Two and a half decades ago, Yamanaka's had been a flower shop nestled in the middle of Konohagakure no Sato. A lot of things had changed since then and while Yamanaka's still existed, and was owned and operated still by its namesakes, it no longer did so inside of the village walls.
Deep in the Nara forests, the shop-turned-village was a veritable fortress. Half underground, half above, there were more exits than entrances and only Yamanaka Inoichi and his daughter, Ino, were reputed to know them all.
Sakura, who prided herself on knowing more than the average customer did, came in through the front door. Her short pink hair was dirty, tangled and ratty after weeks in the field and her green eyes were like chips of jade. Her uniform, which was the standard Chuunin uniform from decades ago which had been re-purposed to being the Hunter-standard for field work, was ripped and torn. Her sandals were the same—old Konoha Chuunin-standard ones. What weren't standard were the bright red ribbons criss-crossed over the toes, with bells that dangled to hit the ground. Each step jingled brightly.
The front door led into a seemingly empty, square room that wasn't much larger than a closet. Sakura, who knew there were dozens of ways she could die in this room alone, didn't hesitate (hesitation cost you your life here) but turned towards the right of the door she'd just entered and knelt in one swift motion and pressed down a panel that was the width of her pinkie finger. If you didn't know it was there, it was invisible, the panelling of the room painstakingly done to hide it and the other panels.
She held the panel for the count of six seconds, released it, and then held it for another two.
Releasing it for the second time, a trapdoor in the floor in front of her fell away, revealing a cramped and narrow set of stairs. Sakura went down them quickly, but without hurrying. Too fast and the spears in the stairs would be triggered. Too slow and the knockout gas would be.
It was dangerous but she knew her way around.
Weaving her way through the hidden dangers of the Yamanaka's shop, with bells trailing her every step, Sakura found herself relaxing. This was home. The Yamanaka's had taken her in, back when she'd been a mere five, before they'd left the village, and to her they were synonymous with safety.
She found Ino sitting cross-legged on a desk in the first of the outer office cubicles, a crossbow in her lap and aimed at her chest. The arrowhead, long and with wicked spikes on it, would be dipped in contact poisons. Sakura froze where she was, laced her fingers together on the back of her head, and slowly turned to fully face Ino.
Ino was looking well. Her long, long blonde hair was up in twin ponytails that nearly brushed the floor, even though she was sitting on a desk, and her pupil-less blue eyes were intent, not cold. The frilly skirt and blouse she wore looked incongruous compared Sakura's working gear but, then, Ino wasn't returning from a Hunt.
"Haruno Sakura," Sakura said, knowing the drill as well as Ino did. The fact that they were practically sisters didn't change protocol. "Hunter Registration No. 000616, born in Konohagakure no Sato, left in the First Wave. Affiliation: Medical Corps. Returning from Hunt No. 14783."
Ino nodded and said, "I wish to wish the wish you wish to wish, but if you wish the wish the witch wishes, I won't wish the wish you wish to wish."
Sakura grimaced and obediently recited the tongue twister back to Ino. They changed with every entry into the building and she hated all of them. Knowing them wasn't the point. It was tenor of her thoughts that Ino, or anyone from her family, needed time to filter through and the twisters would throw any undesirables off. Their minds would betray them.
It was how Yamanaka's was still in business.
Ino lowered the crossbow. "Confirmed," she said, which Sakura knew Inoichi would hear, and smiled. "Welcome home."
Reaching down, Sakura tugged the ribbons and the bells from her sandals, pocketing them for the next time she'd need them (they were another security measure; being that if you didn't have them, you didn't get into the building at all) and then, smiling herself, straightened. "It's good to be home. Tell me what I've missed?"
"Dad wants you to give him a full debrief later," Ino said, sliding off the desk, stashing her crossbow under it, and wrapping her hair around one arm so it didn't drag on the ground. "You hurt anywhere? Hungry? You need a bath for sure."
"Thanks," Sakura said dryly, as they left the maze of cubicles behind. "I'm not hurt. Bath and food sound good though. You busy?"
Ino shook her head. "Dad's got Kaede and Hibari for runners today. I asked to be able to take you in. We're not expecting anyone else today. You missed Tenten heading out by a couple of hours," she added. "She's gone out on another Hunt. Shiho and Neji went with her. There's rumours that it's spread as far as Suna. They're going to confirm it. Chouji's condition is unchanged, Shikaku's out in Kusa with Chouza, surveying the land for a hidden base. Shikamaru's due back next week. Hanabi's team is going through detox—they had a close call on their last mission. They should be fine though, it's the fifth day and no symptoms have showed up yet. They're probably clean but…"
"Yeah, I know." Sakura frowned a bit. "I'm sorry to miss Tenten though. I was hoping she'd be available. Is Hinata here?"
Ino's smile didn't falter. "Hinata missed her last check in. We found Kiba and Ami. They had to be put down. There's no sign of her though. I've been scanning when I've got the time but no dice."
"Shit," Sakura said with feeling. "How is Asuma taking it?"
"Badly. You know they were his team," Ino replied. "He's got Kurenai and their kids though so he'll pull through. For the time being, we've taken him off active duty. He's in resupply right now if you want to give him your condolences later."
"I'll do that," she said, running down the list. "There's a lot of people out right now."
"It's winter," Ino pointed out. "Hunting season."
"What about Genma and Raidou?" Sakura asked as they made their way down another hallway, heading for the baths. "And Aoba and Anko?"
Ino rattled through the details of all active Hunters with practiced ease as Sakura washed in hot, soapy water for the first time in nearly two months. Streams and rain just weren't the same. Not even close. By the time she was squeaky clean and wearing a skirt and blouse that were very nearly the twin to Ino's, Sakura was starving and Ino was winding down.
"What a mess," Sakura said, running the numbers in her head. They hadn't lost very many Hunters in the last few months but any loss was felt. "Why aren't you out in the field?"
Her sister looked sly and shy in about equal measure. "I'm looking forward to Shikamaru getting home," Ino admitted. "I could reach him by mind but he really deserves to know he's going to be a dad in person."
Sakura squealed with delight. "You're pregnant! Congratulations!"
"Three months along," Ino confessed, eyes sparkling. "I found out shortly after you left. Dad's pulled me off active. Getting you in is the closest I've been to danger since we found out."
"I'm doing all your tests," Sakura said immediately. "Whoever is doing them now is just going to have to cope. I'm your medic."
"I knew that," Ino assured her. "And—"
Sakura waited for Ino to come back to her, knowing from long experience that the sudden silence meant that Yamanaka Inoichi was speaking to her and, likely, to all other Yamanaka in the town that had started as a single shop and then grown and grown as more survivors had made it out of Konoha.
"Change of plans," Ino said, looking apologetic. "Dad wants me."
"I can find the mess hall on my own," Sakura teased as Ino turned to go. "Oh! Ino, can you do something for me?"
"Hatake Kakashi is a vampire in Konoha," Sakura said. "Can you mind-probe him and find out what his taste in women is?"
Ino's eyes narrowed. "Why?"
"So I can get close to him," she said simply. "He's the one that killed my parents."
"You got proof?"
"Yeah," she said. "I've got it."
"I'll begin the prelim investigations," Ino said. "I can still do that while being stuck here. But you'd better damn well clear that with Dad before you go haring off on your own."
"I will," Sakura said honestly. "I have no intentions of heading off without permission."
Ino hugged her fiercely. "I'm glad," she said, "so glad. They'll be able to rest if you kill him."
"Finally, right?" Sakura said, her eyes damp. "I'm going to make sure they can."
Ino pressed a kiss to her forehead.
Then they parted, going their separate ways.
Six hours later, after food and a cat nap, Sakura found herself in front of Yamanaka Inoichi. He was a tired looking man, with long (though not nearly as long as his daughter's) silvery-blond hair and the same pupil-less eyes that were the colour of the sky that all Yamanaka shared.
She loved him deeply. He was the man who'd taken her in. She'd die for him.
"Ino has told me your request of her," he said, steepling his fingers and watching her.
"No vampire has been found with mind powers," Sakura said, knowing what bothered him about it. "No Yamanaka has been turned." Several had died but none had completed the change—whatever it was that turned people into vampires, the Yamanaka were immune. The medics in charge of research speculated that it had to do with how their bloodline reacted when they were infected. "She'll be as safe as anyone can be. I wouldn't put her in danger."
Sakura shivered at even the thought.
"I've given her a week to find out the necessary information," Inoichi said, some of the ice in his summery eyes thawing. "You're to remain here until the matter has been decided. It will be a high-risk mission no matter how much backup you have. He rarely leaves the heart of Konohagakure."
She nodded. "I know."
He sighed. "You're one of the best Hunters we have."
"I'll come back," she promised. "Even if I turn, I'll come back so you can put me out of my misery."
Inoichi's smile was twisted. "That's a comfort."
She knows he's remembering days before the Kyuubi attacked and everything went to hell. A life where people didn't have to find things like that comforting. Sakura can't imagine such a life: she's never known anything but this. Her memories before the First Wave are foggy and after that, always, it's been order and paranoia and Hunts rather than missions.
In Konoha, she'd have been a shinobi. In Yamanaka's, she's a Hunter.
She pities the older generations, those who remember and dream of the way it had been before. It's easier for those of them who have grown up this way.
"You'll be working with Kuri and Yasuo for the week," Inoichi said.
He nodded. "Now, tell me about the rest of your Hunt."
She straightened, leaning forward, and did just that.
A few days later, Sakura found herself in front of a classroom with thirty children in it, ranging from eleven to seven. The really little kids were with Yasuo today and Kuri had those just about to graduate. "Hi," she told them all, giving a little wave. "I'm Haruno Sakura, a Hunter. Kuri's asked me to give you a history lesson. Not that stuff about Konohagakure no Sato and how it used to be though. I know you all get a lot of that." A few vehement nods had her hiding a smile. "And not anything to do with the evolution of Yamanaka's. You'd all better know that by now. This is your home and it's important to know your home's history."
A girl of about nine, with black hair cut very short, waved one hand. "Haruno-sensei?"
Miyoko's hand sank. "What else is there? If you're not teaching us either of those things?"
"I'm glad you asked," Sakura said, perching on the edge of the desk. "Has anyone here ever heard the story of the Kyuubi and the nights and days that followed?"
Looks were swapped all around the room. "No?" ventured a boy Sakura thought was named Keitaro.
"Not surprising," she told them all. "It's pretty important stuff, so we make sure you know about it once you're old enough to understand it. And the older folks, well, they don't like talking about it. That's why you've got me."
Both Kuri and Yasuo had grown up in Konoha as it had been.
"Twenty five years ago a nine-tailed demon, the most powerful of demon-kin, attacked Konoha on the urgings of an Uchiha named Madara. We call this demon the Kyuubi."
"But didn't Uchiha Sasuke kill him?" asked Suzu, her eyes huge. "Just last year and he lost his own life in taking out his ancestor."
"He did," Sakura agreed. "Uchiha Madara was very, very old, you see. His life had been sustained by the Kyuubi and while we lost most of the Uchiha in the First Wave, Sasuke had been too young at the time to be affected. He was raised with us, just like you are. He died a hero. With Uchiha Madara gone, the Kyuubi has no goad to crush us. When you remember Sasuke, remember what he did for you."
A hushed silence fell across the classroom.
"But we're not here to talk about the heroics of the very last Uchiha," Sakura said quietly. "Let's stay on topic, shall we? The Kyuubi would have wiped us all out had its reign of terror lasted more than three days and nights. As it was, our population was much reduced and the 4th Hokage, Namikaze Minato took a dreadful risk to rid the village of the demon."
This was the part of the story she hated the most.
"He took his own son, born that very day, and sealed the Kyuubi into him. His son is named Naruto."
One girl shrieked, several of the children gasped, and two of the boys started crying while others just looked horrified. It took Sakura twenty minutes to calm them all down.
"I know it's upsetting," she said gently. "He shouldn't have done it. We'd have been better off if he hadn't." Then they'd just be dead. "But he did it to save our lives. He didn't know what would happen and his mentor, Jiraiya, who might have been able to stop him, wasn't there. Both Namikaze and his wife, Uzumaki Kushina, lost their lives in sealing the demon within their son. They are heroes who made a dreadful mistake. Good intentions don't always lead good places and… sealing the Kyuubi stopped the demon. For a few years."
They watched her warily. Not a single one of them was unaware of who Uzumaki Naruto was.
Not a single one of them didn't fear him.
"The problem with seals," Sakura continued, "is that if you seal a superior power with an inadequate seal, there's leakage. Though he didn't know it, Namikaze killed his son that day and gave us the first vampire and none of us knew. Vampires in books will tell you that they live off blood, that they can't stand symbols with faith backing them, that they have no reflections."
"But… but… that's not true," Hisoka said. "My mom says that vampires eat souls."
"They do," she said simply, ignoring the way the children flinched. "A vampire is a person without a soul. They cannot survive for long without a soul, it keeps them anchored to this plane of existence. That's why there's still humans in Konohagakure no Sato. So that the vampires may have their pick of souls. You see, when a vampire picks a person, their soul doesn't disappear right away. It's leeched away, bit by bit, as the victim becomes unable to live without being near the vampire."
Another hand waved in the air and Sakura nodded. "My dad says that vampires do drink blood."
"They do, for sustenance. Our souls keep them here, our blood keeps them capable of besting us," she said. "That's why training is so hard before you're allowed out of Yamanaka's. Some of you will never leave this compound." None of them looked like they ever wanted to leave it right this moment. "When you do leave the compound, all of you will be wearing a hitae-ite that bears the symbol of the Will of Fire. This will help protect you. Now, let's talk about ways you can become a vampire…"
"That was ghastly," Ino commented, when Sakura stumbled into their shared room a few hours later.
Sakura rubbed at her eyes as she collapsed onto the bed. "What? Oh. You were listening?"
"Just the latter half," Ino admitted. "You're pretty good at handling them."
"I'm so not teacher material," Sakura contradicted. "How is Hanabi's team holding up?"
"Still no symptoms," Ino reported brightly. "Only a few more days and they'll be clear to rejoin us."
Ino wilted like a plucked flower. "No change."
Sakura looked over at Ino. "I'm sorry," she said softly. "It wasn't your fault though."
"It was," Ino insisted. "If I'd just been a bit faster, he'd never have thought he had to protect me and he wouldn't be like this."
"He protected you because you're one of his best friends," Sakura pointed out. "I'd have done the same."
"That doesn't make me feel better."
Ino sighed. "No, I am. I'm just getting all maudlin lately. I…" She sat up, frowning. "Suit up," Ino said flatly. "Foxes have been spotted outside."
Sakura swore and ran to get dressed even as Ino left the room, making her way, Sakura knew, to her father to take over his coordinating duties.
Foxes were bad.
Perhaps it was because the Kyuubi had been a nine-tailed fox but vampires, rather than the bats they could turn into in stories written before vampires had become a reality, turned into foxes. Sakura shimmied into her uniform, arming herself to the teeth for combat.
She'd hope it would just be real foxes, too stupid to know that they weren't wanted here, but she didn't hold out hope. Hope of that sort was likely to get her killed and she refused to die until her family was at rest.
Vampires lived off the souls of their victims. Until the vampire died, the souls he or she ate over time could not travel to the other side. There was no rest for those who were devoured.
Join Mitarai's squad in the seventh block, Ino's voice ordered as Sakura finished stuffing a few extra explosive notes into her clothes and tied the ribbons, sans bells, around her sandals. You'll be taking north quarter.
The Hunt goes on for three days.
All usual activity in Yamanaka's is suspended. Ino's voice is the one everyone listens for in the back of their minds. The children, all too young to leave the shop, help by preparing rations for the Hunters and by patrolling the corridors just in case something gets inside that shouldn't be there.
The Hunters, Sakura among them, spend those three days running on fumes and little else.
They kill fourteen vampires. The foxes had been a scouting party.
By the time the three days were over, there were no vampires within a day's hard run augmented by chakra.
The next few days after that are spent sleeping and recuperating (they hadn't lost anyone, which everyone agreed was a damn miracle) and gradually getting back to their pre-Hunt routines.
"I have the information you need," Ino said, one night, without preamble.
Sakura looked up from deciphering old medical jutsu scrolls blearily. "What?" Her mind caught up. "Oh! Have I been given the go ahead?"
Ino isn't the sort to taunt her with the information and then say she can't go but Sakura is ruthless about not getting her hopes up. She's learned it's better that way.
"Provisionally," Ino said, taking a seat and looking around the large room that serves as the library. There's no one else in with them.
Sakura wonders what time it is. The last time she'd looked up, there'd been a number of other people in here too. Her neck, now that she's moving, protests her inactivity. Her back and legs and butt do the same.
Ino's look is knowing when Sakura gets up to stretch.
"What's provisional?" Sakura asked, working the kinks out of her back methodically.
"You have to go alone," Ino told her simply. "If Tenten were back… but she's not due back for another six months. Shikamaru's not back either—"
Ino's eyes grew cold. "He'll be back," she said flatly and carried on like Sakura hadn't interrupted, "anyway, you've got permission to head out on a Hunt, alone, with me as your back up."
Sakura frowned. "You're not coming with me."
"Not physically," Ino said, nodding. "But mentally, I will be if you want to do this. To get close to Hatake, you're going to have to Bond with him. There's no record of a person resisting the bond once the vampire has a grip on their soul."
She opened her mouth, then closed it. "You already know my plan."
"Yes." Ino looked at her without shame. "I've been tracking your thoughts."
Sakura couldn't bring herself to feel angry. Not when she knew that Ino had done it out of love. "You could have just asked," she said, hating the plaintive note that hit her voice. "I'd have told you."
"No, you wouldn't have."
The worst part of that was that Sakura couldn't disagree. "It's the only way," she said. "He's part of Naruto's inner circle. No one gets that close unless there's a bond on their soul. They know we can't fight it."
"No," Ino contradicted, "they know one person can't fight it. They've never faced off against two-in-one."
"I can't…" Sakura hated feeling helpless and hated the fact that she felt that way now. "Ino, what if we lose?"
"My body will be kept alive until my child is born," Ino said quietly. "Then Dad will have me killed. Believe me, Sakura, Dad fought me on this. But if anyone is going to help you, it's going to be me."
"I wouldn't want anyone else helping me," she admitted, "but I don't want your death on my hands."
"One: we're not going to die," Ino told her loftily. "Two: it won't be. It'll be on the hands of the vampires who went after you. If you stay on your toes, we'll both be kept safe."
Sakura said nothing, just stretched and paced and did a hundred squats before stretching some more before even thinking of answering Ino. Ino waited patiently, her ridiculously long hair a blonde puddle on the floor and her blue eyes serene.
Because she would win, Sakura realized, disgruntled. If Ino had gotten her dad on her side, and she would have had to, to be talking about this, then Ino had already won. It was just up to Sakura to give in and admit it.
Sakura hated having to do so, but… she couldn't leave her parents unreleased. Not when she knew their souls were trapped and they had no peace.
"Alright," she said, "we'll do it your way. Tell me what I need to know."
The creepiest thing about Konohagakure no Sato is how well it jived with the stories that Sakura had heard from those old enough to remember what it used to be like. Even though she'd entered the village before—many Hunters did, though few did so frequently—every time was like an unpleasant jolt to her stomach and clawing, creeping fear of there being too many people around.
Everywhere she looked there were people. Not vampires, not Hunters, just normal people going about their day. They didn't live in fear of monsters.
Sakura pitied them their ignorance.
They had no idea what it was that lived amongst them.
Sakura knew from bitter experience that, if told, they would not believe her either. They'd tried, many times, and it had never worked. Konoha's citizenry were the victims of the vampires and they didn't even know it.
The crush and press of bodies left her breathless and the carelessness with which people interacted left her head reeling. She'd feel that way until she adjusted, shutting out the instinctive panic triggers that set in because none of these people paid attention to protocol. All of them were probably infected already. Sakura resisted the urge to claw her skin off, bought a bought of water off a vendor because it was the only thing he sold that was sealed, and then carried it with her without drinking it.
There were so many ways to be infected here! She knew, as all Hunters did, that vampires made up less than a tenth of the population of Konoha. The village could only absorb so many lost lives into each year without collapsing and the Hunters killed enough that even when they tried to expand, they didn't get very far. Theirs was an uncomfortable stalemate.
Vampirism was parasitic in nature. When Naruto, who'd been just a baby, not even a few hours old at the time, had had the Kyuubi sealed with in him, he had not become a vampire immediately. It had happened over the course of hours and then, because he'd been a baby, and helpless, other people had handled him. Taken care of him. Kissed and fed him. (Vampires could eat human food though they didn't require it.)
It had only been after his second caretaker had dropped dead, withered to the bone and drained of life, by the time Naruto was three that people had started suspecting something was seriously wrong. When that caretaker had gotten up again, hours later, no one had known what to make of it. The medics had been as puzzled as everyone else.
They should have just shoved them into the fires, Sakura thought, knowing that they hadn't had pyres like they did at Yamanaka's. That they buried bodies in those days.
Instead, the medics had conducted test after test after test, endlessly exposing themselves to the very thing they were looking for without knowing. They'd lost most of their medical ninja that way.
The only fluid that transferred the parasite was blood. But fluids weren't the only thing that transferred it. A vampire's bite could do the same. Affection could do the same, if it was between a vampire and a human and given enough time. That was what had taken Naruto's caretakers as he'd gotten bigger and stronger, growing almost like a living child, though he'd been no such thing. The parasite was drawn to warmth of any kind.
She wished that Namikaze had just left them all to die.
She knew part of her unease came from the dress she was wearing. It was a pale green, lighter in shade than her eyes, and her jutsu-lengthened hair made a pleasing contrast. It wasn't cold enough to wear a coat, but she'd worn a shawl in a purple that went well with the green and the pink. It was an at-home outfit usually but she couldn't wear her Hunter-gear here (though most of her weapons were stashed in the pack she had on her back) and that made her feel itchy and vulnerable.
Though that was the whole point. Hatake Kakashi liked his victims vulnerable. He liked his women, and his men, the ones that he bedded rather than ate, to be feisty. But in a victim... he wanted someone soft. Her long hair, aimless wandering, and soft voice were all carefully calculated to make her seem like a good choice.
He wasn't even watching the performance but Ino had said and Sakura had agreed that it was best to wear it at all times, unless it was a life or death matter.
Sakura found work in a small cafe near the old administrative buildings. Those buildings were still used and, if anyone talked about them in the village, they were still treated as the administrative buildings. The Fifth Hokage was Naruto. And if he chose to rule from the shadows... well... ninja were strange sorts at the best of times.
He was generally believed to be a rather good Hokage, which made Sakura sick to her stomach.
Her job was waiting on tables, wearing a skirt that should have been used as a doily instead, and smiling constantly. Always, always smiling. Once ensconced in her job and having found a room for rent, Sakura bided her time and did nothing. To any and all who watched her, she was just another girl going about her business.
The job of luring Hatake Kakashi to her fell to Ino. Ino had suggested it and Sakura had, on reflection, found the idea appealing. They'd had no idea how far along Hatake's latest victim was and it would look much more natural if they were patient.
And they needed it to look as natural as they could, right up until the time when she killed him. If anyone suspected, she would be the one to die.
Ino, ever present, was a murmuring voice in the back of her head. Some days they didn't talk much, just let their thoughts brush against each other in silent acknowledgement. Other days, they talked constantly, of plans and how to proceed.
Each day brought them closer to the goal: each day gave Sakura's cover more credibility. Each day gave Ino more time to refine the delicate hooks in Hatake's mind that would draw him to Sakura once he needed a new victim.
Bad luck that he'd just taken one when you hit the village, Ino said, one wintry morning that had actually been so cold that frost had made an appearance. But it won't be long now.
Two weeks later, about two months into her living in Konohagakure no Sato, Sakura went walking, at Ino's direction, through the streets at night. There was a bookstore that she frequented that kept later hours and she made sure to head in that direction. Anyone looking for variations in the pattern would find none, she swore.
Watch out! Ino warned, a split second before Sakura noticed that she wasn't alone.
"Yo," he said casually, like they were old friends. "Care for some company?"
Hatake Kakashi was a tall man, with white hair and a single dark eye. His other eye was covered with an eye-patch (and Sakura wondered if it had bothered him when he'd given up his hitae-ite for it; once he'd worn the symbol of their faith across his eye). He wore dark pants and a dark shirt, both very simple. They only highlighted the pallor of his face.
"I… I…" she stuttered, deliberately stumbling over her words, sounding flustered. "I'm just going to the b-bookstore. I'm sure y-you have more interesting places to be?"
You're a terrible stutterer, Ino commented. When you get back, get Shiori to teach you how. She can fake a stutter like no one else can.
Shut up. Sakura waited, breathlessly, wondering if the hooks were working. She knew they had to be, to a point, because he found her, out of all the other women in the village. Sakura kept her face set cleanly on a certain hopefulness.
She was shy, she told herself sternly. An attractive man had just asked if he could keep her company! Of course she'd think he'd have better things to be doing than spend time with her. And just as likely… she'd hope that he wouldn't.
"They can deal without me for one night," he said smoothly, offering her his arm. "May I have the pleasure of escorting you?"
Sakura flushed deeply, thanking god that Ino had taught her to blush on demand back when they'd been twelve, as she took his arm. "I'm honoured, good sir," she said, all wide-eyed naiveté.
(Ino snickered in the back of her mind. Sakura promised that she'd kill Ino, later, which only made Ino laugh more.)
They walked slowly, arm in arm, making small talk. She learned that his name was Hatake Kakashi—but that she could call him Kakashi, if she wanted—and that he worked for the Hokage as security. He learned that her name was Sakura—because her parents had thought her pink hair was sign for what to call her, which wasn't true at all; all women had been named after flowers in her family—and that she worked in a café and that she loved romance novels and ice cream in about equal measure.
Sakura knew she was laying it on a bit thick, and she was, but she didn't want to lose her chance at killing him.
When they reached the bookstore, Hatake and her separated. Sakura went to the romances, like she'd been talking about and he…
He's gone for the porn! Ino laughed. Of all things!
Even vampires have needs, Sakura said dryly. I find it hard to insult this one when compared to his other 'needs'.
Sakura dithered over the romance novels for quite some time, picking up one, reading the back, and then setting it down as another cover caught her eye. The cycle would repeat until she found a book that she thought interesting. When she approached the counter, three books in her hands, Hatake was there, paying for his selections.
He smiled at her. "Good timing, I was just about to go."
You timed that deliberately, she thought grumpily even as she smiled shyly at him. "I… didn't realize you were waiting for me," she said, in not quite a mumble. "I'm sorry."
"No, no," he said, "don't worry about it."
Sakura paid for her books and then, clutching the bag to her, left the store with Hatake.
"I'll walk you home," he offered. "It's the least I can do."
She didn't see how but the girl she was pretending to be smiled, blushed prettily, and let herself be talked into it. He had a lot of charm, she thought, hating him for all the victims that hadn't known what he was doing. And he picks on those who are insecure enough that his missteps won't be enough to chase them away.
Sakura hated him.
None of that showed in her chatter or demeanour as they walked back through the streets. Somewhat to her surprise, he left her at the stoop of her apartment with nothing more than a kiss to the cheek and a murmured 'I'll see you later'.
Aware that there were probably eyes on her, Sakura stared after him as he left, one finger brushing where he'd kissed her, before sighing dreamily and entering her apartment to kick off her shoes and go collapse on her bed.
You are such a ham, Ino murmured drowsily. I can't believe anyone bought that.
It's what he expects, Sakura pointed out. You told me so yourself.
After that, Hatake Kakashi began appearing two or three times a week in her life. While there were many opportunities to try and kill him, Sakura bided her time. His guard was up and it would stay up—people had tried this before—until she'd become Bonded to him. No one had ever been killed by their Bonded. It was supposed to be impossible, since the Bond made the victim love no one but their vampire master.
Some nights, when she worked late shift at the café, he would be a customer and would flirt with her while he drank his over-priced tea. Other nights, he'd join her on a walk in Konoha's cultivated parks or down her busy streets.
They went to a movie together and he'd draped one arm over her shoulders. Sakura had hid a shudder and leaned into it.
Hatake Kakashi liked to play with his food.
He's soulless now, Ino said one evening.
Sakura looked up from her trashy romance novel. You felt it?
Yeah, Ino replied. It's hard to explain. Be very careful, Sakura. He's coming for you now.
She got up, changing from her shorts and t-shirt, which she usually slept in, to a nightgown, which wasn't nearly as comfortable but looked like something the Sakura that Hatake knew would wear. Then she went back to her novel, curled up on the couch and waiting for the knock on the door to sound.
Ruthlessly she crushed the pity for his last victim even as she prepared herself to become his next.
No, Ino said. You're going to win. You're not a victim.
I know, Sakura replied as a knock on her door got her attention. She set her book down, marking her spot carefully, and got up. But he thinks I am. I'll play my part.
Answering the door, Sakura smiled shyly. "Kakashi," she said quietly. "Hello. Did… did you want to come inside?"
"I'm sorry to disturb you while you were getting ready for bed," he said just as quietly, as she let him in and closed the door behind him. "I'm afraid I quite lost track of time."
"Don't worry about it," she said easily. "Did you want something to drink? I have tea and juice and water."
He smiled, just like he always did, and said, "Tea, please."
As she waited for the water to heat, Sakura mulled over his speech. The words were the same as he'd usually say. But they lacked any… charisma. A soul must give him that power, she thought, lowering her eyelashes demurely as he came up behind her.
His hands were warm as they touched her waist. When she didn't shove him away or express any discomfort, he settled them there a bit more firmly. "There's something else I'd like," he murmured to her.
"To eat?" she asked artlessly. "I could make something? Or I've got the white chocolate biscuits that you liked so much last time." Sakura turned, as if to go and get them, and was unsurprised when he leaned down and stole a kiss.
It was a nice kiss, she supposed. He was certainly experienced at it and she kissed him back with every bit of enthusiasm she could muster.
"Oh," she said, flustered, when they were done. "I hadn't expected that."
"I'm sorry for springing it on you," he said, smiling. "But I've been thinking about it for a good while, Sakura. May I kiss you again?"
When hell freezes over, you jackass, she thought rebelliously, even while she tilted her head up coquettishly and giggled. "If you want to. I don't know what a man like you sees in me but…"
"There's plenty of good in you," he chided her. "You shouldn't talk yourself down that way."
Then he kissed her again. This time more deliberately, slowly, and Sakura thought, more invasively. She shuddered in his embrace, glad he'd mistake it for pleasure, and gave as good as she got.
"Yes," he murmured against her lips. "That's good."
Somewhere between the third and fourth kisses, they wound up on her couch, him on top of her. Sakura looked up at him, her face flushed and her eyes bright, and she initiated the five and sixth kisses, which got longer and longer.
She hated him, which was good, it gave her enough fire to keep the act up, though the purely sexual part of the act wasn't… wasn't much of an act. He was a damned attractive man.
He killed your parents! she reminded herself sternly.
He initiated the Bond after… well, she'd lost track of the kisses and the touches, but the Bond coming to life made his kiss sweeter, his touch more erotic, and Sakura whimpered as he drew his hands down her chest, caressing her breasts and then moving lower. "So lovely," he murmured and kissed her again.
This kiss felt like swallowing fire as the Bond kicked and screamed it's way into life. Sakura fought it, even though she knew it had to happen, that this was the whole plan. It felt too good.
Don't worry, Ino said in the back of her mind. I've got your back.
When Hatake fucked her, his newest victim, Sakura clung fast to Ino's presence and her promise and their plan.
The worst part was that him touching her like that felt good.
She hated him but the Bond, already, murmured that no, she loved him.
Sakura woke up alone in a tangled mess of sheets and pillows, smelling like sex. The Bond curled around her thoughts, insisting that this was good, this was right, wasn't she a lucky girl?
She was a lucky girl. She still had her mind and knew wrong from right.
Ino? You okay?
I'm fine, Ino answered quickly. You would not believe the amount of information we're getting out of this Hunt.
Tell me later, Sakura said, stumbling for the shower. She ached and while they were normally good aches, she could only remember Hatake and that made them bad. She felt dirty.
A shower made her feel a bit better, though the incessant murmuring of the Bond left her off-kilter. She still had her mind, still had her own will.
Part of her still really wanted to go and find Hatake and let him have his way with her again.
She studied herself in the mirror, searching for differences in her appearance. There were none, not this early into the Bond. He only had the smallest part of her soul. As his hold grew, she'd begin to show the effects of it.
Eating breakfast and going to work were the hardest things she'd ever done. Even with Ino's support, strong and warm, in the back of her head, the Bond was powerful and it wanted her to go and find Hatake. She had no doubt that, if she wanted to find him, it would lead her right to him.
Are you going to kill him tonight? Ino asked.
Sakura smiled as she set tea down for two customers. No. He needs to really believe it's taken hold.
I'm scared of what will happen if it gets much stronger, Ino warned. I think I'll be able to preserve what makes you, you but you're going to find yourself compelled to do things you don't want to do right now. He'll make you want them.
I know, Sakura said grimly. Don't let me forget my goal.
Sex with Hatake the second time was better than the first.
After, in another tangle of sheets, this time his, Sakura wondered if it was because more of her had wanted it—even though that longing and want had been brought about artificially.
The third and fourth times were even better and Sakura knew her thoughts for the truth.
Now that the Bond was established, he didn't bother with charming. Their 'relationship' consisted of sex and him slowly leeching away her soul.
Sakura despised him, in the depths of her mind, for what he'd done to so many people before her. They would have had no chance against him.
Her only chance came from Ino. She never forgot that, even though it was harder and harder to talk to Ino as the days went by.
Subduing the Bond was taking up more and more of Ino's attention.
That was a bad sign.
A month after her Bonding to Kakashi—she couldn't think of him as just Hatake anymore, the Bond didn't allow it—it was visible in her appearance. Her eyes were brighter, her hair shone with health, but she'd lost a lot of weight and looked like little more than a wraith.
He was using her up fast.
Soon, Sakura resolved, soon she would make her move. If she didn't, soon she wouldn't have the strength to do so.
Everything came down to soon.
Three days after that, her Hunt's goals changed abruptly. Kakashi had begun taking her along with him when he met with other vampires. She, docile and seemingly consumed under the influence of the Bond, went and did and said nothing unless prompted.
Like she was a pet.
The woman vampire that Kakashi took her to meet was tall, statuesque, and not someone Sakura had ever known. That was good because she knew the vampire's victim: it was Shikamaru.
You didn't tell me he never made it back!
Ino sounded near tears when she replied. I didn't want you to worry.
Shikamaru looked worse than Sakura did, decimated, and his eyes held nothing but adoration for the vampire Kakashi was talking to. She sat next to him and tried hard to not stare at Shikamaru.
He's still alive, Sakura said. I'm going to get him out. He'll be detoxed in time to meet his child.
Don't mess up your Hunt for me, Ino said softly.
I love you! Sakura insisted fiercely. I'm going to bring him back to you!
If asked, she could never remember any details of the conversation that Kakashi and the other vampire had that night. Her mind was too busy swirling through details and plans, discarding one after the other rapidly.
Shikamaru would be no help, she knew. Not when his mind had been caught for months, much longer than she, though she thanked the Will of Fire that he was still alive—the woman didn't go through her victims as fast as Kakashi did—and even when the vampire was dead, he'd be weak and reeling from sudden release.
She was going to have to do all the heavy lifting.
But that suited her just fine.
Two nights later, Sakura made her move. Kakashi didn't want her and, when she said she was going to her place—where he never went anymore—for a few things, he just waved for her to go and told her absently to be back by sunrise.
The Bond would make sure she was. Sakura bobbed her head, kissed him because the Bond told her to, and left.
She did go to her apartment—she'd had to give up her job, but Kakashi paid her rent, leaving her with some semblance of independence, just to taunt her—and picked up her weapons.
Sakura missed her crossbow but made due with her kunai, and explosive tags, and reviewed her fire jutsu.
Fire was the easiest way to kill a vampire. Decapitation worked but was harder. Poisoned arrows also worked, if given enough time.
Retracing her steps to the apartment that Shikamaru had been in was easy. Even luckier, for her, they were home. Sakura entered through the window of the empty bedroom and peered down the hall, a clocking jutsu wrapped tightly around her. The thrill of the Hunt raced through her blood.
It almost, but couldn't quite, drown out the sound of her Bond to Kakashi.
Shikamaru lay on his side on the couch. The vampire woman was reading. It looked like a domestic, peaceful scene.
The fact that it was all artificial fueled her anger.
The first fireball caught the woman square in the back. The second, as she turned with a scream, caught her right in the face.
She never had a chance. Sakura watched expressionlessly as the vampire burned, the fire eating into her skin and then racing along her veins, glowing so hot that she could see the trails of fire through the dress the woman wore.
Shikamaru made a choking sound, on his knees and clutching his head.
Sakura shot another fireball at the woman, just to make sure of her death, and then lunged for Shikamaru. He fought her but was too weak to get away from her. In the next second, he fell asleep, knocked out by a quick jutsu. Then Sakura channelled chakra into her arms and legs and picked him up.
His captor was nothing more but ash.
She smiled grimly, reworked her clocking jutsu to protect Shikamaru as well as her, and then began the harrowing journey back to her apartment. Please, she thought desperately, let me get away with this.
They weren't caught, despite many close calls.
Once back in her apartment, Sakura settled Shikamaru in her rarely used bed and showered for hours. A vampire's sense of smell was keen. The last thing she needed was Kakashi to smell ash on her.
She didn't worry about smelling like Shikamaru: Kakashi didn't pay any attention to who she spent time with.
When she got out of the shower, clean and wearing a dress of pale blue cotton, Shikamaru was awake.
"Sakura?" he asked fuzzily.
"Yeah," she said, "it's me. I've got to go but if you're feeling up to it, there's food in the fridge. Try to eat. You need your strength—we're getting out of here."
"Soon," she promised him. "Soon."
Thank you, Sakura, Ino whispered, her voice subdued.
Kakashi was agitated by the vampire's death—Sakura learned her name had been Shizuru—enough so that it was days, nearly a week, before she was permitted to leave his presence.
Sakura made no move to kill him during that week. His guard was up, he was wary, and Shikamaru needed time to heal.
Ino kept her updated on Shikamaru's recovery, which was going well but slowly, and Sakura made her plans for escape.
The first time he let her leave his presence Sakura went to the bookstore and picked up a few more romances. She didn't go anywhere near her apartment, knowing without Ino's whispered watch, that she was being followed.
All the victims were.
The second and third times were much the same. Sakura took a walk in the park and hung out at a café respectively and acted innocent. She got thinner, though, and knew she'd have to make her move.
The fourth time out, there were no watchers, so Sakura made her way to her apartment.
Shikamaru was armed when she got there. He was still too fragile looking for both her taste, and Ino's, but his intelligence was back in his face and he'd gained some weight. "You're Bonded," he accused her.
"Yes," Sakura said grimly, "to the vampire that killed my parents. I'm going to kill him and then we're getting the hell out of here. Objections?"
"No," Shikamaru said, with a low laugh that didn't sound amused. "When?"
"Tomorrow," she said, after a moment. "I can't put it off any longer. Not for you, not for me. Chakra is only going to be so much help if I get too weak. Can you run?"
He nodded. "Not as fast as I could nor for as long, but I'll make it home."
"You have your ribbons?"
Shikamaru's smile was brittle. "I went back to—her—place for them."
Sakura swallowed the urge to scold him about being reckless. He'd been right to get them. She wished that he hadn't had to take risks like that.
"Good," she said, instead. "I'll meet you near Imayori park at midnight tomorrow. There's a way out, through the waterway."
"Do you need backup?"
She tapped her temple. "Ino's got it covered. Just don't be late and we'll be home in a few days."
Will of Fire, she thought solemnly, we'll make it so.
The next day passed with agonizing slowness. Sakura let the Bond dictate her actions, forcing her to peace, while Ino kept her updated with things that were happening back in Yamanaka's.
Because of the Bond, Sakura slept and sat and stared. The only time she showed any activity was when Kakashi deigned to kiss her once he got up for the evening.
She wondered if he already had another victim planned out then told herself that it didn't matter because he'd be dead, soon enough.
Her first hint of unease came when, rather than wear his usual black-on-black ensemble, he pulled on a white robe. She watched him, her face blankly curious even as her mind tried to remember if he'd worn the robe before.
And he kept checking the time and moving like he… didn't want to be late. Sakura knew Kakashi as well as anyone did, as well as any victim could know their tormentor. Kakashi was always late and never cared.
But he cared tonight.
That boded poorly for her escape, she thought. If someone came looking for him…
She'd deal with that if and when it happened.
Much like Shizuru, her first fireball hit him square in the back. Unlike Shizuru, her second one missed and he went for her, his eye suddenly glowing an unearthly green as he tossed her into a wall.
She scrambled up, feeding chakra through her limbs to get off another fireball before he could touch her again.
"I knew it was one of you," he said, even as he burned. Even on fire he sounded viciously, terribly calm and charming. "You'll be dead next."
"You first," she said, as pain beat at the back of her skull. Not from her trip into the wall but from her Bond.
He reached for her but the fire that spit and burned inside his veins kept him slow. She left him burning in the room behind her and, for good measure, set the apartment on fire. She didn't feel bad about doing so: the building was owned and primarily occupied by vampires.
They could burn all they wanted.
Pain made her mind fuzzy, her reactions slow, and her steps faltered. She lost track of time. Horrified, Sakura blinked back into consciousness in time to realize that she was just about to enter the raging inferno that had been Kakashi's apartment.
You'll be dead next. She believed him now.
You won't be! Ino shouted, yanking hard on Sakura's mind before Sakura could take another step. Get moving! You need to reach the park!
Sakura stared at the fire, listening to the voices inside her that urged her to do conflicting things. One, the deep-set Bond, begged her to go into the fire. To find Kakashi. She could save him, the Bond insisted, even though he had to be dead by now.
The other was Ino's ragged, and pleading, and asking her to not kill herself.
Slowly, painfully, Sakura turned. The Bond screamed. Her steps were slow and uneven. She skipped the elevator, taking the stairs instead, everyone else having already fled, and tottered down each step with the effort of climbing a mountain.
She was soaked with sweat before she was halfway down one flight. She threw up on the third flight and kept going only because Ino's voice was getting louder and louder, urging her on, telling her to take the next step, promising her it would be okay.
Ino never lied to her.
Reaching the bottom step was like being dunked in ice water. The Bond snapped, causing her to fall, but leaving her mind clear for the first time in months.
Hatake was dead.
She wanted to laugh. She wanted to cry. She wanted to curl up and sleep.
But she was in a burning building and could do none of those things. Forcing herself to her feet, her body feeling like it was one giant ache, Sakura found the chakra to wrap a jutsu to hide her presence around her like a cloak and slipped out of the building.
She nearly ran into Naruto and even in managing to avoid him, was stunned by his presence. Hatake had been charming.
Naruto oozed charisma. He was tall and his blond hair and blue eyes—how unfair was it that he shared similar colouration to those she loved the best?—were aglow with energy and where he walked, he left behind afterimages that burned in her eyes.
"I'll find them," he said, almost casually, to another vampire. "Then I'll destroy them."
The determination in his voice left her cold. She believed he'd do everything in his power to do exactly what he'd said.
Sakura left before they could realize the Hunter they were looking for was still present. She raced, trembling, through the streets on silent feet. Behind her, the apartment building that Hatake had died in burned and burned and burned like a giant funeral pyre.
The park was deserted—no, it wasn't, Shikamaru stepped out of the shadows. "You did it?"
Her grin was pained and triumphant in equal parts. "I did it," she said. "Naruto's promised vengeance though. We need to go."
They'd be searching the village soon enough, if they weren't already.
The trip through the waterway was nerve-wracking. It was the most vulnerable place in their escape, the place where they'd be unable to get away if they were cornered.
But they'd been fast enough. No one stopped them.
No one found them.
Neither of them relaxed even the slightest once they reached the outskirts of the Nara forests. They still had days to go and, once there, they'd be kept in detox for weeks just to make sure they weren't going to turn into vampires.
"You're going to be home in time," Sakura said, wanting to give Shikamaru hope.
He looked doubtfully at her.
"You're going to be a dad," she said.
The slow, incredulous smile that Shikamaru gave her as the news sunk was worth everything. Sakura wrapped that joy around her tattered soul.
I wanted to surprise him! Ino complained half-heartedly.
Sakura couldn't help it, she laughed and Shikamaru laughed with her.
Mom, Dad, Sakura thought, as they turned to race through the forests, I hope you rest easily now.
It wasn't over. There'd be consequences to what she'd done. But that would come later, later. Right now, as far as Sakura was concerned, all was well in her world.