graduated genin with below-average taijutsu, low chakra reserves, minimal stamina and no special techniques. I relied a lot on my other team mates. They were always protecting me." Her voice sounded absolutely flat, like she was talking about somebody else.

Her physical conditioning hadn't been that great, either, but after months of being shut away from light, barely fed and routinely tortured and healed - well, her previous physical conditioning was pretty much irrelevant. That much showed in her katas, even if it didn't necessarily seem obvious in light exercise.

There was a long pause. "Well, shit," muttered Hidan. Another long silence. Then, "You're really that weak?" he sounded as though he'd very much like for her to contradict him.

She licked her lips. "I'm pretty smart," she said. Not as smart as she'd thought, though, that was for sure. "I can detect and break B-rank genjutsu... and my instructors said I had good chakra control, and..." she stopped. Somehow Sakura didn't think that 'I can arrange flowers, serve tea, and recite classical poetry from three different countries,' was really going to cut it in this situation.

She shook her head.

Hidan squinted at her. "You said you were nominated for chuunin? Your village must have really hated you."

"Actually," she said slowly, "I don't think they really thought about me much at all."

Hidan scowled. "How the hell are we going to use your shitty skills to get back into that base and find out where my goddamn legs are?"

"And if Uchiha Itachi successfully killed Orochimaru," Sakura added, a little drily. To her that was pretty major.

Hidan shrugged, as though this was of secondary importance at best. "Even if he didn't, it's ten to one Orochimaru's gone to ground somewhere. Heathen coward."

There was a brief silence while they both thought. Mindlessly, Hidan twirled his kunai around between his fingers, practised and dexterous. "Hey," he said suddenly, "you're a kunoichi, right-? Can't you lure one of them out on his own?"

"Lure?" Sakura repeated with a frown. What did that have to do with being a kunoichi? It took her a second to make the link. "I'M TWELVE," she snarled.

"Well, yeah. But some of those weirdos have gotta be into that shit, right? I mean -"

She smacked him in the shoulder. Hard.

"Ow! Goddammit, you little shit, that hurt!"

Sakura gave him a faintly incredulous look intended to encompass his massive injuries. How could he complain about a little smack when his organs were glistening in full view.

He grunted sourly, scowled at her, and rubbed his shoulder before readjusting his crinkly foil blanket. "If you did, I'm just saying, you'd be sure to get one of them alone. And you'd be in close. Hell of an advantage."

Sakura bit her lip, considering it for a second. She turned the idea over in her head.

"No," she said finally, although she didn't necessarily think it was a bad idea. There was a reason that kind of tactic was still taught to kunoichi. If she'd been Ino, maybe - but she was fairly certain that, other issues aside, she didn't have the confidence to pull it off.

Hidan made an annoyed noise, but he didn't contradict her. "If you did anything else to draw them out, you'll probably get a pair of them, unless they're dumber than a box of shit and they go investigating stuff alone," he mused.

They both knew that was pretty much not protocol anywhere.

"In that case, I'd have to fight at least one of them, probably," she sighed. And there was no guarantee that she'd win, either.

They were silent again for a few moments, and then Hidan smacked his fist into a rock and let loose with a stream of invective. As with all his outbursts, it was abrupt and noisy.

Sakura didn't especially like having him bellowing right next to her, even if she wasn't afraid for her life. She didn't like conflict as much as he did. She rubbed nervously at her dodgy finger again. She was sure Hidan would never have had this problem if he didn't have to rely upon her, and his frustration made her feel irrationally guilty.

She tugged on her hair restlessly. Then, when a matted lump of it fell forward over her eyes, she froze.

It was dirty and dulled, but it was still very bright. Very noticeable. In fact, it was usually the first thing people noticed - and sometimes the only thing they could remember. "Ne, Hidan," she said slowly, twisting it around her finger, gratified when he fell grudgingly silent for a second, "do you think they'd still recognise me without this?"


That was how Sakura ended up walking straight into the wreck of Orochimaru's base with a shaven head and soot-darkened eyebrows.

She'd had to enlist Hidan's help to shave off her hair, despite how very little she wanted him up close and personal in her blind spot with a blade, and she still remembered the deft flick of the knife in his hands as a threatening counterpoint to the scrape of its edge on her skull.

She'd seen her reflection in the blurry metal of a kunai. She looked nothing like herself. It wasn't just how skinny she was now, either.

Healed regularly or not, Sakura's scars were severe. Orochimaru had cut frequently, cut deep and cut for his own amusement. There was a deep gouge over her left cheek, a gash bisecting and warping her eyebrow, a burn where acid had rolled from her jaw down her neck, shiny and slick-looking. Part of her left ear was missing, too.

"Great," she'd muttered, "good to see he missed my forehead." Because of course he had, and now her giant forehead was unblemished and pale, somehow even larger by comparison.

She had never really held any illusions that she'd grow up to be beautiful, but Sakura had hoped she'd grow into her looks a little. Now she looked like a ninja. And not necessarily in a good way.

Sakura had thought of that strange, harsh Morino Ibiki and wondered if he'd had a moment like this, of staring at his reflection and not quite recognising the person looking back.

It was almost a kindness that she didn't have time to dwell on it. They had a plan, and maybe she didn't look pretty, but she certainly looked like a ninja. She was small, but her scars gave her the illusion of much greater experience. She was skinny, but when she was dressed in the uniform she'd liberated from a corpse, it looked like wiriness. Her gaunt face made her expressions harsh. It would do.

She'd never seem like a direct combat specialist, though. Too small, too skinny. If pressed, she'd call herself a genjutsu expert, she supposed.

Their plan was simple and completely terrifying. It had sounded insane when she'd proposed it, and Hidan had blinked slowly before he agreed that it could work, looking at her like she'd done something very strange. Anything that looked strange from where Hidan was standing, she thought sourly, was probably well past crazy from any other vantage.

But there she was. She was doing it. Anxiety coiled in her gut and she felt like her pulse was hammering all over her body, but she wasn't backing down. It was really the only choice they had, going forward.

The base was in disarray, broken and burned, and leadership seemed uncertain. That Orochimaru hoarded power was colossally unsurprising - but it did mean that people were very confused by his sudden absence, and organisation seemed to take a special effort. That was useful.

Sakura felt her stomach clench horribly in anxiety as she strode toward that base. It had been camouflaged at one point, a door covered by a genjutsu in the middle of nowhere in the forest, leading to a sprawling underground facility. Itachi had done a hell of a job on it, though, and now huge swathes of the place were open to the air. Others were still collapsed under rock, and others still were deeper and unaffected.

The clean up effort looked more like an excavation, really.

Sakura could see the shadows of working ninja flit past her peripheral vision, no doubt to report her approach. Best not to hide, that was for sure.

She was doing this. There was no turning back now she'd been seen. Sakura threw her shoulders back and lifted her chin. The air felt very peculiar on her bare head, but she fought the urge to run her hand over her scalp. That was a tell - they'd know she'd shaved it off only recently.

It would be okay, she told her thundering heart.

It'd be fine.

Breathe.

There had been a door once, but Itachi had not waited for anybody to open it. The irregularly-shaped hole gaping there was blackened and the edges crumbling, and it led down into dimness. She could smell a combination of broken earth and smoke.

There were two guards, both older than her, both male. She felt like she was going to vomit as she approached, but she did her level best not to let that show on her face. It was going to be fine. She just needed to get information and then get out.

It would be fine.

Breathe, Sakura, she thought, and exhaled slowly.

"You're late," snapped one of the guards, eyes flicking over her uniform. Good, she'd been expected. Good.

"We hit a ...delay," Sakura said, hesitating over the word. Her voice came out in a croak and she coughed to clear it.

"We?" he repeated, sneering around as though she maybe hadn't noticed she was alone.

Sakura frowned. "The others are dead," she said to him, pleased to hear her voice come out steadily this time.

Still, the words ached somewhere in her sternum, and she couldn't help thinking of Sasuke, of Naruto and Konoha. Scattered, Hidan had said. Scattered, and few.

It wasn't the time. She'd been so good with pushing it away, not thinking about it - she had things to do that didn't include panicking. This was not the time. She straightened her spine.

Sakura found herself hustled before a superior - not Kabuto, and definitely not Orochimaru. There wasn't much chance of anybody else recognising her without her hair. This ninja was probably intel, though: slender and nondescript, dressed in dark camouflage. Like everybody in Orochimaru's base, he seemed to take great delight in sneering at anyone he encountered.

Sakura reminded herself to keep breathing as she delivered her report. It was simple, straightforward and completely believable. She had dogtags taken from dead bodies washed up by the stream. A uniform from another. A name that would be on their records.

The dead woman's eyes had been blue, not green, but these people didn't seem to know each other very well - ninja from different villages, gathered in the wake of the invasion. She would be fine, she told herself. She promised herself.

If it came down to it, she could always force them to kill her. She certainly wouldn't be captured again.

She'd seen enough of Itachi to make a very convincing description of the man who'd killed her squad. Ash and smoke, black fire and glowing eyes. The smell of singed hair.

"He was... polite," she said, expressing what was really her own profound discomfort with Uchiha Itachi's manners. She would have preferred somebody like Gaara, or somebody like Hidan: unrepentant killers. Itachi's blank face and polite formality were unnerving.

The intel agent made an inelegant noise. "Yeah, he was real polite," he said bitterly, gesturing around to the mess Itachi had left.

Sakura shrugged one shoulder. She was just reporting. She took another deep careful breath. Just another Sound ninja. Just reporting. Her squad mates were dead, but she was supposed to be used to death.

With only the most cursory check of her credentials they put her to work - on something menial and not very important, of course.

"Come on," said a tall ninja with a really ugly hammer strapped to his thigh. "Everybody's working on getting the place cleared out, so I don't wanna hear any complaints about what your job should be. I'm front line assault, and if I have to move rubble so do you."

He said it as though he'd said it plenty of times before. Sakura thought briefly - again - of Naruto, and of Sasuke, and how their egos had both been stung by menial D-rank missions. She breathed out. Not now. "Fine," she said.

There was a pause, an uncertain look over his shoulder.

"Hey," Mr Front Line's voice dropped. "I'm sorry about your squad. Happens to the best of us, you know?" There was a strange edge of empathy in his face, and Sakura didn't know what to do with that.

She'd been perfectly content to think of all of these ninja as monstrous constructs of Orochimaru's will. She wasn't prepared for them to show her sympathy.

How... unfortunate.

"They were idiots," she said, giving him a blank face.

"Ah." His lips curved into a wry smile. "That happens to the best of us, too. Doesn't mean it feels good to lose them."

No. No, it didn't, did it?

Sakura stared at him for a second and didn't respond. She didn't know how, and she was too damned tired and frightened. All she could do was keep her face blank and impassive.

It seemed to be enough for him. He nodded, let it drop, and took off with a too-enthusiastic bounce in his step.

Sakura followed more sedately. He might have been a nice person to know in other circumstances, she thought, but she wasn't here to be personable. She couldn't afford it, either, with anxiety eating her nerves and her stomach clenched tightly.

It wasn't hard to look numb, but it was hard to make herself seem calm, too. Especially when she walked past a corridor she'd seen before.

That whole corridor smelled of rusty blood, urine and metal.

A sound caught in her throat. Her stomach flipped. The lights flashed and her world spun briefly. Awkwardly, Sakura reached out and steadied herself on the wall. No. No, she had to keep it together. She was -

The smell invaded her head in ways she had never imagined possible: for a second she was back on Orochimaru's table, pinned and helpless, screaming, arching under his hands, she -

She didn't know what happened.

She later learned that the strange ninja - the oddly friendly one - had to help her calm down, had to make her move. She learned that she'd vomited on his sandals. Charming.

But at the time all she recalled was the numb haze she found herself in when she was shifting rubble, and she only came out of it when somebody told her that they were still putting out the fires.

"No, really," said a ninja who looked too young to be here, "they don't go out. That black fire? You have to, like, contain it, and wait. It takes days."

"Days?" Sakura repeated blankly, looking down at her hands. They were scuffed but not bleeding or anything. She'd been working mindlessly, but apparently efficiently. Her muscles felt like jelly.

She frowned. She'd been back in that corridor, and the smell...

Sakura felt nauseated just thinking about it.

So she didn't.

"Days," the chuunin agreed.

"Right," she murmured.

Half the building was still smoking, that was true. She couldn't imagine what kind of skill you needed to make a black fire that wouldn't burn out, but she couldn't imagine it was easy. Uchiha Itachi was very scary.

It was lucky for Sakura that it seemed pretty normal for a recently returned ninja to want to know what was going on at the base. By the time she declared that she needed a break from clearing rubble and putting out smoke to go pee, she knew that Orochimaru had fled, whereabouts unknown but presumed alive.

"Nah," said one of the other ninja, a girl with red hair and glasses that glinted in the light, "I don't think he's been beaten."

"He'd better not have been," muttered another one, and Sakura was beginning to understand that for many of these low-level ninja, Orochimaru and his hodgepodge village was all that stood between them and an execution without trial. Maybe he was their only rallying point. The feeling that gave her was much too close to despair.

"Yakushi-sensei's gone south," said a dark-eyed man at least twenty years Sakura's senior. "Good riddance, too. Orochimaru-sama's one thing, but that doctor..." his voice wavered.

Sakura wasn't sure how Orochimaru was supposed to be somehow less awful, but she filed away the information on Kabuto for later. The unfortunate thing was that most of the ninja here didn't seem to know whether or not Orochimaru was dead. They took it on faith that he wasn't, because in their minds the ninja who could kill Orochimaru did not exist.

Sakura hoped that wasn't true. She didn't know or particularly admire Uchiha Itachi, but if it came down to it? She was biased, and she hoped he'd won.

Finding information on where pieces of Hidan were being kept was actually not as difficult as it had initially seemed. It didn't take very much for Sakura to end up clearing out one of Kabuto's research labs with only one other shinobi, and from there she dug through the papers left behind in the confusion, looking for a trail.

"Should you be reading that?" asked the ninja she was working with.

"I'm an interrogation specialist," she said with a shrug, leaning back on one of Kabuto's autopsy tables. No restraints on this one - his projects must have been truly dead, or at least drugged insensible. That was comforting, in a way she'd never thought a polished metal table could be. "I'll see it eventually."

Sakura's heart hammered every time she had to lie. Anxiety coiled like a serpent in her gut, waiting for the second she slipped up and ended up dead - or worse.

It was exhausting.

In the end, she didn't get the information from Kabuto's records, although those were more interesting than she'd expected. It was from overhearing people talking. Guards, she thought, or ex-guards - the ninja who had been assigned to deal with the cells, hose the prisoners down. They'd kicked her when they brought her food, made a game of it.

There was no way she'd get away with hurting them without being noticed, which was a pity.

"Doesn't matter," one of them was saying. "Yakushi took the legs with him. We'll have to -" a clatter of rubble obscured the next statement, but it was hardly necessary.

"-creepy as hell. Like half a dismembered slug, kicking around like -"

"That fucking spine -"

Sakura sucked on her teeth as she shoved at a particularly large chunk of wall. So. Yakushi Kabuto had gone south, to another facility, and he'd taken Hidan's body parts with him.

Sakura rubbed her forehead.

It took Sakura several hours of work before she relaxed a little. It wasn't a long-term infiltration, so if anybody was suspicious when she stretched out her joints and left, they didn't say anything about it and she didn't have to care. She left with stolen supplies, a couple of interesting scrolls, and the pressing urge to get herself out of this dead woman's clothing.

It was clear outside for a change, so conscientiously she laid a false trail - careful, not as clear as the ones they'd followed at the academy. She needed to be sure anybody who tried to track her would take the bait, and that meant making it look as though she'd left in a hurry, but a cautious hurry.

Sakura was a genin, and genin were supposed to use a jounin's judgement in the field because they simply didn't have the experience necessary. That issue aside, Sakura actually thought she'd done a pretty good job of laying the trail, and she was exhausted but satisfied as she made her way the long way - carefully, so carefully - back to camp.

Of course, she started moving a lot faster when an enraged bellow rent the forest: "THAT FUCKING HURT, WHAT THE HELL'S YOUR PROBLEM?"

The next sound was a man's terrified shrieking. "HOW THE HELL IS HE NOT DEAD? GET HIM OFF! SOUTA! GET HIM OFF!"

Sakura dropped soundlessly to a branch above their campsite to the sight of Hidan attached to a strange man at the knee. Both of his hands and his mouth were bloody, and there was a giant knife jammed through his torso - which, of course, had done nothing to actually harm him, but it certainly looked painful.

The man shrieked again.

"Stop shaking!" Hidan growled, lifting his bloodied teeth from where he'd buried them in the stranger's hamstring. "Shaking hurts where you stabbed me, you asshole," he yelled.

There was a whimper, and the strange man started jerking his leg even harder, much to Hidan's evident - and vocal - distress.

The second person approached brandishing what was either a long knife or a short sword, and Sakura squinted at his form. Maybe not a proper ninja, she thought, but he'd had some kind of training somewhere. Middle-range, half-trained bandits. They'd learned to assess threats like this in the academy.

Fine.

A valiant effort was made to pry Hidan away, but after losing his knife somewhere in Hidan's kidneys and losing a finger to his teeth, it seemed to be something of a lost cause.

Sakura rubbed her head tiredly. She wondered if she should just leave him to deal with it himself. Pretty soon he'd work his way through the first person's thigh and chew into his femoral artery, and then she was pretty sure he'd find some way to murder the second one.

Hidan was... determined.

And inventive, when properly motivated.

But if they kept up all the bellowing and screaming, they'd undoubtedly attract attention. She was tired - not because she'd done physically demanding work, but because she'd spent an extended period of time so anxious she thought she was going to piss herself, and then had some kind of psychiatric episode in an enemy base which she wasn't thinking about right now, and -

And now she had to rescue - well, sort of rescue - Hidan, who had been disarmed (she was sure she'd left him with a knife), cut in half and stabbed in two places and was still determinedly gnawing his way through a stranger's leg, heedless of the frightened blows raining down upon him from above.

"GOD WILL SMITE ASSHOLES LIKE YOU WHO DON'T UNDERSTAND THE SUFFERING OF OTHERS," he roared, and then wrenched one of the knives from his side and jammed it between his victim's - attacker's? It was so hard to tell - ribs.

Since he was not Hidan, he dropped with a gurgle once enough of his vital organs had been impaled. This was good and proper, and Sakura dropped down from her tree just in time to cut off the second man's escape route.

Up close, he was probably only fifteen or sixteen, lanky with that half-grown look that said he'd be bigger in a few years. That didn't really give Sakura much room for sympathy, though. She was twelve, and she'd faced a lot worse than half of Hidan covered in blood. She eyed him.

He stared at her, grey eyes wide and pupils tiny, and took a hesitant step back. "Shit," he said, pale and frightened and clutching his bloodied hand.

Sakura wondered if she really looked that scary, but she rather doubted it. "Souta-san, was it?" she asked, blinking slowly. She felt like her capacity to care about anything had been completely drained dry.

"Yo, Sakura!" said Hidan, giving her a wide smile from bloody lips. "Look what these fuckers did. I'm so mad," he said, pulling the second knife out.

He didn't sound mad. Or, well, not angry, anyway.

"Don't kill him yet, I wanna use him in my ritual," he added, dipping two fingers into his own blood and making a circle around himself in the dirt. It was awkward, but the knowledge that he could still kill people with or without his lower limbs seemed to have bolstered Hidan's spirits greatly.

Souta made an uncertain noise. "Look, shit, we didn't - oh my god," he said, trembling uncontrollably and stopping to stare at the body of his friend. He wasn't quite dead yet, but he was quickly going into refractory shock and she doubted there was much point trying to tend to him.

Hidan rolled his eyes, like this was a terribly tedious but regrettably common thing. He picked up Souta's forcibly discarded finger and licked the ragged end of it and his skin turned black, covered in elegant white lines that Sakura found quite interesting.

Souta stared at him in horror for a second, then turned and lunged for Sakura. "Get out of my way, you crazy bitch!" he yelped, panicked, and threw himself toward her.

She didn't necessarily blame him, because if faced between going through Hidan or going through her, she'd probably have picked herself, too. Hidan seemed totally unperturbed, though, inspecting his strange bloody design on the dirt to make sure it was to his satisfaction.

Sakura was tired, and frustrated, and she'd had - too much of everything, basically, to deal with this shit. Frustrated rage uncoiled somewhere in her belly and she balled one hand into a fist as Souta came toward her.

Her eyes flashed. Her lips pulled back from her teeth. "SHANNARO!"

Chapter Text

Sakura's punch took Souta by surprise and sent him slamming into a tree. He was insensible before he hit the ground.

Sakura rubbed her knuckles and scowled at his dazed form. "Honestly," she muttered.

"You'd better not have killed him," Hidan said, craning his neck to see the body.

"He's fine." She paused. "Ish."

It was Sakura who dragged him away from his slump at the base of the tree and left him to Hidan's debatable mercies.

Hidan's ritual was... strange. Sakura had gathered, in a general sort of way, what it would involve, but that didn't mean she was entirely prepared for the reality.

From the moment Hidan's skin turned black, wounds inflicted upon his body were also inflicted upon the sacrifice's. The ritual itself was fairly straightforward after that. Hidan interspersed rhythmic mumbling - praying, she assumed - with crooning comments to his sacrifice:

"Do you understand now?" he asked, more than once, and each time he was met mostly with sobs and begging.

"Do you know what it means to suffer?" Sakura had the vague idea that she should be more sympathetic toward Souta but all she could think was: I've had worse, I begged less. She didn't even feel guilty - just kind of vaguely as though she should have.

Sakura was nearly asleep when Hidan finished up, and it came as something of a surprise.

"God has judged you," he informed the man solemnly, resting the tip of the biggest knife against his own blackened chest. "He has found you worthy. We share in the final agony together!"

And he thrust the knife into his chest with the sound of cracking bone and a choked, gurgling moan.

There must be some significance to that, Sakura thought, getting to her feet and stretching. It would have been much easier to hit the heart going under the ribs, rather than shoving the knife straight through. She stepped around the blood and the body of the unfortunate Souta - with his blood on his mouth and his eyes wide and bulging - and began packing up their stuff.

It took Hidan a few minutes to start breathing again and by the time he did the markings had faded from his skin. He made a low, satisfied noise when he pulled the knife free.

His eyelids flickered. "What're you doing?" he asked in a low, contented voice.

"We made a lot of noise earlier," Sakura pointed out, "and we know that Kabuto's gone south with your body parts. We should move out before anybody finds us."

Hidan grunted, but made no effort to move. Sakura added her pilfered supplies to the pack they already had. It wasn't much, but it would get them through a couple more days, and hopefully that would carry them to...

Well, Sakura didn't know. She wasn't really sure if they should stop in a city or village anywhere along the way. Hidan was extremely recognisable.

Perhaps they'd cross that bridge when they came to it.

When she was done, she settled, cross-legged, next to Hidan's bloody circle to wait for him to be ready. There seemed to be some kind of meditation following his ritual, and while they should leave soon... they weren't in that much of a hurry.

Sakura used the time to check and tend her existing injuries - there weren't many, but the cuts on her leg and the annoying, and she suspected permanent, hesitation in her ankle were bothering her - and then to try out some chakra exercises. Unfortunately, even when she could get her chakra to coat her hands, it didn't feel quite... right.

"What the hell're you doing?" Hidan muttered, fifteen minutes later. "Your chakra's gonna give me a headache."

Sakura frowned at her hands. "Trying to copy something I saw," she said after a second. "Kabuto closed wounds really easily, but I think he was using a different kind of chakra."

"Yeah, medical chakra. Pretty useless, really," Hidan said, shifting himself onto his hands and cracking a huge yawn.

"Useless for you, maybe," Sakura said, rolling her eyes. "Are you ready?"

"Ow," he said, which was not exactly a response to her question.

She wasn't sure which injury he was referring to, but they looked like they all hurt, and she was pretty sure that he must have dirt and wood and bits of flora in some very strange places after so long... Still, she wanted to get going before the day caught up with her and she was too tired to move them both. "Come on," she coaxed, reaching for him.

Travelling with Hidan perched on her shoulder was an... experience. He was heavier than he looked, despite his missing limbs, and the pack didn't quite counterbalance his weight, although it helped.

Of course, Hidan's favourite hobby was complaining about everything, so as soon as he was there he braced one arm on her head - which was weird because it was shaven and strangely sensitive - and he began whining about how much it hurt.

"Do you have to bounce when you run?" he bitched, wincing as she landed. "It hurts!"

It was peculiarly easier to have sympathy for Hidan than for the bandits they'd just killed. She wasn't sure why it was, but she found herself sincerely apologising almost every time he made a complaint about her stride.

"Don't be sorry!" he snapped. "Just don't jerk around like that! Why is your running so damn unsteady anyway?"

"Ankle injury," she admitted. It wasn't awful to run on - indeed, once she'd been running for a while it seemed to warm up and relax a little - but it did give a painful, unpredictable twang now and then.

Hidan made a derisive noise. "Fucking Orochimaru," he muttered, and Sakura saved her breath for running.

Several times Sakura reached a hand up to steady him, but realised after a second that she was very close to burying her fingers inside his internal organs. She wasn't squeamish, but... gross. Changing the angle meant she was touching warm, blood-tacky skin, though, and she wasn't sure if that was any better.

Sakura took them south as fast as she could practicably manage, and between Hidan's complaining that she was running too roughly and his complaining that she was running too slowly, they'd covered a fair distance as night began to fall again.

She was still really surprised to top a rise and see the ground drop away in front of her to a village at the bottom of a valley.

"Huh," she said slowly.

"Che. One good water jutsu'd kill them all," Hidan muttered, inspecting the lights and smoke below.

It wasn't a huge village, but it was bigger than Sakura had expected anything way out here to be. The roads were unpaved, but very wide - maybe for driving cattle through, she thought, remembering a text book that seemed a very long time ago. The houses clustered in little groupings, each with a well-supplied kitchen garden. The roofs looked like wood and slate in the evening dimness, and the lights shone brightly from windows that were mostly square or rectangular - regular shapes, measured sizes. They had glass window panes, so it was probably a relatively affluent village... And yes, she could pick out a small temple, a few corralled horses, a slaughter yard, several chicken coops - they were little, but probably pretty self sufficient.

She couldn't picture precisely which village it was, though. "We're definitely heading deeper into Grass now," she murmured, trying to remember the map in her head. She had one - stolen - but she hadn't pulled it out to look at it while she'd been running.

She looked wistfully at the woodsmoke and bright windows down below. "I'd kill for a hot bath," she said in a tone of shameless longing.

Hidan licked his teeth with a flash of his tongue. He shifted his weight on her, using one arm on her head for leverage again. "We could break in somewhere," he pointed out. "Get some real damn food, too."

Sakura hesitated. "You're very recognisable," she said doubtfully, glancing at his exposed intestine.

"Genjutsu," he said, wrinkling his nose as though the word smelled bad. As though anything smelled much worse than his leaking guts, seriously. "It's useful for shit like this," he added, sounding resigned.

It went so astonishingly to plan that Sakura almost couldn't credit it. They hit the village after nightfall, tracked a young couple to some kind of rowdy family gathering and then traced their steps backward and broke into their empty house.

It was a traditional sort of place: rice paper and tatami, calligraphy on the walls, furniture of polished and lacquered wood.

Sakura put Hidan down on the mats, no doubt staining them irretrievably, then dropped her pack and stretched out the kinks in her spine. Really, it had been a very, very long day!

"Are you going to pay attention or not?" he said pointedly. "I hate doing these, so you'd better be watching. Then you can do them."

He made it sound like a chore, but Sakura was quietly pleased to learn something new that could be useful. Especially a new technique!

Hidan wasn't the best teacher, to be honest. He ran through the seals, and then explained the whole technique with the phrase: "Blanket the area, tether it to places that aren't going to move, and then release it. Here," he inhaled and snapped his fingers into the final seal, exhaling: "Demonic illusion: false surroundings."

Sakura felt his chakra shiver into place over the house, and for a second she saw it as he wanted people to - the same, basically, but empty. Then she shook it off and found herself eyeing Hidan's mutilated body.

"Got it?"

Sakura frowned. "No," she admitted. "Can you-"

"Honestly," he complained loudly, cutting her off. "You should know this already. How else do you hide a camp from civilians? Or are you meant to just kill them? I mean, that could make sense, but I thought Konoha frowned on that kind of shit because they're pansies."

He showed her the seals again - slower, but still a hell of a lot faster than any of her instructors would have. She copied them as he did, staring at his fingers.

The transition from snake to hare was a little tricky, but after running through the sequence a few times she was pretty sure she had it. "All right," she said, and drew on her chakra to throw the genjutsu over them.

Once she was actually doing the technique, his instruction made a bit more sense - the seals funnelled her chakra most of the way, and the final "tethering" was a lot more intuitive than it had seemed.

The drain was also a lot less than she'd expected, from the area she was covering. She felt sure Hidan had used more chakra... maybe she'd done something wrong?

She glanced at him.

"Huh," said Hidan, squinting around. "It'll do," he said after a second.

"Really?"

He seemed bemused by her excitement, but it only lasted until they both remembered that there was indoor plumbing and hot water waiting for them.

"Bitch," Hidan growled about three seconds later, snatching for her ankle. "Like hell you get to go first! I'm the one covered in blood!"

Sakura yelped and jerked out of his hold before darting away. "Yeah," she agreed, laughing, "but I bet I can outrun you!"

She wasn't sure what he threw at her, but it shattered on the wall. Oh, well.

She took her time undressing. She didn't know how long the owners of the property would be gone, but she knew they had time - a couple hours, at least, from the looks of the party. She ran her hands over her scarred body.

There was a really long, ugly one straight up her middle, from collarbone to pubic bone. Kabuto's healing had been efficient but ugly, and there was still a weird patch on her lower right side that throbbed with a dull ache. She knew that feeling, knew it meant that the injury was closed but deep, and would take time to improve.

She ran her fingers over the huge, awful scars.

"Your pain is sacred," she breathed to herself, staring at nothing as she traced them. It had the air of a mantra. "Your suffering is beautiful."

She wondered if that meant that the sacrifice of that bandit boy, Souta, had also been beautiful. There was something... poetic, about it, she thought idly. Her hands shook on her skin and she wasn't quite sure why.

Right. Her bath.

Sakura had been cold for so long, and had gotten so used to it, that the first touch of hot water on her skin was shocking.

Her skin stung with it, but she immersed herself anyway and scrubbed fiercely at her skin. There were injuries she'd need to dress and bandage again once she got out, but she was - suddenly, she was so frantic to be clean.

Washing up in a chilly stream was good enough for travelling, but it didn't actually clean her as well as she might have liked, and by the time she was done with her first proper bath in what felt like forever, the water was a strange dull grey colour. Her skin was wrinkled.

She touched her fingertips uncertainly. Her wrists were so tiny, skin and bone and tendons that she could see moving all the way up her arm.

Abruptly, with a suddenness that staggered her, Sakura could almost not breathe. There was something, she thought, something terrible and huge under her skin, a well of fear and bitterness and bile and acid so deep and awful, and it was going to come out. It was overwhelming and she didn't know how to stop it.

It was this thing that seethed and bubbled in her and she - she couldn't.

Sakura clenched her fists. "You're fine," she told herself in a hard, angry voice, squeezing her eyes shut for a second. It didn't seem to have any effect.

She bit her wrist, feeling bone so close to the skin, and sank her teeth in until she could feel the sting singing all the way up to her shoulder.

"You're fine," she hissed against her skin, shaking and oddly angry.

And so she was.

The bath water was dirty. Sakura drained it when she got out.

"Do you need help?" she asked Hidan solicitously, having wrapped herself in a clean towel she'd found in a cupboard. It had the benefit of covering her scars. She was fine, she was. But she felt... fragile, in a way she couldn't quite understand.

There were other things to think of. She wondered if the people who lived here had any clothing in her size?

"Fuck off," snarled Hidan, heaving himself laboriously into the bathroom she'd exited.

"I was just asking," she said, side-stepping the trail of fluids he'd left behind. She hoped he got any dirt out of his internal organs. He could say what he wanted about not getting sick, but it seemed like that would be really unpleasant.

While he was in there, she dug through the closets and pantry. They didn't have clothing in her size, exactly, but they did have a sewing kit. She took a dark jinbei set made of loose cotton weave and did a quick and messy job of hemming the pants. The tunic's sleeves were already fine, although they looked a little strange - they were meant to be elbow-length on somebody quite a bit bigger. It was probably a good thing that she'd lost weight, because there was no chance of finding a bra that fit her here.

The pantry had rice, canned fish and dried mushrooms, much of which she cleaned out and dumped in their pack, along with the sewing kit and a couple of other items of clothing. She felt a vague pang for the people who lived here and carefully tied to avoid taking anything that seemed like festival clothes.

On autopilot, she peered into the refrigerator, wondering if there was anything she could throw together for a less painfully basic meal, and her heart nearly stopped when she saw fresh vegetables. "Oh my god," she muttered, and dove for them.

It took her barely fifteen minutes to hurl together a mix of salted salmon, vegetables, rice and eggs, and having ransacked her oblivious benefactors' kitchen. She dumped some on a plate for Hidan, and then returned to the pan and dug into her share over the stove.

Sakura wasn't a great cook - her kunoichi instructor had rated her "indifferent, but unlikely to poison anybody by accident," - but after so long on rice porridge and then ration bars and unfamiliar game, she was half-convinced she was a domestic god. "I," she said when Hidan thumped out of the bathroom, cursing but clean - and naked, although to be honest his nakedness was not the most disturbing thing about him. "I am amazing."

She gestured toward their food with a flourish.

Hidan squinted at it.

After a few bites, he said: "Food's okay. Overcooked the egg, though."

Sakura felt one of her eyebrows twitch. "Is that so," she said in a sweet voice.

"Lying's a sin," he informed her loftily.

She balled up one fist.

"Yeah, I saw you punch that guy earlier. Believe me, I'm not worried," Hidan told her, waving his chopsticks in her general direction.

The only reason Sakura didn't punch him in the face was because she didn't want to prove him right. Instead she turned away with a huff and busied herself with finishing her own food.

Her genjutsu was still operating, and she could feel it like a dull hum in the back of her head. It was draining her chakra, but only slowly. Sakura had not entirely realised that such techniques took so little of her chakra, and it was a pleasant surprise.

Even if Hidan hated genjutsu, maybe she could get him to teach her what he did know? She wasn't sure if now was the best time to ask, though, so she remained silent while he finished eating. She checked their supplies and redistributed them to fit as many useful things into their pack as she could.

Finally, she pulled out her map. "All right," she said, settling on the floor and spreading it out, carefully away from Hidan's food and the sluggish bleeding of his stumpy torso.

"Given what we know about Orochimaru's other bases, we can assume a couple of things and narrow down the search area."

Hidan grunted to show he was listening, but he didn't offer anything constructive.

Sakura cracked her knuckles and got to work, citing her reasons as she marked off chunks of the map. "So we got 'South' coming from somebody with a local accent," she said, "which means probably not north of here - and assuming a similarity of construction - which, to an extent, we can, because people coming from other bases had no difficulty navigating when we were clearing the place out. They knew where the major water lines would be, and I don't think all of them were sensing the water... so we're looking for relatively useful water sources. That rules out the springs here, here, and here, because we know they've got heavy metal in the water supply from them, and..."

She went on for some time, wracking her brain to remember specific geographical information from her classes and anything she could possibly use to deduce the more likely locations for the 'southern base'.

When she was done, the map was a bit of a mess, but it was still legible and she had narrowed down their search area.

"Well," she sighed, examining it, "it's better than nothing."

Hidan pulled the map away from her and squinted at it. "Your writing's pretty shitty," he said after a second.

She glanced at her hands. "Not all my fingers healed properly," she said in as neutral a voice as she could manage.

Hidan scratched his chin and eyed her over the map, as though healing was a thing that happened to other people and he thought she might be having him on. "Right," he muttered. Then, "this is good."

Sakura blinked, surprised at his sudden praise.

Then she smiled. "Thank you," she said demurely, looking down at her hands.

"Yeah, yeah," Hidan rolled his eyes, "congratulations, you can use a fucking map." The rolled up paper hit her in the forehead and she took it, clutching it to her.

She opened her mouth to respond, but she felt a flicker in her genjutsu and her head snapped up instead.

"They're back," she said, licking her lips. Quickly, she got up, scrambling to shove the map and writing tools in their pack. She glanced around for anything else they'd left behind.

"I am so fucking sick of having no goddamn legs," Hidan growled, using his arms to haul himself up and heave himself over to Sakura.

"We'll get them back," she said, trying for reassuring. Her voice came out flat and she felt as though she'd probably fallen short.

Hidan, however, had the kind of spirit that didn't require a lot of reassurance. "Of course we will," he agreed, and Sakura slipped out the back window just as the front door closed.

Chapter Text

Their journey south was taken at whatever pace Sakura could manage, which, since she was still recovering and had to carry Hidan, was not a quick one for a ninja. The countryside changed dramatically as they went on through, and Sakura became increasingly antsy as she realised they were going to edge around the the Fire border - and its outposts - at some point.

"You're so slow," Hidan complained, and Sakura rolled her eyes because: Hidan, really. She was becoming used to the smells of leaking intestines and fresh bloody offal at a startlingly swift rate, but his commentary was harder to adjust to.

"I can put you down, if you like," she offered in her most innocent voice, and lifted a hand to divert the blow she knew was coming.

Running was tiring, but Sakura also thought it was doing her some good. She knew she was fatigued and injured in ways that only time and rest would be able to fix, but she also knew that her cardiovascular system was slowly remembering how to help her through an eight-hour run, and that could only be good.

The windswept and open terrain of grass changed slowly but very steadily as they went through, and soon Sakura was moving between trees and rocks again, perfectly at home on the landscape.

As the forest thickened, she found herself up in the canopy, lulled by the familiar sensation of branches thudding against her feet.

If a ninja was in the tree tops at the narrowest stretch of Grass country between Fire and Wind, she could see all the way across from one outpost to the other - and Sakura felt her heart clench when she realised that both were manned by Sand ninja.

"D'you think they'll try to stop us?" she asked Hidan quietly, making no real effort to disguise herself as she flung them both through the trees.

"Missing nin carrying half a person down to River?" he said contemplatively, shifting slightly upon her back. "Doubt it. Reckon they'd think you're a bounty hunter."

"Isn't that supposed to be illegal?" Sakura wondered.

He snorted. "Yeah, that's what they say. But bingo books don't make themselves, do they?"

"Hmm," said Sakura, but she sincerely hadn't thought of that before. It was true that the hidden villages did contribute the lion's share of information to the various "bingo" books in circulation. Ostensibly that was so their own ninja knew who to look out for, but...

Well, she supposed that anybody who took out those big names was hardly going to be turned away.

"Stupid," she muttered scornfully.

"Money bullshit usually is," Hidan agreed. His voice was very close to her ear now - it took her a second to realise that he had rearranged himself to appear less animated, just in case any of the outpost ninja were paying more attention.

The outpost on the Fire country side had huge splinters missing, like it had been battered by an enormous scything wind, and the wooden bits were smoke blackened. Sakura averted her eyes, trying not to think about the ninja she could see silhouetted there in the distance. Their armour gave them the wrong shape - too big in the shoulders, not the lean silhouettes she was used to.

"I can't believe -" she stopped, clenching her teeth. Hidan wouldn't understand. Hidan barely - just barely - understood the idea of being attached to another human being; the concept of grieving for a village, for an idea? There was no point. "Never mind."

Sakura could feel the strange eyes on her as she headed straight through the stretch of land between posts, and she seethed with resentment inside. It seemed so perverse, so foul, that there were Sand ninja watching her like that from inside a leaf outpost.

"If you can lure one out," said Hidan, apparently sensing her quiet, simmering anger, "we can sacrifice them to Jashin-sama."

The idea was a little too appealing. She didn't trust it.

"We'd get caught," was all she said, although it wrenched her soul to give the idea up. She soothed the baying hunger in her head with a different thought: later. And then: later, but soon.

"Probably," Hidan agreed, as though being caught was of little concern to him.

They tucked themselves away that night, curling together in a space where the side of a hill had been cloven in two. There was little chance of any patrol that might make it that far from the border, anyway, but if it did they were well hidden.

The scars of fighting were all over the land out here. Hills carved in two were hardly the worst of it. Huge snake trails, cutting a swathe through the forest dirt, were in ominous evidence. Metal glinted, lost and discarded, in stained spots upon the ground. Big slices of the forest were scorched and burned - ninja in Konoha were known for their fire attacks, and it seemed to Sakura that many of them had put up quite a resistance.

Dead, she assumed darkly.

There was something inside her now, something jagged and tightly-wound, that wouldn't let her rest so close to home. Every time she slipped closer to sleep it came upon her: vivid dreams of tracking back and slinking into that outpost. Her pulse jumped under her skin and she jerked herself awake, over and over, hands on a kunai and eyes wide in the dark.

Hidan, too, was sleepless. Because he was watching her instead of sleeping.

"I'll be fine," she said flatly, catching his glinting red eyes.

"Does it look like I care?" he drawled.

"Yes," she said, after a second's thought. "Probably because you don't want to have to drag yourself all the way down south by your hands."

His lips twitched, but he neither confirmed nor denied. "I need a sacrifice soon," he said instead, glancing up toward the moon.

It was red that night, obscured and oddly hazy, and there was the smell of smoke on the breeze. Sakura chose not to contemplate what was on fire.

A distraction was in order.

That was the first night she caught an animal specifically to experiment.

It had taken her some time before she was reasonably certain that she had the right kind of chakra - felt right, looked right, moved in the right way at the tips of her fingers. Producing it required a kind of painstaking control that surprised her. There was very little that Sakura had encountered that challenged her chakra control, but this did.

However, she learned that night that there was a lot more to healing than summoning the right kind of chakra. The cut she made in her squirming, frightened squirrel closed over, certainly - but when she tested the area with her fingers, it was hot and home to a strange and growing lump.

The squirrel's tiny body took her chakra and used it to promote cell growth to such an extreme that the tumours built and built until they were deforming its shape and, within hours, obstructing the normal functioning of its organs.

Sakura stared in dismay at it as it died, wheezing, when one grew to block its airways.

Idly, she scratched the side of her nose.

"I'm guessing that wasn't what you meant to do," Hidan said, squinting toward the misshapen furry body.

"...No," she said, frowning, and dangled it by its toe. As soon as the creature died, all is chakra systems failed. If she dipped the tiniest edge of that medical chakra into it, she could feel other things already beginning to take advantage of the unguarded resources in it: little things, parasites, bacteria.

She contemplated cutting it open to get a look inside, but she knew exactly what she'd find, and, frankly, she didn't think she'd learn anything.

"Am I using too much?" she wondered thoughtfully. That couldn't be right, though - she'd heard plenty of people complaining that medical techniques took a lot of chakra, and she didn't feel like she'd really used that much...

After a second, she tossed the squirrel out into the woods. It would make good food for something hungry.

It must have been well past midnight, but although Sakura was weary she could feel that she wasn't going to sleep any time soon. Happily, Hidan rarely needed much persuading to talk for hours on end with no feedback but the sound of his own voice.

In the end, he told her the story of the first Jashinist: a woman who, hurt and abandoned by her town, prayed to her gods for guidance - and received it, but not from the gods she knew.

In a compelling rumble, he told her how, in those days women who were "unfit" for marriage relied on their relatives - they weren't allowed jobs or possessions, so they had no choice. The woman in the story was injured in an attack: her virtue compromised, her eyesight damaged, her face scarred beyond recognition.

"The people snubbed her then. They had nothing in common, anymore; no connection, no reason for empathy. They reviled her. But her dreams and hallucinations were vivid and compelling," he added, and Sakura could see his eyes glittering in the dark. "And even the lowliest woman could be asked to look after children..."

Hidan told her how, after days of praying and fasting to the insistent presence in her mind, the first Jashinist took the town's children. How she locked herself with them, bound and terrified inside the town's temple to the fickle god of the sun.

"They say," he said, while Sakura closed her eyes, listening sleepily to the rumble of his voice, "that the flames were so high you could see them for miles, and the smoke and ashes blanketed the whole valley that day." A pause. "See, they all understood her then; they suffered as she had, hopes and futures taken from them..."

"We could do that," Sakura murmured sleepily, voice slurring. "Burn Sound to the ground," she added at his odd silence. "Then they'd feel, mm, bad. Too. As well. Then Sand," she added, brows furrowing. "...c'n cut off their legs, too."

"Hell yes, we could," she heard, and then his voice smoothed out into what she recognised as a blessing.

She fell asleep to the lulling rise and fall of Hidan's praying.


 

They hit River country the day after next, and Sakura could almost feel Hidan's edginess on the rise. It was a happy coincidence, then, that they came across a whipcord-thin Sand genin engaged in what looked to Sakura like a solo courier mission - Fire country to Wind country.

"Well, they did just take over a big chunk of Fire country," Hidan said reasonably, although Sakura could feel his eyes flicking from that unwary, darting shadow under the trees to Sakura's face.

She glanced sideways at him. "You don't have to try to make me angry," she said pointedly, "I already want to kill him."

He gave her a savage smile. "'Atta girl."

Sakura frowned, remembering her disastrous fight against Ino in the prelims. She flexed her fingers, feeling the odd stiffness in one of them. She wasn't sure how strong the strange genin might be. He only looked about her age, with dark hair and too-long limbs. His build said ninjutsu user, or maybe one of the puppet corps - although she certainly couldn't see anything indicating a puppet, except...

She frowned, thinking of Gaara's brother, the one in the cat ears. "Can you feel anything? There's not - I mean, that's not a puppet, right?"

Hidan made a disgusted noise, as though the idea of fighting with a puppet instead of engaging directly offended his very being right down to its core. It probably did, actually. "If he was really good, we wouldn't be able to tell," he said, eyes distant, "but I don't think so. I'm a shit sensor, though."

That wasn't entirely comforting, but it was better than nothing.

There was a long pause. "Tell me you don't need me to take him out," Hidan said drily.

"Can you?" Sakura wondered.

"Sure," Hidan shrugged. Then, "...eventually."

And... that was exactly the same kind of assurance she'd heard from concussed ninja protesting that they could definitely stand up, they just didn't want to right yet, wasn't it? Sakura bit her lip.

Well, there was -

She paused, frowning.

Actually.

"Yeah, I can do this," she said. Gently she set Hidan down, leaning - a little precariously - against the trunk of a huge old tree.

Then she brought her hands together in a series of quick seals. "Demonic illusion," she breathed, threading the air and the trees and the earth with tiny, tiny tendrils of her chakra. "False surroundings."

The tethers set, and the genin racing along the ground below gave no indication that he'd noticed anything.

Sakura ghosted along above him, soundless through the canopy, carefully leading him in circles to keep him inside the area of her genjutsu. She led him straight past the same landmarks, hoping to test how well she'd infiltrated his perception. The answer appeared to be 'very well indeed,' because he never even hesitated. So either he was an extremely good actor or she'd been successful. Good.

She knew the genjutsu wouldn't hold if she got much closer. Hidan hadn't been clear about its limitations, but she knew it was a weak one, and practice had taught her a little more about it.

That just meant that she had to time it properly.

She waited, barely daring to breathe, above in the trees. The genin approached, and she measured the distance with calculating eyes. Twelve - nine - six - Sakura tensed, her ankle a stinging throb in the back of her mind. Her muscles coiled, clenched - sprung.

She hurled herself from the branches feet-first and collided with the boy at high speed, sending him sprawling while she tucked, rolled to her feet, and spun in one quick movement. Her shoulder hurt from the landing and her ankle made a warning pop, but it didn't really matter: she was already moving.

He was, she realised later, probably quite a lot stronger than she was. His arms were skinny but corded with wiry lean muscles, and his chakra was a bigger reserve than hers, lashing under his skin while he tried to get clear for a jutsu.

She didn't let him. Speed and timing were everything, and by the time he might have gotten clear she had his arm twisted up behind him and his face shoved into the dirt and leaves. She held his wrist in place with one knee, leaning her full weight on him, and rested a knife gently against his neck.

His body stilled.

"Konoha," he spat, but there was a tiny tremor in his voice. Sakura was surprised to learn that she sort of... liked it.

Sakura smiled bitterly. "Well," she said, unwilling to confirm or deny. She hadn't seen hide or hair of a Konoha nin in months, unless you counted Orochimaru. Her feelings were... complicated. "You're in Fire country."

She dug her free hand into their filched med pack, looking for the right syrette.

"What the hell do you..." he stopped mid-sentence, probably because he felt the thin, hollow needle of the syrette slide under his skin. "Shit," he said instead.

That was, Sakura thought, a pretty good way to sum up his current situation.

Then he swore again, which Sakura assumed was as a result of a marked increase in pain at the injection site. She held him steady for a few minutes longer, waiting until he relaxed under her.

Finally, the young man's body went lax and his breathing levelled out, and Sakura tied his wrists and ankles, heaved him over one shoulder, and walked back to Hidan. Her genjutsu snapped free behind her.

"Took you long enough," Hidan said impatiently when she stopped beneath him and dropped her load to the dirt. He squirmed out of the tree and shimmied with astonishing dexterity down its trunk, obviously using chakra to keep himself from toppling on the way. "Is he... what the hell did you do to him?" he asked, eyeing the Sand ninja like something he'd found on the bottom of his shoe.

Sakura scrubbed one hand over her shaven head. She was getting tiny prickles of regrowth now, and she wondered if she looked absurd: a tiny girl in stolen clothing, covered in scars with a peach fuzz of soft pink hair. Hmm.

"A hypnotic," she said, tucking the pin from the syrette away. It was meant to be pinned to a ninja's dog tags to show what they'd been given and in what dosage but... she didn't think their Sand genin would need that. "It was in the med pack I took from the base. It's an older drug than the ones we had," she added uncertainly, eyeing the spent ampoule. The drug that had been in it was a strange, milky preparation; it was designed for anaesthesia and amnesia.

"Fuck," complained Hidan. "So we're gonna have to wait for it to wear off?"

Sakura frowned. She... had not really thought about that. "Ah," she said, scratching her chin. "Yeah, I guess. Sorry about that."

Hidan bitched and moaned, but in the end he was happy enough: he had his sacrifice, and all he had to do was wait a couple of hours for the ninja to wake up. He spent that time praying and ranting to himself, while Sakura settled at the base of a tree with a new squirrel and a determined expression.

"Hey," said Hidan, very suddenly, cutting himself off mid-rant and turning toward her. He spent a lot of time manoeuvring himself around with his arms alone, but they never seemed to get tired. "Do you reckon you're gonna get the hang of that?" he nodded at the squirrel.

She frowned. "Soon," she said finally. "There's a lot more to it than I thought, but I think soon I'll be able to... patch, I guess, bleeding wounds. Not fix them, but stop the bleeding, force the edges to adhere, that sort of thing." It wasn't what she'd hoped for, but it was still likely to be pretty useful, at least as a short-term stopgap in the field.

Hidan grunted. Then, after a second: "Do you think you could stick his legs on me?" he nodded at the insensate Sand ninja.

Sakura blinked once, slowly.

She opened her mouth to point out all of the things that were horribly wrong with that idea: rejection, infection, incompatible chakra natures, just - so much weird stuff she couldn't even really think coherently about it.

But then, the genin would be dead, and Hidan was immortal, so...

"Well," she said slowly, "I don't see why we can't try it. Let me see if I can do it to him, first," she added, pointing to her captive squirrel. She'd succeeded in getting small gashes and cuts to close, if not heal, on the squirrel, and... she drifted into contemplation, thinking about different levels of chakra output and the potential capacity of Hidan's cells. She really didn't want to make any mistakes.

Hidan grinned.

When he was finally sensible, Sakura did take a few moments to ask their captive for news of the area to the immediate south. He took one look at Hidan, evidently decided he didn't get paid enough to keep secrets that weren't his village's, and told them several vaguely interesting but ultimately irrelevant pieces of information.

Some of the information was enough to clear up several messy sections of Sakura's map, which was good but not perfect. There was still plenty of space to search, unfortunately.

Other information included a festival in one of the moderately sized villages down that way, and news of two Sound outposts that the genin had visited recently before being given solo missions. Sakura wasn't entirely certain she trusted his information - although he certainly looked scared, it didn't mean he wasn't lying through his teeth - but she marked these down on her map, nodding thoughtfully.

His information about Konoha was a lot thinner, although it gelled with her understanding of emergency protocols and general knowledge and geography, so she judged he wasn't actually lying explicitly, at least. Unfortunately, what he said, while probably truthful, was... pretty bad.

Hidan hadn't lied to her, either.

Konoha hadn't been captured so much as destroyed, and the last loyal ninja were scattered and in hiding - and hunted.

Sakura stared at him in blank-faced silence for a few long moments. "Aa," she said finally.

"Make him hurt," she said in a voice she barely recognised. Then she got up left him to Hidan.

She watched from the base of her tree, arms wrapped around her knees and fists clenched. Sakura didn't care about the Sand ninja in the slightest.

She knew, in theory, that she should have felt some kind of kinship with the boy. He was her age, her generation, probably somebody she might have seen at the chuunin exams, had she been paying more attention. They had a lot in common.

Something in her, she thought, watching Hidan slice open his own stomach, bright blood spilling forth as the boy wailed ineffectually, tied tightly in his ropes, was terribly broken.

She felt a little sad for herself, briefly, but then Hidan made the Sand ninja's voice soar into the upper reaches of agony and all she felt was a furious, brittle satisfaction.

Good.

Good.

Chapter Text

Sakura had a great deal of difficulty trying to attach the Sand ninja's legs to Hidan's body. Not so much difficulty with the medical chakra or technique - as long as she went slowly and carefully, she could heal skin and at least patch muscle, awkwardly joining the blood vessels so they didn't... not work, at least.

She knew that much. It worked on the squirrels, and after she'd had moderate success with those, she reached for a new knife and cut a moderately deep slice in her arm. It bled fast and sure, and she was idly pleased to notice that her blood looked normal - no weird wateriness, no strange colouration. Just blood. She wasn't sure what she'd been expecting, but she felt so changed it was...

Soothing, in a way, to see that some things were constant.

After a second, she applied her glowing chakra to the wound. She could still feel the damage underneath, but she stopped the bleeding, and the fine edges of her chakra told her that her muscle was... not healed, but closed and reinforced. A patch, not a cure.

Still. Not bad, considering the circumstances, she thought.

"Ready?" Hidan asked eagerly.

Sakura frowned at him. "It's not going to be like a proper transplant," she told him. It couldn't be. She didn't understand almost anything about the actual chemistry or biology of what she was doing. Patching herself was one thing - and she would have to see how that healed, long-term, and figure out how to do it better - but transplanting whole pieces of people was quite another.

He didn't seem the slightest bit concerned.

"All right," said Sakura. At least the risks were significantly reduced when working with Hidan.

The issue turned out to be that the genin had been Sakura's age, and while his body was bigger than hers, it was clear he hadn't finished growing.

Sakura's attempts to use medical chakra to fuse anything - ignoring the difficulties of organs and bone, which she didn't even intend to attempt - were severely hampered by how nothing really... lined up.

At first she was sort of blind sided by the general foulness of the operation - Hidan's innards were still, somehow, leaking, but somehow they didn't smell half so bad as when they casually chopped the Sand nin open.

Sakura did not have the upper body strength, and Hidan had to do it. He was strong, but a lot of a person's strength came from leverage. Sakura was sure it wouldn't have been an issue usually, but when he cut through the mangled remains, she could hear the deeply unpleasant crunch of bone, rather than the more familiar sound of shearing through it.

"Hmm," said Hidan, squinting thoughtfully at the mess.

"Er," said Sakura, peering closer. "Was that his spine?"

"Fuck," muttered Hidan. "Probably needed that."

"It's possible," said Sakura. "Maybe I can..." she paused, thinking. "I really don't know enough about this."

Hidan either didn't care or wasn't listening. "Say what you want, but I never smell that bad," he said, covering his nose.

"Only when you've eaten," said Sakura blandly, ducking the half-arsed swipe Hidan made at her with his bloody hand.

The effect of splitting somebody in half was pretty hard on the nose, though, she had to give him that. She rubbed her nose thoughtfully, straightening. "Okay, what the hell, let's do this. Get flat," she instructed, tugging on the dismembered lower half of the Sand genin.

The body was heavier dead, somehow, and she grunted when she dragged it through the leaves to Hidan's supine body. He'd taken her instruction to heart and sprawled his arms out like he hadn't a care in the world, casually sunbathing amid the leaves and gore, with half-lidded eyes staring up into the canopy above.

Well, at least he wasn't panicking.

It was sort of strange, thought Sakura distantly, that the first time she'd ever seen a human penis in the flesh it was on a dead man when she was trying to perform vastly ill-advised field surgery.

It was... weird-looking. Wrinkly? Ugly. Oddly compelling. She'd seen diagrams, obviously, but -

Ehhh. After a second's pause, she flipped a stray piece of fabric over it and returned her attention to her attempt at attachment. Now was not the time.

The unfortunate thing was that the spine did need to be at least in the vicinity of being connected in order for Hidan to actually use the legs. But when she had that lined up, the muscle he'd need would... not be a thing.

"It's... just too small," Sakura muttered abruptly, frowning up at Hidan from her spot wedged awkwardly between those thighs.

Hidan's head jerked up and his strange, reddish eyes glared at her down the line of his body. "The fuck it is."

"I can't line up the spine and connect the major muscles!" she said, sitting back on her knees and putting her hands on her hips. "I don't know what you want me to -"

"Fuck the muscles!" he cut her off, cheeks flushed and eyes gleaming. "Fuck the spine. Can you connect the chakra pathways?" He had a leaf in his hair and a smear of blood on his cheek that was rapidly drying.

She frowned. "Would it kill you to be the slightest bit nice?" she sniped, but bent down again to investigate that possibility.

"I'm always nice," said Hidan in a voice that somehow did not suggest the faintest trace of irony. "I'm the friendliest fucking- OW," he cut in, jerking one arm wildly. "What the hell, warn a guy, for-"

"Hidan," she snarled, raising her head. "Your experimental field surgery will have complications. Is that warning enough for you? Now stop moving."

Some of the things he muttered were, contrary to his claims, not very nice. But he subsided and stopped flopping around like a hooked fish.

The genin's chakra circulatory system had to have been fairly developed, since she'd immediately pegged him as a ninjutsu type, but his coils were still extremely difficult to sense. She briefly wished she had Hinata-san's eyes. "I can link the major ones," she said finally, after she was done with the exploratory poking around. "But I don't think I can... feel, the smaller ones?" she added apologetically.

"Just do it," he grumbled.

Sakura did, although she did find herself running into a similar problem - Hidan's chakra system was... well, with only hers and the genin's for comparison, she didn't want to throw around words like 'not human', but it wasn't... normal, that was for sure.

She was sure she was doing it incorrectly, but once she had managed to get the two parts of different chakra systems to meet at all, she could attach them with what felt like... stitches, she supposed. Little bursts of medical chakra that encouraged them to fuse, even as Hidan yelped and growled at her from outside her range of attention.

It was a lot less convoluted than connecting blood vessels, because helpfully the chakra system was simpler, but when she was done she was still looking at a very loosely attached lower body that did not at all match Hidan's upper body.

And during the time she'd been working, there had been definite leakages. She needed to wash her hands, possibly in acid.

"Done?" Hidan prompted.

"Well..." she paused. "I'm not going to do more?"

He snorted and then closed his eyes. "Gimme a sec."

"Are you sure...?"

She had no idea how he planned to use those legs at all.

"Shut up, I'm concentrating," he said. Sakura wondered if he knew what a giant hypocrite he was.

After a second, one of his toes twitched.

Sakura blinked in surprise.

It took him maybe fifteen minutes to figure it out, but after that he was on his - well, the genin's - feet and cautiously moving around.

"Fuck yeah," he said triumphantly.

"Won't you burn through his coils?" Sakura asked, eyeing the legs.

"Eventually, yeah. What difference does it make? He won't miss them."

"I suppose." Still, Sakura didn't necessarily want to have to stop for a murder every couple of hours to assuage Hidan's need for relative independence.

Hidan did seem happy, though, and she supposed that was worth something.

He finally looked down at himself. "You know this has gotta be one of the most fucked up things I've ever seen," he admitted. "And I've seen Orochimaru's tongue."

"Haven't we all?" Sakura said drily. She agreed, though, because she could see daylight between the portions of spine if he moved in the wrong way, and his upper body was way too broad and heavy for those legs. There was already leaked blood trailing down into the torn fabric of the genin's torn pants, which Hidan had hitched together with what looked like string and hope.

"The way he waves that thing around, think he's compensating for something?" Hidan suggested. Cheerful scorn was his version of a very good mood, Sakura had determined.

Sakura declined to respond to that, because the only response she could think of was to remind Hidan that she was twelve.

Or... was she? She frowned.

"Do you know what date it is?"

"Nope," said Hidan, utterly unconcerned. "We gonna keep moving, or what?"

Sakura shook it off. There would be plenty of time to learn that stuff later. For now? They had just increased their speed of movement significantly.

...More significantly than Sakura had realised, as it turned out. It turned out that Hidan, even on borrowed legs, with balance problems and a constant chakra drain, was still faster than her. He had to be persuaded to keep to her top speed.

"I was kept in a cell underground for months," she reminded him when he complained about having to stop for a break a few hours later. She braced her hands on her knees and took deep breaths for a few seconds.

"So was I," he pointed out. "Come on, are you done yet?"

"I said five minutes, not five seconds!" she snapped, jerking her head up and glaring.

"Whatever." He rolled his eyes and flopped down to the ground, where he reclined and threw an arm over his eyes to block out the late afternoon sunlight.

"I don't know if you've noticed, but immortality has some benefits," she said once she'd caught some of her breath back.

"Nah, I had a lot of stamina even before I found Jashin-sama. You're just, like, unusually shitty. Although," he added after a second, lifting his elbow to eye her while she walked in circles and breathed deeply, "your chakra control is okay. I thought you were bullshitting me."

"What? Why?" Sakura could not think of any possible reason she'd had to lie to him at the time, since they were planning together.

"Eh, you know, rookies. Think they're all that because they can walk on water. They don't have much basis for comparison."

Sakura frowned. She had Hidan pegged in her mind as pretty much a close-range bladed specialist and a one-tick pony as far as ninjutsu went (although it was admittedly a hell of a trick). If he hated genjutsu and didn't care about medical techniques, chakra manipulation was unlikely to be a big part of his repertoire... but he was still controlling somebody else's legs well enough to run on them.

Sakura wouldn't even know where to start.

"That's probably fair," she muttered after a second. "I never did get to learn how to walk on water," she added, scrunching her nose.

"...the fuck," muttered Hidan.

It was low enough that Sakura could pretend she hadn't heard the slight on her skills. She was working on it, and that would have to be enough.

After a few seconds of staring at nothing, Hidan rolled onto his side. "Are you ready now?"

She sighed. "Fine, fine, let's go."

He leapt to his borrowed feet and took off without another word. Sakura dashed after him, determined not to be left behind. Or... well, at least not far behind.

Sakura's limbs were trembling by the time Hidan finally called a halt, and even that was not because it was night time.

"Somewhere here, right?" he said, glaring around.

"Yeah," said Sakura, between breaths.

River country was covered in valleys and rises, and the trees thinned out a lot once they got a little further away from Fire country. Certainly none of them were the iconic Hashirama trees... but then, Sakura wasn't sure if those grew anywhere except Konoha, after all.

There were enough landmarks to judge roughly where they were and where the Sound outpost was, though, including a tiny twelve-house village that they'd run straight past. Sakura supposed that there was really no point in stopping there - they had supplies, and Hidan was extremely conspicuous.

Still, she'd kill for a bed.

She'd kill for a lot of things, these days, Sakura thought.

Sakura checked her map by the light of two flickering fingers of chakra, and then nodded. "Yeah, according to the Sand nin, we're pretty close," she agreed, letting it snap closed and shoving it away again.

"Good. I'm already burning through these weak as hell legs."

Sakura frowned, but didn't say anything about the likelihood of them having the opportunity to wait around and transplant a new lower body, even without considering the chakra she'd need, which between the genjutsu, the transplant and the run, was beginning to run low. They'd cross that bridge when they got there. "We should see what we can find out about the area first," she said instead.

What the found out, in short, was that all evidence pointed toward the same information that had been given to them by the Sand genin they'd killed: the outpost was staffed with a squad of four, charged with running regular patrols in two-person units. The outpost itself was a short, sturdy tower surrounded by a wooden palisade. It wasn't an absolute defence by any means, but it would certainly make a direct attack risky.

"We don't even know if one of them will know the location of the base," Sakura muttered, thinking. "And if we do manage to lure one out, what do we do with the others? They'll come looking, surely? Can you take four of them?"

"What, while you take a nap?"

"No, but..." the ninja here were all adults, and she suspected them of being chuunin level at least. Which meant - better than her, basically. Probably a lot better.

She ground her teeth, ignoring Hidan's judgemental stare.

"We can't attack while they're under that genjutsu," she mused. "It won't hold. What else, then...?"

She had to think. Knowing Hidan, and she very much felt that she did by now, she thought that whichever plan he ended up concocting would involve a frontal assault and a lot of screaming.

They... couldn't really afford that. Or, well, she couldn't.

Well, if they were outnumbered and outmatched in a fair fight... they'd just have to fight unfairly.

They had the advantage of being the ones planning an attack - there was no reason for the outpost to be expecting them and they could control the timing. That was a big advantage for a ninja, at least. On the other hand, the possibility that there were traps surrounding the outpost itself was pretty high. They wouldn't want to get caught in the kill zone.

She rubbed her forehead. Okay. Theirs was not enough of an advantage. She thought about what else they had at their disposal. Some ration bars, the unwashed uniform of the late Sound ninja Sakura had impersonated, a stash of stolen salted fish and rice, the combined supplies of two basic med kits, clothes, a few kunai, some wire, some smoke pellets, emergency survival gear and a couple of maps.

"The torch," she said, shoving open their pack and digging inside for the emergency gear.

"What," said Hidan, eyeing her.

"If they're anything like ours," she said, shoving an unsnapped glow stick aside, "then the torch in here uses a kind of pressurised gas to burn."

"...So?"

Sakura rolled her eyes. "So, in a pinch..." she pulled out the torch. "In a pinch we can crack open the cover and use it to change the oxygen conditions. Then, when we light it, the by-product will..."

She glanced up and saw Hidan's eyes had glazed over at the phrase 'oxygen conditions'. Sakura sighed.

"We're going to poison them to make them easier to kill," she said after a second, examining the case of the torch. It wasn't actually the same as the ones that came in emergency packs in Konoha, but the gas was the same composition, even if the packaging and ignition method were different.

All they had to do was get it into the right place, light it, and wait until morning. No direct action necessary, and definitely no failed frontal assault.

"Wait," said Hidan after she'd explained her plan. He grabbed the canister of compressed gas that she'd just freed from its packaging. "So you're saying basically this shit is really flammable, right?"

"Uh," said Sakura, with her eyes fixed upon the canister in Hidan's hand. "It's butane, compressed and significantly enhanced by chakra-processing," she said. "So yes. Um, if you could not, you know, drop it or wave it around a lot - the chakra processing doesn't leave it perfectly stable, and you're not really meant to take it out of the packa- Hidan? Hidan!"

It was much too late for that, though. Hidan smiled and strode off into the dark, armed only with the canister, several knives and the hitai-ate of the deceased Sound nin, which he tied one-handed around his neck. "Hurry up," he called over one shoulder with way too much good cheer.

Sakura made a strangled noise and scrambled to follow him.

He walked straight up to the gate, and Sakura wasn't close enough to hear what he said exactly, but it was enough for somebody to stupidly open the gate, which was basically their first and last mistake.

"What the hell," said the ninja who'd opened the gate, staring at Hidan's midsection in alarm.

He was male, twenty-something, with pale hair and an oddly willowy build. "You'll do," Hidan said, and, almost casually, he disarmed the ninja, twisted his arm and slammed him face-first into the palisade, secured with an arm wrenched behind his back.

"Oi, Sakura!" his voice called cheerfully. "Have you still got that shit you used with that other guy?"

'That shit you used with that other guy' was perhaps the least specific thing Hidan could have said, but Sakura did think she knew what he meant. "Yes," she said, digging into the med kit and brining up another syrette.

She slid it under the immobilised ninja's skin and waited until he'd flinched from the site-of-injection pain. "Last one, though," she said then to Hidan.

"I've gotta get going," he said, glancing toward the tower. "This idiot'll be missed before long, and I've gotta go surprise the rest of these heathens first."

She had to scramble to get a knife pressed against the Sound ninja's jugular, because Hidan let him go very unexpectedly, and the sedative wouldn't kick in for a while. Then he ran a hand through his silvery hair and just kind of lurched off on his borrowed legs.

A few short minutes later, Sakura heard his voice crack in the night air.

"REJOICE, SINNERS," he bellowed, with the unmistakable sound of splintering wood.

Then something went WHUMPH and a bright, bright light flared against Sakura's eyes and left her blinking. Somebody bellowed.

Another second passed.

A huge plume of flame shot into the sky in a terrible combination of chemical fire and chakra. The clouds above lit up and the moon glowed briefly but horribly red.

Then, just as suddenly, that part was over and all Sakura could hear was Hidan's mad whooping laughter and the occasional crash.

The man she was holding onto started going lax just a few moments later. Sakura didn't trust it. It felt too early - that genin had taken longer, and he was smaller. She frowned at the Sound nin. He looked insensible enough.

She didn't take the kunai away.

After a second she took her chances with drug interactions and shot him up with narcotic painkillers as well. From the way he jerked when the needle went in, she was pretty certain he'd been faking. Either way, there was no harm in wasting the medications that she was sure neither her nor Hidan would use any time soon.

When Sakura was certain that the ninja was really out, she shoved his lax body onto the dirt to tie his limbs with ninja wire.

Then she left him propped against the inside of the palisade, out of sight from the outside, and edged toward the tower. There was a steep set of wooden steps up to a narrow door, which was broken and sagging on its hinges. The smell of smoke was thick in the air.

Sakura peered in cautiously.

The walls were back, and in places had clearly had their structural integrity compromised. Sakura did not step inside. Besides, it was a one-room outpost and it was basically annihilated. As were most of the people in it, except-

"Yo."

Sakura yelped, because Hidan's face was suddenly right there.

"My legs gave out," he added as though he hadn't noticed, but his amusement was nonetheless palpable.

Sakura laid one hand flat to her chest and breathed. Other than Hidan, she counted three bodies. Alright, good.

She eyed him. It wasn't so much that his legs had given out as it was that one of them had been severely burned and then stabbed through with a short, heavy blade. "Right," she said. "We can try the other ninja's legs after you sacrifice him," she suggested.

"That's what I like about you," he said in a much-too-satisfied voice, bracing himself against her much smaller shoulder. "You're always thinking of ways we can do shit. None of this it's impossible, why would you do that, stop wasting time, time is money bullshit."

Sakura blinked at him. "Impossible kind of went out the window a while back," she admitted. "Although... How did you..." she eyed the bodies, then turned to awkwardly manoeuvre them down the narrow wooden steps.

Even if they'd all been chuunin-level only, which was possible given the inevitable losses of the invasion, she could count on one hand the jounin who could kill three chuunin-level ninja in their own base, with nothing but a grenade and a couple of bladed weapons. Kakashi-sensei, definitely. Gai-sensei probably wouldn't even need the weapons. From there she was... drawing kind of a blank.

Everybody else would have at least needed a goddamn plan.

That didn't even account for his borrowed limbs.

"What?" he looked over his shoulder, and then made a kind of dismissive grunting noise. "They were surprised."

Sakura nodded, but privately she thought that while that advantage counted, it didn't count for that much. Much like Hidan's declaration of liking her, actually. Nothing put him in a friendly mood like unnecessary bloodletting. She shrugged that off. She'd take the compliment.

The remaining sound ninja was right where she'd left him, so at least she knew she'd been right and he was completely out. But that did pose something of a logistical problem, and Sakura frowned. "Can you walk on your own at all?"

"Uh," said Hidan. "...maybe." He let go of her shoulder. Immediately, his leg buckled, and she lunged to grab him again. "Shit."

Sakura peered at it for a second, hunching awkwardly under his weight. "I can probably knit the stab wound. Would that help?"

He shook his head. "I burned through them."

"Somebody's bound to have seen that fire. We really should vacate the area. But... I don't know if I can carry both of you."

She could give it her best shot, of course: she knew how to shore up her muscles with chakra and reinforce her body in ways civilians didn't even dream of. But that only took her so far.

"...I was kind of banking on a new set of legs," Hidan admitted. "But I guess we have to ask him some questions and then sacrifice him to Jashin-sama, and you probably can't take whatever backup's coming. This wouldn't be a problem if you weren't so weak," he added, narrowing his eyes at her.

She set her hands on her hips and huffed. "Or," she suggested acidly, "if we'd followed my plan instead of running in a blowing everything up for no reason."

He scratched the back of his head. "Look, I'm not saying your plan wouldn't have worked, but it was boring as fuck."

"Also less likely to get us killed," she muttered.

"Right," Hidan agreed. "So we went with mine."

She took a deep breath and then just... decided not to argue. Seriously. "Okay, let's give this a shot," she muttered.

In the end they cut Hidan's useless legs away, leaving them propped jauntily against the palisade wall like a grim hello to any assistance squad that might be incoming, and Sakura ended up loaded down with the insensible Sound ninja strapped to her back. Hidan counterbalanced that by clinging to her front.

They probably looked ridiculous.

But she could walk.

At the edge of the valley there were trees rising up the slope, which, while not absolutely ideal, provided a certain degree of cover. They didn't have the time - or the energy or means, really - to lay a false trail, but Sakura still felt better once they were under the comforting shadow of the canopy.

"Do you think this might have been easier if we moved things one at a time?" she asked quietly then.

"Easier, but riskier. And I'd have to wait around somewhere while you dawdled along with the sacrifice," he pointed out. Then he yawned sleepily. "Not that this is much better. Are you sure you can't move any faster?"

"Yes," she said flatly.

He heaved a huge, put-upon sigh, but subsided.

Once they reached a shallow stream, which was certainly not uncommon in River country, Sakura took their party to the water. It was freezing and her dodgy ankle made its protests known in the form of weakness and pain, but it would also have the very great benefit of making them significantly harder to track.

Since she wasn't walking on the water, even a chakra-trakcer - somebody in the nature of an Aburame - would not be able to follow their trail easily. They'd have to scout them out the old fashioned way, which would take time.

"How fast do you think you can get him to tell us where the base is specifically?" she posed.

"Fast," said Hidan sleepily against her collarbone.

Fine, then. She glanced at the sky. It wasn't lightening yet, at least not beneath the trees, but it wouldn't be long. Their ninja would come to in an hour or two, if she had estimated correctly.

They kept moving for another hour, and then Sakura set them down in a small clearing. She wasn't especially careful of Hidan's exposed spine or organs, but he didn't complain. Which was lucky, because at this point she might have punched him. She was tired.

Once she had their Sound nin unstrapped, Sakura immediately slumped to take the weight off her ankle. "I'm going to strap this," she said to Hidan, already grappling with their pack. "Can you take care of that?" and she jerked her head toward their new friend, whose eyes were beginning to flicker beneath his eyelids.

Hidan was only too pleased.

He was well and truly awake once she'd strapped her ankle, which she suspected she should have been doing for a while now. Hidan's interrogation methods were brutal, but hardly the worst she'd seen... or experienced. He didn't have Orochimaru's delicacy or finesse.

It took him ten minutes.

Sakura came over and touched the sobbing ninja's forehead gently. He was sweating heavily. Stress, she presumed. "It's okay," she said in her gentlest voice. "It's all right. It'll be over soon. But look how admirably you've suffered, you see?"

He spat at her, but his face crumpled again.

"Rude," said Hidan, having finally finished the ritual circle.

Sakura wiped saliva off her chin. Gross.

Then she yawned. "Do you mind if I take a nap?"

"You don't want to watch?" he sounded oddly put out.

"I want to have enough chakra to do a transplant when you're done," she admitted. "So I need to eat and sleep a bit."

If anything, he looked even more annoyed, but he nodded. "I'll keep an ear out for pursuit," he said, as if this was a terribly magnanimous thing he was doing just for her and not, you know, a way to keep himself safe.

She just nodded tiredly.

Then she devoured a ration bar, drank some water and propped herself against a tree. She could hear the soothing sounds of Hidan's voice rising and falling. Idly, she wondered why more ninja weren't Jashinists. Increasingly, she found the tenets a comfortable explanation for certain realities.

Even the casual murders made her feel better on some level. She couldn't quite explain it - perhaps the feeling that each time she saw somebody die, she was assured she lived. It was so terribly final, after all. Torture was not. She lived.

It'd be all right, anyway. They had the location of the base, and all they needed to do was go that way and collect Hidan's legs. Orochimaru hadn't been seen, but his influence was felt, orders delivered as normal, through normal channels. While it was possible that Kabuto had taken command, it sounded too seamless to Sakura.

That meant Uchiha Itachi had lost - or at least not won - and Orochimaru was still alive out there somewhere.

Once they had Hidan's lower body back, she'd be sure to rectify that.

With that happy thought, Sakura drifted off just as Hidan began purring about the beauty of shared agony.

Chapter Text

Sakura knew what she was doing this time when she attached a stranger's legs to Hidan's torso. It was grim, messy, ugly work but there was a sense of accomplishment in getting it right.

They left the body of the Sound ninja where it lay. Sakura glanced once at his staring eyes and too-white skin, then turned her attention upon their map. It was stained around the edges now - bloody finger prints, mostly - but still good enough to read.

"We can make it in a day," Sakura said to Hidan's back as he stumbled upright, unsteady on his new legs. Hidan rolled one of his ankles experimentally, wriggling his feet in the grass, and Sakura could almost taste the delicate chakra work.

He grunted at her comment and gave her a look that seemed to indicate that he knew he could do it in half the time without her. Sakura shifted uncomfortably but didn't say anything. Maybe it was selfish, but she didn't want to be alone.

"Oi, oi, what's with that face?" Hidan demanded.

"Eh?" she blinked.

"Stop looking so damn miserable." Hidan rolled his eyes and strode forward to grab her roughly by the biceps and tug her to her feet. "Come on, we're wasting daylight."

'Daylight' was a very optimistic term for what was going on around the horizon, in Sakura's view, but she didn't argue. They took the interesting stuff the Sound ninja had kept on him - which wasn't much, but at least they had more wire and kunai, if nothing else - and set off at a ground-eating jog.

"What's the book?" Sakura asked when they edged back into open, rolling grassland. Hidan had been flipping through it thoughtfully since he'd liberated it from the ninja's corpse.

"Haven't you even seen a bingo book before?" Hidan asked, and tossed it to her - or, well, at her is more where he tossed it, but she caught it out of the air anyway.

"I've heard of them," Sakura said, peering at it thoughtfully.

The book wasn't a published book, per se - it was a messy pile of heavily reinforced papers, each of differing age and design, all bound together with some kind of twine looped through needle holes jabbed through the margins. The edges were very badly abused, but the contents of the scraps were clear enough.

Sakura flipped it open to somewhere in the middle and, abruptly, she found herself staring at a sketch of a very familiar masked face.

"Hey, look, it's Kakashi-sensei," she said, slowing her jog to look more closely. Interestingly, the page was old. It described Kakashi well, though, and it listed him as a high-bounty A-rank ninja, and it mentioned his sharingan eye. Ninjutsu type, it read, although Sakura wasn't sure that such a classification was really doing him justice.

"Sharingan Kakashi was your teacher?" said Hidan. He'd dropped his pace, too, and was looking over her shoulder at the papers. He squinted at her like this was profoundly weird. "Huh. ...I'd have expected you to be better."

Sakura bristled and ground her teeth. "Well, I'm not."

Hidan made an amused noise in his throat. "Damn right you're not." A thoughtful pause. "You had the nine-tails kid and Uchiha on your team, right?"

"Yes," said Sakura in a hard voice. She didn't really want to talk about Sasuke or Naruto. Not now, maybe not ever. It was like a physical pain. Her time with Orochimaru had left her certain of the loss of Sasuke - how could it not? - but...

Somehow Sakura felt like she wouldn't be convinced of Naruto's death until somebody showed her a body. He had a way of surprising people.

"That's such bullshit," Hidan burst out suddenly, angrily.

"What?" Sakura said, startled out of her thoughts. She realised then that she was beginning to fall behind, so she shoved the bingo book in the pack and stepped up her pace. It was interesting. She'd take a look later.

Hidan looked at her sideways. "That kid - Uchiha - he's the last one from his family in your village, right?"

"Well - yes. He was," Sakura agreed, frowning

"I don't care a lot about bloodline bullshit, but the sharingan's pretty famous. Konoha scared the shit out of everyone in the last war specifically because of it. It's probably pretty important to them... and then, you've got the nine-tails kid. Strongest of the demon containers, bad fucking news."

"Right," Sakura agreed. She didn't really see what he was getting at - she knew all this, too. She was from Konoha.

"So they make their best jounin take care of that team. He's got one fancy eye, so he can teach baby Uchiha, and he's probably best qualified for if the demon goes nuts anyway. And then there's you."

Sakura didn't say anything.

"No special skills, no particular bloodline, no obvious talent - quiet and obedient, too, I bet," he added, sneering, "No wonder you don't fucking know how to do anything, you got set up to fail. Not even for a good reason! How the fuck's one guy meant to keep an eye on the nine-tails and the last kid with a major bloodline anyway? Even that's a big ask, isn't it?"

Sakura stared ahead at the rolling, grassy scenery and chewed her bottom lip. Unbidden, thoughts of their mission to Wave came to her: of Kakashi telling her to go keep an eye on Tazuna at the bridge, while he taught the boys how to walk up trees. She'd been so proud at the time, getting that exercise right well before her team mates did, but...

Kakashi had known Zabuza wasn't coming back until he was recovered. He'd known the danger was minimal. But he'd sent her to stand around and do nothing all day anyway, just to keep her busy and out of the way while he taught Sasuke and Naruto. No reason to give her different training, to reward her success with new material. What was the point?

And of course that's what he did, she thought. She was the one with no potential, wasn't she? Passably smart, with clever chakra control. She was never going to be a powerhouse like Naruto, never going to mastermind ninjutsu like Sasuke, she just -

"I can see why he did it like that," Sakura said. There was no point in denying the logic of the decisions Kakashi made, even if they made her feel small and insignificant and uncared-for.

"He probably didn't get much of a choice," Hidan said, shrugging, "And, I don't know, I've never met Hatake. I couldn't say what he's like. And, if I did, I'd probably try to kill him just for the fun of it," he admitted.

Sakura snorted. Because: yes, of course he would. Hidan's violent urges were very nearly a force of nature all on their own.

"But you know what? I'll bet whoever assigned your teams did get a choice. Somewhere in your village, somebody looked at your records and went 'yeah, this kid's just cannon fodder waiting to happen, nobody'll care what happens to her'. And then you got dumped in the deep end without any goddamn training. You should be dead by now." His eyes slid to her again, wild and red and bright against his skin, "Sakura. That should make you fucking furious."

Sakura didn't feel furious. Mostly she felt cold, and a weird sinking dread in her guts. But other than that... it hurt, really, to know somebody had considered her coldly and practically and determined that she had so little worth, but -

"I can see the logic," she admitted.

Something hit Sakura in the face with a smack. Pale stars flashed behind her eyes and suddenly she was skidding across the ground with a face full of dirt.

"What the fuck?" Hidan bellowed at her, which was when she realised he'd punched her in the face.

She'd never even seen it.

Dirt and grass and twigs crunched underfoot as he stalked toward her, and Sakura scrambled to get up. She wasn't quick enough, though, to prevent being hauled to her feet by Hidan's hand on her neck.

"Nobody," Hidan said, from about three centimetres away. His breath was hard on her face, faintly over sweet with the smell of old blood. "Fucking nobody, gets to decide shit like that for you."

"I-"

His grip tightened, cutting off her voice. She couldn't breathe.

"No," he said, in that flat, implacable voice. It was much too intense and it was a hell of a lot scarier than his insane whooping and yelling. His pupils were huge. "You think that's okay? You think you're not valuable? You're not one of these sad godless bastards, Sakura. You know suffering. You don't belong to anybody but yourself and Jashin-sama. And your stupid fucking village, with their bullshit paranoia and their dumb politics, they came so close to taking you away from him. You should be furious."

His eyes seemed to tremble for a moment, wild and too wide, and Sakura felt his hand tighten, like he really would choke her - or snap her neck. She grabbed at his wrist, seeing stars.

Abruptly, he let go.

Sakura wheezed and slumped to her knees. She didn't look up at him.

"Shit," Hidan muttered, scowling down at her. Then he ran his hand through his hair, dumped his pack and stalked off muttering to himself.

Sakura sat slumped in the grass, staring at their packs and trying to catch her breath. She couldn't, though, and her hands clenched of their own accord. Her heart had sped up wildly while Hidan's hand was on her throat, and she couldn't seem to get it to calm at all.

Her breathing was too fast.

Her pulse was loud.

A sharp pain in her chest made Sakura gasp in a huge gulping breath, and she closed her eyes against the sudden dizzying spin of everything. Even without her vision she felt like she couldn't tell up from down, couldn't breathe, couldn't -

She sucked in another huge breath and couldn't seem to pull enough oxygen from it.

Something was horribly, horribly wrong.

Her chest hurt, and she couldn't breathe and everything -

It took her long minutes to come down from it, and then there was nothing but exhausted crying. She'd thought she was over crying, like it wouldn't come for her anymore, but instead she found herself clutching one of the packs to her and sobbing into it.

She wanted to stop - desperately wanted to stop - but she couldn't seem to control it. Every time she thought she'd distracted herself enough she wound up suddenly sobbing again, overwhelmed by a kind of vast, directionless despair.

"Stupid," choked out Sakura bitterly, holding the fabric of her tunic to her face. "What good does crying do?" And why was she even crying? Nothing Hidan had said was really new, it just crystallised the understanding she'd been coming to on her own.

But she still couldn't make it stop. Her voice wanted to break through in angry, despairing sobs, but that she could prevent. She pressed her mouth against the outside of the pack she was clutching and kept herself silent.

She didn't understand. She'd gone months without crying when tortured, but the concrete understanding that she'd been just expendable enough for her village just -

It wasn't even that, she thought after a moment, carefully trying to orgnaise her thoughts. That was definitely a component, but really it was all of the other things, too: everything she'd known was gone, burned up in so much smoke; her friends were dead or worse; she was sad and guilty that she couldn't feel upset about murder and she was worried and scared about what might become of her. She didn't understand Hidan and she didn't understand herself and she couldn't - she couldn't -

Sakura's crying came on anew, fresh tears and heaving sobs she couldn't control, fuelled by feelings she couldn't untangle. Everything was terrible and she had no idea what she was doing.

"I'm sorry," she blurted when she heard Hidan approach again. He was making no effort to be quiet. "I can't make it stop."

She heard him heave a huge sigh, and then he slumped down next to her, staring away from her while she clutched the pack and cried like an idiot.

He didn't say anything.

It took Sakura almost ten minutes to stop sobbing.

"Ready to go?" he said, with typical impatience.

Sakura swallowed. Her throat hurt. "Yeah," she said finally, when it didn't seem like she'd be ready to start crying again immediately.

Hidan shouldered one of the bags and got to his feet without saying any more, and Sakura followed suit. She felt fragile and so damn humiliated, but her feelings were strange and distant things. It was like she'd exhausted all of her emotions and now she didn't have the energy to have them anymore.

She ran along with her thoughts racing, quick and mean but too shallow to really hurt her, and she concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other.

It surprised her when they arrived at the site of the base before nightfall, but it was welcome anyway.

The entry was well-hidden, but once you knew it was there it wasn't that hard to find. Otherwise, this appeared to be another base that was primarily under ground, with an entry set in the side of one of the bigger hills.

"Right," said Hidan in a low voice, once they'd checked out the area. "The plan is: we're going to walk in and find my legs."

"That's your plan?" Sakura hissed.

"Well," he said, and shrugged, "yeah?"

Sakura rubbed her forehead. Her hair was still mostly gone, although there was a weird smattering of stubble. "Maybe if you know some other kinds of genjutsu, we -"

"Nah," said Hidan cheerfully, although whether that was in response to the idea of using genjutsu or in denial of his knowing any more, she couldn't be sure.

"At least wear this," said Sakura weakly, fishing out the Sound hitai-ate for him.

He eyed it. "Well, it'll let me get close, anyway."

It... totally did not.

Sakura wasn't sure what they'd been expecting, but it seemed obvious in hindsight that the base would be ready for Hidan. They had something he was guaranteed to come for, after all.

It didn't stop him from taking out two ninja straight off the mark, springing at them with a whoop and a cackle and handily decapitating one and lopping an arm off the other. There was a scream.

"Come on!" he called over his shoulder, grinning, and Sakura was forced to either follow him into the building or stay up aboveground and take her chances alone. Which also meant leaving him to take his chances alone.

Hidan probably didn't need help, and certainly not hers, but...

Sometimes he didn't think a lot before he did things. Or, you know: at all.

So Sakura followed, and the next six minutes was a hideous blur of colour and blood and hugely unpleasant spikes of adrenalin. The corridor they entered into was concrete and stone, flickering with dim electric lights and narrow enough to make fighting ugly.

There were organised, hard-eyed ninja diving at them suddenly, and while Hidan seemed thrilled by the challenge of slaughtering all comers, one or two of them still made it through his defences - and most of those took the opportunity to stab him.

It became quickly clear to Sakura that there were several disadvantages to him using borrowed legs - although he could channel chakra into them to move, he couldn't seem to use chakra for wall-climbing or enhanced jumping, and his balance wasn't quite right.

"Daydreaming, little boy?" asked a sweet voice somewhere near Sakura's ear, and she hurled herself forward just in time to hear the clatter of steel on the concrete.

Her attacker was a woman in her twenties with eyes like bottomless pits and tattoos writhing up one side of her body. They were of ogre-faced nature deities, brightly coloured and in lurid detail, and broken here or there by scar tissue. Her hands were bandaged and her teeth were bared in a sharp smile.

She lunged at Sakura. She was fast.

Sakura scrambled out of her way, yelping when a swing from Hidan at another assailant almost took her head off, and felt her spine smack a concrete wall just as the kunoichi closed in.

She squeaked and dropped, and the woman's fist smacked into the wall over her head. The wall cracked. Sakura stared at it, wide eyed, and sped through the hand signs for the replacement technique. She managed to swap herself out for a nearby knife when the kunoichi lunged again - she heard her curse loudly as the steel bit into her hand.

Sakura ducked another swipe and slid away, sending insubstantial clones racing away in two different directions. She heard Hidan's bark of laughter as he caught sight of one of them, but she was vindicated when the kunoichi lashed out at one and went through it, thrown off balance for a second.

Sakura took the opportunity to kick her in the knee cap. It wasn't a very good kick. She wobbled and stumbled, but she didn't go down. "Little bastard," she growled at Sakura, eyes gleaming dark, and she bared her teeth.

Her next lunge was angry, a little sloppy, and Sakura managed to get under it. She was almost not even sure where she was aiming when she flailed at the woman with her kunai, but there was a wretched scream and she noticed - quite belatedly - that her wild jab had taken the strange ninja through the eye.

Sakura didn't even think about what happened next. It was training. Conditioning. She'd done drills upon drills upon drills in how to take out a disabled opponent, and now one foot went forward and she kicked the kunoichi further off balance with a sliding, angled toe. One hand batted away a sloppy defensive strike, and the other dipped her kunai almost delicately into the Sound ninja's unprotected throat.

Eye wide. Just one. The other was all blood. Gasp - gurgle. Mouth open, teeth bloodied. Sakura blinked once, and the woman was clutching at her throat, paling dramatically as red spilled down her front.

She blinked again.

The woman slumped.

The world rushed back in on her, movement and clatter and yelling, the sizzle of chakra and somebody's flickering lightning technique. Things smelled of rust and blood and smoke. Sakura hit the floor as something huge and fast sung through he air right where her head had been.

"Don't dawdle, Sakura!" Hidan laughed at her, turning from one struggling ninja to casually boot her new attacker in the ribs. He went sailing into a wall.

Sakura swallowed. She was not prepared for this.

Another man lunged at her, and she clumsily parried his weapon and didn't quite dodge the flicker of lightning that he sent racing up her side. It burned across her ribs, but the pain really wasn't as bad as it could have been.

He took a deep breath and she saw his hands flick through more seals - Sakura took a step forward and replaced herself mid-leap with the body of the Sound kunoichi she'd killed. The lightning attack hit the body, which kept moving with Sakura's momentum and tumbled, lifeless and bloody, to the floor at the man's feet. He tripped, and - there. Off balance. Vulnerable.

She did exactly the same thing she'd done with the kunoichi, and this time it was even easier.

When the ninja dropped, the corridor was silent.

Sakura stopped, panting, and looked around to get her bearings.

There were five - six? six! - other dead bodies, ones she wasn't responsible for. They were - bigger, she thought, on average, than her assailants, and she was sure that one of them had been responsible for the fire jutsu that made everything smell like smoke. Older, too, actually-

"Done?" Hidan interrupted her thought process. He was waiting for her, leaning on a stolen pole arm with a savage smile. "Let's move," he said.

They did.

The next twenty minutes was hellish.

There were Sound ninja everywhere, and every corridor was pretty much like the first: steel, concrete, smoke and chakra. Blood. So much blood. At one point, Hidan gutted somebody and they left the hall reeking like a cesspit.

Sakura was flagging badly by the time they actually located Hidan's legs. A half hour of running and jumping was one thing, but she couldn't keep up the stamina and concentration to spend that amount of time in straight-up combat.

Hidan's plan, such as it was, seemed to involve breaking open doors and peering inside, then murdering anything he found that wasn't his own limbs.

(He found a lot of things to murder.)

With that being the case, Sakura really wasn't expecting him to throw open one dingy door and say: "Aw, fuck yes," and dive inside.

She wasn't sure what Hidan had been expecting, but she was totally unsurprised to learn that the room was trapped to hell. They'd have been stupid to think Hidan wouldn't come for his own legs.

He got maybe three steps inside before a harpoon fired from somewhere inside. It went straight through him.

"MOTHERFUCKER," Hidan bellowed, and hunched over the huge bit of steel that seemed to be jammed through his stomach. From behind, all Sakura could see was a cruel pointed hook extruding from his back.

Sakura swore, too, and darted inside - just far enough to close the door behind her. "Demonic illusion," she murmured, doing her level best to make the room exude a soothing 'nothing to see here' sort of feeling, "false surroundings."

Her chakra settled with a shudder. That should, hopefully, buy them some time. Maybe. As long as nobody looked too closely.

Very, very carefully, Sakura picked her way across the room to Hidan. "Don't move," she said to him, edging around him.

There were a couple of traps that she had to disable, vicious things just like that harpoon: aimed for messy, disabling injuries that might very well kill somebody else.

"Okay," she said once she was reasonably sure there were no more traps - just Hidan's lower body, laid temptingly on a steel exam table. Yeah, this was not a sophisticated trap - but then, Hidan wasn't that sophisticated a person, most of the time.

It took Sakura a few minutes to realise that the whole set-up had been predicated on Hidan coming alone.

Without her here to disable the traps, he'd have stumbled through the gauntlet of them, horribly determined to reach the rest of his body, and pain and anger would have made him stupid. She could practically see it panning out just as soon as she'd thought of it.

Immortal or not, Hidan would collapse if he was injured badly enough. Then they'd have him, exhausted and injured and perfectly prepared to be strapped down to one of those polished tables with the drainage channels cut into them.

"He's a bastard," she said, with a rush of anger that surprised her. She'd thought she was all out, but apparently she still had some left. "He thought you'd be alone," she said, unhooking the line from the harpoon and wrapping one hand around the back of Hidan's neck to brace herself against the next action.

Sakura jammed the steel of the rod the rest of the way through him. Hidan lurched and gagged, and the harpoon clattered to the floor behind him, dripping with blood and thicker things.

"Well, you're not," she said, letting him slump forward and sag against her for a moment. Her own bloodied hand tightened in the hair at the back of Hidan's neck, and she swallowed hard as she felt his laboured breath heaving against her shoulder.

"You're not alone. You've got me, and maybe you think I'm weak and terrible at everything, but I'm not going to let them have either of us," she hissed. She pushed her free hand against his chest, ignoring the slick blood there. The heavy thump of his heart was unmistakable. "That's a promise."

There was a heartbeat's pause.

"That's a stupid thing to promise," he said hoarsely, and then he huffed a noisy, bloody laugh against the bony curve of her shoulder before using her to haul himself properly upright again. "Now shut up and get my legs."

"Fine," said Sakura. "Get on the table."

It was vastly simpler than it had been to complete either of the transplants she'd attempted recently, largely because Hidan's body seemed to actively cooperate with her. She used medical chakra to urge it to knit, and it seemed to just... take the idea and run with it. She'd never come close to figuring out how to fix broken bones, but as soon as she had Hidan's spine aligned more or less correctly, the bones grew into each other, and minor misalignments righted themselves with a dull crack.

Blood vessels, muscles, nerves, skin, chakra coils - Hell, even organ tissues! - went absurdly far out of their way to help her, and in the end she used much more chakra than she'd predicted, just because she was capable of fixing so much more than she'd expected.

Hidan stayed there for a few long moments after she was finished, arms spread and eyes on the ceiling. There was still that bloody hole in his torso, and Sakura wanted badly to try to fix it, but - well, she only had so much chakra and the legs seemed more important at this point.

There wasn't even a scar.

Hidan ran his bloody hands from his chest to his hips and stretched his fingers along his thighs. He made a humming, contented noise. "That feels so much better," he crooned to nobody in particular.

His smile probably frightened small children.

"Great," said Sakura. "Now we have to get out of here. I don't have enough chakra to fight my way through more Sound nin."

"Maa," murmured a gentle voice from the doorway. "That's a pity."

Sakura stilled.

Slowly, she turned toward the door. She knew what she'd find there, but she still looked.

Yakushi Kabuto was a dark silhouette in the doorway. He lifted one hand and adjusted his glasses. They glinted dramatically in the light.

"Unfortunately, Sakura-san, I can't let you leave just yet." There was a gentle tap as he stepped forward, the sound of an uncautious foot on the floor, but Sakura's whole body zeroed in on that sound. Her muscles went tight with tension.

Half a step behind her, though, Hidan swung his legs and feet off the metal table.

He cracked his neck with a sigh, then kicked his stolen pole arm into the air with one foot. He caught it one-handed.

"'S that so?" Hidan said, twisting the long handle of it in his hand. The metal edge made an unpleasant swooping noise as it cut through the air.

"Come on, then," he said with a grin that Sakura thought was really, really ominous.

Chapter Text

 

"You sound confident," said Kabuto into the tense stillness of the room, "but even you take time to heal properly, Hidan-kun. I estimate that your use of your legs is at seventy, eighty per cent at best. Still, it's impressive that you even made it this far..."

Sakura frowned and tried to tune out his voice. There was something...

Her eyes fluttered. Something was...

"-with the girl in tow, as well..."

His voice - it was in his voice. She clenched her teeth.

"KAI!" Sakura flared her chakra wildly, and smacked Hidan hard in the biceps for good measure. She had no idea of his capacity to handle genjutsu, and if he was affected then they were both going to get hurt.

She saw him blink, once, and then his eyes narrowed. Good.

Kabuto made an annoyed clicking sound with his tongue. "I suppose that was Sakura-chan's genjutsu over the room, then. We did peg her as a genjutsu type. I would prefer to subdue you both without unnecessary violence," he murmured, and his eyes went half-lidded and his glasses flashed in the dim light.

He raised one hand, and chakra flickered gently to life around his fingertips. "Ideally I'd prefer not to damage the specimens I bring back to Orochimaru-sama, but -"

He didn't get a chance to finish, because Hidan let out an excited, whooping cry and hurled himself at Kabuto with all the speed he could muster.

There was a loud clatter of steel where they met, and a flash of that bright chakra that Kabuto was wielding, and then - they separated.

Whatever Kabuto had done seemed to have no real impact on Hidan, whose smile had turned terribly savage.

With a cheerful cry he planted one foot on the edge of the door frame, bent at the knee and then uncoiled and launched himself straight back at Kabuto.

The fight was actually so fast it was hard for Sakura to follow - it was as confusing as the fight between Kakashi and Zabuza had been that first time.

Except Hidan's killing intent flooded everything and left her breathless for a second.

She swallowed.

The next sound of clashing metal took her by surprise, and Sakura jerked away from the centre of the conflict. Neither Kabuto nor Hidan had much time to focus on her, so she edged away and put the examination table between her and them. It wouldn't be a useful barrier if either of them really wanted to get to her, but it would take care of most accidental exposure to projectiles.

There was a snap of chakra, a spatter of blood, and they separated.

Hidan spat out a mouthful of blood onto the floor. It stuck in the grooves of his smile and made him look monstrous. He dragged one foot through the blood on the floor, but he maintained eye contact with Kabuto.

Kabuto was unharmed, as far as Sakura could tell. He was breathing hard, though.

"Maa, Hidan-kun. You're nearly at a hundred per cent. I had no idea you'd studied medical ninjutsu," said Kabuto, adjusting his stance.

"Idiot. Why would I need medical ninjutsu?" Hidan wondered, sounding honestly incredulous. "

Kabuto's eyes narrowed. His gaze drifted to Sakura for a split second. "Hmm. None of my observations indicated that Sakura-chan was capable of anything like that." There was a disconcerted look on his face, like the possibility that he'd missed something really bothered him.

Hidan laughed like a broken hinge. "Are you fucking stupid? She learned it from you!"

Hidan plunged forward, and that tiny distraction was all he'd needed - blood sprayed, Kabuto hissed, the chakra blade in his hand flashed again -

This time, when they separated, there was a great deal more blood on Hidan's mouth, and Kabuto's face had gone white.

Hidan's neck twisted and sort of... sagged, on one side, sending his head tilting at a very unnatural angle. Sakura's guts twisted queasily for a second when she realised what had happened: Kabuto had used that chakra to cut through the tendons and muscles under Hidan's skin - there was no outside evidence of the damage, but underneath...

He was probably a mess.

Kabuto's lips set into a grim, grim line.

"We're going to share this perfect agony together," said Hidan, voice bright with victory - and also with some pretty scary fanaticism. It didn't seem to bother him that his neck was bent awfully, that his skull was sagging to one side, poorly supported.

The whites of his eyes gleamed in the dim light, and it only took a few moments for his skin to darken. The white markings of his curse showed up stark.

Kabuto snarled and leapt for him. He slammed into Hidan's body, knocking them both over backwards, and very nearly succeeded in tackling him out of his circle.

Hidan was evidently his superior in taijutsu, though, because he looped one leg around Kabuto's, jerked him off balance and then used what leverage he could get to twist and slam Kabuto's shoulders and skull into the floor, right in the centre of the circle.

There was stillness and silence for a second, just the sound of heaving breaths.

Sakura didn't dare move to get a better look.

"Hey," breathed Hidan into Kabuto's face, close enough to leave condensation on his glasses. His voice was hoarse and husky, full of something low and pleased; there was something almost obscene about his pleasure. "Hey, asshole. I know you need to take us alive, but you're not strong enough."

For a second Sakura thought Kabuto was going to kiss Hidan (which, admittedly, might have caught him off guard), but then he opened his mouth - and expelled a rank cloud of yellow gas. Poison, Sakura deduced, and backed further away, covering her mouth with the hem of her tunic.

Hidan, on the other hand, inhaled deeply and, grinning, breathed it right back out into Kabuto's face. "Really?" he asked, sounding delighted. "Really?"

Then Hidan made a horrible gurgling noise, and something wet hit the floor.

Kabuto's face went white with pain, but he lurched up and staggered from the circle, one hand covered in blood. There was a horrible, sucking wound in his gut, bleeding freely and awfully.

"No," said Kabuto, hands lit with medical chakra. The wound was healing, and it was healing fast. "Not really." He adjusted his glasses with his free hand. "The poison was a distraction."

There was a pause, and then he took a deep, deep breath - because he could, because the wound in his stomach was all but gone. "You forget, Hidan-kun - anything you do to me," said Kabuto, in a low, savage voice, "I can heal. But you can't. Your wounds will impact your stamina a lot faster than my healing will deplete mine."

Hidan swore. Then he grabbed his pole arm and casually rammed the pointy end through his leg. Sakura heard the crack of his femur.

Kabuto dropped to one knee. He didn't look happy, but he looked - grimly determined.

He actually thought he could win like this, Sakura realised, swallowing hard.

This, she thought, was going to be really, really bloody.

It was.

It didn't take very long for Hidan to lose patience. By that time they were both on the floor and the room looked like it belonged in a slaughterhouse.

Sakura didn't blink when Hidan finally just jammed his weapon straight into his sternum, cracking bone and crushing organs. His eyes rolled into the back of his skull with this small death, but Kabuto wheezed and -

Sakura stared. Could he just not be killed? His chakra was glowing, his wounds were regenerating.

Hidan's hand trembled as he reached for the shaft of his pole arm and yanked it back out of him -

Kabuto wheezed.

He kept healing.

"Fuck," croaked Hidan, and he lifted the weapon and did it again, going for a lung this time.

Kabuto's voice cut off - there was a surprised hiss of air and a faint, choked noise.

He kept healing.

"Tenacious bastard," laughed Hidan, breathless and raspy. He tried to pull on the shaft again, but his hand shook. When he got it out, the long weapon fell to the floor, bladed edge clattering loudly, and Hidan's nerveless fingers couldn't seem to get a proper hold on it.

There was a long, silent pause.

"I told you I'd win," Kabuto said, sounding exhausted but - whole. It was telling, however, that he didn't get up. Chakra loss was getting to him, Sakura surmised.

"Fuck you." Hidan's face twisted. "Sakura," he croaked. His voice was almost a whisper.

She hesitated.

Oddly, he waited.

After a second's pause and an uncertain glance at Kabuto, Sakura edged toward Hidan. Instinct said she should go over there and cut Kabuto's throat and save Hidan the inconvenience, but this was a ritual sacrifice.

That meant something.

Carefully, she picked up the weapon he'd been using - a naginata, heavier than the ones she'd seen before, with a long blade an a shaft almost two metres long. It was unwieldy, but he'd thrown it around like he was used to a much heavier weapon.

"It's okay," she found herself saying soothingly, "I know what to do."

Hidan's smile was bloody, and it should have been terrifying.

Sakura took his pole arm and examined it for a second, thinking logistically. Only a short distance away, Kabuto took a shuddering breath and his arm twitched.

Out of time, then.

Sakura slung one leg over Hidan's chest with a wet squelch. She settled there, braced upon her knees, and raised the weapon with both hands, blade down. The shaft was slick with blood, warm from Hidan's grip. She could feel the grain of the wood beneath that.

Hidan didn't blink.

Sakura heard Kabuto's shoe scuff against the floor. Uncoordinated, but he was moving.

She brought the blade down. The combination of her strength, its weight and the brutal sharpness of the blade took it straight through Hidan's skull.

Kabuto dropped like a marionette with its strings cut. He didn't make a sound.

Sakura let go. For a second, the exposed portion of the blade and the long pole was held upright, dividing the topmost parts of Hidan's skull almost perfectly - a long, nearly-clean slice that started between his eyes and split his head from there up. Then it fell with a clatter.

Sakura sat back, resting her weight on - hmm, the lower edge of Hidan's ribcage, she thought. His eyes were blank, staring, and he looked - well, he looked really dead.

She very much hoped she hadn't found a crack in his immortality big enough to fall through.

She looked at her hands for a second.

They were a mess.

A few metres away, Kabuto's blood was seeping everywhere.

Sakura touched the gleaming metal of the symbol Hidan kept around his neck and murmured what she remembered of the Jashinist prayer for the dead. There was no point finishing a ritual if you didn't do it right, after all.

And if pain and suffering were the high points, then that had been a hell of a ritual.

She sort of forgot the part after the 'consumed in agony' bit but Hidan seemed to think that it was the intent that counted. Sakura apologised to Jashin-sama for the lapse and got to her feet.

She was wary about checking, since he'd been so very good at keeping himself alive even through what ought to have been thoroughly mortal wounds, but Sakura did have to search Kabuto's remains.

After some consideration, she chose to cut off his head and put it somewhere else first - the naginata was sharp enough that it wasn't actually very difficult at all. Across the other side of the room didn't seem far enough, but Sakura also didn't want to leave Hidan alone.

It occurred to Sakura that she had become extremely inured to carrying about body parts.

She looked at Kabuto's head and, on a whim, tried on his glasses. "...you're really very blind," she informed the head, which stared back at her with blank, empty eyes.

Sakura carefully folded his glasses and set them next to his head. Then she went back and searched Kabuto's body. He had a couple of storage scrolls and a medkit, and he was extremely well-supplied with weapons and wire and even a few explosive tags. There was one scroll that looked like it was meant to apply some kind of seal, but Sakura didn't understand the first thing about sealing so when she didn't recognise it she set it aside and continued digging through his pockets and hidden compartments.

Just as Sakura was starting to get a little bit nervous about Hidan's vaunted immortality, his body took a huge, shuddering breath.

"Oh, thank god," she breathed. "Or Jashin-sama," she corrected. Because, really, it wasn't like it was likely to be some other god helping him out.

"My head," was the first thing Hidan said. It came out in a croak, but his voice was already much better than it had been.

"Sorry," said Sakura perfunctorily.

"It hurts like hell," he whined. Then, "'S he dead?"

"Yes. I'm certain he was dead before, but... I cut off his head, you know, just in case. He was... very good at healing," she hedged.

"Yeah," said Hidan. He got to his feet. He looked exhausted, but he didn't look - well, he didn't look injured in the slightest.

Sakura continued sorting through the bits and bobs on Kabuto's body - his shoes looked like they might fit Hidan, which was handy, if a little morbid - and she only looked up when she could feel Hidan's eyes on her in the silence.

"Hidan?"

He was giving her a sharp, calculating look.

She wasn't sure if that was good or bad.

"You didn't fuck up Jashin-sama's ritual, did you?"

"No?"

"Said the prayers for the dead?"

"Yes..."

"Good." He got blood in her hair when he ruffled it. "I'm gonna clear the rest of these godless heathens out of this shit hole, and then we can take everything they own and get out of here. You wanna make sure we didn't leave anything useful behind in places we've already been?"

Sakura nodded quickly.

The base wasn't huge, and even if Hidan was tired, Kabuto was clearly the biggest threat there - he did two sweeps before he came back to check on Sakura and her pile of loot, which she was sorting out in terms of "useful," "useless," and "I have no idea what this even is". The last pile was arguably the most interesting, since it contained a number of scrolls, unfamiliar seals and phials of mystery liquid. Sound's forces being comprised mostly of missing nin and survivors of Mist's bloodline massacres, there was a lot of shorthand there that Sakura didn't really recognise.

Hidan squinted at these things when she showed them to him and scratched the back of his head. "I dunno," he admitted. "I can recognise some of the scripts, but I'm not into cyphers. Not my skill set."

"None of them are from your village, then?" Sakura asked, a little disappointed.

Hidan laughed bitterly. "No. I'm from the Village Hidden in Hot Water."

She frowned. "I've never heard of them?" Which was, in itself, pretty surprising. Sakura had an excellent grasp on geography. "Did they, er, get invaded and taken over?"

That would be one more thing they had in common, she thought darkly.

"Not even," muttered Hidan with a sour note in his voice.

"What happened? Was it - a tailed beast?" she guessed, swallowing. It came to mind easily because everybody knew the impact the nine-tails had had on Konoha. It was only through the grace of the Fourth that there'd been a village left after that.

Hidan was silent.

"Sorry."

"Don't be sorry," he said, "just shut up about it."

For some reason Sakura found this strangely funny, and couldn't suppress a giggle. She cleared her throat. "What about these?" she pointed to the scrolls.

"Look, my skill set is pretty much hitting shit until it stops getting back up," Hidan admitted, scratching the back of his head. "That one's a summoning scroll," he pointed, "but otherwise I don't know because I never cared about learning."

Sakura blinked. "Summoning? I thought only powerful ninja had summons?"

"Not all summons are for combat, and not all of them are major families," Hidan shrugged. "I knew a guy who summoned a rat once. Just one rat. Little shithead of a thing, but it was great for sneaking into places it wasn't meant to be."

"Huh," said Sakura slowly. "Okay. I guess... well, they're stable, at least. Not like the drugs. I can carry them until we find somebody who does know what to do with them, or maybe we can sell them -"

"Money," spat Hidan. He made a noise that conveyed nothing so much as overwhelming disgust.

Sakura eyed him. "Look, I don't know what you've got against money, but I'd like to sleep in an inn sometime this century. Unless you're..." she stopped, and chewed her bottom lip uncertainly.

There was a long pause.

"What," said Hidan, so hard and flat that it didn't really sound like a question.

A nervousness Sakura didn't quite expect filled her stomach. "Well, I mean... you have your legs back now," she said. She opened her mouth again and then hesitated.

"Yeah?" he looked blankly at her.

"I'll probably slow you down, right?"

"Well, yeah," he said, rolling his eyes. "To me you look like you're moving in slow motion."

She dropped her gaze. "Right," she said dully.

"What's your point?" he asked, eyeing her.

She licked her lips. "Just -" she felt small and stupid and unnecessarily emotional. Her jaw hurt from how hard she was clenching it. Surely she wasn't going to cry. Surely. Hadn't she humiliated herself enough for one day?

"Sa-ku-ra," he said in the most whining voice imaginable, tipping his head back and blowing out a huge sigh. "Are you gonna make me fucking guess?"

"I don't want you to leave me behind," she said in a very soft voice.

He froze, and then tipped his head down, and then he propped his hands on his hips and looked at her from beneath his bloody eyelashes with a squinty expression.

"What the fuck? Why would I do that?"

She blinked. "Well..."

"Idiot!" He bellowed, then smacked her over the head with a loud, percussive noise. Belatedly, it occurred to Sakura that she'd seen him dip whole fingers into other people's throats today. Her head throbbed gently.

Hidan heaved a huge sigh. "You are going to slow me down, moron. Because you're fucking slow. You can't help that. Everybody's shit when they start. You'll get better." A pause. "You'd better get better, or I'll fucking strangle you," he added.

Sakura gave a watery huff of laughter.

"Besides," he added, scowling, "Somebody's gotta teach you how to do basic shit like walking on water. Walking on water, damn," he added like he couldn't quite believe it.

Sakura swallowed. "What, you're - you want to teach me?"

Hidan rubbed one hand through his hair. "Look... You're not my style - too careful, too much stealth and tricky bullshit, too fucking fragile. I'm a straightforward guy. We don't match. We really don't fucking match. If I taught you my skill set you'd get slaughtered."

Sakura flinched. "Er," she said, thinking about how much of Hidan's fighting style involved casually not dodging projectiles. "Well, probably..."

But she knew she desperately needed a teacher, and Hidan? Hidan was a good ninja. She knew that much just watching him. He'd ploughed through the chuunin and jounin staffing this base like they were so much cotton fluff. "But -!" She swallowed. "I really -"

He rolled his eyes. "I know," he interrupted. "Believe me, I know. I'm just saying. We're gonna have a shitty time working this out. But if you want, I'll teach you anyway." A pause. "On one condition."

Sakura licked her lips, ignoring the taste of blood - it was a good chance it was Hidan's, anyway - and stared at him with wild eyes. "What? What is it?"

He tapped her on the forehead. If there wasn't already blood there, there was now. "You're going to convert to Jashinism. 'Cause I'm not teaching a heathen shit."

"Yes," said Sakura. She didn't even have to think about it. That? That was easy. "Yes."

"Fine," said Hidan.

A pause.

"Also you gotta call me sensei."

Sakura snorted. Convert to the cult of Jashin, sure, but call Hidan 'sensei'? Unlikely.

That was just about having standards.

Chapter Text

Upon realising that there was blood matted in his hair, Hidan had insisted that they scrub up in the freezing water reservoir in the base. Modesty was a thing long gone, but the chill of the water made Sakura huddle into herself anyway.

"I think I'd prefer to be dirty," she muttered, even as she sluiced icy water off her skin.

"Yeah, probably. But you're the one who wanted an inn, and we can't show up covered in blood." He paused. "Well, I mean, we can, but -"

"No," said Sakura, scrubbing harder. "No, we're good. Surely we don't need to start a giant fight and murder an inn full of civilians."

"Probably not," Hidan agreed, running his wet hands through his hair to get the worst of the mess out. "They don't really put up much of a fight, honestly."

By the time they were dressed again, the only traces of gore were stained clothes and some odd patches where blood had sunk into the creases in their hands. Sakura searched high and low for two miraculously unstained cloaks while Hidan rolled his eyes a lot and whined, but eventually they were more or less covered - people who didn't want to look for traces of blood or violence would let their eyes skip right over them.

Sakura peered thoughtfully at her hands as they ambled away from the decimated base.

"You know, I always thought the whole 'blood will never come out,' thing was some kind of heavy handed metaphor," she admitted. "But it's actually going to take a lot of scrubbing."

Hidan squinted at her. "You don't usually kill messily, huh?" he said. "I was wondering. Makes sense, I guess, with how you were all about the drugs and stuff with those other guys."

"Er," Sakura paused, and then, awkwardly: "I wouldn't know. I'd never killed anybody before," she blurted finally.

Hidan stopped. He looked at her like he was trying to tell if she was serious.

"Damn," he said. "I didn't know that."

"Er, well, it had to happen some time," Sakura said.

"Sure, but -" he scowled at nothing as they walked for a few moments. "Seems like a big deal," he said finally. "We should've planned a party or something."

Sakura wasn't sure if she really felt like a party, but she did feel as though it was meant to be significant somehow. Konoha taught its academy students that killing was a necessary evil. It was a thing to be accepted without shame. Every death was in service of the village and the will of fire.

The did, however, also imply that killing was likely to have a serious impact upon a shinobi, especially those who were civilian raised. Without reflection, processing and acceptance, there was a higher probability of later psychiatric episodes. A shinobi's first kill was something they were supposed to talk through with a counsellor, or with their jounin sensei.

Sakura had always wondered if she'd have the fortitude to look somebody in the face and end them. How would she steel herself for this enormous step? Would she be able to do it?

It turned out that it was easy and she felt very little about it.

She was glad Kabuto was dead. That guy was creepy.

The rest...

Sakura couldn't muster the concern to be very upset about it. They were ninja. They fought, they died, she lived.

That was how ninja worked, wasn't it?

That was her profession.

She felt nothing.

"You know," she said conversationally, "I always thought I was supposed to feel bad about it," she admitted. "That I'd be, you know, too soft to properly kill somebody."

"You're a ninja," said Hida, like that was the only real answer.

Since it was the same conclusion Sakura had come to, she just nodded. "Yeah."

Pretty much.

They were in no particular hurry and their past few days had been very long, so they walked through to the nearest town on their maps. While they moved, Hidan distracted Sakura's attention by telling her the finer details of the religion she'd agreed to convert to.

Jashinism was... not a very organised religion. It was aggressively individual and had no central power structure - each adherent was advised to nurture a personal relationship with the God of suffering.

"There's not really a conversion ceremony," Hidan admitted, shrugging. "I'll recite you the teachings, which you have to memorise - we don't write anything down."

"What, never? What happens if everybody's, you know, killed?"

Although that might have seemed like a very stupid question in light of Hidan's evident immortality, Sakura was sure there would be a - a loophole in it somewhere, of some kind - and certainly not every Jashinist was immortal!

"Jashin-sama is a capable teacher," Hidan drawled, cutting his eyes toward her. "There aren't many absolute rules, anyway," he shrugged.

And there weren't. The core tenets were ones Sakura had already absorbed and more or less internalised, and she nodded thoughtfully on the odd occasion a new one was introduced. All up, it made a lot more sense than the shinobi rules she'd had to learn as a child.

"Okay," she said finally, "The only thing I can't figure out is the sacrifices."

Hidan's eyebrows rose. "What," he said, and then: "really?"

"I'm not immortal. Not all of the followers can possibly be, right? So when committing to a sacrifice, how can you kill without dying?"

Hidan scratched his head. "Couple of ways," he said after a pause. "Firstly, not everybody does do the sacrifices like that. There's a group way over west - or, well, there was - where they went on long enough to take on an apprentice and teach them how everything was done - and then when they got a sacrifice, they'd perform the technique to commit to the sacrifice and then they'd die at the same time."

Oh. Sakura blinked. "That's... dedicated.'

"They're literalists," Hidan said, sniffing a little disdainfully. "Conservatives who interprete the teachings of Jashin-sama as being absolutely literal: suffering must be absolutely equivalent in the moment, basically. There's a different school of thought that says the important part is the suffering of the sacrifice, that the whole thing is a metaphor for the single bond that connects humanity."

"So... the technique you use isn't really relevant there?"

"Nah, not really. There's some who work in pairs - mostly they're the ones who learn healing; one keeps the other alive while the sacrifice is completed, basically."

"Huh," she said slowly. "Interesting."

"I met one guy who didn't think a sacrifice had to end in death - he was a bit weird, but I couldn't find anything in the teachings that technically disagreed, I guess." He added this last part a little grudgingly. "He'd take his sacrifices and put his hand on top of theirs and jam this trench knife through both of their hands and pray. It was a bit weak, you know?"

"Right," Sakura agreed. She didn't much fancy dying in the permanent sense. "I suppose I could learn - like what Kabuto did? The healing stuff?"

Hidan scratched his nose. "If you wanna be apprenticed to a healer for six years or something, I guess? Kabuto's regeneration wasn't like anything I've seen before, either - except with the tailed beasts, some of them could regenerate like that. Might be his own thing. 'Sides," he said with a smile that was all sharp edges. "I've got something better."

That was both ominous and exciting, and Sakura could help neither her surge of adrenalin nor her answering smile.

When they finally did arrive at the nearest good-sized town, Sakura was relieved to find that there was a clean, relatively comfortable inn.

It looked to Sakura to be family-run, since it was small and quiet and everybody working there had the same dark skin and sharp jaw. The reception area was staffed only by a tall man with oddly delicate features, and he took one look at Hidan - exhausted-looking, a little underfed, with blood stuck between his teeth and smeared on his hairline, and he went still.

Sakura could see the bob of his throat when he swallowed nervously.

After a still second, he bowed. "How can we help you, ninja-san?"

It turned out that, bloody or not, their money was as good as anybody else's, and they easily got a room. No doubt, Sakura thought, that the staff would talk about them when they weren't there, but - well, they weren't exactly in hiding or anything.

"You don't like money," Sakura noted, once the door to their room had been closed behind them. It had two beds and a low table with cushions and writing implements, and a tiny shower in an adjacent room. Nothing special, but it was clean and comfortable. "But you don't seem to mind spending it."

"Pursuing money for its own sake is stupid, but we have it now and there's no point in not spending it," he shrugged.

Still, he seemed to take a strange vindictive pleasure out of spending it as frivolously as he could, and Sakura suspected that there was more to the story than just that.

Hidan's 'better solution' turned out to include two weeks of fasting and meditation from sunup to sundown. Sakura was pleased they were at the inn, because she had absolutely no interest in sitting still in the wild while insects crawled over her. She much preferred doing it on the floor of their room.

Sitting around doing nothing all day made Sakura restless and put her on edge. This problem was solved by Hidan's approach to teaching the ninja arts, which was, if nothing else, exhausting.

They took themselves out of the little civilian village - mostly out of a desire to remain uninterrupted than out of any real concern for the village itself. On the edge of River and Fire, there were trees - not towering Hashirama trees, but big enough - and lush grass and familiar plants and birds. It would have been perfectly welcoming if Sakura hadn't spent most of her time there running for her life.

"Basics," Hidan had said the first time, smiling. There was an excited edge to that smile that Sakura knew better than to trust. "Taijutsu. All you have to do," he'd told her, rolling one shoulder to stretch out the ligaments, "is last ten minutes."

And dread had settled into Sakura's belly.

Even when he wasn't trying to kill, Hidan fought like a crazy person.

Probably because he was a crazy person.

There was almost no way of predicting where his next strike was coming from unless she was listening to his laughter and yelling. He used chakra and the entire environment to change angles of attack. He leapt. He flipped. He feinted and dodged and sometimes he didn't dodge at all because he was utterly unafraid of being hurt.

At first, Sakura had taken the opportunity to test out her trap-making and evasion - he'd said he was terrible at sensing, after all - but Hidan had the unfortunate habit of flinging himself through obstacles without even a little bit of concern or hesitation.

And Sakura quickly learned that he was absolutely pants at pulling his punches.

"I'm not exactly asking for a whole fucking lot here. You don't have to beat me. You don't have to hit me. You just have to not get killed for ten minutes," he complained the first night he'd had to physically carry her back to the inn.

"You hit hard," Sakura slurred. She was pretty sure she had a concussion.

"Of course I do. People keep getting up if I don't. You, though. Sakura, you block with your face."

Staying at an inn meant having the luxury of an alarm clock - which was helpful, because Sakura preferred to get a snack and a shower before she started her long day of meditation upon the teachings of Jashin-sama, and once the sun rose there was no time for any of that.

Hidan wasn't necessarily a great teacher, but his enthusiasm really did make up for a lot of faults in methodology. Sakura, as always, was an excellent student.

"It's good that you're taking this so seriously," Hidan mused at one point, when they'd returned from a rousing evening of Kicking Sakura Half Way Across The Forest.

"If I didn't take it seriously you'd have taken my head off by accident by now," Sakura murmured into her pillow, coiling tightly under the covers. The days were getting shorter and colder as they edged toward winter.

"Not that," Hidan said, in a tone like he was rolling his eyes, "I mean the meditation. If your commitment to Jashin-sama isn't genuine, there's a good chance the ritual will kill you."

Sakura contemplated that while she drifted toward sleep. They could only know that from experience, and the cult of Jashin wasn't a popular religion. It might be a lack of genuine commitment, she allowed... or it might be that Jashin-sama was a capricious bastard and the ritual only worked sometimes.

In the end, Sakura supposed it didn't really matter. This was a necessary step in becoming strong enough to take on one of the Sannin. Sakura wasn't invested in longevity, just in hunting Orochimaru.

She swallowed. "If I die, then," she said slowly, "you're still going to kill Orochimaru?"

She'd like to see him suffer, ideally, but she wasn't stupid. He was too strong to risk that. She'd settle for seeing him dead.

"You won't. I've seen you. Jashin-sama will bless you, you-"

"Hidan." It was too important to allow half-answers.

A huge sigh in the darkness. "Yes."

"Good."

Sakura rolled over and went to sleep.

Her dreams were unquiet, long and bloody. They were presided over by a grim, black face whose white markings glowed out of the darkness.

Sakura woke in the dark with blood under her nails. She couldn't scrub it out.

If Hidan noticed, he didn't comment.

This was the first of the dreams, but not the last.

It started with half-remembered shadows and strange murmurs when she slept, but progressed to snatches of voices raised in adulation; scenes of battle when she closed her eyes.

Now when she dreamed of Sasuke's face - Orochimaru's face - his eyes were gone, torn and bloody. Sometimes she woke with the certainty that they were in her hands. Sometimes she could see the blood.

"There's nothing there," Hidan told her at one point, leaning against the door to the bathroom and watching her try to scrub it clean.

"The blood won't come off," she said, scowling, and he took her by the shoulders and drew her back into their room.

"The sun's coming up," he said into her ear.

Sakura settled down to meditate, but her hands felt sticky.

Meditation became a new challenge. Memories intruded upon her attempts to focus, and she found herself thinking of things she didn't want, or need, to contemplate: dead faces, her parents, Sasuke; Naruto with his teeth sharp and his eyes red. She tasted her own innards.

She woke that night, clawing at her scars, screaming, and her mind was full of that dark face, smiling and grim.

Hidan watched closely, but in the end he let her rip her skin. Her sheets were soaked with blood.

It was a hellish week.

One of the family who ran the inn pulled her aside while she was using the laundry facilities just after sunset. She'd do a lot for Hidan, but she drew the line at washing his underpants when he had two good hands of his own, and there was no way she'd make him do hers either.

"He's not - doing anything to you, is he?"

The woman's black eyes lingered on Sakura's scarred face, particularly the ugly burn on the left of her jaw.

Sakura saw her as though through a mist, but it din't stop her from idly picking out the places where she could hurt her. Civilian, she thought, without really meaning to, because the woman had grabbed her all wrong and her dark, deft hands weren't strong enough to hold her down.

Sakura blinked once, slowly. "Doing anything?" she repeated.

The woman swallowed. Sakura watched the movement of her throat. She had no particular urge to hurt her, but she couldn't help herself - she catalogued those possibilities like a farmer checking the weather. It was important to know.

"Anything, er, inappropriate. Or... bad."

Hidan, Sakura thought, was frequently inappropriate. But perhaps not in the way the woman meant. "We're not having sex, if that's what you mean."

The innkeeper's face twisted a little, like she hadn't wanted to say it and definitely didn't like hearing it.

"What would you have done," Sakura wondered, "if I'd said yes?"

She blinked. Her jaw clenched. "Anything I could."

There was a hardness in her voice, steel under her strange civilian softness. For a moment Sakura was reminded of her own mother, and wondered if she'd suffered before Konoha's destruction. Perhaps. Perhaps not.

Something murmured at the edge of Sakura's awareness, dark and cool and sweet, soft liquid syllables. The innkeeper's face was suddenly the face of another, a grim man of endless rage and grief, and -

Sakura exhaled, slowly. She missed her mother. She hoped Jashin-sama would be able to take care of her.

Sakura smiled. "Thank you."

She bowed and returned to her laundry, leaving the innkeeper hovering uncertainly.

Sakura saw horrors when she slept, and occasionally when she meditated, but there were other things, too. She dreamed of sacrifice, of joy and exultation and the red snap of death.

She staggered out of bed in the dark, flicked on the light in the bathroom and stared at her face in the tiny mirror. Her scars were stark, her skin too pale. Her eyes were so green, bright and shocked in the harsh light. Her hair was growing back in, a strange peach-fuzz cloud of pale pink.

There was no blood, but she felt it on her skin. She could taste it.

Her hands shook. She had lost all control over her reality and she didn't know how to fix it.

For the first time in a month, she thought of Ino. Ino had always been strong when Sakura was not, and she wanted her badly. She wondered if she'd survived. Civilians hadn't, that much was obvious from the reports, but Ino...

She wondered.

Soft voices murmured to her, so terribly real. She knew there was nobody there.

Sakura took a deep breath. She knew that quiet moments overwhelmed her, that all the ugly things with jagged edges inside her head came out to play when she let herself think like this.

She splashed her face with water, felt the strange slickness of blood under her fingers, and scrubbed at her face. It was early enough to get up. She'd go for a run before she began her meditation.

Hidan was awake, but he growled at her, smacked her hand and rolled over. "It's too fucking early, asshole," he whined.

Oddly, that made her feel a little better.

By the end of the fortnight, Sakura rarely knew what day it was. She'd stopped counting and her grasp on human methods of measuring time was tenuous at best. She moved with the sun, heard hymns at sunset and weeping at dawn. She dreamed of murder, of pain and hunger.

She murmured phrases she hadn't known, muttering through her meditation. She didn't realise she hadn't showered for days until Hidan shoved her into the stall and turned the faucet on over her head - and then yelled at her until she started going through the motions of stripping down and cleaning herself.

There was nothing left in her when Hidan woke her before dawn - before her alarm, even - and took her outside. He'd been busy, too, preparing for this ritual, and the bloody circle was huge and intricate and she couldn't really tell what all those symbols meant - except that she could, in some ways, meaning that came from somewhere around her hindbrain.

There was chakra in the circles, more than was in Hidan, more than was in her. Sacrifices, she suspected, and wondered about the inn and its friendly staff - but only briefly, and with little consternation.

She stepped in. She could feel it humming in her bones. Chakra both human and wild.

Hidan's hands were hot on her shoulders when he forced her to her knees. She went willingly. There was screaming in her head.

She breathed.

Chakra surged.

"The first time hurts the most," Hidan breathed in her ear.

Then he cut her throat.

Chapter Text

Clarity descended upon Sakura with consciousness. The trees loomed above, patchy canopy revealing slivers of blue sky, but the forest was quiet. That chakra surge had hurt like hell, and it had apparently scared away all of the wildlife, too. The natural world usually had good instincts.

There was no flickering at the edge of her vision, no hymns sung as she moved. Her vision was clear and her mind was as good as it had ever been.

Apparently her religious experience was over.

The ground was hard. Her neck hurt.

Slowly, she sat up. The air smelled of wet leaves, familiar and strangely soothing.

"Yo." Hidan was perched on a rock not far away, just outside Jashin-sama's circle. He was watching her with pleased, tired eyes.

"I guess I lived," said Sakura slowly. She still felt... unreal, even though she was stiff and sore and exhausted.

"Told you," he said, lips curling.

Sakura blinked. She touched her throat and found nothing but scarring, although the front of her clothing was soaked in drying blood. She didn't even feel dizzy or anything.

"I..." She stared. "Am I immortal?"

Hidan made a noise that was neither confirmation nor denial, and wavered his hand in the air. "Sort of. You can't die of injury, if that's what you mean. But you have to keep eating."

She blinked again. "Eating?"

"Yeah. You have to get the fuel somewhere, right? If you stop eating you'll die." Hidan paused. "Well, eventually. Really eventually."

That explained why Hidan was so invested in eating food even when he hadn't had the complete set of gastrointestinal organs to digest it. She nodded slowly.

"Did we drain my chakra?" she wondered, finally figuring out why she felt so slow and exhausted.

"And most of mine," Hidan agreed. "You don't have much," he added critically. "There's a couple of tricks for increasing capacity, maybe we'll work on those. Later." He yawned. "First you have to last ten minutes."

He smiled, and Sakura came to the awful realisation that he now had no reason to go easy on her whatsoever.

"Not right this second," she suggested, levering herself up. Her chakra wasn't magically coming back any faster than it usually did. That was a pity.

She ran her hands over her face and her neck. Her scars were still there. One ankle still felt weaker. She felt... the same. She touched her neck, felt the scar again. Maybe not exactly the same.

"Should we clean this up before we go back?"

Hidan looked at the bloody circle. He gave it a second's thought and then shrugged. "Nah."

They walked back to the inn at a sedate pace. The sun was up already, and Sakura felt like it was the first time she'd felt it on her skin in forever. She stretched her arms and bared her face to the sky, smiling stupidly. For a change, everything felt all right.

The inn itself was quiet, with only a very few other patrons, but the pair of them dove into the public baths without regard for modesty - or for the shower stall in their room. The water was hot and soothing.

It was strange how little she cared what Hidan might see of her - they both knew she was strange and too skinny and scarred, but she was also more embarrassed about the hesitation in her combat skills than she was about her body. And god knew that Hidan's naked body - or, indeed, his actual insides - held no mystery for her anymore.

At this point all Sakura cared about was the warm water and her tired muscles. "You can leave me here," she declared, sinking with her head tipped back so the water crept up the back of her skull, warm and shivery-feeling. "I might not come out ever."

Hidan snorted and didn't bother addressing that comment. They both knew she'd crawl out, sleep off the dramatic changes wrought by Jashin-sama upon her body, and then be back to training within a day.

But it was nice to contemplate living in the bath forever. She made a happy, contented little noise.

"Er," said a voice somewhere near the door, "should she be here?"

Sakura and Hidan both turned toward the presence there. There weren't many other people staying at the inn, but the few that were happened to be civilians. This man obviously was, with his poor posture and hands calloused from writing.

"Me?" Sakura pointed at herself. She looked sideways at Hidan.

"I think you're meant to be on the other side..?" the man asked, clutching his towel more closely to his body.

"The- oh," Sakura blinked. "Right," she said after a long pause. "Sorry, I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable. I'll just -"

She straightened and waded to the side to climb out of the water, and the stranger gasped and covered his eyes with one hand.

Hidan grabbed her by her ankle and yanked her back in with a yelp and a splash. She landed on her butt, her impact only slightly mitigated by the water, and came up sputtering. "What the hell," she growled.

"Don't be stupid," Hidan was saying, completely ignoring her now that he'd dumped her back in the water. "The other side's fucking empty, you can go there if you don't like it."

"This is the men's side. She's a woman!" yelped the strange man.

"Hardly," said Hidan with a bark of laughter that Sakura felt was not terribly called for.

"Hey!" she said, offended.

The civilian sputtered. "That's not-"

Abruptly he stopped talking, probably because Hidan's killing intent had made the air unbreathable.

Funny, but Sakura barely felt it.

In the end, Hidan was so obnoxious that the strange civilian man chose to take his chances on the women's side of the baths and Sakura felt slightly bad for him - but not bad enough to get out.

"Civilians are so weird," Hidan said, wrinkling his nose when they finally got out. "What did he think was gonna happen?"

"Well, by the end of it, probably that you were going to leap out of the water and chew his face off," Sakura pointed out drily. She dried herself with a fluffy towel and pulled on some new clothes. They were stained with blood, but had at least been laundered since. They felt clean, even if they didn't look quite right.

She did end up crawling on top of her bed and sleeping for a couple of hours, and after that she devoured a lunch of saury, miso soup and rice with grated radish.

"We can't stay here for much longer, can we?" she asked Hidan, watching him eat four fish in rapid succession. She wondered if his big chakra reserves were why he ate so much, or if it was just the immortality thing.

"Not if you wanna track Orochimaru," he said between bites. "See? This is good. Why can't you cook like this? Maybe you should ask for lessons."

Sakura smacked the back of his head with a balled-up fist.

"Ow! What the fuck? You can't hit a guy for being honest, seriously."

Sparring had taught Sakura that Hidan could dodge pretty much anything she threw at him if he wanted to, so she just rolled her eyes and ignored his whining. "Should we really start tracking Orochimaru now?" she wondered after a few more seconds of whining. "I mean, I'm probably more of a liability in a fight than anything right now..."

Last year, had she said something like that, it would have been in the hopes that somebody might have disagreed with her. Preferably Sasuke. Now...

Well, Hidan wasn't really a reliable source of ego-bolstering praise.

"Yeah, pretty much," he said, not even looking up from his food. "But Orochimaru is a sneaky fucking bastard and if we let him get too big a head start we'll have a hell of a time tracking him down. It'll probably take us forever even now... and there's no reason you can't learn while we travel."

"Guess not," said Sakura, which was a statement she'd come to regret.

They lingered one more day, specifically because there was a heavy storm and Hidan hated travelling in the rain - and what Hidan hated, everybody else came quickly to hate because the man was an A-grade whiner.

How he could survive months without his legs and then turn around and bitch relentlessly that the rain was too difficult to deal with was greatly beyond Sakura's understanding, but she knew she could rely on Hidan's complaining like she could rely upon the sun's coming up.

Since travel was inadvisable, Sakura took the opportunity to look over the scrolls and documents they'd picked up in the Sound base with a more careful eye. She was lucid now and some of them, she was sure, would be useful for training.

A lot of them were more or less irrelevant to Sakura - some of the stuff she'd grabbed turned out to be budget documentation, which included information on movements of supplies, caches, and research materials. No doubt that would be extremely interesting to somebody, but Sakura didn't have any use for it at the present time. There were also maps, autopsy reports, a bunch of experimental notes that she couldn't even slightly puzzle out, and a lot of stuff on seals that she didn't understand.

Amid the odd bits and pieces that she'd scavenged, though, was a scroll on a high level fire technique, Kabuto's notes on advanced wound closure, documentation for two low-level genjutsu and that one summoning scroll.

Sakura didn't know what her elemental affinity was, but she was almost certain it wasn't fire. Fire chakra users were ten a penny in Konoha, but it had taken Sakura forever to learn even the E-rank jutsu used to start camp fires.

As nice as it might have been to casually hurl fireballs at her enemies, Sakura was aware of her limitations. There was no way she had enough chakra to throw around that kind of high-powered jutsu with impunity. She shoved the scroll away - maybe Hidan would want it, after all. He had a lot more chakra to burn.

The medical notes, on the other hand, captured her attention for hours, and so thoroughly that she didn't actually notice the passage of time until Hidan toed her in the thigh.

"What the hell do you even need medical bullshit for?" he wondered, peering down at the writing.

Sakura was making her own notes on a separate sheet. Kabuto's shorthand was either half in code or just that appalling, so she was interpreting as she went along.

"I have an idea," she said, biting the end of her pen, "but I don't know if it'll work. Besides," she added, raising her eyebrows. "I didn't hear you complaining when you were fighting Kabuto."

Hidan made a disdainful noise but left her to it. "We're gonna practice tonight, Sakura," he told her over his shoulder.

She made an uncommitted noise in her throat, but she wasn't stupid enough to pretend she hadn't heard him. Practising taijutsu with Hidan was already hellish, and she was pretty sure there was nothing in any of these scrolls to help her with that.

After sunset but before eating, they convened at the edge of that quiet village. Ten minutes, Sakura thought to herself, clenching her fists and thinking of the things she could do to avoid being completely dismantled by Hidan for ten minutes.

Not a lot really came to mind.

He didn't exactly pull his punches.

"Shit, shit, shit!" Sakura had never sworn so much in her life as she did when Hidan, laughing and shrieking, launched himself at her at full speed.

His kick sheered through the trunk of a tree and Sakura couldn't even pause to think that could have been her head. It wouldn't have killed her, but that could have been her head, and the thought of surviving that was almost worse in its way.

There was the crunch of leaves underfoot.

Sakura whirled.

"You're too goddamn slow!" Hidan bellowed, suddenly, from right behind her.

Sakura yelped and leapt, so that the next swipe only clipped her side, instead of breaking something important.

The second her foot hit the ground again, Sakura channelled chakra to the bottom of her feet and stomped - the boost to her speed sent her hurtling away from the site of impact, and she could hear Hidan's cheerful whoop behind her.

She kept her focus on the dim flicker of his chakra at the edge of her perception - she had no great skill for sensing but his chakra was loud and hard to hide. She dodged - barely - his next strike and shot up into the canopy, slinking away on silent feet. Her ankle had improved when she stopped carrying Hidan around on a permanent basis, but she suspected it would never really stop aching at the end of the day or protesting in warning when she landed too hard upon it.

She dropped a camouflage genjutsu over herself and crept along the branches, hopefully out of sight. It was, technically, an academy level skill, but those were taught for a reason. They could be very useful, if done right.

She knew Hidan well enough to - just barely - predict how it would affect her genjutsu when his chakra flared. She kept her hold on the illusion by the skin of her teeth, and knew she was lucky it was such a simple one, because there was no way she'd have succeeded with anything more complicated.

"Clever girl," mused Hidan, distant enough to make her relax just a little. It was okay. He couldn't see her. Yet.

His voice was pretty ominous, though.

She needed some kind of plan. Maybe a trap? She wracked her brain.

Hidan dropped onto the branch right next to her.

Sakura stilled. How had he-?

She saw it when he inhaled, eyes skimming the branch she stood frozen upon. She must smell like the inn, like chemical soaps and laundry detergent. Damn.

Still, Hidan's ability to smell her vaguely did not mean he could pinpoint precisely where she was. But his eyes were looking at the branch, looking for slivers of shadow that didn't belong and she knew if he looked hard enough he'd find them.

Sakura struck out - fast offense, hopefully fast enough to make him respond before he had a clear idea of where she was. Her palm strike caught him on the nose and he swore, and Sakura felt a moment's elation - but he recovered fast, so fast, and lunged.

His movement was off - just a little, and seriously, genjutsu was awesome - and she managed to smack it away and -

Then she stumbled right off the branch when he swept her feet out from under her in a quick, dirty follow-up. Her genjutsu broke almost immediately, and she had to perform a replacement mid-free fall or risk serious injury when she hit the ground.

And then - shit, where was Hidan? Above? Behind her? She spun, eyes searching frantically. He wouldn't go underground if she didn't force him to, fastidious bastard, so -

"Got you~" And, somehow, once again he was right behind her, even though she'd just been looking right there. He set one warm hand on top of her head and the other on her collarbone.

Another day, she would have surrendered then. Caught, hands in vital places - it would have been stupid to continue. Surrender would have been the textbook thing to do, the reasonable thing, unless the circumstances were too dire to allow it.

Sakura clenched her jaw and, raising her hands, she stomped on Hidan's instep, hard. She flew through a three-seal replacement technique when he jerked and cursed. There was a dull red snap across her vision, but since he was clutching a broken branch and she was twelve feet away, she figured she was successful.

There was an odd pain in her neck, though, and -

Her head sagged oddly.

"What..." her voice was a weird croak.

Ow. What was that? That hurt like nothing she'd ever felt before, and she couldn't quite hold her head at the right angle, she -

Oh, she thought suddenly. That was her neck.

"STOP FUCKING DAYDREAMING, SAKURA," Hidan bellowed, already right up in her face and approaching too fast to dodge. She'd have to block, then. She raised her -

There was a meaty, percussive noise when Hidan's punch caught her on the chin, and then another hideous snap as she went tumbling to the wet dirt and mulch.

She rolled, although she felt dizzy and her head wasn't sitting quite right - she was overstraining tendons and other structures while everything throbbed in her neck, she was sure of it. Her momentum took her and back to her feet and she sent her chakra to her soles to increase her speed as much as she could. Then she launched herself right back at Hidan.

Hell, if she couldn't be killed anyway, she may as well throw caution to the wind and break some heads.

Hidan laughed, joyful and sweet, like he couldn't possibly have imagined a better way to conduct their fight. Sakura feinted toward his face and slammed her fist into his gut.

He wheezed. Happily.

In the end, Sakura broke a finger and several ribs and, in conjunction with her snapped and swelling neck and her dislocated shoulder, she felt like she was going to throw up by the time Hidan put her on her face in the dirt and held her there with her arm twisted behind her back.

She blinked slowly.

"I win."

"Mngah." sighed Sakura into the dirt. She heaved a sigh and slumped for a second before she levered herself up, carefully balancing her head on her good hand. Maybe injuries couldn't kill her - or, apparently, even stop her fighting very easily - but they still hurt.

Carefully she untied the bandage from her ankle and used it instead to form a makeshift brace for her neck. She had a hunch that even with her newly accelerated healing, she'd do better with the brace.

"How long?"

It had felt like it might have been ten minutes, but it was very hard to measure time during a spar - especially when her partner had no qualms about breaking her bones. Everything was exhausting and immediate.

"Seven minutes and two seconds," Hidan reported, squinting at their battered alarm clock. "You suck."

Sakura groaned.

Apparently even when she was functionally immortal, some things did not change.

"You're never going to be a powerhouse," he said, rubbing his nose thoughtfully while she took careful breaths and waited for her bones to heal. "But that thing you're doing, where you're putting chakra in your feet to go faster?"

"Yeah. It was - just something I tried in the chuunin exams," she admitted. "I'm not really sure what I'm doing. I..." she frowned, thinking back to that ill-fated fight against Ino. She should have had that one in the bag. Ino's whole family were intelligence specialists and virtually none of her training had been geared toward straight up combat without her whole team there to help.

Ino had been surprised, but not surprised enough.

Sakura rubbed the side of her jaw thoughtfully. "It's not really a technique," she said lamely.

"Who gives a shit? I'm just saying, you could practice it."

Sakura's brow furrowed.

Hidan sighed and crashed down to the ground next to her, supremely inelegant and completely unconcerned about it. "I've heard of a ninja who uses chakra to increase strength. This is basically similar - since strength is more or less what makes people fast over short distances, right?"

"Wait, wait, wait." Sakura blinked. "Are you saying you want to reverse engineer Senjuu Tsunade's signature attack?" she asked incredulously.

Hidan looked at her like she was very stupid. "No, moron. I'm saying you already fucking did it. You just need to get better at it. You don't have to punch down mountains or anything - there's no point in being strong as fuck if you're not fast enough to hit somebody."

Sakura frowned. "... but if you can increase your speed enough, all you really need is a weapon," she said thoughtfully. Then she shot Hidan a suspicious look. "I thought you said you weren't going to teach me anything until I could last ten minutes?"

"I'm not," Hidan snorted. "When you last ten minutes, I'll teach you some kind of jutsu. I haven't really decided which, yet..." he tapped his lip thoughtfully.

Sakura brightened. "Do you know any other genjutsu?"

Hidan made a noise like he was contemplating whether or not to sick up on her legs. "Genjutsu is boring. It's boring and I'm shit at it. Something else."

She made a face. "Okay." She paused, thinking. Then: "...water walking?"

Hidan made a face like he was struggling not to smack his own forehead. "Oh, for fuck's..." A second later he'd grabbed her by the arm and was hauling her back toward the inn.

Sakura wasn't strong enough to muster much physical resistance, even if she'd tried. "Hi... Hidan?"

"Water walking!" Hidan bellowed at her over his shoulder with a kind of scary expression. "Fucking water walking."

Sakura let him drag her, bewildered, and mostly focused on babying her snapped neck while he muttered to himself. The spot on her arm where he was clutching her was definitely going to bruise.

There was a little fountain in the village, one with coins settled at the bottom of it, which traders and travellers were meant to throw in for good luck. Sakura had seen it, but other than internally contemplating the village's economic resources and what they might use the money for, she hadn't really paid it much attention.

"Here," Hidan stopped, holding her still with his grip, and when he was sure she'd stopped moving he finally let go and some of the feeling returned to her arm.

Then he smacked the surface of the water with a hand. "It's..." he paused and squinted at her. "Shit, you're gonna be one of those people who needs serious fucking explanations," he muttered. Then: "Okay, so, water's made up of all lots of little bits of water jammed up together, right?"

"Uh," said Sakura.

"Right?" he growled.

"You mean, like, particles? Molecules?"

"Fucked if I know," Hidan shrugged.

Sakura sweatdropped.

There was a long silence.

He glared at her.

Somewhere in the distance, a night bird cooed.

Sakura cleared her throat - which hurt, because her neck wasn't working right. Healing, but not yet healed. "Sure. Okay. Water's made up of ...lots of little waters. Sure."

Hidan eyed her for a few more seconds, and then he nodded sharply. "Right. When you stick them together in a big heap of water, they stick together."

"Surface tension?" Sakura guessed, after a second. "Are we talking about surface tension?"

Hidan rolled his eyes and grabbed her arm. "Here," he held out his hand.

Gingerly, she touched it, and felt the hum of chakra on his skin. "Okay..."

"So it's just like walking up stuff, but you're not just sticking - you're sticking and hardening the top bit. But the important shit is, there's already a kind of barrier there. It's a shitty barrier, but you just strengthen it." He reached out and smacked the water with the flat of his palm, and it... was hard, under his hand. It looked like glass.

She frowned. "Can I...?" she put her hand under the water, and waited for him to do it again. There was no impact beneath the surface layer.

"So... you're taking advantage of the surface tension to create a solid surface under your feet," she said. She couldn't help herself, and edged closer, fascinated. "That's why people don't have to have a water affinity to do it! You're not changing the properties of the water at all! You're just... strengthening what's already there. And that's why it's supposed to be so much harder to walk on fast-moving water - it's a nature transformation!"

Hidan eyed her.

"...so can you walk on water or not?" he said pointedly.

Sakura shot him a sour look and jumped up to perch on the stone ledge of the fountain. Her neck twanged painfully, but Jashin-sama's blessing was such that it was already significantly better.

After some careful consideration, Sakura kicked off her shoes. She'd figure it out with the shoes on later, but for now it seemed like expelling chakra from her feet would be easier without the barrier. Hidan didn't say anything about it, which she took as silent encouragement - since actual encouragement was pretty damned hard to come by, with Hidan.

She rested the flat of her foot on the water's surface, frowning hard in concentration. It wasn't like walking up a tree, not exactly: the surface of a tree was rough and had lots of places for grip. If she wanted to stay on the water, she had to make her own surface...

But still, that wasn't hard. She could do that.

At first she wasn't using enough chakra - she could feel the surface tension creating a kind of cushioning barrier, slowing the descent of her foot, but it wasn't stopping it. Slowly, she increased the output, and -

"What the hell, why are you taking so long?"

Sakura stumbled forward because Hidan kicked her in the butt.

She whirled on him. "What the fuck?" her voice soared into its upper ranges. "What the hell is fucking wrong with you?" she snarled.

Hidan raised his eyebrows at her.

Sakura followed his gaze and looked down.

"Oh."

Gingerly, she toed the water beneath her feet. "What the hell," she muttered to herself, shifting from foot to foot carefully. "That's easy."

Hidan snorted. "No shit."

"...Huh."

"But also," he said, giving her a very serious, very critical look. "I give it an A for effort, D for execution. You swear like a daimyo's wife. If you're going to insult someone, do it like you mean it."

"I'm not supposed to swear at all," she muttered. Her mother would not have approved.

"Well, you suck at not swearing, too, then."

"My academy teacher would have smacked me in the face with a stick of chalk for that kind of language," she said primly. She was pretty sure Iruka had been better at throwing that than he had been at throwing actual kunai.

"Oh, yeah. You're all class," Hidan drawled, looking her up and down pointedly.

She thought about what she must look like: ragged, clothes muddy, neck haphazardly propped up with bandages. Her shins and forearms were scratched to shit and she had pretty much been ignoring the regrowth of hair on her head. Her scars... She was ignoring those, too, when she could. "Oh my god, shut up," Sakura hissed.

Hidan rolled his eyes, but he subsided with the bitching while Sakura edged around the circumference of the fountain. There were tiny ripples where the water was bubbling in the middle, but she found it surprisingly easy to compensate for.

"Why do people even have trouble with this?" she wondered incredulously after a few minutes. It was easy.

"Well," Hidan mused, "you have shit-all chakra, so figuring out how much to use and where is probably easier. But also, you're... you're actually really good at chakra control."

Sakura shot him a dubious look.

He scowled at her. "Don't give me that look! I'm not in the habit of making shit up to make you happy, dumbass. Your chakra control's better than mine. Hell, it's probably better than most ninja."

"I... really?" She'd known it was her strength, but she hadn't thought... "I thought girls were just better at it."

Hidan shrugged. "On average, supposedly. But that's kind of like saying guys are stronger, isn't it? Once you start comparing yourself to ninja at a certain level that doesn't really signify."

That made sense, Sakura supposed. She thought of Kabuto and his perfectly controlled regenerative techniques... and Tsunade and her monstrous strength.

She smiled a little. "I can totally do this," she said after a second, slapping the surface of the water with a glassy thwack.

"You and every other ninja on the face of the planet. How's your neck?"

"Ah..." Sakura tilted her head, gingerly exploring the pain in her neck. "Not yet?"

He snorted. "Five minutes. After that, you can consider it a handicap."

Crap. Sakura swallowed.

In the end, Hidan got impatient at about four and a half minutes, changed the rules, and hurled himself at her without any further warning.

Sakura was ready for him.

(But she still didn't last ten minutes.)

Despite the exhausting violence of the day, Sakura truly had not used up that much chakra - her training had been largely physical and mainly focused on increasing her stamina. That left her with plenty left over for practising what she'd learned from Kabuto's notes before they went to bed, even though her muscles were already feeling weak with fatigue.

"What are you even trying to achieve?" Hidan wondered when he finally crawled out of the shower in a cloud of humidity and steam. He dropped down on the bed on his side of the room and pulled his fingers through his pale hair.

"Kabuto could close wounds with a touch," Sakura said, looking up from her notes.

"So? You can do that."

"Not really. What I've been doing is... patching, more like. It's not the same. This is..." she paused, wondering how she was meant to explain what she was reading about taking advantage of the innate chakra production in the hydrolysis of ATP - not just in general, but to a man who thought of surface tension as 'lots of little bits of water jammed up together'.

"There's chemistry stuff involved," she said finally, which was technically true but also horribly inaccurate. She glanced back up at him and found that at least his eyes hadn't completely glazed over. "But I think instead of closing wounds, I might be able to close places that aren't meant to be closed up."

Hidan frowned.

Sakura scratched her head. "Okay, so... in Konoha, there's this clan that uses their chakra to attack your chakra system when they do taijutsu, right?"

"Yeah, I fought one of them once - years back. She was... fierce. Fought dirty. Good ninja. Jashin-sama was pleased with her suffering as a sacrifice."

Sakura no longer questioned Hidan's apparently insane statements about what Jashin-sama did or didn't like, because she knew for a fact that the god of suffering was more than capable of making his will known. She nodded. "Right. W-"

"Fucking creepy eyes though," he added, squinting at nothing.

There was some small irony in Hidan saying that, since his own eyes were a strange, cold red colour and Sakura had woken to them staring at her out of the darkness in the wild more than once. Still. Hyuuga eyes were pretty creepy. She couldn't really refute that.

"Yeah, they... yeah," Sakura said.

"Veins," said Hidan.

"Yep."

"And they shrivelled up to nothing when she died. Kakuzu was so pissed," Hidan smiled like this was a very fond memory indeed, and not for the first time Sakura wondered about his relationship with this... Kakuzu.

She wondered if they'd ever meet. From the descriptions, she sort of hoped not.

"That's... they seal them, actually. The eyes. So people can't get hold of them, I guess."

"Well, it works." Hidan shrugged like he could not possibly give any fewer fucks about that situation, and Sakura repressed a smile. You never had to wonder about motives, with Hidan. "What were you saying, anyway?"

"Ah, yeah. They do this thing where they jam their chakra into tenketsu, right? It's the fundamental of their fighting style. Without it, their taijutsu's kind of dumb. But the tenketsu are still on the outer layer of your body - they're the pathways you use to expel chakra when you use it."

Hidan nodded.

"Medical chakra is... Hm, okay. With most chakra, you use it to produce effects that hurt people. Even genjutsu works by interfering with chakra flow, not actually altering brain chemicals. That's because the skin forms a natural defensive layer, and it produces its own minor chakra field- like surface tension, but for chakra. And... on people."

"So not at all like surface tension, then," Hidan said, snorting softly and flopping back. His hair was still wet, so he was probably making a mess of his pillow, but it didn't seem to concern him.

Sakura waved this off. "Medical chakra works because it's designed to get past the body's natural defences. One of the reasons it's hard to use is because your body isn't meant to register it as a threat. That's why Kabuto's chakra scalpel cut through your neck, but didn't actually cut off your head - chakra scalpels aren't meant to affect skin and outer layers."

"That's fucked up," Hidan said slowly, as though he'd only just realised that was what had happened. For all Sakura knew, that may have been true.

She shrugged. "I'm thinking that with some of these ideas, maybe I can... trick, I guess? Trick people's bodies into 'healing' what isn't actually a wound - creating a blood clot."

"Huh," said Hidan, turning his head to face her again. "Instant heart attack."

"Untraceable," Sakura said. "Quiet. Clean. Quick. And, if I can get it to work, it should require very little chakra."

"Sounds boring," Hidan said, cracking an enormous yawn. "But I guess it's the sort of thing you'd be into," he sighed, as though Sakura's unwillingness to paint herself in blood was some kind of deeply disturbing moral failing.

"It's going to require," mused Sakura, staring at her notes, "a lot of squirrels."

They left the next day, striking out toward the base they'd left in a shambles. They were better provisioned and healthier this time, and it took them significantly less travel time - not least because Hidan insisted on travelling at Sakura's top pace.

He rather arbitrarily decided to increase it to well above Sakura's top pace, so she had to sprint and channel chakra to her feet just to keep up for any length of time - and he still complained about it at the top of his lungs.

"If we have to fight-" Sakura growled breathlessly when he dropped back to what she viewed as an only-slightly-unreasonable pace for travelling. "I'll-" another breath.

"You'll what, Sakura-chan?" he mocked over his shoulder, twirling his stolen naginata casually as he leapt between twisting roots and low trees. "Threaten to threaten me?" he laughed.

"Oh, fuck off," she muttered sourly because of course he was right.

The base, when they found it, seemed just as empty as it had been when they left - although the bodies were in rather a worse state, and the local scavengers had been busy.

Still, there was documentation they hadn't had time to check, and information about personnel movements and supplies that Sakura hadn't grabbed in her initial rummaging. They hadn't exactly been absolutely thorough, after all.

Still, upon finally locating what she could only describe as Yakushi Kabuto's actual office - a messy wooden desk and a ratty metal filing cabinet offset by bright halogen lighting and three heavy duty sinks in one corner - the last thing Sakura was expecting was company.

He was clearly a ninja, with dark hair and arms that were - not muscular, but hard in a way that suggested flat, functional strength.

It wasn't until he turned that Sakura recognised his face. Because everybody in Konoha knew his face. He was one of their most notorious criminals.

"...Haruno Sakura, wasn't it?" murmured Uchiha Itachi in his even, placid voice. He bowed politely, although he didn't look away from her for a second. "You look... surprisingly well, considering, Sakura-san."

Chapter Text

Sakura didn't bow back.

Itachi didn't necessarily look dangerous. He looked like a young man in his late teens, solemn, slight without his voluminous cloak. But there was a heaviness to his gaze, a precision to his voice, an easy fluidity to his movements.

In a way, he reminded her of the way Orochimaru had been when he touched her with Sasuke's hands: gracefully competent, very dangerous; beautiful and off-putting.

She swallowed. His eyes narrowed.

Now was not the time to think of that.

She blinked, once, and his face was a grim shadow: dark, with heavy white highlights; red tears. The sound of bloody exultant hymns was faint, for her ears only, but she knew the sound - she'd heard it in her sleep. She knew she couldn't ignore it forever.

Itachi was beautiful and dangerous, and he would make a lovely sacrifice. She could almost feel the suffering under his skin, seething and painful.

Sakura shivered, hard, and blinked away. None of that knowledge meant she could beat him in a fight. She breathed carefully.

There was a long moment of tense silence.

There were so many more pertinent things to ask - what are you doing here? and how do you know my name? high upon the list - but the first thing Sakura said was: "Considering what?"

Itachi blinked. He had sloe eyes, dark and oddly exotic, and Sakura was terribly wary of them. For now, though, they watched her with no expression at all, and remained black. "When I last saw you, Sakura-san, you were in the care of Orochimaru. I hadn't expected you to escape."

Sakura clenched her jaw. She hadn't realised he'd taken notice, but perhaps she should have. He'd been an ANBU captain, once.

"I did," she said. Her voice came out even harder than she'd expected.

He nodded silently.

They stared at each other for a few seconds. "You didn't kill Orochimaru," said Sakura.

"He is currently inhabiting the body of my younger brother," Itachi said, turning away to rifle through the desk drawers.

Sakura's eyes narrowed. She knew she had to be wary of what she said to Itachi. Maybe he seemed polite and stable, but he'd also been terribly polite when he'd been setting everything on fire back in Grass country. What a thought.

"I think Sasuke would want him dead," she said carefully but firmly.

Itachi looked up from a scroll. He looked, suddenly, very tired. It didn't make him look any less pretty; just slightly more pitiable. He was so, so dangerous, thought Sakura, on edge - and not least because that danger was hard to remember.

"I agree, but I'm not convinced Orochimaru's control is permanent." He looked back at the paper and his eyes flickered, briefly, red. Memorising the pages, perhaps?

Sakura frowned. "What makes you say that?"

"I have... spent some time with Orochimaru at one point," he said, edging around words Sakura wasn't sure she wanted to hear. Akatsuki. Vicious bastards. "Unless something has changed dramatically, I don't believe he is unhinged enough to perform experiments upon himself without leaving a way to reverse them. Orochimaru would risk everything but his own interest."

That... was a good point, Sakura thought, frowning. She, too, had spent time with Orochimaru, after all. "You're looking for a way to get him out of Sasuke's body," she surmised. "That's why you're going through the research?"

Itachi nodded. "Yakushi Kabuto wasn't necessarily involved, but he is Orochimaru's primary physician... he would need to have some knowledge on the technique."

Present tense. Sakura wondered if he was using it for her benefit, or if he really didn't know that Kabuto was dead. She took a deep breath. She wasn't sure if what she was about to do was terribly stupid, or...

Well, giving information to ninja who weren't strictly on her side was always stupid. But Sakura was prepared to be a little stupid - and it wasn't like she was doing anything with it.

She reached into her pack and pulled out the scrolls they'd salvaged from the base weeks earlier - specifically, the notes and experiments on seals. She'd taken more than one of them from Kabuto's body. "Here," she said, stepping toward the desk and handing them cautiously across the desk. "I don't know if they'll be any help, but - well, I can't make anything of them, so they're useless to me."

Itachi's dark eyes fixed on her hand. After a second, he reached out and took the paper, careful not to touch her fingers. He glanced at them without expression. "Thank you," he said politely, but there was nothing that indicated to Sakura whether or not he thought they'd be useful.

"I thought you wanted to kill him?" Itachi said then, and it took Sakura a moment to realise it was a question. There was a lot that was inexpressive about Itachi.

"If you can get him out of Sasuke-kun's body," she said, pleased with how her voice didn't break on Sasuke's name at all, "then I still will. Orochimaru needs to die. I don't care what body he's in."

He gave her a long look. "You can't," he said after a moment. "You're not strong enough. I-" a pause. "I am well aware of who was on my brother's genin team, and what they're capable of," he said, which Sakura translated as 'I have been stalking my little brother for a very long time'. Yeah, something was not right with Itachi. Aside from the obvious. "You aren't strong enough, and you don't have the potential to be strong enough.

"You should let it go, Sakura-san, and go and live in whatever way seems best to you."

"Everybody starts out shit," she said firmly, voice hard, "but we get better."

Itachi's dark eyes seemed to look right through her, distant and unhappy. "I see."

Sakura did not really think he did. People to whom competence came naturally probably wouldn't.

One of Itachi's shoulders twitched, and he turned his head toward some sound that Sakura didn't pick up. "You should leave, Sakura-san," he said sharply. "There might not be Sound ninja here any longer, but there are other dangerous things."

She tilted her head, listening. There was a dull scraping noise, which was ominous, but beyond that was the sound of somebody's steps: nimble and lively.

Ah, she knew that step, and, when it came within her short and unreliable range, that bright chakra. It seemed safe and familiar to her now, but - she doubted other people felt the same way about it. "You mean Hidan?" she frowned at Itachi.

Itachi's eyes settled upon her, and he went still.

"Yes," he said slowly.

Sakura opened her mouth to respond, but the footsteps were too close. The door flew open wide enough to admit a much bigger person than Sakura.

"Did you get fucking lost, Sa-" Hidan's voice cut off. "Itachi," he said, and took the step forward that put him at Sakura's back.

He certainly wasn't afraid she'd die, Sakura thought, so perhaps he was looking to use her as a shield in case Itachi attacked. She eyed him, pre-emptively annoyed.

"Hidan," said Itachi. Sakura had thought his voice was expressionless before, but it had been positively cosy compared to how he sounded now.

There was that ugly scraping sound again. Sakura looked sideways and found that Hidan had - predictably - gotten his hands on a new weapon.

"I'm pretty sure you're meant to use those for cutting rice," said Sakura, eyeing the sickle.

Admittedly, it was huge sickle: short handle, blade curved like a mean smile. Sakura had seen sickles before, even if she'd never seen them actually in use as a weapon - and this one had a very, very large blade. She doubted it had ever been used for farming.

It was sharp enough to leave lines in the stone walls.

"You've got no imagination," said Hidan, looking upon it with an expression of affection Sakura had not seen on him before.

"She must have taken you with her," said Itachi suddenly, quite as though he'd just understood something. "Nothing else would drive you to stay with her."

Sakura bristled, because that just wasn't true. They hadn't stayed together out of a misplaced sense of obligation on Hidan's behalf - they'd stayed together because they worked, and because Jashin-sama wanted it, and because they both wanted to kill Orochimaru.

Besides, gratefulness wasn't exactly in Hidan's nature.

"Did you really work together?" Sakura hissed to Hidan.

"Not fuckin' likely," muttered Hidan. "He's Hoshigaki Kisame's partner."

That meant nothing to Sakura, although the name nagged at her. She'd read it somewhere.

"Orochimaru and you is a different match up," Itachi said, as though he hadn't heard either comment. He was looking at Hidan like he'd never quite seen him before. "But you... probably can't beat him either."

"Apparently neither can you," said Hidan, "or at least you did a shitty fucking job of it. So maybe you should keep your mouth shut."

"I won," said Itachi flatly.

Hidan sneered. "Bullshit. If you'd won, you'd have killed him. I knew you were a heathen, but I didn't think you were stupid. What kind of moron leaves a live enemy like that behind him?"

Itachi's eyes flickered red.

Sakura dropped her eyes immediately to his feet. There was no way she was risking being caught in a genjutsu.

Hidan, though, was frozen beside her. Sakura swallowed and grabbed his arm, shoving her chakra into his system sloppily. He jerked.

Hidan shook his head, eyes gleaming in the low light. "Genjutsu and stupid tricks," he scoffed.

He rolled the handle of his sickle between his fingertips, making the blade whirl and flash in the dim light as it spun. "You wanna go, Uchiha? I gotta tell you, Jashin-sama'll be really happy with your head. You'll make a beautiful sacrifice."

"I wasn't aware you could cut off a head, with just your skills," murmured Itachi placidly.

Sakura could feel the killing intent in the room rising: Hidan's hungry and indiscriminate, Itachi's potent and focused.

"Oh my god," she said, and stomped hard on Hidan's instep.

"Ow! Hey, what the fuck -?"

The feeling in the room dissolved while Hidan whined about his bruised toes. Sakura did not point out that he was lucky he had toes.

Sakura made a singularly frustrated noise. "Boys," she growled, and set her hands on her hips. "Has it escaped your notice that we have the same goal? All of us want to kill Orochimaru."

Itachi blinked. "That's not-"

"Really?" she asked, turning from Hidan to him. "Are you saying once you got him out of Sasuke you wouldn't kill him?"

He stilled, and said nothing, although he certainly didn't seem happy.

"Fine. So stop comparing the size of your - egos, Hidan," she interrupted herself when Hidan somehow managed to stop complaining long enough to raise his eyebrows at her.

He opened his mouth.

Her eyes narrowed.

"Egos."

Hidan heaved an enormous sigh. "You know we don't actually need this smug heathen prick to kill that bastard, right? Jashin-sama would approve the sacrifice." His eyes cut toward Itachi, and Sakura could feel the same itch he did under her skin.

He was right. She knew he was right. But neither of them could afford to let that cloud their judgement right then.

"I know," she said.

He glanced at her.

She held his gaze. "I know," she repeated.

His strange red eyes caught hers for a long second.

"Ahh, fuck." Finally, Hidan rolled his eyes and slung the sickle back over his shoulder. Sakura knew she'd won, and relaxed a little.

"Man, you're so demanding," he sighed hugely, popping his neck with a stretch. "I'm not teaming up with him, anyway."

In her peripheral vision, Itachi's posture loosened. Not very much. But some. That was good.

"I'm not suggesting we do that. Just... an information exchange, and then we can go our separate ways." And none of us has to fight Itachi, she didn't add, because she was pretty sure Hidan would take it as a challenge. She, too, felt the pull that he did, but there were other, equally appropriate sacrifices, and they didn't require her to face an anbu-level ninja with fully-formed sharingan first.

Besides, she thought to that strange feeling, she'd rather sacrifice some Sand ninja instead. The strange, blood-pounding song drifting at the edges of her attention smoothed out and quieted. For the first time, she wondered uneasily if it could hear her thinking.

Oh well. There was no turning back now, was there?

She turned back to Itachi and found him watching her with an intensity that made her stomach flutter strangely. His eyes were dark and blank again, and his expression was closed off.

"Well?" she raised her eyebrows at him.

"I lost Orochimaru's trail when I turned back to find his research. However, at the time I lost it he was heading west into Wind."

Sakura heaved a huge sigh and ran her hands through her hair. "Of course he was," she muttered darkly.

"What are you whining about?" Hidan asked, cocking his head. "You were the one who wanted to kill Sand ninja."

"Wind country's the biggest of the elemental nations," explained Sakura with a sigh. "And maybe it doesn't rain a lot, but the dirt's loose and the wind's fierce. Picking up his trail would be hell. And there's also a chance that he's doubled back, or gone into Earth country up north."

"Were you in some kind of rush?" Hidan wondered. "Breaking into outposts and questioning people seemed to work pretty all right the first time."

"I doubt he'd be in Earth," Itachi interrupted unexpectedly. "The moment they get wind of a sharingan user near Hidden Rock, they'll be on high alert. They suffered a lot from the sharingan during the last war. He'd be more likely to have doubled back to Rain, Grass, River - perhaps Waterfall, even."

"That's half the fucking continent," muttered Hidan sourly.

Itachi lifted one shoulder in a graceful shrug. "It is what it is."

"Yeah? Great information exchange. Can we kill him now?"

"No," snapped Sakura. She opened her mouth to tell them they'd all split up, but honestly, she didn't trust either of them alone without her. Hell, she wasn't sure if she trusted them with her there to supervise. Hidan would goad, and she still remembered Itachi wreathed in smoke with hideous black fire gleaming in his eyes. It wasn't like she could stop them from killing one another.

She didn't trust either of them even a little bit, she decided. "We're searching recent files," she said, striding toward Kabuto's filing cabinet.

Hidan whined a lot and rolled his eyes and was, in general, no help whatsoever in sorting through papers - although Sakura thought he might have been had Itachi not been there. He was clearly bored, but he seemed unwilling to leave her alone with Itachi - and just as unwilling to help them. Itachi seemed to take this in stride.

Hidan's eyes lingering on him as they made their way through the complex didn't seem to bother him much, either, although Sakura rather thought they should have.

All up, it was a long, tense day, even if they did uncover some more information.

"His motives don't make sense," Sakura muttered finally. She was sitting on the floor of a totally different room. They'd found a dusty records archive, and though it was boring work it was, at least a little bit, work she was good at.

When they'd found the room, Sakura's immediate suggestion had been to follow the trail of money - supplies came from civilians, not ninja, and civilians needed money and receipts. If not the merchants, then the producers - and given the size of the force involved, there would be no way of hiding it. You couldn't kill that many civilians without leaving some kind of evidence.

"Money," Hidan spat, as though the very concept offended him, and at some point Sakura was going to have to figure out what that was all about.

For now, she hoped that by tracking Sound's past actions, she might get some insight into its leader's future behaviour. For what it was worth, Itachi didn't seem to disagree.

"When the fighting started, we all heard Orochimaru saying he was doing it because he was bored. That he didn't like things standing still and wanted to - put things in motion, somehow. This," she waved a record of supply-line movements in Hidan's general direction, "indicates months of planning at the very least. The size of these bodies of troops -" she clenched her jaw.

"Ninja can move pretty damn fast if they need to," Hidan said, edging closer. Whatever Sakura's skill set, Hidan really wasn't good at this stuff, and she wasn't really that annoyed that he wasn't helping much.

He was better than Naruto would have been, though, she thought, and that thought brought upon her a surprising pang of nostalgia and grief.

Sakura stilled and let it crash upon her for a moment. There was no avoiding grief like that. Then she swallowed, blinked, and shoved it down where she didn't have to think about it. He's dead, she thought harshly. Stop it.

"Yeah, but..." She showed Hidan, pointing at her figures.

Hidan squinted at the records. "That is a lot of food," he admitted slowly. He scratched his nose. "Maybe if they sealed it..?"

"In that case, what happened to the civilians contracted to move it?"

Hidan looked at her like she was stupid. "Well, I know what I'd do with them."

"Idiocy," muttered Sakura, shoving the report away. "Jashin-sama doesn't care about them, they're unworthy sacrifices. And killing civilians just means fewer people producing food and goods. Stupid."

"What makes you think they're unworthy sacrifices?" Hidan wondered, frowning at her.

Sakura frowned right back at him. "I was told."

"Huh." His expression cleared a little. "He tells me different things," he said.

She tilted her head, but Hidan didn't continue, and she wasn't about to pry. A person's relationship with Jashin-sama was very personal. "Oh," she said instead.

"He might have planned the invasion to get his hands on Sasuke," Itachi interjected from his corner, where he was flipping through a book of - tax submissions. Seriously? Sound had a tax system?

Sakura supposed they must have, if they used centralised funds for anything, but...

She shrugged it off. "But that's the thing - he'd already marked Sasuke with his weird seal - he was ranting on about how Sasuke would seek him out, how he'd go to him for power."

Itachi's gaze lifted and met hers. It was very intense. "Seal?"

Sakura nodded. After a second, she moved to the shelf to draw the triple-tomoe marking in the dust with one finger.

Itachi frowned at it. "Hmm. It looks like Anko-san's..."

"The crazy naked lady?" Sakura wrinkled her nose. Well, she hadn't been naked, per se, but she hadn't been far off.

Itachi's eyebrows rose. "Yes," he said, "the crazy naked lady. She was Orochimaru's apprentice."

"Well. I guess that explains the crazy," Sakura muttered.

She turned away. This whole process was frustrating, and her patience was nearing its end.

"None of this is getting us any closer to finding him," Hidan snarled, kicking a shelf. Sakura heard the wood splinter. It sagged, but did not topple.

"It might help us figure out what his goals were, and therefore where he might go," Sakura said, scratching the back of her neck. She wasn't happy about it, but the boring grunt work of research had to be done. "Orochimaru could easily have slipped away and sent some ninja to guide Sasuke later, if what we thought about that seal was true - Kakashi-sensei said it was..." she frowned heavily and stopped, trying to remember.

Itachi had stopped reading to look at her with those intent, blank eyes.

She got it, finally. It seemed years ago, rather than just months. "He used an 'evil suppressing seal'," she quoted, although she had no idea what that was, "and said it was largely reliant upon Sasuke's willpower to stop the seal affecting him. So if Orochimaru was right, and Sasuke would have looked for him to get training and power anyway -"

"Maybe he wouldn't have, though," Hidan interrupted.

"What?" Sakura blinked.

"Think about it," Hidan rolled his eyes. "Sounds pretty fucking stupid, since Hatake Kakashi's got the same eyes, right? It's not like Orochimaru could have taught him how to use them for shit. And there's gotta be some kind of - fucking commonsense - in a bloodline kid not following a body-hopping missing-nin home just because -" he waved one hand expressively. "I don't know, whatever. Sounds like some dodgy shit, is all I'm saying. I don't think I was that stupid at twelve."

Itachi didn't say anything, but he didn't look like he disagreed.

"Self-preservation wasn't really my team's strong point," Sakura sighed. "I'd like to say Sasuke-kun was too loyal to the village, but... honestly, he wasn't acting like himself. And he was always very dedicated to becoming powerful. He may well have done it, eventually." Fed up, she leaned against a wall and closed her eyes for a moment. Her nascent headache throbbed behind them.

"We're looking at this wrong," Itachi mused after a moment, closing his tax records and turning to hunt through mission reports. "What we need isn't records of where the money was spent, we need scouting reports."

"Scouting reports," Sakura repeated dubiously.

"Mm. Orochimaru does have the sharingan. Where he'll go next is dependent upon what he wanted it for so badly. Given his goal was always to learn more, he'd need to be searching out places where he can find more techniques."

Sakura blinked. "Oh," she said. God, that was so obvious. She felt briefly but intensely stupid. "All right. Let's do that, then."

The scouting reports were, if not immediately enlightening, at least interesting. It became significantly quieter when Hidan threw up his hands and stalked out, muttering about finding some kind of animal to eat. Sakura knew Hidan well enough to know that unless she went with him she'd be catching her own dinner.

She didn't go. She wasn't sure how much she liked being left alone with Itachi, to be honest, but... well, in the worst case scenario, it wasn't like he could kill her.

Besides, he didn't really seem that inclined to fight if he didn't have to.

In the end, they narrowed the possibilities down to several places: Hidden Waterfall, the Lightning Temple, and a number of the small islands in the no-man's-land between Water and Fire. All of them boasted a number of well-guarded secret techniques and objects, and both Sakura and Itachi agreed that some of these would attract Orochimaru's attention - eventually, if not right then.

"There are doubtless more records in other bases and locations," Itachi mused.

"Yeah, but it stands to reason that these are closest - that's why the reports are here and not in another base. So they're the ones we'd have checked first anyway," Sakura pointed out. "Anywhere we can pick up the trail, basically."

"Indeed," said Itachi. Then, slowly, "Sakura-san, if you don't mind my asking, what is it you're doing with Hidan?"

Sakura briefly wondered what Itachi would do if she said she did mind. But then, it was hardly a secret. "Hidan has been teaching me," she said after a considering pause.

Itachi made a soft humming sound to indicate he'd heard her, kind of like the kissing cousin to the annoyed grunts Sasuke made whenever anybody spoke to him.

That sound was a painful reminder of things that were gone. Sakura... she missed Sasuke. She missed Naruto. She ran her hands through her hair and took a deep, calming breath. As committed as she was to Hidan and Jashin-sama and hunting down Orochimaru, adjustment was extremely difficult for her.

There were moments - frequent, difficult moments - where all she wanted was her life back. Overall she was dedicated, but on a moment-by-moment basis...

Well.

She rubbed a hand over the acid scar on her jaw and stared at nothing. How on earth had it ever come to this?

"Sakura-san?"

"Mm?" she looked up. She let her hands drop from her face. "Sorry, what?"

Itachi was watching her. "Do you know where you are?" he said it neutrally, like he was pretty much prepared for any answer she might give.

She blinked. She knew the answer to that question. They covered flashbacks in the Academy. She was fine. "Yes. Sound base, southern River country. I'm all right. Just... thinking." Her lips quirked bitterly. "I miss people."

"Ah," said Itachi, softly, "of course." There was a thread of something in his voice that she didn't quite know how to interpret. It wasn't hostile, but it... presumed a familiarity that she wasn't comfortable with.

Frankly, Sakura wondered what on earth Itachi would know about it, given that he was surely responsible for the deaths of most of the people he missed.

But, well. Maybe that only made it worse, in a way.

"Are you..." Itachi paused. "You must be aware that Hidan is not..."

Sakura waited for him to finish, because there were so many words he could end that comment with. Stable. Normal. Nice. Sane. Kind. Very good at teaching.

"Itachi-san?" she prompted.

"He is an unusual choice for a teacher, for somebody of your skills," Itachi said after a second.

Oh. That. "He's not so bad," she said, shrugging. "I'm definitely learning."

Itachi gave her an unreadable look. "As you say," he murmured.

"What's that meant to mean?" she snapped.

"I'm sure you are learning, Sakura-san. For all his faults, Hidan is a competent fighter." That was a very diplomatic answer and Sakura had absolutely no doubt that it hadn't been what he'd been thinking.

He paused. Then he sighed.

"I will be blunt. The chances of you surviving a confrontation with Orochimaru are minimal. The chances of Hidan surviving such a confrontation are less than perfect. If there is anybody who could find a crack in Hidan's immortality, it would be him."

Actually, at this point, Sakura rather thought it would be her. But she certainly wouldn't correct Itachi on that. Hidan's secrets were her secrets.

"Yes, that's true," she said instead.

Itachi didn't try to dissuade her a second time, which she was thankful for. If she didn't think about how he was a murderous psychopath, he actually seemed sort of - well, he seemed all right. Polite. Reticent, but respectful. Solemn and intelligent. Gentle, despite all his overwhelming potential for violence.

She found it difficult to reconcile with his reputation, and she didn't trust it.

Uchiha Itachi made her by turns quite confused and very, very nervous.

"If you surprise him, you may have the opportunity to - at least to get away, if you do end up facing him. He can be very arrogant."

Sakura nodded. She wasn't sure what Itachi was getting at, because what he was telling her was pretty much the basics: surprise your enemy. Got it. "All right?"

"If you don't mind, I can..." he paused. "Would you let me... It's well known that Hidan is at best bored by genjutsu. I want to show you a genjutsu. It isn't powerful, but if you use it cleverly it can be useful. I think you would be quite well adapted to it."

Sakura blinked.

"Yes," she said, turning to him immediately.

Itachi's expression was a little bemused, a little sad. He nodded after a second. "Like this. It uses retsu, which is a modification of the traditional rat seal - you see, one finger like - yes, like that," his fingers flicked fluidly into a new seal, "and zai, which -"

"That's a Yamanaka seal," Sakura blurted, staring at his hands. Her own were still.

"Yes." He inclined his head. "It wasn't developed by their family, although it isn't in popular use in Konoha because it is used almost solely by genjutsu specialists. There isn't much point to teaching genjutsu in the village where the Uchiha clan settled," he said. "I understand that it took several years for the village to produce a jounin with a genjutsu specialisation after."

He said it like that, too. Not 'after the massacre' or 'after I left' or even 'after I killed everyone'. Just after.

Sakura found she had a lot of questions about Uchiha Itachi, and the things she knew and the way he was here did not align quite correctly. Either he was a truly excellent actor, this person wasn't actually Itachi, or... something about the massacre wasn't as she'd been told. This did not seem like the kind of person who would kill a whole clan just to test his own skills.

But for now, she practised the seals for the Illusion: Binding technique and didn't ask questions.

 

Chapter Text

It was almost a little annoying to Sakura that Itachi was such a good teacher. He was clever, patient, specific and adaptable. As soon as he noticed how quickly and easily Sakura picked up the first low-level genjutsu, he showed her a second.

"Neither is strong," he warned, "but the utility of genjutsu is not in strength."

Sakura nodded.

She worked on it in silence for a few long minutes - this one seemed a little harder, though arguably more useful.

"Sakura-san," Itachi interrupted then, and she realised quite suddenly that he was still looking at her, rather than going back through more scouting reports.

"...Itachi-san?"

"When I saw him, Hatake Kakashi was very certain all his students had died or deserted," he said slowly, as though he wasn't quite sure he should be revealing the information. "I don't think he counted you among the deserters."

Sakura blinked. "Kakashi-sensei? He's alive?"

Itachi's expression didn't change. "He was alive three weeks ago."

"Did you-" she chewed her bottom lip.

Itachi was already shaking his head. "He was travelling with Maito Gai, but otherwise I couldn't tell you who survived. Current circumstances mean that the survivors are not in a position to commit their resources to chasing missin-nin, but I'm hardly welcome among them."

Sakura frowned, but she nodded. "If you see any of them -"

"I very much doubt I will," he interjected.

"But if you do. If you see any of them, tell them I'm all right."

Itachi eyed her for a long few seconds, but in the end he inclined his head instead of saying whatever was on the tip of his tongue. "You could tell them, Sakura-san. Their camp is somewhere in the far southeast of Fire country," he said after a pause. "I don't have the precise location. But you'd be welcomed."

"Hidan wouldn't," said Sakura with certainty.

Itachi blinked at her, once, slowly. "No," he agreed.

She nodded and returned to her genjutsu. She tried to ignore Itachi's eyes upon her.

Itachi didn't tell Hidan about the illusions he'd shown her. Sakura had an uncertain hunch that he thought she might need to cut and run from more than just Orochimaru.

This was just silly, of course. Sakura needed to run from Hidan about as much as she needed a hole in the head. She didn't bother to explain - Itachi, for all his sharp looks and quick mind, could never understand. She hadn't understood either, until recently.

Heathens didn't.

It was an isolating thought, and found herself sticking closer to Hidan for reassurance. If he noticed, he didn't comment.

Still, it was an oddly kind thing for Itachi to do, and that just increased her uncertainty about him.

They camped outside the ruin by common consent, amidst a copse of trees in the strange forest of southern River. It wasn't like Konoha, and Sakura missed her home dearly.

Her throat tightened again when the thought crossed her mind, because of course - there was no home. She wasn't sure if she wanted to see for herself what was left of the village, either. It was worn and bright and friendly in her mind, and she couldn't tell if she wanted her memories tainted.

They collected wood and had a fire - one Itachi lit by casually spitting a fireball at it, which was - okay, kind of cool, Sakura had to admit - so at least it was warm. Sakura wasn't sure what they'd do in winter.

Hidan curled beneath his cloak and fell immediately into a cat nap. It didn't seem to be a heavy, proper sleep, but that he could do it at all was testament to his defective self-preservation instincts. Sakura didn't feel quite right even trying to doze with Itachi sitting right there. He seemed to feel similarly, although he was probably more concerned by Hidan than Sakura.

It was a long, long night.

Despite how very much she might have learned from him given the chance, Sakura was not at all sorry to see Itachi leave the following morning. When he got up and bade her a soft good bye, the embers of their fire were still glowing and dawn was just around the corner.

Sakura watched him spring into the trees, a quick and silent shadow between branches.

It was... interesting, in a way. When Hidan moved, even though he did it quickly, it was an exercise in brute strength. He was agile and acrobatic, and he bounded between trees like some kind of demented pinball, but he did it by way of using enough force to make the trees shudder in his wake. He was almost never soundless.

Itachi moved in a way that was both graceful and deliberate: soft-footed, soundless. He climbed like a monkey and leapt like a cat. Sakura closed her eyes and couldn't even tell he was moving nearby - and when she opened them again, there was no sign of him.

"Ugh," said Hidan, making her flinch. She hadn't realised he'd been awake. When she looked back at him, he was sitting up and re-settling his cloak around his shoulders. His hair was messy and his eyes were sleepy, but he was awake enough to scowl up at the silver fingers of dawn carding through the leaves. "Who the hell gets up this early?"

Sakura decided not to point out that both she and Hidan had spent the past couple of weeks rising in the dark. "Ne," she said instead, tilting her head. Her eyes followed the path Itachi had taken, although he was long gone by then. "Do you think there's something... off about Itachi-san?"

"No shit," drawled Hidan, glancing sideways at her.

"Other than the obvious, I mean," Sakura clarified, rolling her eyes. "He seems... Do you think he was in his right mind when he killed his clan?"

Hidan blinked.

"I mean... was it an episode of psychosis or -?"

He raised his eyebrows at her. "If you think Uchiha's not a killer," he began incredulously.

"No," she interrupted, "no, he definitely is." A concussed goldfish could tell that much just being in the same room as him. "But there's a..." she frowned, trying to think how she could explain it. "I've met ninja who've gone out of their way to kill big groups of people just to prove something to themselves, you know? We met the demon of the Mist on our first C-ranked mission," she added, rubbing her forehead.

Hidan grunted. "What's your point?"

"There's... he's not like them. He doesn't... feel the same. It seems like it would make more sense if he was like that sometimes, if he had episodes or-" she spread her hands out, shrugging helplessly. She wasn't even quite sure what she was getting at, so Hidan's expression of confusion wasn't exactly unexpected.

"I have no idea what the hell you're talking about," Hidan admitted easily. "Hoshigaki never mentioned anything like that where I could hear him, and I didn't spend a lot of time with Uchiha. But there's sure as shit something fucked up about him, I'll give you that."

Sakura nodded thoughtfully. At least that confirmed that it wasn't just her who thought something was off about Itachi, but what it actually indicated remained a mystery to her.

She didn't pursue it though. "Did you want to get moving?" she asked instead. Catching up to Orochimaru, wherever he was, was going to be a long and probably mostly luck-based process.

"Hell no," he said, confirming Sakura's thought that his rest hadn't been all that easy either. "It's barely light and I'm going back to sleep." He waved one hand vaguely at Sakura, tucked the edge of his cloak over one shoulder and sank back to the ground.

If she slept now, Sakura had a hunch that she'd throw off her sleep schedule for days.

She sighed and got up to do a perimeter check. It was probably unnecessary, but it was a hard habit to break and it didn't hurt to keep it up. When she was done checking and re-checking the traps that encircled the campsite area she went looking for something either to a) eat or b) to test out techniques upon. Luck led her to a badger sett, which in turn supplied her with a couple of animals.

She killed one and kept the other to use for experimenting. Sakura didn't see a lot of results, but she did take notes and learn a few things about how she would need to change her use of medical chakra. And she was going to need to change it. What she'd done so far - patching wounds and assessing damage - was the tip of the iceberg as far as the applications of medical chakra went. Kabuto's notes proved it.

By the time Hidan finally woke, rolled over and said, with all the vast eloquence at his command, "Mngeh," it was almost noon.

Sakura had stoked the fire and finished skinning and cleaning the other badger. She was cutting it to pieces so it would cook faster.

"Mm, food," he said, stumbling out of his cloak and rubbing his eyes. It took him about thirty seconds to shake the leaves out, run his hands through his hair and look just as presentable as he always did. It was a skill that many girls Sakura had known would have maimed somebody for.

"Your cooking's still shitty," Hidan said after they'd eaten.

"Right, that's why you managed to eat like, sixty per cent of a badger right then," she said, getting up and stretching out her legs. Her ankle was still giving her some hesitation, and it seemed like that might be permanent - but it didn't feel on the verge of collapse anymore.

"I said it was shitty, I didn't say it was worse than rations," he scoffed.

Bickering aside, they broke camp - which meant hiding the evidence of their food and fire, kicking dirt back over the latrine ditch and disarming traps. Even Itachi, who was without any doubt better supplied than they, had only been carrying a blanket and a toothbrush.

...Sakura very greatly preferred the inn.

So did Hidan, she suspected, although he didn't say it.

Hidan looked around. Then he stretched, cracked his neck, and grinned. "All right then. Let's go!" And he was off like a bullet. He flung one arm out and felled a tree with his sickle as he went, prompting an enormous crash and a startled burst of squawking and flapping from upset forest birds.

"I hate you," hissed Sakura, gathering just enough chakra to her feet to hit Hidan's pace.

He laughed at her.

Since they were still in River, Wind wasn't that far - but the boarder was long, and when Itachi had been tracking Orochimaru he had been much further north. It would be easiest to travel north through River and hit the Wind country border later. Wind, after all, was still a country at war in at least the most technical sense, so their security must be pretty serious -

So of course Hidan led them careening straight to the closest border.

"You-" Sakura gasped for breath, which in no way caused Hidan to slow, "-Shouldn't we stay in River country until-"

He interrupted between one heaved breath and the next words, and the look he threw back at her was surprised. "You wanted to kill some Sand ninja, didn't you?"

"I - yes," she said.

"If we stay in River country we're only going to find them by luck, you know."

Well, when he put it that way...

Something about speeding wildly into a fight rubbed Sakura the wrong way - years of training at the Konoha ninja academy kicking in, she supposed. Iruka-sensei's advice had been sensible and consistent: hide, stay safe, run your mission quietly, return with nobody the wiser.

"Right," she muttered, dismissing the idea. "Sure," a deep breath. "Let's go kill some Sand ninja."

Hidan slowed down - marginally - when Sakura felt the deep weariness settling into her bones that hinted at impending chakra exhaustion. She stumbled as she lost speed and dropped pace dramatically with her breath coming hard.

"Seriously?" Hidan scowled, falling back. She felt the weird flicker of his chakra as he tried to sense hers. His nose crinkled, and he did it again. "Ah, shit, you are serious. Damn."

He wasn't even out of breath. He didn't even look like he'd been running.

"Unfair," Sakura whined.

"'How fucking unfair, Hidan-sama, that you gotta slow down for my lazy butt', you mean? Yeah. Pretty damn unfair."

Sakura made a rude noise. "Unfair you have so much stamina to burn, more like. How far from the border do you think we are?"

There weren't a lot of easily recognisable land marks in this part of River country. It was a broad stretch of grassland, occasionally broken by running water. Trees were sparse - which was a pity, because Sakura was almost able to keep up with Hidan when they travelled in dense forest. Wherever 'Hot Water' had been, she'd determined that the forest wasn't much like Fire country's.

"Couple hours?" Hidan said, glancing at the sun. "Depends on how slow you are, really. We'll hit something before nightfall."

They took it slowly for an hour or so, and then Sakura devoured one of the ration bars they'd taken from the derelict Sound base and they took off at a run. In deference to the consideration that there might be a fight at the end of their run, Hidan grudgingly let Sakura set the pace - a fast pace, by her standards, but his lazy stride seemed to devour the miles.

(It remained unfair.)

They almost passed by the outpost entirely without noticing it - it was only luck that allowed Sakura's unreliable chakra sense to pick up on something at the peripheral of her range. A lone chuunin, headed quickly in the direction of... nothing in particular, it looked like.

They detoured to cut him off, picking out the high ground atop a rise in the landscape. Sakura cast a quick, neat genjutsu to cover them, and they were still and watching when the ninja approached.

It quickly became apparent why she'd noticed that one signature so easily: he had a lot of chakra to burn, and more than that, he was actively using a wind technique to make himself faster.

"Nice," said Hidan, roughly messing up the fuzzy growth of her new hair. "I'd have missed that." He paused. "I guess you want this one," he added sourly.

"I do," said Sakura quietly.

She watched the ninja speeding closer. Her fingers trembled. God's gaze was upon her, and that was magnificent.

... but more than that, it was that her scars still ached, that her ribs stuck out through her skin; her home was in ruins and her people dead in battle or scattered to the winds. It was Sasuke with Orochimaru's unholy intellect lighting his eyes, it was Naruto presumed dead. It was Gaara with his crazy eyes laying waste to her forest, Konoha outposts with Sand fingerprints on their stones.

Ultimately, it was that Sakura had been helpless. She was still, in many ways, helpless. And it made her angry.

Afternoon light glinted on the ninja's forehead protector.

"I want him."

She took a deep breath. Easy, she thought to herself. In and out. "Unless you really need..." her reluctance was clear in her voice, she was sure, but she couldn't really hear past the tremor in it.

Hidan looked like he was going to say something scathing, and then he seemed to give it up as a bad idea. "Nah," he said finally, shoving his hands behind his head and sighing. "He's gotta be running to something, after all. I'm sure we'll find something good there. You know what to do?"

Sakura blinked. It hadn't occurred to her to question it, but - "Yes."

Hidan's smile was not quite as fierce as she'd been expecting. He tapped her nose with one finger. "Jashin-sama works in mysterious ways," he said in a hoarse whisper.

He did, she thought, eyes wide and unseeing for a moment. Jashin-sama had given her the opportunity to hurt the people who'd hurt her and serve her god at the same time, and nothing could have made her more content.

Her skin shivered.

Then they were out of time. If Sakura was going to take this opportunity, she had to take it now.

Food and rest had restored at least a little of her chakra, and she built it up in her feet, her ankles, her calves and knees. It sang and burned as she forced it to store up -

"You're gonna fucking miss him," Hidan hissed, alarmed.

"I'm not," she said with certainty, spinning the loop of a kunai around her fingertip. She wasn't.

Her stomach clenched. Adrenalin surged, and never had she seen clearer.

- and her skin felt too tight, hot and terrible. Her muscles bunched.

"Genjutsu," she said in a voice that came out hard and sharp, "binding."

Two things happened at once: One, the Sand ninja stopped and staggered with the force of his momentum, wind dying around him; and two, Sakura released her chakra.

The ground split and cracked beneath her feet, but by that time she was no longer there to notice it.

For a split second wind was all she could feel: she was blind, she was deaf, she was fast. Her skin burned with the rush of air and leaves and flying dirt and then -

There was a horrible crunch as she slammed into her target, and she heard a gasped breath and felt the warm splash of blood across her hands, saw his pretty brown eyes widen in horror.

Her mind blanked for the space of a moment, and all she could think was that she was going to tear him apart. Shred him. Her fingers would be hot and slick with whatever the gods saw fit to put inside him.

The noise that came out between her bared and clenched teeth was barely human.

- then she was past him, still moving much too fast. She stumbled once, regained her footing and turned her wild charge into a controlled spin. The world cleared, although her eyes didn't stop burning.

The Sand ninja was clutching his arm at the biceps. She'd been aiming for the middle of his body, actually, just because it was the biggest target, but he was a chuunin. In all probability he was a stronger ninja than she was.

Surprise really was an underrated advantage.

Burning pain broke through her haze then, and she pulled the ninja's knife from her thigh curiously. Funny, but she'd barely even felt it.

She was bleeding freely.

Convenient.

There was a roar inside her head. She wanted to rend, to tear - her training told her to stop and think, but she didn't have to think; she just had to execute Jashin-sama's will. Take revenge. Kill. The words were like a counterpoint to her pulse: ba-dum, ba-dum; fight, kill.

The Sand nin had gone pale and shocky, and he looked at her like she was the face of death. Sakura wondered what he saw. What she saw in him was something vulnerable and easily ruined.

She wondered if he'd killed anybody she knew recently.

Sakura flexed her fingers.

Fight. Kill. Her sacrifice's face was abruptly familiar, the shadow of a weeping god looming behind him: stark, sharply defined. Tears of blood. A rain of blood. She could smell it. She could feel it on her skin in places she'd not yet spilt it.

She dragged her foot over the ground while the ninja was still staring at her in shock and alarm.

Sakura was breathing heavily when she licked her fingertips. Her sacrifice's blood was hot, rusty and metallic. A fleeting thought in her head murmured: well, that's unhygenic, and it floated away without making a ripple.

She felt the second when everything fell into place: the taste of blood slipped though her and rose to the surface of her skin and changed it. Her eyes widened. Her voice came out in a soft whimper of surprise.

The Sand nin seemed to snap out of his horror. His face contorted and his pupils narrowed. He took a deep breath. "Fuuton: vacuum sphere!"

Blasts of concentrated wind ripped across a broad area. It would have made dodging difficult - a sound plan for facing somebody who moved quickly. But Sakura had no intention of dodging and -

The technique hit her and bit into her skin. It knocked her over. It hurt. It hurt maybe more than it would have normally. Her skin was hot and sensitive with the changes Jashin-sama had wrought upon her.

But the hymn was in all of her now, not just a distant rising sound: it vibrated in her bones, burned in her blood. Her sacrifice stumbled and staggered, ripped open by his own technique. His cries of shock and fear were the only sound once the wind had died down.

Sakura got up unsteadily. She felt the nascent urge to comfort him, to tell him it would be over soon, that Jashin-sama loved him and would welcome him, even if she did not - But the words died in her mouth.

It would not be over soon.

The Sand nin stumbled to his feet and Sakura, silent and watching, reached down and cut through her own hamstring. She was ready for the burn. She wanted it. She was shaking when she thought it: this was what they both deserved. They were one, and she would be punished for her helplessness; he for his complicity.

He dropped like a stone.

Sakura, too, folded to her knees. Her brain was on fire, and it burned all her thoughts away. There was no more time for fleeting thoughts. Jashin-sama demanded her full attention and she was helpless before his might.

The grip of her kunai was slick with blood.

Her sacrifice cried out, his voice turned to a note of torment. She hoped Jashin-sama was listening. She hoped he was pleased.

Death was a long time coming, but when she did draw the sharp edge of her knife across her own throat, she was absolutely calm.

Sakura had died before. She was not afraid.

 


 

There were stars wheeling over head when she was aware again. A prayer was on her mouth and her voice paused for a second while she blinked. Then, automatically, she finished.

She took a deep breath. Exhaled.

Her whole body shuddered. "Mmm," she said softly.

"Come on," came Hidan's amused voice from somewhere nearby. "Time to get up."

"Mmmno," she moaned, rolling in the dirt. She felt - blissed out. Happy as a cat in sunshine.

She blinked her eyes toward the voice and found Hidan sitting cross-legged right next to her circle. He was bright-eyed and looked oddly cheerful.

"Your hair's pretty," she informed him, crawling closer. The starlight leeched all the colour from the world, and his hair and skin shone pale and angelic under its light.

"Yeah," he agreed, still looking nothing so much as entertained.

"Good," she said, curling her torso over his knee. He was a lot warmer than she was, and he smelled good - faintly of sweat, but mostly of earth and comfort and good things. "Mmm. Warm."

"Sakura-"

She waved one hand at him, trying to think clearly. She had something important to tell him. She couldn't - oh!

"Jashin-sama loves you," she told him solemnly. "Even without your legs."

"I never doubted it," he said, just as gravely, although there was an odd light to his eyes. "Although that problem seems to have fixed itself."

"Mm. I helped, though." She curled more tightly into him and closed her eyes.

"Come on," he sighed, getting to his feet. He shook her off like she weighed about as much as a kitten. She blinked at him. He sighed. "What am I even saying, there's no way in hell you're running anywhere on your own. Up we get," he added, reaching down to haul her up by one arm.

"Ow," she said sadly.

"What do you mean 'ow', you just fucking gutted yourself! How the hell can this hurt after that?"

Had she? Her stomach did feel tender, she thought, poking at it with her free hand. It would explain the weird ache. She leaned lazily into Hidan.

He muttered something completely obscene, heaved her up and tossed her over one shoulder. His shoulder was pointy. She let her limbs dangle limply.

"We," he informed her, "are going to find wherever he was headed. I am going to kill everybody there and you are going to sit quietly and -"

"Sleep?" she asked hopefully, watching his heels. He moved quickly, but she didn't like the motion. She'd get sea sick eventually.

"Fine," he agreed. "Sleep, and then wash all that shit off, you smell like Orochimaru's cellar."

Orochimaru's dungeon had been perfumed with burning and urine. She sniffed, and her nose wrinkled, but it wasn't that bad. "Do not."

He was silent for a second. "No," he said finally. "But you are fucking filthy," he added.

Eventually they reached what turned out to be a Sand outpost, and Sakura was pretty sure in hindsight that she got held hostage and stabbed at some point, but in the end all she could remember later was that Hidan was laughing and the whole place felt like Jashin-sama had blessed it with his glorious purpose - a feeling like a patch of skin that remained tingly long after somebody touched it.

She woke with Hidan curled around her, snoring into her hair, to a cool morning and a lot of bodies.

Sakura blinked.

"Oh, gross," she said, looking at her hands. She was filthy. And she smelled. She had to peel herself from Hidan.

She wasn't sure how they'd gotten to the outpost, but it was uninhabited now. She was sure they must have had some kind of water supply in this place. She desperately needed to clean up.

"You back yet?" Hidan asked. He didn't sound like he'd just been asleep, but he did sound more relaxed, more... sedate, than usual.

Sakura thought she could understand why.

"Yeah," she agreed. "That was..." she searched for a word. "Intense?"

"Yeah, the first time is like that. It'll get less overwhelming with time."

That was both good and sort of sad, Sakura thought, since there was definitely something nice about the blissful, intoxicated feeling she'd had the previous night... but she'd also been absolutely useless, and her memory had chunks missing. Probably for the best that it did become less debilitating over time.

"I didn't..." she paused.

"Mm?"

"Does it get less... like you're not yourself?" she wondered, shifting awkwardly on her feet.

Hidan gave her a strange look. "What do you mean 'not yourself'? Jashin-sama just gives you a push in the right direction, helps you choose the sacrifice, that sorta thing. Everything else is all you."

Sakura swallowed. That couldn't be right, could it? That simpleminded desire for slaughter, for pain and suffering, that wasn't...

Well.

Maybe it was.

She took a deep breath.

"Sakura?"

She clenched her jaw, unsure if she wanted to admit this to Hidan. But then - if she didn't tell Hidan, who did she tell? Nobody. For the first time she considered taking Itachi's implied advice - cut and run, flee back to what was left of Konoha. Kakashi-sensei would take her in, she was sure of-

Was she sure of it, though?

She'd known they wouldn't accept Hidan. But for the first time she wondered if they'd have her back.

"I just... I was so violent," she muttered. She rubbed her hands through her hair, unconcerned for the moment about what she might be getting stuck in its short strands.

"Sakura," said Hidan, frowning. "Look at me, you fucking moron. Are you paying attention?"

She blinked up from her contemplation of her toes. Her toes had blood on them, sunk in around her nail beds. Hmm.

Hidan was still slumped where they'd been sleeping, languid and easy, but his face was serious. "You are violent. Even if your shitty village is stupid enough to preach that 'killing is the last resort' bullshit - ninja are violent. Anybody who says differently is lying or fucking stupid."

Sakura swallowed. "I know that, I just -"

She'd thought she'd be a ninja like Kakashi-sensei, able to put aside her morals and kill when protecting her precious people... but when it came down to it... she was a lot more like Momochi Zabuza.

"I didn't just kill him," she said slowly. "I gutted him. I can feel where my leg's still weak because I cut through it so he couldn't get away. I -"

A hand snapped over her mouth before she could choke out anything further.

She blinked.

Hidan was a lot closer than she'd expected.

"Jashin-sama appreciates your dedication," he said, with a smile that didn't quite reach his eyes. "But all those decisions are yours, Sakura. Like hell you're not fucking violent, you punch me in the face every time you're even a little annoyed," he added, scoffing.

He removed his hand from her mouth and she licked her lips automatically, tasting blood and ashes. Unpleasant.

"That's not the same-"

"It is the same," he rolled his eyes. "You punch your friends, you gut your enemies. Sounds like to-scale escalation to me."

Sakura frowned.

A lifetime of little events flashed before her - pulling Ino's hair, smacking Naruto in the face for being an idiot, elbowing Ami for butting in line. There had never been any punishment for those in the academy - they punished violence, there, like when Sasuke lost his temper and broke Kiba's wrist in an unauthorised fight. That, she had decided, was real violence - understandable, of course, because Kiba was super annoying and Sasuke was bound to snap and hurt him eventually, obviously -

But Sakura was forced to wonder, in context, if minor acts of violence were allowed to slide because they were developmentally important.

Ninja kids, after all, had to be desensitised somehow.

And there was no arguing the fact that Sakura did intend her punches to hurt. Not to injure or damage in the permanent sense, but - she wanted to let out her frustration on people when she hit them, even friends. Sometimes especially, she thought drily, thinking of some of Naruto's dumber stunts, friends.

She scratched the back of her head.

That was... pretty much exactly what had happened with the Sand nin.

But worse.

So, so much worse.

Hidan was frowning at her. "Are you going to start crying again?" he demanded.

"Yes," she said, and Hidan made a face. "Or no?" She paused. "Ugh, I don't know."

"Okay. So fuck it, stop thinking so hard and let's find some food," he said instead, and that...

...sounded pretty good, actually.

Chapter Text

Konoha outposts were places of curious twists and turns and tree branches that seemed to come out of nowhere just to hinder lines of sight and unwary intruders. They were wooden, sturdy, and many were well-camouflaged among the towering Hashirama trees. Sand outposts were... well, they, like everything else in Wind Country's godforsaken desert, were an ugly yellow-brown colour. They were squat stone buildings with narrow windows and ceilings that seemed oddly low on the inside.

Sakura had tapped one thoughtfully, but she found it solid all the way through. Odd.

Despite the obvious differences from what she was used to, there was food in the outpost, as well as water, medical supplies and bathing facilities, among other useful bits and pieces. There was different branding, minor compositional differences in foods and an array of non-standard antidotes, but for the most part the supplies there were the same as they would have been back home - and, really, not that different from the supplies Sound ninja carried, either.

The first priority, after having double-checked to be sure the bodies really were all dead, was getting clean. There was no point in clinging to modesty in what was, basically, enemy territory, so they bathed together once again.

Sakura was so inured to the sight of Hidan stark naked that she wondered if she'd ever be embarrassed by casual nudity again.

Her own body was, somehow, less familiar. She knew her hands and she knew her movements, but she kept noticing new scars, kept feeling new blemishes and numb spots and strange unfamiliar marks on her skin.

The cracked mirror in the bathing facilities wasn't an ideal place to inspect herself, but she ran her hands over her belly and thighs anyway. There were no scars from her recent sacrifice, but her skin still felt tender - and there were plenty from before. She was scarred. By god, she was scarred. She had struggled to put much weight back on, too, so her bones stood out in a way that seemed a little... well, grotesque.

Her eyes stood out, bright and huge, in her pale and hard face. There was blood splashed and dried on her jaw and across her nose and flaking through her short fuzzy hair, but it only made her skin more starkly pale. She looked skeletal and crazy.

"What are you staring at?" Hidan wondered, rolling his eyes. He kicked away his pants like they'd offended him in some way. They were torn and blood stained anyway, and Sakura thought they were probably a write-off. Her clothing certainly was.

"I - " I don't like looking at myself, Sakura thought. "Scars," she said finally.

"All ninja have scars," Hidan pointed out, stepping over the ledge into the communal bath. He looked at her sideways, faintly suspicious, as though he wasn't sure what her problem was but he suspected it was stupid.

He barely even seemed to register that she was naked until she mentioned the scars, and then the look he shot her was assessing. "They don't fuck with your movement much, so who cares?"

"Most ninja have them from fighting," Sakura pointed out. "Not because-" she stopped, gnawing her bottom lip uncertainly. She didn't want to say that she felt vulnerable when she looked at them, that she felt helpless all over again, ugly and weak and -

She cut off the thought with a deep breath, digging her nails into her hands. When she looked down, she could see that snake carved into her calf, its tail just visible around the curve of her leg.

There was a pause then. "We'll kill him," Hidan said finally, decisively, "and then they'll be like any others."

That wasn't ultimately a useful statement, but Sakura found Hidan's unshakeable confidence soothing in itself. It didn't assuage her feelings, but it was... nice, she supposed, that he felt that way.

Sakura took a deep careful breath.

"Okay," she said, and tried her best to put it out of her mind.

Instead of thinking about it, she approached and cautiously dragged her toe though the water to test its heat - and yelped when Hidan rolled his eyes again and yanked her leg out from under her.

"Hey!" She came up sputtering and smacked him in the shoulder.

"What the hell was that?" he laughed, even though she knew she'd hit hard enough to hurt. "Were you trying to punch me?"

She ignored him with great and towering dignity.

As soon as Sakura had adjusted to the temperature she was scrubbing her hands through her hair. Even without the assistance of soap or shampoo, the water ran dark and ugly when she dunked herself under. It was definitely past time to get clean.

"You know that technique you used is only good for an ambush, right?" Hidan asked after a few moments of silence. "You're moving faster than you can see or adjust. If somebody can predict your movement, you're fucked."

'Fucked' was a colourful but probably accurate way to put it. Sakura had based the idea for her attack upon one of the ones she'd seen Sasuke use - a forward charge with a fist full of lightning. He'd pulled it out in the arena at the chuunin exams, and it had done what seemed impossible when it had broken straight through Gaara's shield.

But, of course, Sasuke had the sharingan on his side, and all Sakura had was her own vision - which was twenty-twenty, thank you very much, but hardly the same as having a doujutsu.

"I don't think I'll ever be able to do it without the genjutsu," she admitted, scrubbing at her skin with both hands and nails.

"It's not a strong one," Hidan said, wrinkling his nose. He looked as though admitting that genjutsu might be even slightly useful annoyed him.

"No," Sakura shook her head, "but it's not a visual one. There's no visual component. All it does is tell the person you use it on that they can't move. That's why Itachi-san though it would be useful, even though..."

Hidan grunted. "Sharingan?" he muttered. Then: "Maybe."

That was as good as approval, she thought, because as far as Sakura could tell, Hidan was about as likely to agree with Itachi on purpose as he was to become an atheist.

By the time they staggered out, pruney but relaxed, the water had gone a dull reddish colour with dirt and blood. Sakura emptied it, but she didn't do anything about the hideous ring left on the tiles at water-level. It wasn't her house, she didn't have to clean.

Once they were done there, they dug through the outpost supplies - and the bodies. There was no question that somebody would be by to check on an outpost that had stopped communicating so thoroughly and completely eventually. It was just a matter of time before they came face to face with another squad of Sand ninja.

"Do you want to stay here and wait for them?" she asked Hidan. Sakura was examining the outpost records, seated at a cramped corner desk, while he dug about the cool stone building for new clothes and any interesting weapons.

His first answer to that question was a pile of fabric that smacked her in the face. It was only a little bit big for her, made of two layers of cloth with steel netting for interfacing between them. She pulled it on and rolled up the sleeves. She'd fasten them around her elbows so they weren't a nuisance in a fight, but otherwise the garment came down to mid-thigh and had reinforced belt loops and -

"It has pockets!" One of them even faced inwards. Amazing.

Hidan was rubbing his nose thoughtfully when she looked up. "I dunno. They'd be stupid not to have some kind of secret to these places," he said slowly, tapping his toe on the ground to test the sound. It all sounded solid.

Neither of them trusted it, of course.

"Konoha outposts do," Sakura agreed. At his look she shrugged, "I don't know what it is. All I know is that it exists. It's in our texts - in case of invasion, there's a way to release poison into the outposts using a series of codes or something."

"Fucking lot of good that did them," Hidan scoffed.

Sakura conceded his point, but... well, maybe they hadn't had the chance to engage such tactics initially, given the chaos of the chuunin exams and the death of the Hokage, but... she thought of the camp Itachi had mentioned. Well. Maybe that still would do them some good, in time.

If Kakashi and Gai were alive... how many other powerful shinobi might have survived?

"Maybe," she said slowly. "But I think it's too soon to tell just yet."

"What do you think?" he asked finally.

She frowned. It pulled strangely at the scars on her jaw."I think... We'd be better off getting out of here and setting an ambush out there," she jerked her chin west. "This place is well supplied, and it could be well-fortified if we were careful, but I think the risk of remaining here to face whatever they send from the village far outweighs the benefits. We should stock up on water and go. If they're any good at pursuit, we can turn around and mount a proper ambush - otherwise maybe we can circle round and pick them off from the back."

There was a pause as another possibility presented itself to her.

"Or I guess we could lay a false trail and get out of here without them finding us," she added half-heartedly.

Hidan gave her a look that spoke volumes.

"Well, we could," she said defensively.

He rolled his eyes. "Don't be fucking stupid. Let's gear up and move out, then."

Orochimaru's trail was so cold that picking a direction was more or less a formality - but since Sakura had a marked preference for not getting lost wandering in the desert until their water ran out, they followed him north west anyway.

Wind country was a strange place to Sakura, but it was beautiful in a bleak sort of way: what wasn't dunes was cracked earth, full of dips and rises and strange craters. Scruffy little shrubs and trees clung with fierce determination to the hard ground, and the sky rolled overhead, huge and endless and bluer than anything.

They saw very few animals - way fewer than they would have, if they'd still been in River or Fire country - and mostly they saw lizards and snakes and scorpions. There was a huge camel spider at one point, and once Sakura thought she caught the silhouette of a hyena, stark upon the horizon - but it was gone when she looked properly.

It took less than a whole day for Sakura to be really sure that there were Sand ninja pursuing them. It worked out precisely as she planned: they laid a false trail, circled around and attacked the four man squad from behind.

Sakura only had to take on one opponent, really - Hidan killed one on impact with a vicious slice from his sickle. The others quite correctly assessed Hidan to be the major threat, and so Sakura found herself with only a teenaged girl to deal with.

She couldn't have been much older than Sakura, and it was clear from the way she hesitated that she wasn't a strong combatant - or maybe she wanted it to seem that way? Sakura narrowed her eyes.

There was no reason to risk it. Sakura slammed on the speed and launched herself at the girl, only to replace herself with a rock behind her at the last minute.

From behind, she moved automatically - academy drills, sparring with Hidan, pure instinct. She jammed a kunai into the soft vulnerable place where the girl's neck met her skull. Her death was instant.

She crumpled.

Sakura blinked.

Hidan had already cheerfully - so very cheerfully - dispatched the third ninja and was confronting the remaining one. There was something -

It struck Sakura quite suddenly, from the expression on the remaining ninja's face. His eyes were hard, but there was a twist to his lips that spoke of a towering self-loathing. Her mind added up the information: three easy targets, young, untried; one heavy-hitter, significantly older, experienced -

She looked back at the Sand ninja crumpled next to her ankle.

Sakura wondered how long they'd been part of the same genin team.

She glanced at the older Sand ninja again. He was dodging Hidan's unpredictable attacks for now but she could see he was running mostly on rage and spirit. There wouldn't be a lot of stamina in him if he kept fighting like that.

She wondered if this was how Kakashi-sensei had felt when he was trapped by Zabuza, leaving them all vulnerable back in Wave. He'd failed them there and he'd known it, but...

They'd pulled together. They'd handled it.

She tried to muster some empathy for this strange young ninja. There was a tiny part of Sakura that believed she couldn't possibly be a monster if she still felt for the people she hurt. On the surface, she was so like the person Sakura had once been.

Sakura looked down at the girl and thought: Good. This person represented the force that had ruined that girl. She was one author among many of the scars upon Sakura's body.

She toed her face with her sandal and turned the girl's head. It lolled, heavy and boneless, on the bloodied desert dirt.

"You think this is bad?" she asked the body conversationally, nodding toward the first body Hidan had hit, which was almost sliced right through the middle: "You should see what happened to my genin team."

Hidan took his sweet time, but Sakura was in a pensive mood and didn't mind the wait - although she did sort of wish she had an umbrella to shield herself from the sun. The sun in Wind country was unforgiving.

The remaining Sand ninja had his hands full, and Hidan was unlikely to let him go very far, so Sakura busied herself with searching the dead girl's body for anything useful. Weapons, money, standard-issue medical pack, water. Nothing exciting, but all useful.

"Dammit," muttered Hidan finally, when he was forced to conclude that he'd killed his opponent earlier than he'd intended. He was less careful, Sakura had noticed, when he wasn't engaged in a ritual. "Nicked the artery."

He glanced at his sickle as though it had betrayed him unexpectedly.

Sakura rolled her eyes, but chose not to comment on that. "Ready to go?"

It seemed like forever before they found any further hints of Orochimaru's trail - such as it was.

By then Sakura was pretty sure she seriously hated the desert.

Food was scarce. Water was scarce. The sun burned - a statement which was not hyperbole. Sakura knew her skin burned reasonably easily, but Hidan was more sensitive to the sun than pretty much anybody Sakura had ever even heard of.

When they travelled during the day he was already lobster red by midday. During the afternoon he complained bitterly, and as evening approached his skin peeled; he was pale and white again by morning. Even aside from that, he flinched and squinted in the light like he could feel it burning his eyes.

Despite his very evident - and vocal - discomfort, their routines didn't actually change much. They tracked their target as best they could, detouring occasionally when they found a team of Sand ninja. Occasionally couriers would be sent out in groups of one or two, and that was the most tempting thing of all.

Wind was a huge country, largely shifting sands and bleak winds, and the whole place was difficult terrain. It was hard to track what was going on this far out, but it seemed obvious that the administration of the Hidden Village had caught on to their presence in the desert, because they sent out bigger and better-prepared groups.

That didn't slow them down much.

Sakura struggled with more skilled opponents, and often Hidan did not go out of his way to help her.

She died, over and over. For Jashin-sama, self inflicted: the ultimate leap of faith. But she was killed, too. Buried. Crushed larynx. Severed head. Punctured lung. Knife in the eye. Suffocated.

Every death stayed with her. Some of them reminded her of her time in Orochimaru's cells, and sometimes her dying brain made up familiar faces to paste over her killers'.

Some deaths were better than others.

"Avoid getting your guts sliced open and you won't have to carry your internal organs," Hidan advised on one particularly memorable occasion. "You fucking stink, by the way," he added.

"I don't want to hear that from you," Sakura rasped. Talking was hard. Something had cut through her diaphragm.

Hidan scoffed.

The days blurred into one another while they travelled beneath the boiling sun. Sometimes it seemed that the desert went on forever, that trees and rivers were something Sakura had dreamed up just for herself. There were long nights of swift travel and longer days of hot fitful dozing.

But amidst the unbearable heat and the strange madness of endless space, Jashin-sama had blessed them. More nights than not saw Hidan and Sakura blood-drunk, stumbling, loud and fearless and wildly jubilant under a red and swollen moon. They lay together, stuck with blood and thicker things, heedless of the desert's nightly cold; the stars wheeled and twirled overhead and they thought of terrible things to say to them and laughed.

Together they left a trail of bodies and did not care who followed it.

Their "hint" at Orochimaru's trail came in the form of a madman, half-monster, pumped up on nature chakra and screaming incoherently to the sky.

He had wings and claws, green hair and teeth like knives and a hideous, leprous pattern of bruises or - seals? - on his skin, and Hidan and Sakura came upon him as he was demolishing an entire Sand outpost.

They stopped on a rise, peering down at the mayhem.

"That actually looks a lot like Sasuke-kun's curse mark," mused Sakura. Her hair was growing out again, just long enough to flop over instead of sticking up in ridiculous tufts, and she ran her hands through it pensively. "I bet the seals are uncommon," she added.

Hidan grunted. "Shitty fighter."

He was, too, but unfortunately it didn't seem to matter much if he could hit his targets - the chakra leaking from him was enough to slice through whole limbs. As Sakura watched, she frowned. Something wasn't quite -

Oh.

"I'm not sure he is fighting," she said after a second. "I think the outpost was just ...in his way." The leaking chakra made quick work of the outer walls, and there was a part of the roof that was looking very precarious.

"Sounds like my kinda guy," Hidan mused, stretching his arms above his head and cracking his knuckles. "Stay out of this, Sakura," he added in a voice that was much harder.

She eyed the creature - person? ninja? - critically for a second. He'd make a fair sacrifice, but fighting him seemed likely to cause problems for her. She glanced down at her fingers. The medical chakra technique was ready for testing on a live moving target, finally, but...

She wouldn't want it to fail against a creature like that.

"Try to steer him away from the baths," she said instead of arguing. The desert was hot and water was scarce and Sakura was starting to smell. Body odour was bad enough, but added to the reek of stale death? Gross.

Hidan opened his mouth to scoff, but he closed it again pretty fast. No doubt he could smell himself, too.

After a second's pause, eyes on the target, Hidan unslung his huge sharp sickle and twirled it one handed. The sunlight flashed a bright smile on its curved edge.

Then he dove into the chaos at top speed, screaming with laughter.

The fight was fast but savage.

There were only two Sand ninja remaining at the outpost that Sakura could tell, and one of them darted in to throw a powerful wind jutsu at the monster and Hidan cut her down from behind. "YOU'RE IN THE WAY, SHITHEAD," he bellowed, cackling.

"What the hell?" screamed the last of the ninja. Sakura felt her lips curve, although she wasn't sure what feeling prompted her to smile.

The yell prompted the monster to change direction. It swiped. The Sand ninja fell. Sakura rocked back on her heels and watched.

"HEY! You're fighting me," Hidan yelled, flinging himself into the air and descending, pointy end-first, toward the monster.

Blood sprayed. Chakra ripped through one of Hidan's shoulders and forced him to switch weapon hands, but then there was a forward charge from the monster, a terrible impact and a thunderous crash. Rock cracked and dust and sand kicked up just enough to obscure the action. Somebody screamed.

Sakura dropped down from the rise and ambled toward the outpost.

There was an elated shriek and Hidan emerged from the dust and sand both victorious and bloodied.

"Come look at this," he yelled to her, and came forward to grab and drag her closer to the body. "Look at this fucker."

"Hm," said Sakura, kneeling down next to the body. In death, he was normal - average, even. Taller than Sakura, shorter than Hidan, green hair and staring dark eyes, slight build. Sakura gingerly felt around in his body with medical chakra and cringed a little.

"I think... the seals made his body use chakra that was incompatible with its circulatory system. His coils are shredded. I can't see how he'd have survived turning back anyway," she mused, prodding at his neck.

Sure enough, when she tipped him sideways, there was a seal right where his neck met his shoulder, staining his tanned skin black. Three marks, each a wavy line. It wasn't quite like Sasuke's, but it was so terribly close.

"It's Orochimaru," she said, rocking back to her feet.

Hidan made a sweet, anticipatory sound.

Sakura stretched. "I'd kill for a proper meal and a change of clothes," she admitted, looking around. The outpost had been party to a group of four chuunin, and they were now all dead. A flare of her chakra revealed nobody else - unless they were hiding.

Hidan scratched his chin. "We could stay somewhere. An inn," he said slowly. "I mean -"

"Pocket change isn't going to get us a room at an inn," Sakura said pragmatically, already searching the pockets of the ninja strewn about like neglected chew toys.

"Nah," Hidan agreed, "but I recognise her face," he pointed.

"So?" Sakura asked, but she did take a look at the woman to whom Hidan gestured. She could see immediately why Hidan might have remembered her. She was lovely in the way some of these Wind country women were, with their blond hair and dark skin, strong jaws, long limbs and lean-muscled bodies.

She looked exotic to Sakura, but she certainly couldn't place her face.

Hidan leaned over and pulled out Sakura's battered and stained bingo book without bothering to ask. "She's gotta be in here somewhere."

It took him a few minutes, but while Sakura was contemplating the insides of the dead woman's weapons pouch, he strode forward and shoved the book under her nose.

Sakura jerked back, because Hidan had no concept of personal space and the book was close enough that she couldn't read it. When she could focus on the picture, though, she could see he was right.

"...Yamada Itsuko," Sakura murmured.

A chuunin-rank bounty. It wasn't huge but it would put them up in a decent inn for a night or two, she thought.

"Well," she said slowly. "There's no point leaving her body out here, I guess. Are you sure you're okay with this?" she wondered, eyeing Hidan.

He scowled at Yamada's body. "As long as we spend all the money on something fucking useful."

Sakura was at a loss as to what else one did with money, but she nodded. Hidan had some weird hangups with money in general and she didn't especially want to pry - not out of any sense of decorum and more just because, well... Hidan could talk an awful lot when he was roused to anger.

It took them a while to figure out where the nearest drop point for such bounties was, and when they finally did Sakura was surprised to find that it was a tiny tea house in the middle of nowhere. There must have been a spring, or else somebody had gone to a great deal of effort to tap water below ground level, because not only were there several spindly trees spreading their branches under the sun, but there were also clusters of small, bright flowers bursting unexpectedly from the dirt.

Sakura hadn't seen flowers since she'd entered Wind country.

The drop point's nearest neighbour was a cactus farm three miles away, but it was by far the nicest place she'd visited in the country. That was... odd.

The tea house itself was made of wood, with a broad sprawling verandah and huge windows covered in semi-opaque rice paper. As she and Hidan approached, Sakura could begin to make out the crude image of a tea cup painted on a wooden sign hanging over the doorway. The chain creaked in the wind.

In a chair on the verandah was a wizened old lady playing solitaire and nursing a bottle of something that smelled terribly potent. She drew a rattling breath as they came closer.

"Yamada Itsuko, Chuunin rank. Defected to Sand from Cloud two years ago," she said without even looking at them. "Very good, very good..." and when she turned to face them Sakura saw her eyes were filmed over with something white. It gave the impression of blindness.

Sakura tilted her head for a second, but Jashin-sama had very little interest in the old woman. Natural causes, then, Sakura supposed.

"Ah, yeah..." said Hidan slowly, squinting at her. "Yeah, she's worth -"

"I know what she's worth," snapped the woman. Her long, wrinkly fingers moved deftly over a series of scrolls and books that she'd produced from thin air, cards forgotten. If she was actually drinking whatever was in that bottle then she had quite the tolerance for alcohol, because she was very well coordinated.

It was a swift exchange, bloodless and straightforward, and Sakura hopped up to the verandah to pass on the body and let the old lady rip the page from her bingo book.

Once that was done, she smiled down at Sakura, flashing a mouth full of strange, sharp teeth. "You're a good girl, dear," she told her, leaning in to pat her face gently.

"Er, yes?" said Sakura automatically. The woman's hands were dry, so dry. Sakura could feel the fold of every wrinkle against her cheek.

Sakura heard the tread of a stranger's foot just as the old woman noticed the new person as well. Her grey head snapped up, filmy eyes shifting across the landscape.

"Seems like the lure of money got to you after all, Hidan," said a low, growling voice.

Sakura turned.

The newcomer was huge, with dark skin and gleaming green eyes. His arms were covered in stitches and scars and tattoos, and his expression might have been diplomatically classified as a scowl.

Suddenly the air was ripe with the heavy potential for violence.

Sakura licked her lips. She could almost smell it, like the static charge from a brewing thunderstorm.

"Get inside," she said in a very low voice. The old woman complied faster than she'd have believed possible.

Hidan made a soft, hungry noise. One of his hands twitched, fingers flexing like talons.

"Kakuzu," he growled.

Chapter Text

Sakura frowned. This was Kakuzu?

She wasn't sure what she'd been expecting, but it certainly... wasn't this towering man with his hard eyes and his mouth covered, fierce and alien and expressionless. His arms were bare to the shoulder and his scars looked like they came from wounds that had hurt.

"I said I'd rip out your spleen when I saw you next," Hidan said conversationally. Despite his tone, Sakura could feel his killing intent rising up like the crest of a tsunami. She'd thought she'd grown used to it by this point, but - even still. It was huge. It swelled, it rose, and the hairs on the back of her neck stood on end.

Kakuzu didn't so much as twitch under the pressure of Hidan's blood lust. "Oh?" he said, slow and even and so very dangerous-sounding.

Sakura eyed them as Hidan stalked closer to Kakuzu. He was a strange thing, something half-here, half-somewhere else; there was none of that aching suffering in him that drew her to a lot of ninja, although his scars said there should have been - just places where it had been.

He felt like... like something that had been broken into shards and glued back together and all the insides had leaked out in the meantime.

Sakura's gut clenched.

"Do you think you can?" Kakuzu wondered.

Hidan's lips peeled back over his teeth and he lunged. He was fast - blink and she'd miss it. There was a second where it looked like he was going to engage in a suicidal frontal attack, but just as it looked like he would engage with his sickle, Hidan slammed his forward foot into the ground, leapt, twisted - and then he was behind Kakuzu's huge body and his sickle was whistling through the air.

It hit Kakuzu's neck and... stopped.

Sakura blinked.

He had blocked the sickle with his neck.

It took her a second to notice that Kakuzu's skin had gone dark, almost pitch black, underneath the blow.

Earth technique? Bloodline limit? Thoughtfully, Sakura hummed.

Hidan clicked his tongue, annoyed, and pulled back. He withdrew completely, weapon loose at his side, and retreated to a more wary distance.

"You're fighting smarter," Kakuzu said neutrally. He turned his head to glance back at Hidan, but then his eyes drifted to Sakura. "Something to protect..? No. Of course not. But she's nothing special," he added, thoughtful.

Hidan's eyes narrowed, but he didn't say anything.

Sakura shifted uncomfortably. Had he gotten that from one attack? He was wrong about her anyway. Hidan had let her die so many times that the idea was laughable.

There was a short, tense pause - all still, all silent, just the beat of Sakura's heart in her ears - and then Kakuzu lunged.

There was a clank of steel and a snarl and a terrific meaty thump.

Sakura didn't see the hit itself from her angle, but Hidan went flying. He twisted mid-air and slammed the point of his weapon into the dirt. His momentum slowed. Dust rose in his wake.

Hidan looked somewhere between vengeful and thrilled, eyes gleaming and blood on his chin.

They met again in a crash. Metal flashed under the sun. Kakuzu's style was different to Hidan's: controlled and angular, full of hard strikes and sudden surprising holds, neat movements. Precise.

He took a neat step forward and smacked the side of his foot into the sensitive part of Hidan's ankle - or, he would have, except Hidan was airborne quite suddenly. Then, almost too fast to follow, Hidan executed an acrobatic midair twist to land behind Kakuzu -

- who was facing him again, having evidently predicted -

Kakuzu exhaled and a plume of fire burst in the clear desert air. Monstrous shadows streamed against the dust and dirt, and the heat washed over Sakura's face.

From somewhere inside the ashy, dusty cloud that the fire had kicked up, Hidan laughed like a broken hinge.

Sakura, however, frowned.

Kakuzu was... good, she thought uncertainly. Maybe better than she'd thought. Better than Hidan?

Hard to say.

Hidan was immortal but immortality didn't guarantee victory. The circumstances in which Sakura and Hidan had met showed that much, at least. Additionally, it was clear Kakuzu knew about it from Hidan's occasional comments - which meant that he probably knew Hidan was worse than useless once his head got cut off.

So. Immortality was a minor advantage at best.

She'd bet Kakuzu didn't have Hidan's stamina, because nobody really did, but he also didn't seem to be tiring very quickly... and unfortunately, Hidan wasn't likely to draw out the fight for the tactical advantage of wearing him down.

... and, of course, while Hidan was busy regressing to howling barbarian mentality, Kakuzu's every move was considered. He moved fast, sharp and with an enviable economy of motion. He had almost no tells, nothing to help predict his movements.

Her analysis didn't get any better as she kept watching, because shortly after he'd spewed that enormous gout of flames at Hidan, he performed two hand-signs - foreign, and fast - and slashed at him with an incredible blast of wind. Even at her distance, Sakura felt her face open on one side: long, shallow, sharp. If half the ninja of the country of Wind had been pulling off that kind of effortless technique, she'd have been buried in pieces long ago.

Fire and wind affinities at least, then, and every time he did land a blow it sent Hidan reeling - and, oh, Hidan was cheerful about it, loud and clearly thrilled with the struggle.

He bounced back like a poorly-aimed rubber band.

But the fact remained that Sakura only ever took Hidan off his feet when she got up to her full speed, which... well, true, she didn't have Kakuzu's evident mass, but. But. Her brain ticked over, contemplating - if she judged how fast she'd have to be moving to deliver a remotely equivalent hit, and then accounted for the fact that Kakuzu could do it standing...

She concluded uneasily that not only was Kakuzu clever, skilled at ninjutsu, precise and fast: he also apparently hit like an avalanche.

On the balance, she thought Hidan would probably lose.

Three seconds later, a snaking black thread whipped out of Kakuzu's arm, hooked Hidan around the ankle and smashed him against the ground at high speed. Even Hidan had to be dazed by a blow like that.

Sakura revised her assessment. Hidan would definitely lose.

Her nerves lit up with panic for a second before she crushed the feeling ruthlessly. Think, she thought to herself, clenching her fists. How would they get out of this? How would she get them out of this?

The consequences of Hidan losing here flashed through her mind before anything even remotely useful did: Sakura was sure Orochimaru would still pay quite a bit for Hidan to be delivered to him. And her...

If Kakuzu killed her, she could fake it being permanent and crawl after Hidan, provided she could track them... but she didn't fancy her chances of actually rescuing him from Orochimaru or Kakuzu on her own. Uchiha Itachi was unlikely to make a convenient distraction a second time.

And Sakura wouldn't abandon Hidan.

She'd promised.

The other alternative was that Kakuzu took her, too; Orochimaru might not pay for her, and Kakuzu seemed like he'd insist... but she definitely didn't want to be the rope in their tug-of-war game, either. And there was the chance that he might pay for her, still. He'd certainly spent a lot of time with her when he'd had her. Sakura remembered being in Orochimaru's care with a queasy stomach and a hard knot in her throat.

In this case, sharp analytical skills and an excellent imagination did not do Sakura any favours.

That was it then. She'd have to interfere. Somehow. Tip the fight in Hidan's favour.

Somehow.

Sakura watched.

That stone-skin jutsu would be a problem - an earth technique, she'd decided, which meant she'd need lightning to get through it. Which Sakura didn't have. And as far as she knew, neither did Hidan.

Maybe medical ninjutsu could get through it, though. That was, after all, what it was designed to do.

And maybe, if she was lucky, she could get a strike in while Kakuzu was distracted with Hidan?

There were so very many 'ifs' and 'maybes' in there - and Sakura's technique wasn't even field tested, not properly. Not unless you considered desert cats to be serious opponents.

Sakura rubbed her fingers through her mess of spiky pink hair while Hidan yelped and whooped and leapt out of the way of dangerous dark threads.

And then, quite suddenly, he didn't.

Kakuzu snagged his clothing with a thread, and then blood flew and -

Hidan's head was detached. Blood flew. Sakura was out of time. If Hidan couldn't move, he couldn't distract Kakuzu.

Sakura took a deep unsteady breath and gathered her chakra. She had to be quick, quicker than ever. Her eyes narrowed.

Hidan's head hit the dirt, rolled, sputtered in the dust. His body crumpled nearby like a stringless puppet.

Kakuzu made a derisive noise in his chest and turned toward the head - and away from Sakura - with his long dark fingers flexing at his sides. She could see the press of something underneath his shirt, some weapon he had not yet unsheathed.

Sakura waited until he bent to retrieve Hidan's head, compromising his centre of balance just a little.

Perfect.

The wood beneath her feet cracked when Sakura launched herself at Kakuzu, but by that time she'd already covered half the distance between them.

He shot back to his feet and spun to face her, and his whole body turned dark with his technique - anything else was too hard for Sakura to see when her eyes burned with the wind of her own momentum.

Sakura hit him dead on. There was no dramatic punch, no sudden roar of elemental power: just the tiny flare of pale green medical chakra in her fingers where they slapped his chest.

The skin underneath really was like rock, or maybe even something harder.

Medical chakra, though, was designed to get through protective outer layers. His body didn't even register the threat: Sakura slid under the skin and found - his heart. Yes. That was the right sort of muscle, pumping blood, pumping chakra, steady and uniform. Her chakra twisted, curling through the cells in the muscle.

Kakuzu's hand snapped up to catch her wrist.

Sakura swallowed. Had it not worked? This was the problem with techniques that weren't properly field tested, wasn't it?

"Uh," she said, looking up - and up. He was bigger up close.

"I don't know what you were trying to do," he said - and then stopped. His free hand rose to his chest. Some kind of pain crossed his face, clear in the flinch around his eyes and the tightening of his jaw. But mostly he just looked surprised.

Then he stumbled back one step, wheezed and dropped, still clutching at his chest as he went down.

Sakura yanked her wrist out of his hold before he took her with him.

She stared at his body for a second.

"Right," she muttered, breathing hard. Well, that was terrifying. "Okay."

Then she turned and went to Hidan's head. He was scowling at her. "You didn't have to interrupt," he said mulishly when she stooped to pick him up. "Ow, not by the goddamn hair!"

Sakura shifted her grip so she had her fingers on the bloodied stump of his neck, which was also, apparently, uncomfortable.

"This is my fucking fight, seriously," he kept talking.

"Sorry," she said, not feeling very sorry, and stooped to connect his head to the rest of his body where it lay in the dirt.

"Ugh, just - reattach my head and get out of the way -"

Get out of the-? Sakura blinked. What was -

"Sakura, stop fucking daydr-!" Hidan's voice cut off low on a bloody croak, courtesy of his busted neck. His eyes were focused on something behind-

Sakura hurled herself aside, but there was still an agonising burn in her shoulder, a grating of bone and a hideous weakness in her fingers.

She screamed. Her knees gave out and she crumpled.

"What the fuck," she gasped against Hidan's lifeless arm. Dirt crunched behind her. Kakuzu was up. How the hell was he-?

Her mind went white, briefly, when the ugly threads in her shoulder withdrew with a sliding, grating hiss, dragging against her insides as they did.

"I got his heart," she snarled, baring her teeth. "I know I did." With a deep breath she heaved herself to her feet.

"Yeah," said Hidan, sounding more pissed off than concerned. "He's got five."

Sakura turned an incredulous glance on Hidan's head. She wasn't sure she could delay Kakuzu long enough to reattach it to his body, which was bad, bad news. "Fi-" she stopped herself. "Five hearts. Fine."

Sizing him up, she clenched her good fist, ignoring the weakness in her other arm, ignoring the draining adrenalin and blood loss. She'd be fine. It hurt, but she'd had worse.

"He's only got one head," she said grimly.

"But can you hit it?" Kakuzu wondered. He sounded almost more clinical than annoyed, even though he was rubbing his chest and watching her thoughtfully. "That's an interesting technique... but I don't know your face. There's no money on you."

He sounded very certain about that, which was... well, he must have been a professional bounty hunter. Sakura licked her lips.

Then blinked. He was... he was distracting her, wasn't he?

Shit! She ducked, smacking her knee hard on the dirt, just as a heavy-muscled arm swiped through the air where her head had been.

She let her downward momentum carry her and rolled away. Which was the clone? Either he didn't want to get too close and risk losing another heart to her technique, or- or he knew that was the obvious thing to do and he was bluffing and -

A strike to the injured shoulder sent her skidding across the dirt. The ground bit into her skin, reddening and grazing and sticking to her spilled blood, and Sakura coughed in the dust when she fetched up hard against a tree. It creaked.

She flattened herself just in time to see Kakuzu's foot shear straight through its trunk.

It took a second before the tree sagged sideways and toppled, and by that time Sakura had executed a very sloppy replacement technique with the highest branch she could find and -

She felt the precarious branches of the toppling tree dig into her soles - there was barely a second and physics wasn't on her side, but her perch had a single moment's view of Kakuzu - the one who'd remained still and lazily watchful while his counterpart kicked her around.

Chakra flooded her feet, braced her dodgy ankle, burst and burned up her calves, shot through her quads. Sakura coiled in the space between breaths. There was a flicker of chakra below, signalling that Kakuzu was on the move, that she was out of time -

In that frozen, heart pounding moment she looked down toward that other, detached Kakuzu.

She chose, and hoped she was right.

The more active one had to be a clone of some kind, so she ignored it and launched herself toward the other.

The branches of her tree snapped and splintered beneath the sudden explosion of her chakra, and with a wild yelp she flew toward Kakuzu at top speed.

"Stupid," he said, lips moving but words lost to the roar of momentum. A single thread, thick and black, swayed gently between them for the split second before it ripped straight through Sakura's stomach.

Sakura felt the wet tear of flesh and the horrifying crack of a rib, sudden breathlessness, gasping pain - but she was flying forward and momentum propelled her and-

She was in touching range. The threads were stiff and agonising inside her, and she was impaled straight through, but she was in touching range.

That was what mattered.

She saw Kakuzu's eyes widen when he realised she wasn't weakening, wasn't going to lay down and die - when he realised that she was never even going to flinch.

Her chakra flared wildly and she smacked her hand against his jaw. Medical chakra flickered around her fingers.

"Shannaro," she gasped, baring her teeth.

Kakuzu's pupils contracted to the size of pinheads, and then abruptly one of them blew wide.

The thread stuck inside Sakura responded to his sudden distress - it writhed and twisted and shoved her away with no regard for damage or finesse. Kakuzu staggered back with one hand clutched to his face.

Sakura stayed on her side for a second. There was no breath to catch. Her lungs burned and her guts cramped and blood splattered generously across the dirt, across a tiny patch of bright flowers.

She could still hear Kakuzu over the frantic tripping of her pulse, though, and he was still moving. He hadn't stroked out. Or if he had, it wasn't enough to take him out.

Tenacious bastard.

Get up, she thought at her trembling limbs. Get up.

Her fingers curled in the dirt. They obeyed sluggishly, but they obeyed. Yes. Yesss.

She got one foot underneath herself. One at a time.

There was blood in her mouth, coming up her throat while her muscles and organs tried desperately to compensate for the wound that had gone straight through her.

Sakura stumbled back to Hidan's body.

He glared at her while she jammed his head against the stump of his neck - "There's fucking- hurghh, euch, stop bleeding into my mouth, that's gross -"

Then," she took a gasping breath. Her chakra was running low. Still, it didn't take much to pump a little medical chakra into Hidan's neck, "stop talking." How was he even doing it, anyway? She was struggling, and all she had was a sucking gut wound; he had no body.

"-fucking sand in my trachea, Sakura, you can't just - shit! Ow!"

"You do understand," she hissed in a ragged voice, "that if he wins we're going back to Orochimaru?"

"Are you - DOWN!"

She hurled herself forward gracelessly and heard the awful whistle of Kakuzu's threads sweeping over her head.

"Get off me," grunted Hidan. "We're not fucking going back to Orochimaru," he added crossly.

Sakura flopped over like a struggling fish on dry land. She tried to breathe but it was hard. Moving was hard. She was still bleeding. She wondered what would happen when she ran out of blood.

Probably nothing. Jashin-sama's blessing wasn't so easily thwarted.

Hurt, though.

One of Kakuzu's pupils was still grossly oversized. He looked... demented. He moved smoothly though, too smoothly for a man who'd just had what ought to have been a fatal stroke. He wasn't graceful, but he was quick and certain.

He walked toward them implacably.

Sakura was too injured to dodge and they both knew it.

She clamped her hand over the join of Hidan's neck. If she could just get him healed enough to fight, it wouldn't matter how injured she was. It would... She channelled healing chakra as quickly as she could, watching with increasing horror as Kakuzu came closer.

"That's what you get for underestimating your opponent, I suppose," said Kakuzu when he was in speaking distance.

"Come on," muttered Sakura, digging her fingers into Hidan's neck much harder than necessary. "Come on."

Kakuzu's shadow fell over them.

Shit.

Shit.

"It's a pity. You'd have grown into a big bounty one day." He might have thought it was a pity, but he certainly didn't show that: his face was blank and impassive, despite his mismatched pupils. "But I think even your religion won't be able to make a nuisance out of you once I've cut you into pieces and scattered you across half of Wind Country."

Sakura swallowed. She couldn't channel her chakra any faster. Hidan wasn't moving. Her ribs ached and she couldn't breathe, but panic set her nerves on fire and her head spinning.

Kakuzu raised one hand, black threads slithering out from his forearm. They hung, graceful and menacing in the air for just a second.

Then they sped toward Sakura.

She couldn't move in time. There was nothing she could do. She clenched her eyes closed.

There was a sudden, awful rush of wind and something with a fierce, burning chakra and -

An enormous voice interrupted her untimely dismemberment, bellowing and huge and wholly unexpected. "DYNAMIC ENTRY!"

Chapter Text

There was a green blur and a roar.

Sakura missed the moment of impact, but she felt the power of it rush past her. Kakuzu went flying.

His body hit a spindly tree. It snapped under the blow and Kakuzu rolled with his momentum. He rolled and stumbled and his voice rose in some indecipherable exclamation.

Konoha's beautiful green beast stood between Sakura and Kakuzu with his hands on his hips and a grim smile. His impressive eyebrows were furrowed together.

"G... Gai-sensei?" Sakura squawked, staring in absolute astonishment.

She wasn't sure who she might have expected less. Orochimaru, maybe?

He turned toward her with one thumb up, teeth gleaming in the light, and froze. His dark eyes landed on her bloodied torso and his expression shuttered.

"Put pressure on that," he said gravely. "I will try to make this quick."

And Kakuzu was getting to his feet again, a little off balance - from the clot in his brain, no doubt - but still kicking. He turned a glowering eye upon them.

His hands moved quickly through a series of seals -

"I won't let you," bellowed Gai, and he shot forward in a blur of green and orange.

His blow was a split second too late - Kakuzu skidded on the dirt but his skin was dark and hardened and Sakura could tell just looking that he'd taken very little damage.

Pressure. Right. Sakura lifted her hand from Hidan's neck and brought it to her own wounds instead. She wasn't sure that she wanted Gai-sensei to know how badly she was wounded, or how she was still alive...

That would require a lot of explaining, after all.

The green glow of medical chakra lit her fingers. She still didn't have the knowledge or the skill to properly heal anybody, but she could patch her wounds, close the obvious hurts. It would never work on somebody who could die from an injury, but Jashin-sama's blessing wold take care of the rest for Sakura.

While Sakura was healing, catching her breath and concentrating, Gai had engaged Kakuzu at close range. Kakuzu was good at taijutsu, a powerhouse of strength and speed and brutal efficiency, but Gai was...

Gai-sensei executed every move and motion with a kind of joy and an effortlessness that came from muscle memory. There was no hesitation, no moment of decision: just movement.

He made Kakuzu's taijutsu look unpolished and amateurish by comparison.

Sakura finished closing the hole where Kakuzu had impaled her through the stomach and moved onto the one in her shoulder.

Next to her there was a low growl. "Is he poaching my fucking fight?" Hidan rasped.

Kakuzu overextended a block that Gai's feint had drawn hin out of position to execute. Gai kicked him in the gut while he was just that little bit off balance and Kakuzu barely dodged the follow up strike to the face.

"Yes," said Sakura. She wasn't going to argue that one with Hidan, even though to her it was definitely more like a rescue than an unwelcome interruption.

She took her hands from her shoulder. It wasn't entirely patched but the bleeding was greatly slowed. It would do. Instead she reached for Hidan's neck.

"I'm running low on chakra," she warned him, taking a deep breath. "So you'll have to finish up on your own."

"We have got to do something about that," Hidan muttered, but his fingers twitched in the dirt. His body was responding to messages from his brain again; Sakura let go.

Her torso... hurt. It was a weird sensation, wounds closed on the outside while they screamed beneath the skin. She licked some blood from her hand - hers and Hidan's only, because for all that she'd tried hard to damage Kakuzu she'd never once made him bleed, and she felt the dim flicker of her god's gaze and wondered, idly, what that ritual would be like - and watched, pale and exhausted as Gai...

...well, Gai kicked Kakuzu around like a rag doll until he had the opportunity to disengage.

When he did, it was with a swift replacement with an earth clone, and then there was an enormous gout of flame and wind roaring toward Gai. Wind whipped at the dirt and the heat of it burned through the dry-hot air of the desert, licked at the hair on Sakura's legs. She squinted through the brightness of the fire. Was Gai-sensei-?

But, no; he'd evidently made it out of the danger zone, and there was an awful stony crack when his fist connected with Kakuzu's stomach - no damage.

"That earth technique..." muttered Sakura. She wasn't sure if she'd have to try intervening again. She wasn't healed enough. Her wounds were deep and they'd take their time.

"Cheap," Hidan said resentfully. There was a shifting at Sakura's back, an awkward croak and a cough, because of course Hidan couldn't possibly just wait to recover like a normal person.

Sakura clenched the fist of her good shoulder experimentally. "I haven't got the chakra to heal you again," she told him.

"I won't need it," he said, and rose to his feet.

She wished she had half his suicidal confidence, but...

Well, Jashin-sama did tend to provide, especially when it came to the suffering of others.

A short distance past, Kakuzu wrapped his long dark fingers around a lightning bolt and hurled it at Gai. How many elemental affinities did this one man have?

Sakura flinched when she saw Gai's leg go out from under him, Kakuzu approach, and -

Hidan picked his way indelicately over Sakura, gave a bright, cheerful cry and launched himself back into the fray. There was an explosion of dirt and dust, a chunk of earth that came loose from the ground - a glint of sunlight from metal. Something went clang.

From inside the dust and dirt came Hidan's laughter, shrill and rusty like a broken hinge.

When her view cleared she saw Kakuzu, with his back to a tree, braced to hold a kunai between Hidan's sickle and his face. Kakuzu's teeth were bared and his eyes were moving between a carefully limping Gai-sensei and Hidan with blood on his neck and in his teeth.

"Kakuzu!" yelled Hidan into his face, "You're mine!"

Kakuzu's expression was strained but not impressed. "You're careless," he said, and his eyes drifted to Sakura for a split second. She tensed, tested her muscles - she could reinforce them with chakra and dodge, she thought, but she'd be running on fumes. "Without that healer..."

But then he was looking at Hidan again. A second later, a shaft of black threads punched through Hidan's stomach and tore their way out through his back, splattering blood across the dirt again. "...you'd be dead."

Hidan's expression didn't even twitch. Sakura could see the shift of the threads impaling him when his muscles tensed. "Don't give me that shit," he growled.

Gai moved in a blur, turned and feinted and came flying with his good foot aimed at Kakuzu's head - and both Kakuzu and Hidan disengaged with a curse and a cry of protesting steel.

"What the fuck," Hidan snarled, whirling on Gai, and -

The sound of screaming birds rent the air.

Lightning struck.

Sakura's heart leapt into her throat. Was that -? The light seared her eyes and she couldn't quite see, but -

Kakuzu staggered. The light dimmed, encased inside his body.

And Kakashi was right behind him.

His lightning cast a flickering shadow, streaming ugly monstrous silhouettes against the dirt all around them. His eye whirled, red and black and red and black and -

She looked away.

"That technique," he said in a voice soft enough that Sakura had to strain to hear it from her position on the ground, "it's an earth jutsu, isn't it?"

The noise Kakuzu made was more like a croak than a word.

Sakura breathed, inhaled the smell of battle. Where before it had been like carnage as she knew it: meat, all rusty and raw, now it smelled like...

...cooking meat, basically.

She was kind of hungry, actually.

"Hatake... Kakashi," said Kakuzu through his teeth. Blood dribbled over his mouth.

"Oh?" murmured Kakashi.

He let the lightning dissipate.

Kakuzu toppled, hit the ground, slumped.

He did, Sakura thought, a rather good impression of being dead.

"Nice," said Gai-sensei, flashing him a glinting smile and a thumbs up. Kakashi looked down at Kakuzu's form, eyes grim, tired - bored.

There was suffering there, something thorny and tangled. Sakura licked her lips. Her head was full of music and exultation, of some awful violence. Kakashi was, in his own way, almost as beautifully broken as Itachi. His eye skimmed over Gai, over Hidan, and landed upon Sakura.

The eye widened. It felt like a hairline crack in his boredom.

She met his eyes and shivered. The god of suffering knew him, wanted him, would welcome him. Sakura licked her lips. Her tongue felt weird on them, dry, tasting tacky and bloody - Hidan's blood, she could taste it, but...

For a moment she wanted it to be Kakashi's. She wanted his blood on her mouth, her hands under his skin. She clutched her arms and stared at him from the ground and wondered how he'd look once she'd taken him to pieces.

Her killing intent unfurled for an instant, high and potent on the air. It was just enough to distract them - all of them, even Hidan, who glanced over at her - from Kakuzu for a split second.

That was when he lurched from the ground, twisted, and flung himself away across the desert. He was fast.

Then - "Shit! Get out of the fucking way," Hidan snarled. He didn't so much go around Kakashi as he just barrelled forward and plainly expected that Kakashi would not be between them.

Kakashi sidestepped out of the way. His hair shifted in the air of Hidan's passing.

"KAKUZU!" Hidan bellowed as he gave chase. "GET BACK HERE, YOU STINKING PIECE OF HEATHEN SHIT!"

Sakura contemplated following him but - she'd catch up. If nothing else, Hidan was extremely easy to track. The screaming and swearing certainly helped in that regard.

There was a quiet pause in the wake of Hidan's screaming departure.

Kakashi's eyes were still on her.

"Sa..." Kakashi's voice was weird, full of a hard emptiness where she was used to hearing something lazily cheerful. "Sakura?"

She rubbed one bloody hand over her aching shoulder, still sluggishly bleeding. "Kakashi-sensei," she said, feeling suddenly and inexplicably very, very awkward.

"You're alive."

Sakura supposed he had every reason to sound incredulous. In a situation where both Sasuke and Naruto were dead, or as good as dead, well... Sakura wouldn't have bet on her own survival, either.

She shifted uncertainly on her toes.

Despite having wanted very much to see ninja from her own village again, maybe even especially Kakashi, she... sort of wished Hidan hadn't raced off. Hidan was... well, he was definitely a good buffer.

Sakura's mind raced. There was something she needed to ask - she swallowed. "Is Ino alive? Is she okay?"

Kakashi nodded once. "She's - we left her and Nara Shikamaru at camp when she felt the chakra disturbance." He looked up, and Sakura followed his gaze.

A bonecrusher, grim and ugly but terribly hardy, glided low and lazy overhead.

There was no moment of connection, no way to tell what was inside the bird's little skull, but -

Kakashi waved at it, and the bird gave a low, long cry, dipped and winged away again.

Ino.

Sakura felt abruptly and inexplicably like crying. She blinked her eyes hard and swallowed. Ino was okay.

"-kura?"

Sakura clenched her fists, and the pain of it reminded her that her shoulder was still badly injured. She looked back at Kakashi. "I'm glad. I'm just... really glad," she said in a trembling voice.

"Your enthusiasm does you credit, but those wounds need pressure," Gai-sensei reminded her, turning away from the direction in which Hidan and Kakuzu had run.

"The blood's not all mine," Sakura assured him, even though, well - an awful lot of it was. "Hidan was injured. I've stopped most of the bleeding now."

Gai's huge brows furrowed. "I did think he was more grievously wounded than he appeared when fighting. ...to fight on after such grievous injury..." He stroked his chin thoughtfully. "Your companion must have a great deal of passion for this fight in his heart!"

Sakura was used to the part of her brain, a tiny corner colonised by and dedicated to Jashin-sama, making judgments about the suitability of each and every person she met as a sacrifice, plotting out deaths, showing her messy violence when she closed her eyes -

Although she was used to all that, even that strange corner of her mind didn't seem to know what to do with Gai.

It was silent.

Unless "okay but green spandex?" was a thought attributable to Jashin-sama, instead of to Sakura herself. She doubted it, but Jashin did work in mysterious ways.

"Passion," Sakura said, thinking of the glee with which Hidan killed, of his wild screams of joy and exultation and his boundless, murderous energy. She thought of herself, drunk on murder beneath a swollen moon.

"You could say that," she said slowly.

"What happened, Sakura?" Kakashi asked, urgent and just as pleased to change the direction of the conversation. "After the Ichibi - Gaara - fought Naruto -"

It had been weeks since Sakura had thought of Naruto, and her stomach gave a horrid and guilty lurch to think of him now. She swallowed bile. Kakashi was still talking and she was missing it.

"-tracking Naruto, but nobody could find your body after Sasuke's defection. You were presumed dead."

And wasn't that revealing? Naruto and Sasuke. Two big assets to Konoha: the nine tails and the sharingan. And then Sakura. Presumed dead. Had they looked? Had they even tried?

Part of her knew she was being unfair, terribly so - they couldn't have taken time to look for one lone, unimportant and missing genin when the whole village was burning. Casualties happened. And her chances of survival were...

But she had survived.

"I wasn't dead," she said, trying to pull back on the strain in her voice. She had no good reason to be angry at Kakashi. The situation was difficult, war was difficult; there was very little he could have done, and -

He still hadn't covered his sharingan. One eye was grey, the other was like looking into hell. She blinked away.

"I wasn't dead, Kakashi-sensei," she said, and swallowed hard, staring at his masked chin. "But you didn't look. You didn't track me."

He had tracking dogs, for Jashin's sake. She'd seen them in action. Even tiny Pakkun could follow Sasuke's trail through an obstacle course of jutsu fire and explosions. Hell, one of Kakashi's dogs had been with her when she'd gotten knocked out in the fight with Gaara.

She couldn't read his expression, but there was a distinctly grim twist to his mouth, something cynical in his grey eye. "Sakura..."

"I'm sure you had other priorities," she interrupted. "I know you did. But -"

"I'm sorry," he said, stiff and grim and - terribly sincere, for all of that. "You're right. We... we prioritised Naruto, and then Sasuke." She could hear the soft creak of his gloves, even though his movements were too careful to really see when he clenched his fists.

Part of Sakura wanted to reach out, offer comfort - parts of her understood precisely what had happened. The village had to come first. The fox was important. Sasuke was the last sure carrier of the sharingan; he was important. Kakashi had prioritised the good of the village, and that was as it should be.

But the thing was...

That should never have represented a conflict for him.

The thing was, Kakashi was also their jounin sensei, and he was supposed to prioritise his students. There were plenty of other jounin who could have been given the job of looking out for them - but only one Sharingan Kakashi. With a numb detachment, she came to the abrupt understanding that Hidan had been so right all those weeks ago - although not in the way he'd thought.

Kakashi was a very valuable ninja to the village. With Tsunade and Jiraiya gone, Orochimaru defected, Hokage-sama dead - he was like a queen on the chessboard. In crisis, he would be the only person who could fill certain roles - a big name, recognisable on the front lines, one red eye. He was known. He was important.

In times of peace, he was just - barely - an adequate minder for a team of genin. In war...

"They should never have given you a team," said Sakura quietly, ignoring his flinch. "You were always going to have to decide some time."

She saw, this time, when he moved: swallowed, blinked too fast.

"I was with Orochimaru," she said, breaking away from the intimacy of the conversation and pulling herself together. Professional, she thought, taking a deep breath. "Sasuke-kun's body has been possessed by that man, but he struggled to control his mind, I think. By hurting me, he said he could subdue Sasuke faster."

She paused. "I understand Itachi-san believes there is a way to remove him from that body," she added, more for completeness's sake than anything else.

Kakashi seemed to hear everything she said, but he was fixed upon one point in particular. "You were with Orochimaru? For - how long?"

Now he was looking at her, past the shock of recognition. His eyes flickered. Scars, scars, scars and bones pressing against her skin. She wondered if he saw that all her scars were older ones now.

Sakura shrugged. She'd lost track of time. It felt like years, but it was probably only a few months. "I'm not sure."

"And you - freed yourself?"

She stared at the curve of his mouth through his mask and wished - oh, she wished - that she was more rational and less angry. Less bitter.

"Nobody else was going to," she said.

Then Sakura blinked. Blurry-eyed again, unshed tears again. She couldn't tell if they were anger or grief.

"It's funny," she said, unable to stop her mouth, unable to drown out her thundering heart. "I wanted to see you so badly. You and Ino and - anybody," she broke off with a thick, watery laugh. It took her a few long moments to stop it, and even longer to stop it from turning into sobbing. "And now you're here and I'm just... tired."

Tired and crying, apparently. She put the heels of her hands in her eyes like she could stop them from leaking through sheer pressure. They caused spots to appear behind her closed lids, but nothing stopped the red-faced, snotty-nosed crying.

Kakashi shifted uncomfortably. "Sakura-" he stopped there, even though nobody interrupted, and the only sounds were those of Gai muttering to himself as he tightly strapped on a compression bandage.

"It's fine," she said stubbornly in that silence.

"Okay," said Kakashi.

For a second she was extremely grateful that he hadn't pushed.

Sakura turned away. She didn't want to sit around and cry where Gai and Kakashi could watch her, so she went to the house, scrambled over the verandah railing and headed in, listening for the sounds of the old woman.

It was cooler and dark inside, and she didn't see or hear any sign of the old lady. That was fine by Sakura. She didn't go looking. Instead she leaned against the wooden wall, sank slowly to the floor and closed her eyes.

Her hands were shaking, but that could be post-fight adrenalin.

A gasping sob went all the way through her. It jarred her injuries and somehow that just made her cry harder.

For a few moments there was nothing but the sound of breathing and tears.

Just as well that the old woman had fled when she'd gotten the chance, or hidden herself away. Sakura took a deep, shuddering breath.

"I'm so fucking sick of crying," Sakura choked out, although nobody seemed to be there to hear her. She slammed her fist into the wall beside her. The house shuddered and dust drifted from the roof.

"Just breathe, you idiot," she muttered. In and out. She'd be fine. It was okay.

Sakura distracted herself with new thoughts as best as she could: she wondered if Hidan would need her to put him back together again. She hoped not, because she was out of chakra and she was sick of feeling useless.

There was yelling outside - Hidan, because Gai never sounded like that and Kakashi didn't really yell - and then stomping feet and a door slamming.

"Oi, Sakura!" He called out.

"Here," she said tiredly. "Did he get away?" A ritual would have taken longer.

Hidan made a disgusted noise and tossed Kakuzu's cloak to the floor. "Threw it in my face and ran, the coward," he said. He looked livid.

Sakura frowned. "I'm sorry," she said, sincerely. Kakuzu had been two hearts down and bleeding, and Sakura was sure - she was sure - that Hidan could have taken him, if he'd used his brain for three minutes instead of charging in like an idiot.

Hidan clicked his tongue and spat on the old lady's floor. "Whatever. We'll catch up again some time." There was a serious and really unpleasant determination in his voice.

Sakura's lips curved a little. Hidan had a way of making her feel better, somehow, even when he was all bluster and rage. "I hope I'm there," she said.

He rolled his eyes. "Where else are you gonna be, huh? What are you doing hiding in here anyway?"

She shook her head. "Kakashi-sensei-"

"That grim bastard with the lightning, right? Not the weirdo in the spandex?"

Sakura snorted softly. "No, not the weirdo in the spandex." She wondered if Hidan had just not mentioned the sharingan or if he had actually not noticed it. "I don't know, it's... I wanted to see him, but then... he said they thought I was dead, but they didn't really look, and..."

In truth, she'd held out hope while locked away in Orochimaru's cells. She'd wanted somebody to rescue her. She'd hoped against hope that somebody - Naruto, Kakashi, hell, anybody - would come to help.

But nobody had, because nobody was even looking.

She'd known it, on one level, but Kakashi's quiet apology confirmed it. And it hurt. How was it that something she'd already known could feel so... painful? She rubbed her injured shoulder, feeling the tackiness of drying blood.

Hidan favoured her with an impatient look. "You sound confused."

"I am confused," she admitted.

He kicked her in the knee, hard enough to bruise but not to break. "Ow! What the hell, Hidan!"

"You moron. Did you forget about our goal here? You think we're traipsing through this fucking desert for fun?"

She blinked. "What? No."

"Good." He grabbed the front of her shirt and hauled her to her feet. "We got a lead on Orochimaru's trail, didn't we?"

She thought of the monster at the outpost, the dead man with his shredded chakra circulatory system. "Yes?"

"So what next?"

She blinked once more, and then - it was like she found a way to shove everything to the side. Clarity descended upon her. Sakura felt her shoulders relax. "We keep following it. And when we catch up, we'll kill him."

Her lips curved.

That was the ticket, really, wasn't it? No thoughts of betrayal, no confusing misplaced resentment, no bitterness or soft vulnerable places.

She was getting stronger, moving swiftly toward her goal, and Jashin-sama was watching. Hidan was by her side, fierce and tenacious and relentless like a force of nature.

Track. Hunt. Kill.

Her heart steadied. "Thank you," she said, with absolute sincerity.

Hidan's eyebrows rose. "For what? Come on, idiot, you can't hide in the dark here forever." He let go of her clothes and shoved her gently - well, gently for Hidan - back toward the door.

The sunlight felt hot on her face.

"Yo," said Kakashi, outwardly relaxed, looking from her to Hidan and back. He'd covered his eye again and looked lazier and so much less dangerous with that one small change.

Sakura's stomach twisted, but she put on her blankest face. "Yo," she said right back. "We're moving out pretty soon," she added.

An uncomfortable expression flickered through Kakashi's grey eye. "You should come back to the camp with us," he said.

Next to her, Sakura felt Hidan stiffen.

"Come back?" she repeated, feeling slow and stupid. "With you?"

"I don't know exactly what you're doing out here, but I can guess... you don't want to be a bounty hunter. It's... not a good life."

There was a small, resentful part of Sakura that began to bubble hysterically that now was the time Kakashi thought it was a good idea to dispense teacherly advice. Now. After-

She shunted that bitter thought to the side. "I'm not a bounty hunter," she clarified, because she felt like it was the only part of that comment she could really address.

"Missing nin, then," he said, like it was pretty much all the same. He nodded toward Hidan's forehead protector, which clearly had a strike through it.

Sakura's fists clenched, and now she was angry enough to ignore the pain of her injury. Kakashi's face changed until all she could see was an empty socket where the grey eye should be: a new face, hard and masculine, tears of blood. Suffering whispered to her.

She exhaled carefully, but she knew Hidan had felt the same thing from the soft thrumming tension of him right behind her. She licked her lips.

"Don't forget," she said to Hidan, glancing sideways to meet his eye. It took her a moment to draw his fascinated, hungry gaze from Kakashi's face. "You wanted to move out soon."

He blinked once, slowly. "I could put it off," he said, smiling lazily.

She clicked her tongue. She had no way to explain to Kakashi how he was wrong and no way to de-escalate this once it became a fight.

Kakashi looked relaxed and lazy but Sakura thought he was pretty wary for all that. "I can't," she informed him. "But thanks."

She turned to leave and found Gai-sensei standing in her way.

"Konoha is weakened," he said solemnly, "but that does not mean we tolerate traitors. It grieves me to see a young student of my rival go down this path."

Sakura's eyes drifted toward Gai's injured leg. That was a big handicap - and Kakashi had been using both the sharingan and the chidori, so his chakra was probably at half capacity or less. She licked her lips.

"Don't be stupid, Sakura," Kakashi said. There was no inflection in his voice, just weariness and a kind of resigned ache.

Kakashi hadn't seen Hidan fight, not really. Not properly. He wouldn't overuse the sharingan unless he had to, and Hidan could certainly make him bleed before then - and then Jashin-sama would take care of the rest. She dismissed that encounter: unless he was colossally stupid, Hidan would win.

Sakura looked at Gai and wondered how he was with genjutsu. She'd have to find out. The embers of her chakra stirred, preparing. She only needed to keep him still for a moment. He didn't have five hearts.

Kakashi was still talking, low and careful, like he could somehow defuse the situation before it came to blows. "You know you can't do this. You've always been a Konoha-nin and you won't make it alone anyway."

"She's not alone," Hidan pointed out, deceptively mild, but he flashed his teeth at Kakashi and you didn't have to be very close to see the blood stuck between them. In his hand, his scythe whirled through the air, whistling cheerfully. The bright sun glinted from it.

"Hmm," said Kakashi neutrally.

Gai shifted his wait, expertly accounting for the injury. His face was very serious.

There was a beat of silence, and chakra rose in the air, potent and deadly.

Into the middle of this dropped Uchiha Itachi. He came from his perch on the roof of the old lady's house to land between the parties.

He moved like a shadow, nothing but light and colour: there was no sound, no shift of chakra, no sense that he'd been there before. He was simply there.

Everybody was very, very still.

He turned to Sakura. "This fight will have to wait," he said tonelessly. "I have-"

"What the fuck. Who the hell do you think you are, Uchiha? You can't just come in here and call off the fight." The day had evidently caused Hidan a great deal of stress, because he was quickly working his way up from 'angry' to 'mouth frothing apoplectic rage'.

Itachi paused, half-turned toward him, and let him talk.

"You who disregards the suffering of others God shall smite and upon your death shall you know fear, shall you know agony, and in the final moments -"

"Shall you be given unto him, our Jashin-sama, God of Suffering and Bringer of Agonies, and he shall embrace you," Sakura finished for him, touching his arm gently. "Hidan. Hidan. You know our goal. You know Itachi-san shares it. And you know," she added, very quietly, "that he knows suffering. That's why Jashin-sama thinks he's beautiful. But we can't achieve our goal if we get stuck fighting Itachi-san here."

She was sure Itachi, at least, could read her lips - his eyes were red and spinning, and there was no way he wasn't catching everything. The others - well, she wasn't sure. Her voice certainly wasn't loud enough to carry, anyway.

Hidan clenched his jaw, and she could see the very great effort it took for him to disengage from his rage. "Don't fucking quote scripture at me," he muttered. "It's condescending."

She could feel and understand Hidan's frustration. He was tired and sun burned and he'd sweat and been hurt and lost Kakuzu out in the endless desert. And now Itachi had come to interrupt what would probably have been a glorious sacrifice.

"I'm sorry," she said, and found herself surprisingly sincere.

Hidan took a deep breath and spun on his heel to stalk away and collect their packs.

Itachi, who had remained silent to let him finish his outburst and to give her time to calm him down, then continued as though it had never happened: "I've found a way to reverse Orochimaru's technique."

"Ah," said Sakura.

Sasuke.

Chapter Text

Sakura's thin exhale fell heavily upon the air. There was nothing to interrupt the silence that followed.

Sasuke. The word was in her mind, but it hung there less like a name and more like a prayer: a focus, a mantra.

"You're sure?" she asked after a moment's tense hesitation.

Itachi didn't seem irritated by the question, even though he probably wouldn't have come to them unless he was sure. He nodded. "I'm sure."

"You're tracking Orochimaru?" Kakashi said, not even bothering to try for a casual expression. Gai glanced sideways at him, something significant in the look, but Kakashi ignored him.

"I am not," said Itachi, but he looked to Hidan - and then, strangely, dismissed him and looked straight to Sakura. "Have you had any success?"

Sakura stared at him for a second, feeling strung out and exhausted.

There were a lot of feelings, all of them overwhelming, few of them pleasant. She was still tense for a fight, but...

No, she was pretty sure that Gai and Kakashi-sensei wouldn't try to take on Hidan and Itachi, not both at once. Her contributions would be pretty much insignificant at that point. It would be a slaughter.

She clenched her jaw and shunted her feelings off to the side. She could feel the tension of Hidan's muscles right next to her, even as he rubbed his injured neck and stretched like he hadn't a care in the world.

"A little," she said slowly, trying to avoid looking at the Konoha nin. "We ran into a - an experiment, I suppose." She described the encounter with the strange ninja in as much detail as she could remember, which was actually quite a lot. Kakashi and Gai were right there, and she didn't know Gai well enough to tell but Kakashi was definitely paying close attention.

Itachi nodded slowly.

"We've already ruled out Rock, but given the state of the man's chakra coils, I think he escaped or was released - a few days ago, at most," she said, running her hand over her shoulder almost without thinking. Her fingers teased the bits where there was still a great deal of damage beneath the skin. The ache was dull and strange. Unnatural.

"The two of you are also here tracking Orochimaru," Itachi said, impassive and inexpressive, as he glanced over at Gai and Kakashi.

Sakura could see Gai stiffen slightly under his green spandex, but Kakashi's response was more difficult to judge - although from the way Itachi continued, he must have noticed something. "You have the Yamanaka girl out here possessing birds, which means long-distance scouting. And you are two of the most powerful ninja Konoha still has to offer," he pointed out as though it was precisely that obvious. "You're in the same location as Hidan and Sakura, who I know to be doing the same."

He stopped there, waiting, a moment for somebody to correct him. But nobody did. Sakura chewed her bottom lip uncertainly. It made sense when he put it like that, but she hadn't thought of it.

...Hadn't been thinking at all, actually. Never once had she questioned what they were doing out here. She'd analysed the fighting, but she hadn't used her head for anything else.

It was all feeling, no thought. Even when she'd been ready to go toe to toe with Kakashi and Gai, she hadn't even considered defusing the situation with a common goal, hadn't even contemplated negotiating.

She swallowed a curse.

Itachi wasn't looking at them, but Hidan shifted his weight next to her. She looked sideways at him. He raised his eyebrows. She shook her head.

Hidan might not understand, anyway. In many ways, Hidan had the luxury of intellectual laziness. Sakura just wasn't strong enough. She couldn't afford to be stupid.

"-Yamanaka's scouting will be an advantage," Itachi was saying, flat and certain of himself, clearly having come to some conclusion of his own. "Sakura-san and Hidan have done enough leg work to tell her where not to search, and I have the sealing array necessary to evict Orochimaru from Sasuke's body."

"So we'll get there faster if we work together," said Sakura, feeling wearier as she tried to tease apart her scattered thoughts. She, of all of them, couldn't afford to stop thinking. She wasn't strong enough. She would love to see Ino, she thought, but she was ambivalent about spending more time with Gai.

"It would be best to have Kakashi-san there, too. He has more experience with sealing arrays and I will be better capable of matching Sasuke's sharingan than any other while we distract him."

Kakashi's eye was wide. "Sasuke, he -" he stopped.

Gai was frowning. "He did not defect?" he said, raising his huge brows.

Itachi stilled. Sakura thought he looked almost... puzzled, but it was hard to tell. His face gave nothing away and his body language was - feet planted flat, hands unclenched by his sides. Neutral, too neutral, which meant wary. He tilted his head minutely. "Orochimaru has taken up residence inside his body. It is-"

"Ugh," Hidan spat, interrupting. "Enough! This is fucking stupid. Are we going or not?"

"He's right in that Ino will be able to help us find him much faster," Sakura said, although she certainly felt much the same as he did right then: unhappy and ready to be on their way, off doing something more productive.

In this case, 'something more productive' would be retreating from the uncertain company of the Konoha ninja and resting until they had recovered from their injuries. Still, the opportunity to use other people's resources to get to Orochimaru was... pretty tempting.

And Ino.

Sakura shoved that thought away. She'd fed her own emotional instability quite enough for one day.

Hidan made a noise of towering disgust. "So if we don't work with them, they'll get there first?" he demanded.

Itachi turned to look at him with an expression of muted surprise - eyebrows raised fractionally, one slow blink of his dark eyes.

Sakura wanted to analyse that pause, that surprised expression, but she met his gaze for a moment and found herself looking into the face of her god, misery and suffering and -

No. No, no, no. She grit her teeth. Stop it.

For a hot, overwhelming second she was digging her hands into his skin, breaking the surface and tearing deep, revealing things underneath. It would be like pulling apart pieces of a fruit:tearing soft flesh, juice on her chin. Jashin-sama painted the walls of her skull red and dripping, promised her pained whimpers, gasps; a screaming crescendo and a choking finish.

For that moment, she met Itachi's red, red eyes and knew: she could make him sing.

"Um," said Sakura.

She swallowed. It felt like there was sand in her throat.

She dropped her eyes from Itachi's, trying to ignore the burning under her skin.

"Pretty much," she agreed, but Hidan was smiling at her - a grudging expression, the twist of a corner of his mouth, a bright spot in his aggravation, but genuine - and she knew they had all felt the swell of her chakra, heavy with violent intent.

She wondered if it felt anything like Hidan's.

Sakura chose not to look in Kakashi's direction. If it did, she didn't want to see it on his face.

"Is it the sharingan?" Itachi murmured.

Without knowledge of the sheer potency of Jashin-sama's attention, of his blessings and needs, Itachi had clearly tried to pinpoint her motive and... come to the conclusion that she'd seen eyes just like his, staring down at her, while Orochimaru took her to pieces in the silence and reek of his dungeon.

It was a better explanation than the truth. She nodded.

The compromise was tense, but they all eventually agreed to follow Itachi's plan - even though Sakura was quite sure neither Gai nor Kakashi trusted Hidan or Itachi in the slightest. And from the looks she was getting, it seemed like maybe they didn't think she was very trustworthy, either.

The camp wasn't that far, to hear Gai tell it, but the approach felt interminable. Sakura's injuries, closed but not yet fixed, were troubling her. She stayed so close to Hidan she felt actually sort of pathetic about it.

Gai-sensei kept glancing at her and shooting Kakashi significant looks from beneath his huge brows. He was downright scary in a fight but subtlety was not really his strength.

Kakashi was, predictably, much harder to read. Sakura picked out differences and changes in him - no book, worn gear, lost weight - and tried to make them useful. Mostly, she figured, these changes were a product of the invasion of Konoha. It had to be hard on the senior jounin.

Even Hidan was mostly silent - an unhappy silence, which set Sakura's teeth on edge. An unhappy Hidan was not a quiet Hidan, but this one was. Sakura bumped his shoulder gently with hers.

He bumped back, harder, and didn't look up from his contemplation of the terrain. Sakura clicked her tongue and after a moment's consideration, elbowed him. Hidan looked up with a furious expression, but she just raised her eyebrows and nodded toward Gai and Kakashi, who were having a very one-sided conversation, low-voiced and hard to decipher.

Hidan followed her gesture with his gaze and then spat. "You know that Kakuzu's fucking trail's going cold while we follow these heathen assholes around?"

Sakura blinked. She'd been... she'd been so caught up in her own pain that she'd undervalued Hidan's. Hadn't even thought about it. "Shit," she said, feeling an acute wash of shame. "Shit, I'm sorry. I didn't..."

There wasn't a lot she could do to make that right. She slowed her walking pace, wondering - did she ask if he wanted to go back? Did she...

She didn't know.

"Ahh," he sighed loudly, stretching his joints and tucking his hands behind his neck. "It's fine. Orochimaru's more important, I've just..." A wistful pause. "I've really been looking forward to showing that fucker the true meaning of suffering. I can't believe we let him get away."

Sakura frowned, wondering how much of that had been her fault. She'd gone after Kakuzu with the mentality that he was much stronger than her and she had to take him by surprise and end it fast - that was why she'd ended up using her new medical chakra technique. But now she wondered if the fight might have gone very differently if she had used something that would've drawn blood and then bound him to Jashin-sama's ritual.

That idea stung a little. She sent up a short, silent prayer - an apology. She might have deprived Jashin-sama of the tribute he deserved, yes, but even more than that: she hadn't put her faith in him.

And why not? Did she not believe in suffering?

Some days she believed in nothing but suffering.

"I'm sorry," she said, with feeling. Learning never ended, she supposed. She hadn't been thinking clearly today and she wouldn't make the same mistake twice. She sighed.

Thwap.

Hidan smacked the back of her head.

"Ow," said Sakura, more for form's sake. The pain of jolting her injuries was a lot worse than the actual impact of his smack.

"Don't be an idiot," he growled.

Sakura nodded, and figured that was that. She was proven right when Hidan began to whine obnoxiously three minutes later. It made her lip curve into a poorly suppressed smile, even as she rolled her eyes at some of his stupider complaints.

Sakura looked sideways and wasn't surprised to see Kakashi watching her. He was hard to read with most of his face covered, but Sakura thought he looked almost as uncertain as she felt. She allowed herself to think briefly of what might happen if she did return to Fire Country with him.

Long talks with Intel. Capture, Torture & Interrogation protocols at the hospital - if they had one. Feeling weak and overlooked. Oh, Kakashi wanted her to return now but she thought that as soon as she did he'd be back to reading porn in the corners and ignoring her. And nobody was likely to deal well with her making offerings to her god - not properly, anyway.

She'd be... secure, though. Konoha came with the promise of a safety net, of somewhere to call home and publicly funded medical care, among other benefits.

Sakura shook her head. It was all moot, anyway. She wasn't...

"Sakura!"

Sakura jumped at the shout.

And then, suddenly, all she could see and smell and hear was home, was streaming pale hair, strong arms around Sakura's shoulders, a faint familiar herbal smell. She felt Hidan go tense beside her but then she registered Ino, actual, in-the-flesh, real Ino, and she brought her own arms up automatically and clutched at her for dear life.

Ino.

"Ino," she whispered in a low, hoarse voice that barely sounded like herself. She pressed herself tighter and breathed her in. It was a mantra in her head: Ino, Ino, Ino -

"Sakura."

She released her. Ino's huge blue eyes were shiny and huge. They were pretty like that. Ino was pretty, in general, although she had changed a bit. Sakura looked her over, drinking in the differences. They weren't dramatic, but they were there. She was a little harder, a little more calloused, more muscle tone, less shine on her hair. She moved with purpose, even sweating in the sun and with dirt under her nails.

"Come on," Ino said quietly, and she was examining Sakura carefully with her eyes, "Shikamaru's been cooking - it's the chore that requires the least movement, the lazy bum - and you look like you could stand to put on some weight."

And then she took Sakura by the arm and drew her into the camp.

Sakura glanced back at Hidan, but as far as she could tell he was busy picking a fight with Itachi. He'd jabbed one finger into Itachi's sternum, quickly going red as he snarled into his face, and Itachi was looking at him with the wary readiness of a cat. She didn't fancy Hidan's chances.

Probably better not to get stuck between those two, though.

"As long as it's not rice porridge," she told Ino, only half in jest, as she was led to a carefully controlled little fire.

True to Ino's announcement, Shikamaru was labouring - for a certain value of labour - over the pit, making occasional adjustments to their apparatus so the smoke dispersed before it rose high enough to be obvious. It was strange to see him: older, grimmer, but still the same person.

Ino prodded her to sit, and Shikamaru's dark eyes flicked toward her.

"Sakura." He paused, shifted uncomfortably, like she'd surprised him by still being alive. Or perhaps by being here, in camp. Or maybe it was how she looked. She didn't know him well enough to tell.

Really, it could have been pretty much anything.

"Don't say it like that," hissed Ino, reaching out to poke him meanly in the ribs. "He's happy to see you," she told Sakura firmly, in a tone that suggested that Shikamaru had better be happy to see her.

"What?" He blinked. Then, sighing, he clicked his tongue. "It's good you're okay," he said, edging a little further away from Ino and her pointier extremities.

"Surprising, though," Sakura said thoughtfully.

He grunted something that sounded like agreement. "We were pretty sure you were dead."

So she'd gathered.

"It's okay," she said, looking back at Ino instead. She had no idea what to say. Her words stuck in her throat and her voice wouldn't make any noise, but she - she grabbed Ino's hand and clung on.

"It's not," said Ino.

Sakura snorted softly. "I surprised myself, too."

There was a moment's silence.

Then Ino got up, strode to her pack and dug around in it for a second, leaving Sakura puzzled and a little worried that she'd upset her already. She looked to Shikamaru, who was studiously focusing on something that smelled like dehydrated vegetables and desert cat in a pot.

Ino returned. She knelt next to Sakura right by their fire pit, and carefully she took her hand. Sakura's hands were thin, bony but strong and very heavily scarred.

In it, Ino put something.

Something silky.

Red. And... metal.

Sakura's eyes burned. "What..."

The plate of her forehead protector had been attached carefully to her old red ribbon, the same one Ino had given her when she had been tiny and frightened and so, so unsure of herself.

"You didn't surprise me, Sakura," she said, curling Sakura's numb fingers around it.

Sakura looked back up at her face. Ino's eyes were bright and fierce, and even when she noticed Sakura's attention on her, she didn't waver.

"Have you been carrying this the whole time?" Sakura asked, voice trembling, almost frightened of the answer.

Ino's fingers dug into her wrist. "I knew that when I found you, you'd want it."

Sakura clenched her fingers around the metal hard enough that her knuckles turned white. For a blind moment she was overwhelmed.

"Thank you."

Ino met her eyes fearlessly. She wrapped both of her hands around Sakura's, the red ribbon between them like a promise.

She lifted her chin, proud, fierce - so terribly Ino that it stole Sakura's breath. "Always."

Chapter Text

"You're filthy," Ino said a few moments later, breaking the moment with extreme prejudice. "When was the last time you bathed?" She made a face at Sakura.

Sakura peered down at herself, causing an odd and unpleasant pull in her shoulder. She was caked in a mix of blood, sweat, dirt and sand. She'd bathed earlier, after they'd decided to take Yamada in for the bounty, but it was hard to tell just looking at her.

"There was a fight," she said, heaving a sigh. "But if you've found water somewhere-"

"Please, Forehead, this is Wind Country," Ino rolled her eyes. "I have a sponge and a bucket."

Sakura hesitated, glancing over her shoulder at Hidan. He didn't look away from his argument with Itachi - which was escalating in volume on Hidan's side - but he waved one hand in her general direction.

With Itachi, Gai and Kakashi all hovering around, it wasn't that surprising that Hidan was paying more attention than usual to his surroundings. It was still good to get that confirmation though. She felt... raw and on-edge, nervous of her injury, unsettled with Ino so close. Knowing that Hidan was close by and paying attention was strangely comforting.

"I'll take it," Sakura said, flashing Ino a weak smile.

Ino was sharing a tent with Shikamaru, which seemed like a terrible combination right up until Sakura contemplated the other possibilities. The Konoha-nin had large but finite water supplies. Sakura sat quietly while Ino filled a large wooden bucket from a handy scroll. She looked at Sakura and wrinkled her nose. "You can use it after I'm done," she said firmly.

Honestly, she'd gotten so used to being dirty that she'd probably have gone to sleep like this if Ino hadn't pointed it out. The prospect of using Ino's bathwater, when the worst Ino had was a gentle sheen of sweat from the Wind country sun, was hardly offensive. She'd bathed herself in much worse than that.

Sakura sat with her back to the shift-and-slither sounds of Ino undressing, listening for the splash of water and the annoyed muttering of Ino trying to reach all angles.

"So," Ino said in a whisper. Tents weren't good places for private conversations but Ino's voice was low enough that Sakura strained to hear,. Certainly nobody outside would be able to read her lips. "What happened, Forehead?"

That was the question, wasn't it? It was hard to even know where to begin. A lot had happened, a lot had changed, and Sakura struggled to order the events in her own head. The inside of her head, she thought wryly, was one of the things that changed.

"Orochimaru took over Sasuke's body," she started. It's more or less the beginning, and information about Sasuke was always able to capture Ino's attention. She knew shed been right when she heard her make a soft noise of surprise and dismay.

Sakura listened to the sounds of Ino scrubbing her skin and told her the bones of the past months. She told her gently, carefully, about Orochimaru. She didn't want to hurt Ino with the details, didn't really want to show her the scars.

The thing was, Ino was... not that different to what she had been. Maybe she was a little older, a little harder and rougher around the edges, but she was still Ino. The invasion had sharpened her but not changed her.

Sakura hesitated over every word, picking them carefully and thoughtfully. What did Ino really need to know? Did Sakura need to describe the carvings in her skin? The feeling of somebody's fingers touching her insides? The torturous exercises in humiliation while Orochimru watched?

No. She... no.

There were still soft parts in Ino, and Sakura felt the urge to protect them if she could.

Ino didn't need to hear it, and frankly Sakura didn't need to discuss it.

And then: "Sakura," Ino interrupted, sounding achingly sad and very tired. "My father is the head of T&I."

She hadn't forgotten, but - Well. Maybe she had. Temporarily. Ino was a ninja as well, for better or worse. She was a different kind of ninja, maybe, but a ninja. Ino had more insight into what went on upon a torturer's table than most ninja of their generation.

Stupid. Stupid, stupid. "Well," Sakura said, rubbing her face wearily, "I guess you know what that was like, then."

Ino touched her shoulder, fingers damp from the water. "I think so," she admitted softly. "And you don't have to tell me about it if you don't want to - but, Sakura. You should know that I know."

Sakura clenched her jaw. "He cut out pieces of me and made me watch," she said flatly, and probably a little too loudly. She wasn't sure what was going on in the camp proper, but she didn't doubt more than one person had heard. She ignored that and looked at Ino instead.

She was partly dressed, clothes sticking awkwardly to her damp skin, but it didn't seem to bother her much. "He cut some - something, I don't even know what, nothing vital but... something. I was so hungry I ate it."

Ino's expression was blank and flat, and Sakura stared into her face like she could force an emotional response out of her by sheer will. She wanted - horror, disgust, fear, rage. Something. For a second, she wanted to shove her just to make her react.

That was absurd and cruel. Sakura took a deep breath. It had been a very, very long day. She closed her eyes for a second.

And still Ino gave her nothing. "That sounds bad," she said at length. She must have been bewildered, Sakura thought, but she didn't show it easily. A fine actor, was Ino.

"It was. He's in Sasuke's body, though, so -" And now Ino winced, an ugly twitch of her lips and a coolness in her eyes, and Sakura nodded tiredly.

They traded off, Sakura stripping off and sponging down her filthy skin. Ino had left the water looking almost clean, but it was brownish by the time Sakura had cleaned her own face. She

"What then?" Ino asked in that same low voice. "Come on. Tell me."

Sakura sighed. "He captured Hidan," she said, feeling a weird little smile cross her mouth. That time was a nightmare, but meeting Hidan probably saved her. Even if she, personally, might have escaped when Itachi attacked, she would have wavered without him. Hidan had shown her purpose.

Even as she thought that, Sakura knew she wasn't going to tell Ino much about Hidan. There were things that formed fundamental parts of Hidan that Ino would never accept, and even aside from that, telling one ninja too much about another was rude and dangerous.

Despite this she still wanted her - needed her, in a way- to understand. So she told Ino about Hidan's immortality, about missing legs and Itachi's terrifying break in. She told her in the lowest of whispers about Jashin, about the comfort he brought her, about suffering and piety - but not much. Not much at all.

Sakura wasn't stupid. Ino didn't - couldn't - grasp a lot of the ideas and Sakura knew it. So she didn't mention it, because there was no point. Ino would be horrified by the prayers, by the rituals, by their bloody benedictions.

Jashin must have sounded distant and blandly academic from the account she gave Ino.

Jashin-sama's gaze didn't land on Ino the same way it did on Itachi or Kakashi. She knew suffering, but it wasn't burned into her in the same way. Sakura didn't bother trying to teach her about it in theory - suffering was learnt through experience, or not learnt at all.

It was good though, to tell Ino the things she could understand. Ino was a constant in Sakura's life: a rival, a friend, an antagonist and a protector; they'd performed a binary orbit around one another since they'd been old enough to talk to one another. Sakura had missed Ino a lot more than she'd missed her team or her parents.

When they left the tent the sun was drifting toward the western horizon, and Hidan and Itachi had stopped arguing at some point - although Sakura couldn't see any blood stains. Miraculous.

Itachi was sitting in silence some distance from the fire, engaged in a very one-sided conversation with Gai. Hidan was stalking the perimeter of their tiny camp, apparently caught between restlessness and... more restlessness.

Sakura caught his eye and raised her eyebrows. In response, he made possibly the least mature face she'd seen him make. That was really saying something, considering how Hidan had the emotional maturity of the average two year old. Sakura smiled. It was tired but genuine.

"That forehead protector," Shikamaru said, voice a slow drawl, breaking into the voiceless conversation between them.

"Eh?" She turned to him, and only then did she realise that Shikamaru had been watching Hidan intently. She bit her lip. It stood to reason - Itachi was a known variable to Konoha nin, but Hidan was something entirely new.

From the corner of her eye, Sakura saw Hidan stiffen. He hadn't wanted to discuss his old village before, had he? She rubbed one hand over her slow-growing hair, soothed by the short fuzzy feeling.

Shikamaru cracked a yawn and idly poked at the food he was cooking. "Mmm. It's from Hot Water. They demilitarised their village years ago... It's a hot springs resort now, isn't it? More profitable, I heard."

Sakura felt a pang of combined anger and bewilderment. The phrase that wanted to come out of her mouth was what the hell?! which indicated to her that Hidan's habits were rubbing off kind of a lot. "They did not," she said, horrified.

It was an awful blasphemy. Fighting, struggling, suffering and death; they were the only things people had in common, their only shared points of connection. It was the only truth for ninja at all. And for their whole village to abandon them like that -

"Did all the ninja leave?" she asked, quiet and horrified.

It spoke to how far she'd gone that she felt her own twist of revulsion, gut-deep and vile.

She glanced sideways at Hidan.

He scowled fiercely, flushed, and looked away. "Something like that," he muttered, digging in the sand with his toes.

"Whoa, really?" Ino interjected. "Maa, lucky," she muttered, tilting her head back and sighing. "I'd love to visit a hot springs resort," she said dreamily.

Hidan stared at her with an expression of abject disgust. "Those heathen cowards were more interested in money," he spat, and there was that pure, towering contempt for currency again, "than in honouring the suffering of their own people. You think that's lucky?"

Sakura winced. She felt, briefly but overwhelmingly, very embarrassed about her friend.

Shikamaru and, more distantly, Kakashi, had both looked up, watching Hidan like he was finally doing something interesting. The looks made Sakura uncomfortable, made her belly tighten and clench in ways that had nothing to do with her slowly-healing injuries. She wasn't sure what it meant, but she didn't like their attention on Hidan.

"Sure," shrugged Ino. "But our village got burnt down. I'd take the hot springs, personally."

Shikamaru snorted.

"Your village," Hidan bit out, as though it was physically paining him to comment, "suffered. Its shinobi died fighting. Jashin-sama will honour their spirits after death." One of his pale hands was tugging on the cloth wrapped about his neck, moving the metal plate of the forehead protector so it glinted. Sakura wasn't sure he knew he was doing it.

Ino eyed him. She was tense, in that way that only ninja and wild animals got: coiled, tensed, ready to spring and flee. She wasn't the only one. With deliberate nonchalance, Ino leaned back on her hands.

"Sure," she said slowly, "if that's what you wanna believe?"

"It's the truth." Hidan's eyes, already that strange reddish pink, looked positively unholy in the firelight.

Ino glanced at Sakura. "Is that...?" Normal, Sakura filled in mentally. She clenched her jaw. She'd just told Ino about - well. No. She hadn't. She'd censored so much. It was little wonder that Ino hadn't understood.

It was a moment there, a decision that felt weighty and terrible, but - but Sakura had already made it. She'd been ready to throw down against Kakashi and Gai earlier that very day, to commit to staying with Hidan, maintaining their current course, even if it meant fighting. Fighting, and probably losing, considering their opponents.

Sakura'd practically announced her allegiance aloud with that, and she'd already told Ino the bare bones of - everything, really.

She might as well own it.

"He's not wrong."

It hung in the air for a second, the end of the sentence hard and flat, wrong, wrong, wrong, loud in the encroaching darkness.

A breath, soft but audible. The fire crackled.

"Too many people died in the invasion for you to make that call," Shikamaru said. He wasn't loud, but there was a coolness in it and a conviction that was hard to deny.

"You have no idea what you're talking about," Sakura snapped at him. "They died well. There are worse things than dying on your feet."

Shikamaru's face was expressionless, but there was something hooded and suspicious about his eyes and - there was that feeling again. Suspicion, wariness, a nervous clenching in her guts. Bile and uncertainty. Sakura felt the hair on her arms rise, incongruent in the warmth of Wind Country.

"Sakura," murmured Ino, looking at her with wide, unhappy eyes.

With every appearance of idleness she could muster, Sakura stretched her fingers and rubbed her healing shoulder. Then she got to her feet, no sudden movements. She brushed her hand over Ino's shoulder when she stepped past her.

Hidan scoffed, clearly audible from where she joined him at the edges of the camp. She had drawn such a clear line in the sand without even trying. Her stomach felt tight. This was not a sustainable arrangement.

"These fuckers aren't even worth sacrificing." Hidan wasn't even trying to keep his voice down. Ino twitched, and clearly she'd heard. "Are you sure you wanna stay with them?"

Sakura sighed. No, she wasn't sure. "They'll get there quicker," she said instead, and if Hidan's answering expression was incredibly smug, well, he'd probably earned it.

She clicked her tongue. "Sorry about your village," she muttered.

He gave her a foul look and spat in the dirt. "I'm not. Fuckers."

He clearly was, but - Sakura really did not need to poke and prod at every wound just to make sure it still bled. She shook her head. "Okay."

They didn't move out at nightfall, or even close to it, and the tension and wariness in camp just got worse as time wore on. Shikamaru served up dinner: a nutritious soup featuring the gamey flesh of a desert cat, and Hidan ate it without a care in the world. Sakura - and certainly Itachi - knew precisely why he was so unconcerned about the possibility of added substances, but it was an obnoxious degree of arrogance to the others.

Sakura made a point of taking the bowl Shikamaru held out for Ino with a smile. She carefully tasted her food, left it in her lap for twenty minutes while she chatted with Ino, and then upon determining no deleterious effects were forthcoming, ate it slowly.

The food helped her heal faster, in the way that warm sustenance always did, and by the time dinner was done, the sky was dark and starry.

It was Itachi who came from nowhere to say, "We're not to move out?" He set himself beside Sakura, so that she was stuck between him on one side and an increasingly restless Ino on the other.

Nobody seemed happy to have him there.

"No," said Gai. "Our youthful companion will scout first! We move out when she has a bearing." He flashed Ino a thumbs up, which she just looked at tiredly.

Itachi glanced at her.

Ino looked away before they could make eye contact.

If that bothered him, he didn't show it - but somewhere behind them, Hidan laughed. It was a mean, brittle little laugh, and it made Ino's shoulders tense up.

"I'll start soon," she said. "I just wanted to eat first." She held up her bowl defensively, as though she could ward off not just Itachi's scrutiny but his actual presence with it.

Itachi looked at her for a few more long seconds. Then, softly, "By all means."

Sakura recognised it. It was exactly the same tone he'd used when asking Sound ninja where he could find Orochimaru and before he'd set them all on fire. She took the risk of looking at him, because as scary and messed up and wrong as Itachi was, he had no real reason to hurt her with his gaze right now.

His eyes were black and flat. He blinked and looked at her, and Sakura felt a wave of profound covetousness. There was something buried in him that made her whole body light up and sing, made her brain burst into screams of pain and victory.

"Jashin-sama would love you," she said quietly, unable to help herself. Ino shifted uncomfortably somewhere beside her. "He'd take such good care of you."

A tiny spark of life flickered behind his eyes. "That is less comforting than you might imagine, Sakura-san."

Was that humour? She couldn't tell, he was so blank and quiet. She shook her head and looked away. Any attempt to sacrifice Itachi to Jashin-sama would have to wait. That was all right. He was eternal; he could afford patience.

When Ino finished her dinner she shot Itachi one last wary glance and got up to do her thing. In this case, her thing involved flinging her mind into the body of a dozing bird. She woke it and sent it winging into the night. Shikamaru stayed with her, keeping a careful watch over her body. If his careful watch looked a lot like dozing that's probably because it was a lot like dozing.

"We rest until midnight," said Kakashi, finally looking up from his book and addressing Itachi. "Ino will give us a direction when she finds one, and we'll travel until dawn."

It was only sensible to rest in the shade during the hottest part of the day and travel at night, so Sakura found herself nodding. There was an odd tension in Itachi's body when he responded similarly - she supposed he was eager to get to Sasuke, to see if he could help.

She hoped he could. It was a distant hope, but... Honestly, she wanted to kill Orochimaru, not Sasuke. She wondered what Jashin-sama would make of him, though. Clan dead, life focused on revenge, possessed by Orochimaru's unholy intellect? She couldn't muster more than a vague curiosity about Sasuke alongside her desire to cut Orochimaru's tongue out and choke him with it, but... she did hope that Sasuke survived. She did hope he would be well.

Her thoughts of Sasuke were hopeful but very detached.

Shikamaru dozed, and Gai-sensei looked like he was asleep but there was no way to really tell.

Kakashi had eschewed even the appearance of rest and was reading his dirty book by the firelight, pages tilted to the glow.

Neither Itachi nor Sakura looked even a little bit like they were getting any sleep that night. Itachi's voice was quiet when he looked toward her and said, "I know it seems impossible, Sakura-san, but you'd be safer if you stayed with them - and Kakashi-san would be a significantly more appropriate teacher in the long run."

Sakura sighed. This again. "Itachi-san..." She paused, swallowed, and hardened her resolve. If Kakashi was rude enough, or paranoid enough, to be reading their lips, let him hear her. "I learned more from Orochimaru than I did from Kakashi-sensei."

Itachi's expression turned closed off and distant. "I see."

"Hidan is... for all his flaws," Sakura began, and this phrase attracted his attention again - there was that spark, just a tiny hint of life in him, and Sakura couldn't help smiling. "For all his flaws," she repeated with markedly more warmth in her voice, "he never ignores me. He gets annoyed and he becomes frustrated and he's amazingly rude. He - he's not what you'd call a patient teacher, or even a very good one. But he won't let me fall behind."

Itachi sighed softly. "He has no skill for any of your talents," he said, but it seemed to be his last objection.

"Well... you do. You're a genjutsu expert," Sakura said, raising her eyebrows. She gave him her most winsome smile - which, considering her many scars, skinny body and the ugly-duckling regrowth of her hair, was probably more frightening than winning.

Itachi got to his feet. "Not today, Sakura-san," he said placidly, and left to run a restless perimeter check. Kakashi watched him go with one dark eye.

Sakura wondered if she'd at least amused him, and then she wondered how much of their conversation Kakashi had been privy to. If he'd heard them, he didn't show it.

Hidan wasn't exactly quiet, walking up behind her, so she didn't twitch when he braced both hands on her shoulders and leaned over her head. "You and your fucking genjutsu," he complained.

Sakura rolled her eyes up toward him. Hidan looked tired, but she knew that with only a few hours rest he'd be bright eyed and bushy tailed and ready to take on the world - possibly literally. The benefits of immortality.

"It's useful."

"It's boring." He dropped down next to her, large and warm and probably too close. Kakashi watched them, his single eye intent upon Hidan even as he flicked through that stupid book. "Are you going to sleep?"

She gave him an incredulous look. In this company? No. No she was not going to sleep. Not even if he was standing over her like a mama bear. Any one of the ninja here was a terrible danger if they caught either of them off guard, with the possible but indefinite exception of Ino. Sakura wasn't even going to blink too often if she could help it.

Hidan seemed to have no such concerns, because he shrugged and slumped over, dropping his heavy head atop her thigh. "Fuck, you're so bony. Move your foot."

Sakura ignored the flakes of dried blood in Hidan's hair - as though she wasn't going to get dried blood all over her at some point in the near future anyway? - and shifted her foot, although she doubted it would help much for comfort.

He set about putting her leg to sleep with the weight of his stupid brainless head. He fell asleep within the next fifteen minutes. Somehow. Somehow. Further proof that Hidan hadn't the sense most birds were born with.

It wasn't quite midnight by the time Ino released her jutsu and shuddered and groaned awake, eyelashes fluttering madly.

"I know where he's been," she muttered, rubbing her face wearily. "Although I can't find where he is yet."

"Stands to reason," Kakashi said, getting up and stretching his legs. He went to the tent where Gai was theatrically snoring and toed him in the foot, prompting an explosion of limbs and sudden wakeful bellowing.

"Jashin fucking wept," complained Hidan, voice low and completely coherent from the vicinity of Sakura's lap. "Shut him up."

"I'm pretty sure that is him being quiet," Sakura muttered back. Somewhere behind her she could hear the familiar sounds of Ino kicking Shikamaru awake.

Hidan popped his neck, his shoulders, one elbow and every knuckle getting up, making satisfied noises as each joint gave a hearty and faintly disconcerting crack. "We ready?"

Sakura buried the fire pit and looked around while Shikamaru, being the one who hadn't been scouting or waiting up, joined Gai in breaking camp.

Then they set off at a run.

Hidan, of course, bitched about the pace.

Ino, also of course, bitched about Hidan. And the pace. And, briefly, the lacklustre etiquette of desert birds.

Kakashi ignored both of them. He seemed more interested in keeping an eye on Ino. She was clearly tired from her previous exertions and the pace was wearing on her quickly.

Gai unironically congratulated Hidan on his enthusiasm and dedication, and offered to race him when their mission was discharged. This actually went a long way toward shutting Hidan up. Gai did tend to have that effect on people.

Shikamaru moved without talking, as though talking and running simultaneously was way too much effort. Sakura got the distinct impression that Shikamaru felt he was just killing time with minimum energy expenditure between naps.

And Itachi... he flickered at the edges of Sakura's vision, swift, shadowy and absolutely silent.

For a change, it was actually an easy pace for Sakura. Hidan's running her ragged had improved her speed and stamina, she realised. She just hadn't noticed because he kept changing the pace to match.

They stopped and set up their own shade beside the dubious shadow of a rocky rise when the sun hit the horizon and began to warm the desert again.

"You need some sleep," Hidan rolled his eyes. "If you don't get some at some point you'll feel shit when we run into Orochimaru. You know it, Sakura. Don't be stupid."

And, yes, okay. She did know it. It didn't make her relax, but he knew he was right.

This time under Hidan's relatively - probably selectively - watchful gaze, Sakura lay curled with Ino beneath the shade of a two person tent. Shikamaru slept huddled at Ino's back, silent except for an occasional buzzing breath - not quite a snore, not quite an inhale.

If they spoke, he could probably hear them, but it didn't seem to faze Ino. She whispered very quiet questions to Sakura anyway. What had really happened? What had she missed? She gripped Sakura tightly and breathed into her neck, fingers feeling out the dips and bumps of her ribs where she clung.

"Tell me," she demanded finally, in a fierce whisper so quiet Sakura almost didn't hear.

Sakura clenched and unclenched her hands, ignored a restless shift from Shikamaru. Under her fingers was Ino's warm skin, faintly sticky with the day's heat. They'd be quick to overheat like this but... it was good to be close, good to feel her real and live under Sakura's hands.

It was so hard to reconcile this feeling, to make it work with the way her whole world had reshaped itself. Sakura worshipped suffering, and when she fell asleep with her arms thrown around somebody, it was Hidan - Hidan, no softness, no shocking tenderness in his fingertips. He shoved or poked, elbowed or smacked, but never would he have counted her ribs and worried about her.

She shifted uncomfortably under Ino's hands. "Shh," she whispered, but she acquiesced nonetheless: her fingers tapped out familiar code on Ino's arm, careful but precise. Ino responded in kind and together they closed their eyes to listen more closely to the soft touch of fingertips.

Finally, Sakura told her. She told her about measuring time by counting heartbeats, about the taste of her own bile on Orochimaru's shoes, about the dark and the gnawing hunger, the chill, the terrible rice porridge; she told her about Hidan, about Itachi wreathed in smoke and black fire. She told her about the relief that was knowing Jashin, about putting on a dead woman's clothes and walking straight back into the scene of her own torment.

She told her about carrying Hidan's body, about how inured she'd become to bodily fluids and pain. How they'd left a sparse trail of dismembered legs across the country. About how angry she felt, how numb and broken and bitter she was - she gave it up, clung tightly, told Ino everything she dared.

She told her about cutting off Kabuto's head, about the ritual, about Jashin's blessing tattooed behind her eyelids and singing in her bones.

Ino listened, frightened and sad and Sakura could feel her balk. There were places where she didn't even want to think about what had happened, places where Sakura knew she'd completely lost touch with reason or conventional morality.

I'm not sorry. Her fingers tapped too hard, hands shaking.

She wasn't. That was the rub: she was expected to be, and she wasn't, and - she was sorry for that.

"It's okay," whispered Ino. If her mouth hadn't been pressed, lips trembling, to Sakura's shoulder, she'd not have heard that quiet, sad assurance.

You're not coming back, are you? Ino's fingers asked.

Sakura hesitated.

After a second she tapped it out, clear and careful: no.

Ino's grip tightened, but she didn't reply and she didn't cry.

Instead she shared her own story, and spared no secrets. Asuma was dead, laid beside his father. Chouji was hospitalised, burnt from the inside by the terrible burden of his clan's chakra pills. Iruka, supportive, beloved teacher and martinet of the mission desk, was comatose, wasting on a liquid diet, and not expected to wake.

Ino told her about Jiraiya's unexpected visits, drop-ins and outs; how he came bearing seals and strange information, new intel at every turn, laughing and relieving tension as he drifted in and out of the survivors' camp.

She told her about Tsunade showing up out of nowhere, months too late to help with the fighting but a godsend in the aftermath. Apparently Tsunade was beautiful and terrible, formidable, powerful: wrath in a pretty package. And so terribly angry.

Inoichi had been injured badly in the invasion, lost a foot even with Tsunade-sama's intervention, and Sakura could feel the fine trembling in Ino's fingers when she told her, tap taptap tap, fingers drifting over her pulse. It was painfully clear that Ino fought with the shame of her relief - her father would never be a field ninja again, never. Nobody would make him fight except as a last line, and with his skill set he would still do useful, meaningful work without that danger.

Sakura took a deep breath, thought of what she wanted to say: knee-jerk protest, cruel recrimination. He'd rather die standing! She held her tongue, because what she wanted could not be what everybody wanted. Perhaps Inoichi was relieved, too.

She doubted it. Somewhere beneath her ribs, Sakura was certain that only cowardice made Ino shiver with relief. She thought it would have been better to grieve.

Sakura held her tongue, stilled her fingers. There wasn't any call to say it - Ino wouldn't understand and Sakura wouldn't convince her.

Jashin-sama, she wondered, is it wrong to avoid conflict because the truth will hurt her? She remembered Hidan saying, once, that Jashinists had few precious people. Was this why?

No answer was forthcoming, but then she hadn't really expected one.

When she slept, Sakura dreamed of red eyes and white snakes, and she woke calm.

Chapter Text

Almost a day together didn't really build trust, but it did offer everybody enough time to hit a wall. Even a ninja struggled with keeping up such a high level of paranoid alertness for more than a day or so. Hidan had enough stamina for two or three people and Sakura thought he could probably go longer - but he'd obviously simply chosen not to be concerned.

Sakura wished she could make that same choice, but she didn't have that luxury - or, to be honest, that level of emotional control. She couldn't switch her anxiety off. Even now, feeling calm after her nap in the shade with Ino, she was still very aware of all the people around her, and found herself cataloguing sounds and chakra signatures without even noticing.

She heard Itachi's footsteps when he approached Kakashi, which meant he was going out of his way to be heard. Heaven knew he could be pretty much dead silent when he wanted to. She glanced over at them.

"You have significantly greater experience with sealing arrays," Itachi was saying, soft and polite as always.

Kakashi made a humming sound of assent.

Sakura listened with half an ear as they discussed their plan of action and how they might use the seals Itachi had researched and uncovered to affect Orochimaru's control of Sasuke's body. It sounded as though Itachi's research had taken him back to basics: he'd had to locate the seals Orochimaru had based his technique upon in the first place.

Itachi clearly viewed his skill in fuuinjutsu as rudimentary, but Sakura wasn't even entirely sure what he was talking about - and she was good with obscure and esoteric knowledge. Some of the terms rang bells from long-ago discussions about storage, but even then they were used in ways she didn't understand.

There were other things to focus on, anyway. She wasn't going to understand that conversation, and honestly she was more worried about how quickly Ino seemed to be tiring - and how quickly Hidan seemed to be losing patience with their stop-start pace.

Even Sakura was feeling restless - she'd spent more time sitting around in the past day than she had since the ritual that had blessed her with immortality. She wasn't even fatally wounded this time. Even the injuries from her fight with Kakuzu had mostly recovered - they knitted faster with something to hold them in place, she supposed, prodding carefully at her shoulder. It gave an unhappy twinge, but it was nothing like yesterday's wound.

Still, even at this pace, they were making better time with Ino scouting than they would have been with Hidan and Sakura racing around the desert aimlessly, hoping to catch a trail.

"Are you going to be all right?" she asked Ino, although her mind was half-there. She could feel Gai-sensei doing a walking perimeter of the camp, chakra banked but still just barely noticeable to her senses, hear Shikamaru sigh and get up to join Itachi and Kakashi for planning. Hidan was trying to sleep but his chakra was agitated, even to her unreliable senses. She could hear the soft drone of his voice as he tried to concentrate on prayer.

"I'll be fine," Ino said, leaning casually into Sakura's shoulder. There was no agenda there, nothing difficult or complicated: she liked touch, so she touched. "The mind-body transfer technique takes more effort and chakra than people like to think. And scouting can be hard - the distance is makes it more difficult. Still, it's probably the best way we've got, short of getting Neji or somebody out here."

Neji... the boy who'd injured Hinata and fought against Naruto in the chuunin exams. Sakura remembered him vaguely, a shade of a past life haunting her mind. She doubted the Byakugan would be much help in finding Orochimaru at these distances, but maybe she was wrong.

Gently, Sakura patted her shoulder. "Rest up," she suggested, getting to her feet.

She was surprised, and a little annoyed, to discover that there was only so much of Ino's company that she really wanted. She cared about her deeply, and found that hard to adjust to - especially when Ino seemed so hopelessly naive in so many ways. There was a part of Sakura that wanted Ino to understand her the way she had when they were younger. That instinctive closeness was lost to suffering, and Sakura was simultaneously resentful and pleased that Ino could not understand her.

Now the only person she felt that with was Hidan. And Jashin-sama, of course. The feeling was more acutely isolating when she was surrounded by familiar faces like this. When it was just her and Hidan, there hadn't been a lot of comparison.

Sakura thought she might have preferred it when Ino had been a thought in her mind, an idealised concept of home.

The real Ino was somewhat more complicated than the memory of her.

Instead of dwelling on that, Sakura headed closer to where Hidan was muttering to himself with his eyes closed.

She waited for him to stop praying and then toed him in the ribs. One of Hidan's pale hands shot out from his side and snatched her ankle. It was her weaker one, and it gave an unhappy twinge.

"Mm?" said Hidan, without opening his eyes.

"We're going to be out here for a while," she said, tugging on her leg until he gave her ankle back to her. "I don't want to practice taijutsu because they'll watch," she admitted quietly.

Hidan heaved a sigh and opened his eyes. Clearly he hadn't missed the implication there: that Sakura thought they might have to fight the Konoha nin once they were done. She ran her hands anxiously through her hair.

"But I think this is the most time I've spent resting since we left Orochimaru's base," she admitted. Resting was a diplomatic term. She hadn't actually spent that much of her time resting.

Hidan scratched his thumb across his nose. "And it's boring as fuck."

She agreed, although she might not have put it quite that way. She felt restless, like her limbs were housing fire ants. She wanted to run, to move. And she wanted to find a sacrifice. The longer she went without, the more appealing it seemed to pick a fight with Kakashi or Itachi. Either would be a beautiful sacrifice for Jashin-sama.

From the frequency with which Hidan glanced toward Itachi, he was having similar thoughts. That didn't bode well for longterm cooperation.

Hidan heaved a sigh. He hesitated for a few long seconds, and then made a disgusted noise. "Alright, I've got a genjutsu for you," he said, sounding extraordinarily put out.

Surprise and glee combined together made Sakura squeak happily. "Really?"

He gave her an annoyed look. "You don't need to sound that excited. Anyway, it's stupid and it won't help at all against the sharingan. Still want to learn it?"

Sakura nodded without even a little hesitation. The genjutsu she knew were a weird bunch of multipurpose but low-level techniques: false surroundings, hell viewing, binding. She was pretty sure she could adapt them all into something useful. Besides, Hidan thought all genjutsu were stupid, so...

"Show me."

He mumbled something unflattering, as though he hadn't been the one to offer in the first place. Then, "Fine. I'm warning you now, though, this is the only other illusion I know."

Sakura wasn't the least bit surprised by that. In fact, she rather wondered at Hidan knowing two of them to start with.

He didn't bother standing up - instead he ran through four hand-seals, just slow enough for Sakura to pick them up if she was paying careful attention. "Illusion: Art of a hundred flowers," he murmured.

She could feel the flex of his chakra this close, and when he released the technique -

- his image peeled away at the edges, bleeding into the sky and the earth as it dissolved into a whirl of sand and air.

"Huh," said Sakura. His chakra was all around her now. It was impossible to sense where it was coming from with only her sensory skills.

On the other hand, they were sitting close enough that she could feel his body heat, even if she couldn't see him. He hadn't moved at all.

"It's visual only?" she said, reaching out carefully and laying a hand on his arm. After a second's silence, she flared her chakra just enough to break the illusion's hold. It was actually surprisingly resistant - the simplicity of the technique gave Hidan a lot of leeway in holding it against her attempt to break it. In a combat situation, with somebody who was better at genjutsu in general, she thought it might actually have been easier to work around the illusion than to break it.

"It has a lot of weaknesses," he said, flopping back down to the sand. "But it's the sort of thing you'd use. Can't be seen, come out of nowhere. You know. Boring stuff."

That was true, aside from the 'boring' bit. And once Sakura had a better handle in controlling her chakra-enhanced speed, it would make her seriously hard to detect and work around - hearing her would be one thing, catching her? Quite another.

"...why do you know a technique called art of a hundred flowers?" she wondered.

Hidan was basically the least flowery person she'd ever encountered. Ever. And the technique had involved exactly zero flowers, anyway.

"I spent some time with a kunoichi who knew it," he said after a second. "It's supposed to be done with flower petals, but she adapted it for paper. I was travelling with her while she was adapting it," he added, rolling his eyes.

Sakura hummed thoughtfully. Then, after a second of mentally reviewing what had happened, she said: "So you just... blanket the person, basically? It's not like the false surroundings technique, is it? There aren't any tethers, but then you're not really using a geographical area..." she rubbed the scar on her jaw thoughtfully.

Carefully, she ran through the seals and cast the illusion the way she thought it ought to be done - less like a blanket and more like a lasso, if she was thinking about it in metaphor like that. Her chakra needed to... whirl, sort of, spin around her target so she could confuse their senses, hide herself, and approach unseen. It was almost intuitive, actually.

Sakura could see when it took hold, because Hidan's eyes were tracking something that plainly was not there. "Yep," he agreed, and reached out to poke her in the side.

"It's easy," she said, delighted.

"Its a C-ranked genjutsu," said Hidan indifferently. "Of course it's easy."

Sakura dropped the technique, then cast it again. After another couple attempts, she could cut it down to three hand-signs, which made it faster too.

After her fifth effort, Hidan was starting to become very annoyed with her disappearing before his eyes. "Sakura..." the tone of his voice was a warning. Much more and he'd probably be at her throat.

Grinning but dropping it, Sakura glanced over at the camp proper. It looked like Shikamaru, Itachi and Kakashi had finished their genius-level strategy meeting and gone their separate ways. Itachi and Kakashi were difficult to read as always, but Shikamaru's expression was grim and Sakura didn't think it had gone that well.

She'd have to catch up on what the plan was, she supposed, although she found herself feeling pretty unconcerned about its actual content. As long as she and Hidan got to kill Orochimaru, it didn't much matter. Saving Sasuke would be something of a bonus, but she could take it or leave it.

She could see that at some point Ino had levered herself out of her nap and settled back down to scout in the indifferent shade of a rock. Gai was sitting across from her, watching over her body like a very bright guardian beast. She looked more peaceful than she probably was.

They wouldn't be moving out for a while, then.

With a sigh and a stretch, Sakura slumped down to the sand next to Hidan, trying to ignore the intense heat of the desert. It was burning, but her skin recovered startlingly fast these days.

Instead she thought about the new technique. Its major strengths were in obscuring an enemy's vision and being simple enough that the user could adapt it quickly to the target's chakra output, making it extremely difficult to break free of. The weaknesses were manifold: the user could be heard, smelled, touched (and presumably tasted, although Sakura wasn't sure when that would become relevant). It was short-range, too.

Still, Hidan adapting it to the sand suggested to Sakura that it could be adapted pretty easily... although she wasn't sure if that meant it was using her perception directly. Could she force people to see flower petals instead of sand? What about the petals of flowers that only she knew? Would stimulus generalisation make the target think of petals they knew, or would her imagination take precedence? Yin techniques could be strange about how they took information and transmuted it into action...

It was an interesting enough problem that it caught Sakura's attention for some time. She considered asking Hidan for more details, but she thought the chances of him actually knowing were pretty slim. She'd have to test it sometime - maybe when Hidan was in a better mood. He'd probably let her try it if she asked right after a sacrifice.

"...I bet you could make it look like a lot of different things," she said finally, after too long a silence. "And you could hold it against a lot. You could hide explosive notes in it, too, with wire - I wonder if there's a way to make it silent without compromising its flexibility?"

"If you wanna figure out how to adapt genjutsu, you're on your own," Hidan told her flatly.

"Well, if you'd teach me ninjutsu..." she trailed off leadingly.

"Not until you last ten minutes," he said without even opening his eyes.

"I lasted ten minutes against Kakuzu," she pointed out.

"Bullshit," he snorted. "As soon as he took you seriously, Kakuzu served you up on a platter. Besides, the deal was lasting ten minutes against me. Kakuzu would never win a straight-up taijutsu fight against me. That stupid fucking stone-skin technique of his is such bullshit," he grumbled.

Sakura thought about that for a few long seconds. "It really is," she agreed finally. "I guess you don't have a lightning affinity?"

Hidan scrunched his nose. "Not lightning." He didn't tell her what it was, and when she looked up she noticed Gai watching them past Ino's slumped form. He looked uncharacteristically serious, huge brows furrowed and eyes intent.

Sakura licked her teeth and fought not to shift closer to Hidan. Gai had been wary of her ever since that first confrontation, and she didn't like his attention. She'd only seen a very little of Gai's hand-to-hand skills, but... well, she'd seen him fighting Kakuzu, and she'd also seen Lee fighting in the prelims of the Chuunin exam. He'd fought like a monster, even using no ninjutsu at all.

She didn't want to have to fight Gai.

She shifted her attention to Itachi, who was perched on a rock, still as a statue and staring at nothing. "Did you come up with a plan?"

He looked at her impassively for a second. Then, "I am better suited to matching the sharingan. Kakashi-san has more experience with sealing, so he will complete the seals while we distract Orochimaru. Nara Shikamaru's shadows will be helpful there. Yamanaka seems to think there must be a base somewhere in the area, because our scouting reports show a pattern of resource-gathering. Would you agree?"

Sakura tilted her head. "I think so. The specimen we saw most recently wouldn't have survived long outside of captivity, so it would make sense if he didn't have too far to travel."

"We can move out as soon as she wakes, then," Itachi said, and returned to his still watch over the camp.

"Creepy fucker," Hidan muttered from next to her, and he didn't seem at all concerned that the only person who wouldn't hear him was Ino. Itachi didn't even twitch, which Sakura supposed was good evidence in favour of his point.

He was a little... off.

Ino took less time on this occasion. She blinked awake, took a deep breath and said: "I found it."

Everybody looked up, alert and wire tense. Beside her, Sakura could feel Hidan vibrating with energy, uncoiling and ready for conflict. She could feel a shiver of the same anticipation up her own spine.

"Let's break camp," said Kakashi, and rose to his feet.

Ino was the only one who didn't pitch in to help with that, giving her a short time to recover her chakra after her efforts with long-distance scouting. The bearing she gave them once they started moving wasn't many degrees different from where they'd already been headed.

"It's not that far."

"Fucking finally," said Hidan, launching himself forward with a much-too-energetic whoop.

Gai bellowed out a laugh. "Your enthusiasm does you credit, my young friend!" And he raced forward in a green blur to keep up. He did it easily, and she heard Hidan's annoyed growl at being accosted. Kakashi loped grimly on, keeping pace behind Sakura, Ino and Shikamaru as a kind of rear guard.

"Sakura-san," said Itachi softly, dropping back to fall into step next to Sakura, "please make sure Hidan doesn't try to kill him before we reach the base."

"He won't."

Itachi looked dubiously at her.

Hidan wanted to kill Orochimaru, badly, and Gai wasn't even an appealing sacrifice. He'd prioritise. She didn't have any way to explain this to Itachi, though, so she just shrugged. "Besides, if they want to kill each other, I'm not getting between them."

That was prevaricating a little. If Hidan lost his temper and tried to kill Gai, she wouldn't get between them - but more because she had no real capacity to control Hidan when he wanted to fight rather than because she feared for herself.

"You got between Hidan and Kakuzu," Itachi said after a second's contemplation.

Sakura swallowed, nervous at the thought. "Kakuzu would have sold us back to Orochimaru," she said flatly, trying to avoid letting her voice shake with anxiety. They'd kill Orochimaru. Then they'd kill Kakuzu. Then she'd feel safe in her skin again. She would. "Hidan had to win."

"...ah," murmured Itachi.

Of course, Itachi knowing she'd gotten between them meant he'd been watching, which... "You could have helped," she pointed out mildly.

"Helped whom, Sakura-san?" he wondered. "I have worked with Kakuzu-san for many years. He is reliable and easy to predict." Not like Hidan at all, she inferred without him saying it.

She disagreed, as it happened. Hidan was both reliable and predictable if you were willing to analyse him through a lens of Jashinist ideology, which... Itachi probably wasn't.

"Fine." She ran on, regulating her breathing and letting her mind slow while she kept pace. It was a nice, easy pace, assuming you weren't dashing around yelling at each other like Gai and Hidan were ahead of them - Gai cheerfully, Hidan trying to avoid him and screaming in increasing frustration.

"You did well on your own," Itachi said into the silence, and then he dropped away, a black shadow under the desert sun.

...weird.

Sakura kept running.

The base they finally arrived at was hidden beneath a multilayered genjutsu, and Ino revealed quietly that she'd only been able to tell because, in a stroke of luck, she'd seen two people disappearing behind it.

"Any idea how many people are in there?" Sakura wondered.

"If it's anything like the southern base, maybe forty or so," Hidan said slowly. He licked his lips.

"...were there forty ninja there?" Forty. Huh. It had seemed like less; it had seemed like Kabuto was the only truly scary thing they'd faced there... at least in hindsight.

"The accounts we read would agree," Itachi pointed out. "It was a large base."

Sakura frowned, trying to remember. It all seemed so long ago. Had she read those figures? She remembered troop movements, experimental notes - she remembered Kabuto's jutsu notes, just barely sufficient for her to teach herself how to use medical chakra.

Itachi was looking straight through the illusion with his red eyes, their black marks spinning lazily in the afternoon light. "There are many," he said slowly. "I can see chakra signatures for... between thirty and forty people, yes. It's not a precise count. And some of them are not... quite right. You said that Orochimaru was conducting experiments with nature chakra?"

She bit her lip. "Yeah, but I think some of them were worse than others. That one we ran into, his chakra coils were pretty much shredded."

"Then I think there are several with such experimental abilities here. Yamanaka, would you be willing to look inside, examine the layout and assess the ninja and defences?"

Ino took a deep breath. "Yes," she said, "I can do that when we find a likely target."

"You're not expected to fight," Kakashi interjected. "We need Shikamaru's techniques, but you're not a front line combatant - once you're done getting the intel, you can retreat."

Ino nodded sharply.

Hidan scoffed. "What's the point in that?"

"She's not a combatant," said Kakashi repressively, with a very hard note in his voice.

He laughed. "So is that like not being a ninja, or -?"

"She is a valuable asset to our mission," Gai cut in gravely.

Hidan snorted.

There was a long, tense pause.

"The point is disabling the largest number of targets with the most minimal damage to the team," Itachi said mildly. "We need to conserve as much of our energy for Orochimaru as possible."

There were several things Sakura could have said - that Ino being forced out by her specific skillset meant that Hidan got to kill more ninja; that her help had led them here much more quickly than Hidan and Sakura would have managed on their own; that Ino would allow people like Sakura to strategise and maximise their potential for bloodletting. She didn't say anything, though, because any of the things that would help would only make the others warier of her.

She ground her teeth instead. Quietly, she bumped Hidan's shoulder with hers. He glanced sideways at her, scoffed, and settled.

Ino's infiltration was about as exciting to watch as drying paint. The group waited in tense silence, hidden beneath one of Itachi's illusions - there was really very little else to hide behind out in this sprawling desert. Even the Sand natives seemed to have a hard time, since most of their outposts were in areas of uneven terrain and rock.

Orochimaru's genjutsu, if indeed it was of his own devising, was very good. It covered a large area, and it seemed to have an effort of will that was all its own: most of them were able to see through it once they knew it was there and concentrated, but both Hidan and Gai struggled with it. Sakura shoved tiny and precise injections of chakra into Hidan's coils no less than three times, and she could feel, dimly, Kakashi doing something similar to Gai.

If nothing else, that was good to know.

For later. Just in case.

Despite knowing that no news was good news, Sakura was antsy and anxious and ready to be doing something. She did not enjoy Ino's silence.

When Ino was finally done, she appeared in the form of a darkly tanned man who stepped briefly outside the range of Orochimaru's genjutsu and stared right at them.

"Our clever young companion has found a way in for us all!" Gai shot a thumbsup at Ino where she was controlling the other ninja's body, even though by rights Itachi's technique had probably hidden them from her, too.

"Yes," said Shikamaru. He sounded very unenthused about the whole business, which was only made more obvious by contrast with Gai's exuberance. He stood and stretched out his spine. "This is going to be such a pain," he muttered.

"You can stay behind if you like," Hidan suggested, shooting up from his crouch. He spun his sickle and bounced on the balls of his feet, intent and excited, and Sakura felt the rising tide of killing intent wash over her. She closed her eyes for a second, basking in its feel.

"He really can't," said Kakashi, shifting on his feet and uncovering his spinning eye. After a second, he popped a second Kakashi into being, a silent shadow clone who stood over Ino's sagging body. He'd keep watch over her while she recovered and make sure she got out of there.

Shikamaru just sighed.

The plan was basic and couched in sweeping generalisations but fairly effective from a strategic standpoint: they would divide up, and one group would cause a huge distraction while the other went in and went looking for Orochimaru. That second team would be following the body possessed by Ino through the stealthier route opened by her infiltration.

"We'll need a sharingan in each team," Itachi said, just as calm and even as always. "Sasuke's eyes are not to be underestimated."

Hidan's sickle whistled in the air, spinning and flashing in the warm afternoon sun. Sakura found his excitement contagious. She licked her lips and ran one hand over the fuzzy regrowth of her hair.

"Gai, Shikamaru - we follow Ino. Kakashi, Sakura, Hidan - take the western approach." He paused for a moment, eyes narrowed. "Let them hear you."

Hidan's lips peeled back from his teeth. He flicked a glance toward Sakura, and she smiled just as fiercely. They took off at speed, flinging themselves from the cover of Itachi's genjutsu and zipping wide around to the west. Kakashi kept pace easily, one red eye wheeling, and if he had any thoughts about having to work with Hidan like this he kept them to himself.

Hidan hit the westernmost wall of the Sound base ahead of Sakura and Kakashi, and she never saw what he actually did to the wall. There was an almighty crack, the tortured shriek of tearing rock, and then a rushing cloud of dust and debris that flew out from the site of impact.

A stunned silence filled the desert air for a second, and then -

"REPENT, HEATHENS!" Screamed Hidan's voice from the thick dust, wild and shrill over the sounds of settling rubble and the sudden escalation of yelling inside the building.

The dust rushed out toward Kakashi and Sakura, obscuring her vision. Her heart pounded in her ears, her her hands trembled and sweat broke out upon her skin. Around her she could hear feet racing, voices crying out in surprise, disorganised chaos. A brief spark of something in the debris, jutsu-fire. And inside her head, nothing but the rising thrum of a battle-hymn.

Sakura picked her way delicately through the debris, side-stepped a flailing ninja, and reached out, silent and soft and with glowing green hands. Death spread from her touch: hearts stopped, voices choked.

An explosion rocked their side of the building, somebody's fire jutsu that finally drowned out Hidan's screaming.

That was okay, though. Sakura knew the verse.

Repent, heathens, and you shall serve God in fear and with trembling, and rejoice that you may suffer in his name.

Chapter Text

Once they were inside the Sound base, there was no time for savouring or for finesse. It was a bloodbath.

Steel and wire flashed in her peripheral vision, and Sakura slammed her elbow into a kunoichi's gut, grabbed her by her hair and slammed the woman's nose into her own knee. There was a horrific crunch, a wash hot blood on Sakura's leg, and then she shoved the body aside. If she wasn't dead, she was at least not getting up again.

Hidan had raced on ahead, reckless and lethal, screaming and laughing as he tore through the Sound ninja. One or two would have given him trouble, except that nobody expected him to take a knife to the neck without flinching. There was a moment's shock after a lethal blow, and it was almost always enough time for Hidan to make the kill.

Sakura moved at speed. She knew she couldn't afford to waste all of her chakra here, but she also couldn't afford to be so badly injured she was stuck recovering. Hitting a balance between the two was hard with her small reserves. That meant that she had to conserve herself: after the initial rush she used less of her quick-kill medical chakra technique and spent what chakra she could afford flitting at breakneck speed through the corridors in Hidan's bloodied wake, taking out enemies as more appeared. She had to be careful not to move too fast for her own reflexes, but otherwise it was a blur of steel and blood. She trod in somebody's collapsed face, saw something hot and pulpy steaming inside a man's ribcage. Her ears rang with yelling. The walls were painted red, and everything smelt like smoke and thunder and slaughter.

Somewhere behind her she could hear the roar of a high-level water technique. That would be Kakashi, using the water in the pipes for massive damage instead of wasting his reserves on chidori. Smart, especially if he was likely to have to use his eye for a long period of time.

Sakura stopped abruptly when she caught up with Hidan, who was standing immobile and dazed-looking in the middle of an empty underground room. The concrete walls were blank except for a few flickering electric lights. It wasn't welcoming. "...Hidan?"

He swayed gently. One of his arms twitched. Sakura sniffed. Paralytic?

She blinked fuzzily when a weird, haunting noise smoothed over her nerves from a distance, making her shiver. Her limbs felt...

They were tied?

They were tied. She could see the ropes, feel the ropes. There was a telling resistance when she flexed her arms. Her limbs were tied, Hidan was gone, and there was nothing but that strange music and... and...

Sakura's eyes narrowed.

Genjutsu, huh?

She coiled her chakra up and then lashed out with it, flaring the power violently under her skin. The illusion wavered, twisted and fell away.

The room wasn't as empty anymore. Now, with the genjutsu broken, Sakura could see a young woman with reddish pink hair and a flute. She was wearing one of those really ugly upside-down purple bows tied in rope around her waist. That was possibly the weirdest and most cumbersome fashion statement Sakura had seen, but it seemed common among Sound nin. Her eyes were hooded beneath her fringe, gleaming and fixed upon them as she played.

Sakura reached forward and slapped her hand on Hidan's shoulder. "Go," she hissed, shoving a spike of chakra into him. Hidan blinked. He scowled fiercely and swore when he realised what had happened. "Fucking genjutsu," he complained.

"I'll take care of it," Sakura said. She was good with genjutsu. Hidan wasn't. The choice was obvious.

Hidan didn't question her ability to 'take care of it' - he just took her at her word. He spat, glowering at the Sound kunoichi. "Don't take too long," he said, barely looking toward Sakura, and raced away. "Orochimaru's waiting."

"Take care of it... hm? Can trash like you really do that?" drawled the kunoichi. She brought the flute back to her mouth.

A long-range attacker, Sakura thought cynically. And probably a one-trick pony, as far as that flute was concerned. The genjutsu was designed to immobilise, either so she could complete a long-range kill-shot, or so she could get in close without risk and finish an opponent that way.

This time, Sakura didn't let her get a breath in: she sent the chakra surging to her legs, singing through her muscles and tendons, and she raced forward at breakneck speed. She was going too fast for her own perceptions to keep up when she landed the hit - she struck only a glancing blow.

At that speed it hardly mattered. The strike was just enough to send the girl sprawling, rolling across the floor with a split lip and wide, shocked eyes. Her hat came loose, sending a spray of reddish hair across the concrete floor.

Sakura flexed her fingers, closing them into fists. She stalked forward, kicking the flute away from the kunoichi as she struggled to get back to her feet.

"Yeah," Sakura breathed, looking down at her. Jashin-sama sang a covetous song in her veins. Her heart beat wildly and she knew, looking at that soft-edged, vulnerable face, she knew - she wanted this one for her god. "I think I can."

Without breaking eye contact, Sakura swiped her thumb over the kunoichi's mouth. It came away bloodied, and she licked the stain from her thumb. The girl's breath came out in a shaky exhale, before her expression toughened and her eyes narrowed. "Don't look down on me," she snarled.

Sakura smiled. The taste of her blood seemed to burn through her, lighting up her skin and making her feel high and giddy. Her own killing intent rose to blanket the room, and she saw with curious satisfaction when the kunoichi's pupils contracted to pinheads under the heady, suffocating feel of it.

"You've suffered," she said thoughtfully, a little fuzzy with the sudden roar of Jashin-sama's power in her. "You've suffered, and now you'll share that with Jashin-sama..." She backed away just enough to give herself room to slice through her own hand and smear her blood on the floor. She licked her hand, casually sliding her shoe through the bloody puddle she'd made.

"Screw you," hissed the other girl, getting unsteadily to her feet. "I don't know what the hell you're talking about, but I think we'd better end this - fast." And she slapped her hand over the hint of something dark on her neck and - changed. Her skin darkened, browned dramatically, and several horns expanded and jutted forth from her skull, sending her hair streaming around her shoulders in all sorts of directions.

"It's already over," Sakura told her, unperturbed by her transformation. She could hear screams of exultation, voices raised in worship, and gave a hazy smile. She closed the last of her ritual circle with her foot, and felt her skin burn black. She lit up with the sacred markings of her god.

She could feel his divine gaze upon her, hungry and approving, and for a second she thought she could feel his huge hands upon her shoulders, the whisper of his voice filled with longing in her ear. She closed her eyes to the feeling.

Then, even as she heard the metal scrape of that flute being picked up and the deep indrawn breath of her sacrifice, Sakura raised her kunai to her throat. It was sad that she wouldn't be able to draw it out this time, but the girl was a lovely sacrifice all on her own. She knew suffering well, and needed no reminder of their shared agony.

Sakura cut her own throat without flinching. Blood spilled in quick pulses down her neck, over her clavicles, over her belly. It was bright, bright red, heavily oxygenated. The room smelled like hot iron, and the whispers of Jashin-sama's will rose to a scream in her head.

She opened her eyes to see the kunoichi drop like a puppet without strings. She clutched at her throat, trying to put pressure on it, wild-eyed and frightened. There was the strange sound of two people trying to breathe through the holes in their throats, wheezing and trembling.

Sakura watched her, shaking with the strength of her God's attention. She mouthed the words of the prayer for the dead even as the force of personality left the kunoichi's face and the light dimmed from her eyes. She changed back, human again in death, chakra coils quiet and empty.

She couldn't force her voice to work through the mess she'd made of her throat, but she mouthed the words just the same, thought them with intent. She prayed quietly until her skin faded, white and scarred once more. It took long minutes, and then she began to hear herself again. Her voice was croaky but audible.

Then Sakura cleaned her knife on the dead girl's tunic, prodded thoughtfully at her chakra circulatory system - damaged, yes, but not shredded. Not the way she'd seen in the boy in the desert, although her transformation had certainly seemed similar. A more advanced specimen? She finished wiping it off and tucked her weapon away.

"Maa... that's an interesting seal," mused Kakashi's low, drawling voice.

Sakura looked up.

Kakashi was a silhouette in the doorway, backed by too-bright halogen lights in the corridor. There was a splash of blood on his mask and in his hair.

It took Sakura a moment to realise that by 'seal' he meant Jashin-sama's symbol drawn in blood on the floor. It wasn't a seal like she'd usually have thought of it, but in the most technical sense it did fit the definition.

By the time she'd sorted through that, Kakashi was looking at her neck.

She wondered how much of her ritual he'd seen. There were tactical reasons she should care, but she was thrumming with the aftermath of her sacrifice. It was a vague intellectual concern at best.

"You should put pressure on that," he said, in a distant tone that didn't sound quite right.

"Kakashi-sensei," Sakura said. She reached up and touched the gash at her throat. It stung, but it was a distant feeling. After a second, her fingertips glowed green. The bleeding stopped and the wound closed. Then, after a second, "We should catch up with Hidan."

He hesitated, unmoving in the doorway. "...You're different," he said. It wasn't a positive assessment, but, curiously, Sakura wasn't entirely sure it was a damning judgement either.

Sakura looked at him and tried to shore up her thoughts against the rush of violence inside her head. Jashin-sama was not a god to be sated by one death. They could kill and kill and kill, each death spreading suffering like a virus, until they were swollen and heavy with it, and still it would never satisfy. Sakura could wade knee-deep in blood, but that hunger would keep its fine, lethal edge.

And Kakashi was right. She was different.

For a moment she wanted to point out her time in Orochimaru's care, how it was bound to change a person, but...

"I am," she agreed instead. She really, really was. Maybe if she'd caught up with Kakashi before she'd given herself to Jashin-sama... But she didn't follow through on that thought because she simply didn't want to.

His eyes drifted over the body of the kunoichi behind her. She'd never seen Kakashi look so tired before. She could see pain and suffering on him as though they were just as clear as the deliberate scars on her own skin. They were old wounds cut open by something new. She wanted to be guilty for that, but when she looked at his face and tried to see something other than a sacrifice waiting to happen... it wasn't as effective as she might have hoped.

She had to stop thinking about this. Trying to reconcile her past with her present was like mixing oil and water... or bleach and ammonia, since the end result was equally toxic.

She thought back to the bounty collector's house, to Hidan's voice in memory - Did you forget about our goal here? You think we're traipsing through this fucking desert for fun?

No, they certainly weren't. They had a mission. And Jashin-sama was watching.

She steeled her heart.

"Orochimaru is waiting," she pointed out, as gently as she could.

That seemed sufficient to remind him of his priorities because Kakashi's expression hardened. "Let's go."

They left the flautist's body cooling in its blood and took off after Hidan. It wasn't hard to tell where he was - all they had to do was follow the screaming.

The pace was slower than the breakneck dash that Hidan would have set and the corridors were also emptier. It left them in a grim sort of quiet: even if they could hear Hidan fighting in the distance, they could also hear, much closer, their own breath and rapid footsteps and the buzz of the halogen lights bolted into the walls. Sometimes Sakura could hear dripping, in which case it was usually blood splashed against the pipes that ran bare across the ceiling.

That was the other thing - following Hidan's trail meant getting a front row seat to his handiwork. Hidan was enthusiastic about his work and most of the bodies they passed bore the marks of a sickle strike. It was an uncommon weapon and left distinctive wounds. There were others, though, who'd plainly been the victims of Hidan's brutal taijutsu style. Sakura had been slammed head-first into enough obstacles frequently enough to recognise a lot of the injuries they saw.

She wondered what it must look like to Kakashi. He was old enough and experienced enough that she doubted he found it actually upsetting. That would be absurd for any ninja, and downright dangerous for anyone who lived through a war. But there was a certain glee in the carnage Hidan wrought that she thought the Sandaime Hokage, at least, would definitely have frowned upon.

Sakura couldn't help but take some pride in Hidan's skill, though. Not just the fact of the deaths, but their sheer savage efficiency. She knew in war time people were often left dying on the field, not yet gone but unable to fight on. It was the dangerous job of a field medic to triage what remained and salvage what could be saved - from both sides; either as honoured veteran shinobi or as prisoners of war.

Hidan was thorough.

He left nobody.

Nothing moved in his wake. Nobody shifted or breathed or groaned. There were only the bodies and the occasional, soft plink of dripping fluids.

"How long have you been with -Hidan?" Kakashi asked finally. There was a hesitation before the word 'Hidan' and Sakura suspected that he'd been on the verge of saying 'that missing-nin' but had thought better of it.

She thought about the question, but she saw no particular harm in telling him. "I lost track of time while I was with Orochimaru," she said levelly, "so I'm not sure how long exactly. But... he was held there as well. We broke out together."

"He took you with him?" Kakashi asked neutrally.

"Mm," Sakura agreed. She might have corrected him, told Kakashi that she'd actually taken him with her, but that seemed like it would require explaining the saga of the missing legs to Kakashi and that was maybe a little too revealing.

Instead, and perhaps a little childishly, Sakura said, "I've learnt a lot from him."

If Kakashi found that hard to swallow, he didn't show it. "He doesn't strike me as a genjutsu type," he said, looking pointedly at the bloodbath surrounding them.

"He's not," Sakura agreed, because that much was pretty obvious to anyone. No need to keep it a secret.

Kakashi was silent for a long few moments and during that time all Sakura could hear was the rapid taptaptap of their feet in the corridor and the distant laughing of Hidan. He laughed like a broken hinge: shrill and hysterical and not actually all that happily.

"How did someone like him end up meeting you? Orochimaru... he takes risks, but not stupid ones. He's not that reckless."

She blinked. "What?"

"That man... he seems like the type who's a danger to his cell-mates."

Sakura coughed out a surprised laugh. Her throat was still damaged from her sacrifice. She doubted Kakashi was trying to be amusing, but- "He is," she agreed. "He was - part of an organisation. His partner sold him out to Orochimaru. He was restrained while we were there." If you could call being cut in half 'restrained'.

"That organisation," Kakashi said carefully. "His ring..."

"Akatsuki," Sakura prompted. If he knew about those rings, he certainly knew their name.

"Akatsuki." Kakashi made an assenting noise. "They're the group who killed Naruto," he said.

For a second Sakura resented him terribly for saying it - she wondered if that was meant to shock her, to sway her opinion of Hidan and all he represented, and it made her angry.

She opened her mouth, and something mean and scathing was on the tip of her tongue: oh, was that another student you left for dead?

But maybe that was the point. Maybe he wasn't saying it to subvert Sakura; maybe he was saying it because they shared the loss of a team mate. Because he felt like he'd failed Naruto just as badly as they both knew he'd failed her.

She didn't say it, though Jashin-sama knew she wanted to.

"Yes," said Sakura in a hard voice.

She ground her teeth and shunted her guilty grief aside with effort.

"You - you knew. He told you."

"Don't sound so surprised, Kakashi-sensei. Hidan is very honest."

"Is he," said Kakashi dubiously. It did not have the tone of a question.

The truth was, Hidan was really honest and open. Even if he didn't want to tell her something, he usually just told her not to ask about it - like about him being from Hot Water. "Yes," she said firmly.

It was just that, in being honest, Hidan often said things like 'Repent heathens, for I have come to sacrifice you to the God of Suffering', which was a very difficult sentiment to convey gracefully in most social situations.

Jashinism made honesty somewhat less socially desirable, really.

Kakashi tilted his head to the side suddenly, eyebrows furrowing beneath his forehead protector. "It's quiet," he said abruptly, stiffening in alarm as he realised it.

Sakura tried to hear anything, but he was right. It was quiet.

"...He's probably just praying," Sakura predicted. She didn't protest when Kakashi sped up, though. On the odd chance that Hidan wasn't praying, anyone that could make Hidan go that silent was bad news.

Their rush proved to be precipitous. They arrived in a huge underground space with reinforced ceilings and a smooth stone floor just as Hidan was finishing up. He had, once more, been very... thorough. The ninja who'd been there weren't so much killed as dismantled, for the most part.

There were thick webs of some strange chakra-goop decorating the place, and whatever experiment he'd fought last and subsequently sacrificed was reverting slowly to human even as Hidan prayed for him.

Sakura got a glimpse of red skin, white hair and outcroppings of horns before it was just a boy.

Kakashi's red eye spun, cataloguing Hidan splayed out like a contented cat, with the huge curve of his sickle embedded straight through his torso. There was blood splashing the floor, even outside his circle.

Sakura wondered what Kakashi saw with his sharingan eye. She knew Hidan's chakra coils were overdeveloped, but not by that much. Not... not inhumanly so.

He must have recognised the 'seal' as the same one Sakura had used, but if he did he didn't say anything.

"Ne, Sakura," Hidan purred, gripping the handle where his sickle stuck out upright from his prone body. It came loose with a wet, sucking squelch and the sound of a bone going crack. He rolled onto his side, propping himself up on one elbow. There was blood in his pale hair, and it had messed it up and tumbled sticky strands into his face. He grinned, showing bloodied teeth.

"Have you seen these guys? They're big and they look weird, but damn if they don't bleed just like everyone else." He looked so happy.

Next to her, she felt more than saw that Kakashi shifted on his feet. There was a tension in him, even though all of the hostile ninja in the room were plainly dead, and...

She shot him one sideways look and found his face unreadable but wary.

In the end, Sakura just didn't want to think about it. She could feel Jashin-sama's attention near, his voice whispering in the stones and through her skin. Sakura smiled, and it felt rather dopey on her face.

"Yeah, that girl from before turned into one. They've been through a lot," she said, picking her way through the carnage to get to the ritual circle. She offered Hidan a hand up, and he took it. Despite the slow-healing hole in his sternum from the sickle, he got gracefully to his feet.

"Ahh," he stretched, flinging his hands above his head. "That hurts." His voice suggested that it did anything but hurt, actually, and sounded kind of vaguely pornographic. "Do you think we distracted them?"

Sakura looked around the broad stone chamber. Bloodstains, bodies thrown like chew toys, smells of ripped guts and hot iron. "I'd say so," she laughed, resting her forehead on his filthy shoulder.

Then she sighed. "But we should catch up and make sure they're doing all right. Orochimaru's... he's not a pushover."

The thought of him made her guts clenched and chased away even the lingering warmth of her sacrifice. Her smile faded a little. She wanted to kill him, but she couldn't deny that she was... well, a little anxious.

"Oh yeah. We should get going... fuck, I can't wait." Hidan bounced on the balls of his feet like a particularly energetic child. "Yo, Kakashi," he said, leaning forward and waving his grimy sickle in front of his face.

Kakashi blinked once, slowly. "Me?"

"You sleeping, moron? Come on - he's not going to kill himself!" Hidan crowed. Sakura couldn't repress another smile.

"...Aa," Kakashi said, and his right eye curved into an insincere smile. "That's true."

There was no sound, but the flare of chakra was so strong that all three of them turned their heads toward the easternmost wall. Sakura wasn't a much better sensor than Hidan was in the scheme of things, but she was pretty sure that even civilians could feel that.

She'd felt that chakra before.

Sakura's stomach turned.

"I think they found him," she said, half nervous, half excited.

But Hidan was already running. "Stop daydreaming, Sakura!" he called over his shoulder.

Sakura took a deep, unsteady breath.

She looked sideways at Kakashi, who seemed to be waiting for her to move. There was something horribly like sympathy in his grey eye, and she clenched her jaw. Her hands shook, balled into fists.

Orochimaru.

Hidan couldn't keep leaving her behind, anyway - she owed Orochimaru just as much as he did. Maybe more.

She'd promised to cut his tongue out, too.

Sakura was sure Kakashi could be moving faster than he was, but he kept to the pace she set, which was her own top pace, unenhanced by her chakra. Flickering and cracked lights rushed past. Her footsteps echoed on the stone floors. Ahead of them, she heard the scrape as Hidan dragged the blunt back of his sickle across the walls.

The end of the corridor was dark despite the increasingly obvious flare of chakra from inside - right up until it wasn't.

With the shriek of tortured metal and the boom of sundered rock, the warm light of a desert sunset flooded the space ahead. Tiny bits of debris and dust trickled from above, and more than one light went out entirely. Sakura put on a burst of speed, feet slamming on the ground and breath coming hard.

Several things happened at once: Shikamaru yelled from up ahead, Sakura hit the edge of the sunlight and flew into the broken remains of the room ahead, and Orochimaru darted past, laughing his vile raspy laugh.

Sasuke's face was as pretty as ever, but Sakura was totally unmoved by it. His eyes were red, tomoe spinning swiftly.

For a second she couldn't see his eyes at all: just bloody holes, and behind them nothing but blackness. Her head felt full to bursting, and all of the anxiety building low in her belly clenched up, made her nerves and tendons and thoughts and feelings and every impulse, every cell -

She realised she was breathing hard, too hard, alight with the feverish, hungry, screaming voices in her head.

Sakura could already feel his flesh under her fingers. She wanted to dig them in until it burst like juicy, overripe fruit beneath her hands. She could almost feel the stickiness of his blood on her chin, taste the rusty tang of it.

She couldn't breathe.

"Oh," she said, feeling hot and trembling, balanced on a knife's edge of something too big to be contained.

Everything seemed to exist behind a wash of red, hazy and indistinct. It was so easy to put on speed with her chakra, so easy to hurl herself straight forward, straight toward Sasuke's body. She did it without thinking, slamming her feet into the broken stone without hesitating, sure of her steps despite the air stinging at her eyes.

There was a startled yell and she collided with his body, Sasuke's limbs and muscles strange and unfamiliar against her, and -

Sakura's nails ripped through his skin bare-handed, but he twisted, inhumanly flexible, and slipped away just enough. Steel bit into her side, and then Orochimaru brought one foot up, graceful as ever, and kicked her roughly in the chest.

She went sprawling, smearing blood and thicker things across the floor.

"SAKURA!" She heard Kakashi's voice crack on the middle syllable.

She fetched up hard against a wall, wheezing at the impact. A broken stone dug into her back. Sakura rolled onto her side to cough painfully, spitting blood out from between her teeth.

"Ugh," she muttered, clearer-headed with the sudden introduction of 'd clipped something in her belly, and the dark smears smelled positively foul. "That was stupid."

"Yes," purred Orochimaru, who was suddenly right in front of her again, and she could see where she'd dug her fingers around his jaw, see the bloody furrows there.

Sakura looked up and met his eyes.

She felt like the whole world had stilled for a second, and -

There was a feeling of impossible terror, well beyond a perforated gut. Her eyes prickled, her mouth dried out, her breath caught. Her heart raced.

She could feel his hand in her hair the way she had months ago, feel the icy stone floor on her scratched knees, taste her own bile and tears. She remembered it perfectly: the acid taste of vomit, the leathery smell of his sandals - eat up, Sakura-san; it's your only meal.

- and Itachi was there, crouched beside her, a looming shadow. He set one hand between her shoulder blades with a precise spike of chakra.

She jerked her gaze away from Orochimaru's too-familiar pinwheel eyes. She'd never been subjected to a sharingan illusion like that before. She'd never even had an opportunity to break it. Her jaw hurt from clenching.

"Sakura," murmured Kakashi, dropping into a crouch on her other side. Sakura coughed up another mouthful of bloody mucous. The movement gave Kakashi a clearer view of her injury. His face went white.

"It's fine, I'm fine," she said, raising one glowing hand to her side. The look Kakashi shot her was somewhere between grim and incredulous.

"I'll heal," she hissed. She hoped that the pretence of healing it with chakra might fool Orochimaru into thinking she was out of the fight for longer than she would be. She might be able to preserve the element of surprise.

For his part, Orochimaru made a hungry, unsatisfied, chiding sound. He licked Sasuke's lips. "Itachi-kun," he said, sounding disappointed at the interruption.

If Itachi was bothered by his familiar tone, he didn't show it.

Orochimaru might have gone on, but then there was a bellow and a blur of green and yellow, the flash of gleaming teeth, and Orochimaru slipped nimbly out of the way of Gai's flying kick. Gai dropped immediately, sweeping one foot out to catch his ankles, and he leapt over that, moving backwards - and, perhaps deliberately, further away from Itachi -

- a sharp smile of reflected sunshine flashed against one wall. For just a second, a silhouette blocked out the dying rays of the sun. "YA-HOO," cried Hidan gleefully, plummeting blade-first toward the pair of them.

Orochimaru jerked violently away, losing several strands of Sasuke's hair to Hidan's swipe. The sickle sliced deeply into the stone underfoot with a horrid grating sound. Hidan pulled it up and away with a spray of rock and no obvious effort.

Gai took that opportunity to leap nimbly forward and punch Orochimaru full in the face, but all he got was a fist full of dirt as an earth clone collapsed around his strike, leaving him empty handed.

"Shit!" Hidan swore, spinning to look for him.

Sakura twitched back, struggling to even keep track of Orochimaru's next movement - he was suddenly right behind Gai, and there were snakes uncoiling from his sleeves, curling between his teeth -

Behind Sakura, Itachi tensed. A heartbeat later he was gone, just a flutter of dark fabric and a hiss of smoke on the desert air. He ran through several seals at a rapid pace mid-leap and exhaled an enormous plume of smoke and fire. Shadows streamed back across the space, and -

- "Shadow imitation successful," said Shikamaru's voice from somewhere deeper in the room, croaking and exhausted but very steady. "That was well-timed," he admitted, glancing at Itachi.

Orochimaru jerked to a standstill.

Itachi spat the last of his flame to one side. Kakashi was already moving, muttering to himself as he unrolled several scrolls, fingers flicking through seals even as ink spread rapidly over the stone floors.

Hidan dropped to a crouch next to Sakura.

"That," he told her with a bright smile and a breathless voice, ignoring Kakashi's sharp look in his direction, "was awesome." And then he lifted up her bloodied hand and stuck her fingers in his mouth.

"Hidan," she cringed, trying not to wriggle away from the incredibly unpleasant feeling of his tongue rubbing against the pads of her fingers.

He let her hand go and licked his lips. His eyelids fluttered shut. "Mmm," he murmured.

Sakura saw the moment Orochimaru realised what had happened, because Sasuke's sharingan went very, very wide.

"Hidan," said Itachi, and the tone of his voice was a warning. "You want Orochimaru, not both of them."

Hidan laughed at the two of them. Unperturbed, he sliced into his own belly, letting the blood run freely to the ground.

"Hidan!" Itachi snapped urgently.

"What-" that had to be Shikamaru, strained and unhappy.

Orochimaru's skin lit up, bright as midday, for just a second. What the hell was that? Fire chakra? His skin was reddening, but she wasn't sure what he'd done. Whatever it was, the light that had briefly come from his skin had chased away the ambient shadows, weakening Shikamaru's hold as his own shadow stretched suddenly much, much thinner.

Swift and dexterous, he slipped away from the grasping shadows with his skin steaming in the air.

Sakura braced herself, trying to stagger to her feet without over-using her sliced core muscles.

Orochimaru hissed, low and snakelike. His mouth stretched wide, showing his long, hollow fangs. It looked strange and terrible on Sasuke's face. "I won't let you," he snarled.

"You can't stop me," Hidan predicted. He leaned down and swiped two fingers through the blood, smearing it into a completed circle. It was easy to complete the symbol of Jashin then. He stood straight and grinned. "Are you ready to experience the ultimate suffering together?"

"Sakura," said Itachi.

She looked at his mouth, his jaw, but didn't meet his eyes. She'd been caught in eyes like those once today, and had no desire to be caught again.

"This is Sasuke." His voice was soft, but carrying. She felt very detached, but her eyes slid to Kakashi and that - that was a mistake. His expression was clearer with both eyes revealed: tight, blank on purpose, waiting.

"Sakura," said Itachi.

She flinched. Then she reached out and snatched Hidan's elbow, just as his skin turned dark and the sacrificial ritual was ready. "Wait."

There was a pause.

"Wait?" he repeated incredulously, shooting her a baffled look. "You must feel it. You must- I saw you! Sakura! Sa-" He cut himself off with a strangled noise of rage and offense.

Orochimaru smiled his ugly, sinister smile, and began to laugh. "Oh, Sakura-san. It's always Sasuke, isn't it?"

Chapter Text

"I'm sorry," she said. She could hear her own voice break, and the look Hidan turned on her said she wasn't sorry enough. Not yet. She swallowed. Oh, god. Oh, god she was sorry.

She could see, in a way she'd never seen when she was trapped with him, Orochimaru and Sasuke layered over each other. She'd never seen something so lovely, or so horrifically broken.

"Please," she mumbled, clinging harder to Hidan, trying desperately to communicate all she needed to just with her grip and her bitten lips and -

Jashin-sama, why was she always so weak?

"Shit," hissed Hidan, tugging on her grip.

It didn't stop her clinging desperately to his arm. One of the bloodied lines of the ritual circle smeared under her foot, but the stark discolouration of Hidan's skin didn't abate.

Shikamaru gave an effortful grunt as his technique connected again. They knew now that the Shadow Imitation wouldn't hold Orochimaru, but it would provide them all with a moment's warning - he'd have to light his skin up like that again to escape, and that would tell them when he was moving.

A split-second's warning could be the difference between success and failure when fighting someone like Orochimaru.

He wasn't moving just yet, though. "How many times can you do that sealing technique, Kakashi-kun?" Orochimaru wondered instead. He licked his lips obscenely. Sakura shuddered.

She felt Hidan coil and tense harder beneath her grip. She wasn't the only one who hated that tongue.

Kakashi ignored him, forced to trust in Gai and Itachi to protect him while he worked. His hands flew through seals over and over, red eye spinning, and each time he paused to breathe more dark bloody ink crawled and smoked from his fingers to spread over the floor. It gleamed even in the shade beneath the unbroken parts of the room's roof.

Sakura cleaved to Hidan, insinuating herself between his dominant arm and his side to put him off balance. Her own muscles shook as she braced against his strength but... her core muscles had been sliced through and poorly patched, and she was far from fresh. It shouldn't have even been a contest for Hidan to get free and complete his sacrifice, but he was struggling.

He was more injured than he was letting on, then. Sakura had certainly seen him take some 'mortal' wounds when they broke through the western wall, but she hadn't realised that they were still healing. None of them was really at their best after fighting their way in - excepting perhaps Itachi. It was hard to tell with Itachi. He was a good actor, and damn weird to boot.

"It is because it's Sasuke," said Sakura quietly, tensing her grip even harder. It felt so weak and shameful to admit it, and when she did Hidan made a strangled, violent noise of anger and betrayal. He jerked against her hold. She threw her weight into keeping him still.

"No." She dropped her voice for his ears alone. His and Jashin-sama's; all the people who could ever judge her. "No - not. Not because of what you think. I agree with Itachi-san's plan because... I can see Sasuke-kun clearly now. You can, too, right?"

He grunted, unwilling but listening. She was tired and in pain, and Orochimaru was right there. They were in terrible danger. They were confronting horrors of the past. But the relief was heady - because he was still listening to her, even though she'd interrupted, even though she'd broken his trust in a way neither of them had anticipated.

It was hard to concentrate past her injuries, past the lingering ache of genjutsu behind her eyes, but -

She took a deep breath. He was listening, now she just had to explain. "Of course it's because I care about him, of course it is. But... Even then. His suffering is sacred, too. And nobody - nobody - gets to erase that. With Orochimaru in him..."

With Orochimaru controlling Sasuke, with all of his choices and agency and feelings and thoughts denied, whatever suffering he experienced was incomplete, disregarded. She couldn't figure out how to verbalise it with her mind racing and her heart in her throat, but she hoped her disjointed commentary made sense. If anybody would understand, would look at Orochimaru and see the both of them, tied together in vile knots... it was Hidan.

Sakura felt Hidan's tension ease, rage replaced by wary confusion. She squeezed his arm. Then she lifted her chin and stood straighter, enabled by Hidan's easing resistance.

Her voice was much harder, and a little louder, when she went on: "And he's my team mate. I won't leave him behind."

There was silence for a moment.

"Sakura..." said Hidan. He wasn't fighting her as hard, but she was pretty sure that if she let him go the awkward curve and sharp point of that sickle was going straight through his chest.

She swallowed. "I'm sorry," she said again, but she didn't release her grip on his weapon-hand, and she kept an eye on the other one. There were still several things he could do to break away from her and continue his sacrifice, after all.

Hidan rolled his neck on his shoulders. A fresh trickle of blood ran from a deep puncture under his jaw. "Tche," he muttered, and spat on the floor. "Don't sound so fucking weak and useless."

She shuddered.

"Oh?" mused Orochimaru. He looked for a moment as though he was considering it. "A team mate. Konoha breeds sentiment, doesn't it? I should know... I'm quite sentimental myself," he added, and then he started to laugh.

There was a telltale flare of light from Orochimaru's skin - how was he doing that? - and then his outline blurred when he moved. He was quick and silent as a shadow, and then there were three of him, the smell of wet earth strong in the air.

Shikamaru swore somewhere deeper in the room, hidden safely in the shadows.

He was too fast. Sakura thought that Itachi might have matched him but he was pinned to his position with Kakashi, guarding him while he completed the seals, and Orochimaru was just too fast.

All of them were forgetting something, though: if Itachi was pinned to his position, it was because Gai had gone somewhere.

The question of where was answered in a green blur. An enormous burst of light and chakra shook the room. A trickle of dust fell from above, and then an almighty voice roared:

"REVERSE LOTUS!"

And Gai punted Orochimaru straight across the room.

"Holy shit," said Hidan, and Sakura was briefly thrown off balance when he stopped straining for a second. But even as Hidan was swearing at the display, the words were drowned out when the pair crashed through a pile of rubble. Before Orochimaru could regroup, Gai was upon him once more.

The beating that ensued was sort of beautiful in its own way. There was no grace or delicacy or joy in it, just speed and power, mostly too fast to see. Sakura caught frozen glimpses, moments of impact, the sound of breaking people. Gai moved at impossible speeds, made noisy by the passage of air and his own momentum, and he streamed chakra from his reddened skin. He hurled both of them through walls and debris with absolutely no regard for the integrity of his own muscles and bones.

"Haah!" With one last, enormous bellow, Gai slammed Orochimaru into the floor. His impact made the concrete buckle and crack, forming a crater around his body where it landed.

Gai stepped back, then stumbled on trembling muscles. He dropped to one knee, unable to stand properly. The chakra in the air dissipated and the redness drained from his skin. He looked grey-white and shocky instead.

Deep in his crater, Orochimaru's body - Sasuke's body - was broken beyond easy repair. There were horrific contusions, joints bent completely in the wrong direction, a crushed cheekbone - there were parts where Sakura could see bones jutting from the skin, jagged and ugly and held in place by torn muscle and weeping skin.

Hidan seemed more interested in watching than pulling free of Sakura for the moment.

Orochimaru wheezed a laugh.

The body in its crater twisted in on itself. A moment later that broken form opened its mouth and dislocated its jaw with a horrifying crack. A long-fingered hand reached out, and then an arm, an elbow, a shoulder - from within a sagging skin that looked like a deflated balloon, the body just... disgorged an entirely new person.

Orochimaru rose, whole and uninjured, and walked leisurely toward Gai.

"Reverse Lotus is a fascinating technique. It's an all-or-nothing taijutsu technique, which requires opening at least the Gates of Opening, Healing and Life. That means it has some serious drawbacks. ...Doesn't it, Maito Gai?" he said, almost purring the words.

Gai's breathing rasped. His huge muscled shoulders heaved with the effort of getting enough air, and he slowly heaved himself back to his feet. Sakura didn't fancy his chances of dodging Orochimaru should he take the opening, though.

"A whole new body," said Itachi softly, glancing only once toward Kakashi to check upon his progress. He was sweating now, pale hair dark in patches, but the lines of black ink crawled forth from his hands unabated. "This will be difficult."

"...huh," said Hidan.

Sakura imagined that he was probably thinking the same thing - that sacrifice to Jashin-sama could be exhausting and was always temporarily debilitating. If they'd sacrificed Orochimaru straight up, there was a good chance he'd have recovered while one or both of them was helpless.

"Ninjutsu like that," said Hidan slowly, eyes narrowing. His muscles tensed and released under Sakura's grip. "There must be a limitation somewhere..."

Itachi's head cocked in Hidan's direction, listening. "The chakra expenditure is extremely high," he offered, and Hidan just made a derisive duh noise.

Sakura licked her teeth, tasting her own blood on them. It made her pause. "I bet his blood's the same, even if his body's new," she said, before she drew a kunai, spun it, and stabbed in one smooth movement.

Her kunai went straight into the bend of Hidan's knee.

It struck the joint with a foul crunch and Hidan's leg collapsed under him at exactly the same time as Orochimaru's did. Orochimaru yelped in surprise.

Hidan swore, one hand flying to the joint, and he staggered down to balance on his good knee. He glowered up at Sakura from beneath his bangs, looking fierce and terrible with the mark of Jashin-sama's blessing upon his skin.

Then he took a deep, heaving breath and dissolved into pained, breathless laughter.

She put her foot on his knee and shoved down. Orochimaru made another pained noise, but it was Sasuke's voice she heard. Sasuke's pain, taken and twisted by a parasite. Sakura ground her teeth and steeled herself.

The noise Hidan made when she crushed his knee was a loud moan that, had it occurred elsewhere, might have been pornographic. It drowned out anything else. His pupils were huge when she looked down upon him, and she couldn't help but smile. Even amidst all this...

...between them it was just Sakura, Hidan and Jashin-sama.

Her heart steadied.

"Seal," came Kakashi's voice, stone-hard and icy, and then Orochimaru wailed.

Sasuke's body slumped, hunched over its broken leg, while chakra flared and a terrible wind whipped around them, and Orochimaru screamed and screamed and screamed. Beneath him, the ground buckled, tiny bits of stone flying into the air and streaming outward. Ink raced along his skin, up his legs, over his clothing, around his neck -

And then there was silence.

The body shook.

Slowly, incredibly slowly, the seals crawled to Sasuke's neck. They were sucked into his pale skin. The curse mark on his neck spun, vile chakra pulsed, and then...

Nothing.

He looked no different to Sakura's eyes, and she had to avert her gaze

"What the hell? Did that fucker steal my kill?" Hidan snarled, struggling to sit. He smacked Sakura's foot away from his injured knee with one hand - the hand with the sickle, which she jerked away from.

"No. He's not dead," Itachi said quietly. "He's sealed. Imprisoned forever, unable to reach the outside world - it's a reversal of the technique he used, yes, but we couldn't get him out of Sasuke's body without destroying it. He's sealed ...like a bijuu."

Sakura stared blankly at Sasuke's body. Like a bijuu?

She couldn't persuade her brain to come up with anything. Was it over? Was that it? In her eyes he still looked like a victim waiting to happen, a slow-breathing, trembling sacrifice who had not yet come to terms with the inevitable.

"Sakura," said Hidan, in a low shaking voice. He was getting up, slowly, twisting his body as he accounted for his busted knee. He braced himself on her forearm and made it to his feet - or at least his foot, anyway.

The injury that had kept Orochimaru still enough for Kakashi's technique to work was a hindrance to him now, at least as debilitating as the stab wound in his neck. He was still bleeding sluggishly.

He bared his teeth at her, reddish white against his darkened face, and jammed one foot into her ankle. Then he dove for his sickle.

"Shit!" Sakura stumbled but scrambled after him. Her ankle gave a warning twinge, because Hidan had kicked the dodgy joint, of course he had.

She smacked into his torso with her full body weight and shoved her hand in his silvery hair. Hidan's nose made a gross crunch when she smacked it into the broken concrete and stretched her fingers out, just a bit further -

His hand closed around the handle of his sickle.

With a wet noise, he jerked his head up. "You little shit!"

"No," she snarled breathlessly, and shoved her knee into the bend of his elbow. He was a hell of a lot stronger than her, though, and his greater stamina meant that he was recovering faster. He rolled, capturing one of her legs between his, and she landed hard upon her injured side.

For a second Sakura saw stars.

"Hidan, no," she repeated, and elbowed him right in the neck where his injury had finally stopped bleeding - although not for long, because on meeting her elbow the blood began to run again.

She took advantage of his momentary disorientation to pin his dominant hand.

He glowered at her through a spill of bloodied pale hair, his nose leaking blood and clear fluid on his darkened skin. "Jashin-sama will have them," he ground out.

Sakura took a deep, heavy breath. Her limbs were shaking and she could only hold Hidan for so long.

She looked back over to Sasuke's body, although only for a second. It wouldn't pay to take her eyes off Hidan for long. Sasuke was... he would make a beautiful sacrifice, she was sure, but there was a nagging uncertainty buried in her mind.

"Hidan. We want Orochimaru," she pointed out.

"I don't - what difference does it make?"

"There must be a way."

Sasuke's shaking breath turned into a rattling cough. Sakura swallowed.

"Hidan, please."

He made a low, aggrieved noise that sounded like a loose screw coming undone under pressure. There was a shaking tension to him.

"Do you think Jashin-sama will forgive this?" he hissed, almost too low to hear.

She hesitated. "I don't know," she whispered back. She hoped so.

In the silence and heavy breathing that followed their scuffle, it seemed it was Kakashi who had moved, swift and fluid over the space between, despite Itachi's evident uncertainty. It was Kakashi who dropped down beside Sasuke, who examined his black eyes and stared into them as though he could see the truth of who Sasuke was by looking hard enough -

He couldn't. Sakura knew that better than anyone.

There'd been plenty of occasions upon which she'd been determined to pick out the differences in their appearances, but there just weren't any. But maybe there was something in the body language, something in the force of personality behind his clenching and unclenching fingers. There was certainly something in the lost, wide-eyed expression he was wearing when he looked up. Orochimaru didn't look like that.

He looked right past Kakashi, past the slumped figure of Gai, past Itachi. He met Sakura's eyes.

All her calmness and emptiness disappeared in an instant, and all she felt was the covetous roar of Jashin-sama's will. It was huge and overwhelming and alien and it roared mine mine mine mineminemineminemine -

Uchiha Sasuke was the trophy Sakura had wanted since she was old enough to think about it: a husband, a boyfriend, a figure of mystery and competence, somebody too cool to exist. She wanted him with a much greater passion now, now that all the mystery was laid bare before her. He was lovely, broken, a cup filled to the brim with despair and suffering.

Sakura could hear her pulse rushing past her ears.

Sasuke's gaze was exhausted. It was lost.

It was... precious.

Next to her, Hidan exhaled roughly. "Sakura..."

She didn't need to look at him to know he was feeling the same thing, seeing the same thing. His killing intent was suffocating, the most intense she'd ever felt it, blanketing her and him and everybody around them.

"Sakura," said Sasuke.

"Sasuke," she said back, almost choking on the word. It was hard to think.

His eyes dropped to her feet, the grim line of his mouth weakened for a second. Pretty, she thought, so pretty, and then his face was swallowed by the weeping visage of her god. The face pain, of suffering, of -

"Do it." Sasuke was shaking but she could see his resolve. She could feel it, something coiling low in her guts, the demanding shriek of Jashin-sama's desire.

There was power in it, in wilful surrender, and the thumping of her pulse was so loud, so overwhelming, and beside her Hidan made a low, wanting noise.

"What-" There was a jerky, aborted movement from Itachi's vicinity. "Sasuke, no-"

And Sasuke looked straight at Sakura. There was a moment of terrible understanding, impossible to ignore. In that second she understood, and they both knew it. He was perfect like this, sacred and inviolable.

And Sakura did not need to be told twice.

Sakura let go of Hidan.

Released, he plunged the sharp edge of his sickle beneath his ribs, straight through his body until it showed through the other side. It was cleanly cut but so, so bloody. There was a meaty, ripping noise from the vicinity of his chest - and also from Sasuke's.

The mess was more obvious on Sasuke's pale skin than on Hidan's, still striped in confusing monotone by the blessing of Jashin-sama.

Sasuke looked shocked, vulnerable and hurt. His big, dark eyes burned red and spun once, lazily, with an aborted surge of chakra, and a bright streak of blood bloomed on the chest of his clothing. His mouth went slack, open, and inside his lips it was red.

Sakura watched, and there was a small part of her that worried. She worried what she'd be when she was calm, she worried what she'd be when all was done.

Jashin-sama's gaze was upon them, sweet and approving. She leaned helplessly into Hidan, already curled on the floor in his ritual circle. She couldn't have moved if she'd wanted to. Hidan's eyes were fluttering and glazed. She murmured her prayers with breathless affection.

He tugged her roughly closer. She could smell his skin, old sweat, mingled blood. He inhaled against her hair and the low rumbling of his own prayers made his chest vibrate.

They melted to the floor in their circle of death and blood, and Sakura unwrapped Hidan's hands from the handle of his weapon to pull it clear. There was no need to heal him, he'd heal on his own - eventually. For now, for now -

"Sakura," said Shikamaru. He had had slunk out of the shadows, features cold and hands jammed into his pockets. "You just said he was your team mate-"

"Don't," she said, cutting him off. She only spared him the quickest glance. Jashin-sama was singing in her head, in her veins, and Shikamaru was just a voice somewhere distant; he was irrelevant. "He chose."

"Mmm, yes he did," purred Hidan, satisfied and replete with his half-lidded, hazy eyes. "A willing sacrifice."

She nodded her head. Hopefully Jashin-sama would take care of him. She hoped. She murmured another snatch of prayer. She knew she didn't deserve it, but... Take care of him, she thought. Please.

There was a scrape, the slow tread of footsteps. It was Kakashi moving somewhere in the shadows between afternoon and the encroaching dark. Then came the low, pained groan that signalled Gai getting to his feet. They stood together, Gai with his arm thrown over Kakashi's shoulder for support.

Neither of them said anything to Sakura or to Hidan, despite Shikamaru's evident distress. When they moved Hidan's arm curled more tightly around her, but neither of them seemed threatening right then. She supposed it stood to reason: Gai and Kakashi were products of the same war.

Shikamaru clearly wasn't as understanding There was something narrow, calculating and betrayed in his looks, and Sakura didn't have the energy to think about that. She knew she didn't like it.

Her gaze drifted, with some difficulty, to Itachi. He seemed to notice Sakura looking, and when he returned her gaze - he was pallid, pupils big. His breath was faster than it ought to have bee. He looked... sick.

But not angry. Not... anything, really, except hurt. He certainly looked hurt. He carried himself carefully, like a man aware of a mortal wound. He blinked too fast.

"I..." a pause. Everybody turned away from Sasuke to look to him. There was a pause, and then in a steadier voice, Itachi said: "Please leave. I'd like to be alone with my brother."

There was a hesitation.

"Now."

"Oh, fuck off," muttered Hidan, who looked like a strong breeze would knock him over. His skin was paling, though. The colours drained away like blood in a bath tub, leaving nothing but battered pale skin behind.

Sakura glanced at Itachi. Jashin-sama didn't even twitch. Too satisfied, his hungers too well-fed. She got to her feet and offered Hidan her hand.

He made a disgusted noise but took it, and the last of his markings fell away when he stepped out of the circle. "Ahhh," he sighed, ignoring where Itachi was stood over Sasuke's bleeding body. "It hurts and hurts and hurts," he moaned cheerfully.

Sakura glanced uncertainly at Itachi. "Come on," she said, persuading Hidan toward the broken roof of the place.

He heaved a sigh, part pained, part satisfied, and followed her out with a leap that must have hurt like hell on his injured knee. Shikamaru followed, only slightly worse off for the fight they'd been in - an arm shoved in a makeshift bandage to slow the bleeding. Sakura hadn't noticed during the fight, but maybe he'd gotten it earlier.

Kakashi helped Gai out, although the man's incredible stamina was working well for him for the moment: unlike what Sakura had seen of Lee, Gai was still moving more or less under his own power, tired and muscles torn but still ploughing along.

Above them darkness was making its leisurely mark on the world and the desert sky was the deep periwinkle colour of a summer twilight, stars all but invisible.

Sakura took one glance back toward the broken area of - well, not roof from this perspective. Orochimaru's base had been underground at that part, and so where their roof had collapsed it looked more like the jagged edges of a hole in the ground.

Nothing was moving in the base, all Sound ninja either fled or dead. Itachi wasn't far off, standing as a silent sentinel over the body of his younger brother.

"We should meet up with Ino," said Gai, straightening as much as he could.

"Mmm," said Kakashi.

Shikamaru said nothing, but his glance toward Sakura spoke volumes of distrust. She ignored him.

"Yes," said Sakura. "We should -"

There was a whumph from behind her, and a terrible wash of heat that prickled along her spine. Sakura stopped talking. She closed her eyes. When she opened them again, she knew exactly what she'd see behind her.

The whole base was wreathed in black fire, smoke rising to the night sky to dye the moon a bloody red.

There was a long silence.

None of them spoke, and none of them looked away from the rising plume of smoke and fire.

Sakura thought of Itachi's silences, of the pieces that made no sense. She thought of his masterful illusions, his polite speech. She wondered about his secrets.

And then she closed her eyes, fighting the strange, alien prickle of tears. She'd cried so much for herself lately, she'd almost forgotten what this felt like.

"Itachi..."

Hidan spat. "Idiot," he muttered, but there was no rage in it.

Sakura swallowed and turned away. "Let's go," she said flatly. Her voice sounded clear and cool and so, so hard - even to her. "We can say goodbye to Ino-chan and be gone before midnight."

Hidan looked back to her, expressions warring on his face. Finally: "Aa," he said.

They moved, and unless the other three wanted to leave Hidan and Sakura alone with Ino, they had no choice but to follow.

Despite the company, it was a grim and silent group who returned.

"Sasuke's not with you," Ino said, lifting her tired eyes from the tiny smokeless fire she'd set up. Kakashi's clone was perched on a rock nearby, staring at the moon.

Through the ash of Amaterasu, it shone red.

"He's dead."

Ino barely reacted. She just looked very weary for a moment.

"You mean you killed him," said Shikamaru.

She looked at him, blank and tired for a few long moments. Then she lifted her shoulder in a shrug. "You can put it like that if you want," she said, feelings worn too thin to argue. "He's still dead."

Ino looked between them. Her eyes drifted to the smoky moon.

"He asked," said Kakashi shortly. "He asked to die and he's dead. So's Orochimaru. So's Itachi."

"Tsunade-sama must be informed," murmured Gai without inflection or particular judgement - but also without enthusiasm, which was telling enough on its own.

Hidan shifted restlessly on his feet, and Sakura could feel the confrontation that was coming from that quarter. They both knew she'd fucked up. She felt it coiling in her guts. She could take or leave approval from Ino and Shikamaru and even Kakashi - and certainly from Gai. But the sound of rage and betrayal Hidan had made when she'd stopped him in the middle of the ritual... that would stay with her.

She'd apologise, and she thought he'd probably forgive her in light of the sacrifice that had come about. But... that wasn't going away overnight. Some things just didn't.

She looked up, and wondered if these were pieces of Itachi himself, burned to ash, obscuring the night sky. She clenched her hands into fists.

"Sakura..." Ino watched her with hooded eyes, glinting blue in the firelight.

Kakashi and Gai were settled with their heads together, tending their wounds.

After a second, on a whim, Sakua pulled out her red ribbon. Sewn into it shone her forehead protector, the leaf symbol etched clearly. She approached the fire and reached out with one bloodied hand.

"Here," she dropped the plate into Ino's palm, letting the ribbon spill over either side of her palm. Then she curled her friend's fingers around the cool metal. "Just - keep it for me, won't you?"

Ino looked at her, and for the first time in what felt like forever, there was an understanding there: they were weary equals meeting over the same fears and triumphs and terrible regrets.

 "Sure, forehead." She felt it when Ino clamped her fingers around the plate. "I'll be seeing you."

Sakura bit her lip. She wasn't sure if she would, but... "Yeah," she agreed, deciding then and there. "Maybe not soon, but... you will."

Ino clutched at her hand with a kunoichi's strong, calloused fingers.

Sakura just looked at her.

Then Ino let her go.

"Sakura -"

That was Kakashi.

"You can't keep me here," she said. They couldn't, either. They were injured and exhausted. So was Sakura, but with their accelerated healing and ability to work through major wounds, she and Hidan could take them all on right now and win without breaking a sweat. Whatever else might be between them, there was no way they were getting to her without going through them both.

"It's painful to see a youthful child of Konoha turn away from our fair village," Gai said. He got to his feet, looking tired and pained but fierce and terribly proud.

"You've torn half your muscles," said Sakura.

"Needs must," he said, standing straight.

Kakashi stood up, too. All he was really suffering was chakra depletion - he was probably the most battle-ready of all of them, as long as he didn't try to jutsu up anything bigger than a spark. But he looked at her, then glanced at Hidan.

In that second it was obvious that he knew how this confrontation would play out.

Kakashi put his hand on Gai's wrist.

Gai turned a carefully blank look on him.

"Maa..." Kakashi's lone visible eye curved into a smile, quiet and obnoxiously insincere. "I think we can afford to give them a head start."

Gai stilled. "Kakashi..."

The fake smile faded, and then Kakashi was looking at her with his one grey eye again. There were a thousand things unsaid in his gaze, and he didn't take the opportunity to verbalise any of them. Not one.

Sakura's eyes swept over the others, over the red moon, the tiny campfire, over Gai and Kakashi with their water flasks and bandages, past Shikamaru's slouched, wary form pacing a perimeter on the edge of the light.

Fuck it.

She nodded once at Kakashi, waved to Ino - and turned.

"Come on," she said, and she shouldered her pack, ignored the harsh sting of her injuries, and turned back to Hidan.

"Ready?" he asked.

She stepped up to him and let her shoulder knock affectionately into his. "Let's go."

Together they moved out. The light of Ino's tiny fire dwindled into the distance as full dark encroached, and the moon above was darkened with ash even after they'd travelled far from the site of the fire.

She glanced up at it.

"Sakura..."

She looked over at Hidan.

"I'm sorry," she repeated. It came out almost unbidden, bubbled right up from the feelings in her chest.

He looked at her, his reddish eyes intent and serious. They were still covered in blood and thicker things, and Sakura's side ached fiercely. That Hidan was still walking on his leg was testament more to stubborn pride than anything else.

"Don't be," he said finally, even as a chilly desert wind whipped up the sands around their feet. "Don't be sorry. Just don't fucking do it."

She looked at her toes for a moment. In some ways, Sasuke was an anomaly. She'd been connected to him. They'd suffered together, both of them, with Orochimaru. They'd suffered in different ways, but both of them were privy to...

...to everything Hidan had been privy to. Sasuke had seen her every humiliation and horror, every time she cried or begged, every thing Orochimaru had done to her. He'd been there the whole time, forced still and silent but watching.

"I owed him," she admitted. "It won't happen again."

He eyed her for a few long moments. "Fine." There was an odd silence for a second, and then he tipped his head back and looked at the reddish, ashy moon, too. "Itachi... I wonder what Akatsuki will do without him? Next to Pein and Konan, he was their strongest... And they need nine, I think." He eyed his own ring thoughtfully.

"It doesn't seem like he was that loyal when he was alive, either. He abandoned them to help us find Sasuke. And then..." she eyed he ashy cloud reddening the moon.

And then he'd died. Killed himself.

In a way, Itachi's death was the most shocking. He was powerful enough to handle all comers, and while Sakura had been slowly coming to terms with the loss of Naruto and Sasuke, Itachi was a fierce and indestructible thing in her mind.

Something about losing Sasuke had really broken him, she decided. She'd never know what or why now, though. Two people could potentially tell her, and they'd both gone up in flames this evening.

"Idiot," muttered Hidan again, averting his eyes. "What a completely stupid fucking moron."

Sakura tipped her head back, stretching out her side as it pulled unpleasantly. "I guess," she said uncertainly. "Here, let me see your knee."

Hidan didn't even make a token protest. She'd aimed to make the injury as debilitating as possible, and he'd had a few hours to recover but it clearly wasn't enough. Hidan's body, ever eager to restore itself, soaked up her healing techniques easily.

"So," Sakura said slowly. "Itachi-san's dead. Orochimaru's dead, even if we didn't get to rip out his tongue..."

Hidan scoffed. "That was some bullshit. Sealing."

Sakura wrinkled her nose. She... kind of agreed with him. Orochimaru, sealed like a tailed beast? Just for that, she was glad Sasuke's remains had burned up in Amaterasu.

"I know we were going to find an inn," Hidan said finally, "but I really want to get out of Wind country. I have fucking sand everywhere. It's in my hair."

Sakura rubbed her own head. No sand seemed caught in her hair, but hers was still short and fuzzy. She frowned. "Let's go east, then. There's trees and water in River and Fire country. We can bring the glory of Jashin-sama to the masses." She paused. "And if we hurry, we might still be able to pick up Kakuzu's trail."

"Ah, Sakura." Hidan's smile was fierce and mean, although not directed quite at her. He slung one bruised arm companionably over her shoulder. He smelled like clean sweat and old blood and smoke this close to him. She leaned in. "Now you're talking."

She tilted her head to smile right back.

"Also," he added in a drawl, "I've heard Fire country's full of Sand ninja."

"Well... yes." She shrugged. She wasn't about to deny it. Fire country was full of Sand ninja, and she did feel compelled to thin their numbers.

Hidan laughed. He pulled her closer to his body, the heat of him sinking into her injured side. Sand whipped around their feet as the night winds rose.

"Good enough for me," he decided. He tipped a grin toward her. "Let's go put the fear of God into those assholes."


Fin.