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秋 一

4, September, 1000

Tadami barely qualifies as a village. Most of it’s territory is made up of rice paddies, with the settlement itself consisting of a collection of squat buildings hugging the river. Harvest is a month away and the fields are full to bursting with healthy crops, but Tadami’s men, women, children tend them in tattered clothes that hang loose on too-thin bodies. The buildings that aren’t made from literal scrap show their age not in their style but in the amount of rot in the beams and holes in the shoji. Even from her vantage point at the top of a high hill Sakura can spot a mangy little girl digging through the trash behind what she guesses is the only tavern.

Sakura was always good at math. It takes her no time at all to calculate the ratio of field to building, average out what the yield of these fields could be from a good harvest like this, ring up a price for that yield, and come to the conclusion that someone is screwing these people. Considering how many bags of rice she has to move to the storerooms every week, she thinks she knows who one of those someones is.

"Don’t act so surprised," Kabuto sneers at her side, throwing Sakura back into the moment, "Get far enough from a country’s hidden village or it’s capitol and you’ll see all the same things. Come on. We need to enter town just as the sun’s setting if we want a plausible excuse to stay."

He turns and starts heading down the hill, dropping a Transformation Jutsu over himself as he walks to become a plain peasant looking haggard from a day of hard travel. Sakura follows his lead, turning herself into a girl with brown hair, brown eyes, and a farmer’s tan made darker by dirt. She hops up onto the back of the wagon and Kabuto takes the front, leading their nearly-lame mule back onto the road. Sakura leans against the bags of surplus masquerading as their trade goods, watching the road into town rumble by through her eyelashes.

Like clockwork, they roll into town exactly at sundown. Kabuto asks around about a place to stay the night– the roads are hardly safe by day in the Land of Sound, after all. They hitch up their wagon in the stable and head into the only tavern. As Kabuto gets everything sorted Sakura watches over her shoulder as that same filthy little girl sneaks into their wagon and steals away with as much of their surplus as she can carry. She wonders if Kabuto will even care that it’s missing. She’s certainly not going to tell him. They settle in for a meager meal and drink that’s far too strong, all the while scanning the barroom for their target.

The woman that arrives at seven would look ordinary to most assessments, middle-aged with gray-streaked hair and muddy eyes. The difference comes in how she carries herself, hiding her fatigue behind perfect posture and walking with the expectation that people will clear the way for her. And clear it they do. Heads perk up as the woman makes her way to the bar, eyes light up and people call "Good to see you, Honoka" from across the room with wide waves of their arms. Honoka receives the attention with a grin and small talk peppered with personal questions, such as inquiries about the health of parents and if children have written back from the city.

Sakura pretends to sip her moonshine. They’ve found their mark.

Kabuto and Sakura nibble at their dinner, whiling away the hours watching Honoka hold court. She moves through the people with ease and grace, a favorite aunt to some, a little sister who’s grown up well to others, a drinking buddy to make raunchy jokes with to yet more. She is Tadami’s favorite daughter, no mistaking. As the night rolls on the tavern starts to empty, with everyone who trickles out making sure to do it in full eye and earshot of the two strangers. The curious glances they’ve been getting all night start to turn to annoyance.

"Last call in one hour," the bartender calls, just a bit too loud for a warning only two patrons will actually need.

Kabuto meets her eyes for a split second and taps out a message on the table; W A I T   F I V E   M I N U T E S ,   T H E N   W E   G O .

Sakura takes a small bite of her rice with one hand and taps a reply with the other; O K .

They spend the next five minutes finishing their meal, then quietly excuse themselves up the stairs to their room. Once the door is shut and the shades are drawn, they set the scene. Two shadow clones are transformed to match their disguises and bundle themselves under the futon covers. Sakura drops her transformation so she can focus on draping a Greater Invisibility Jutsu over the two of them, and Kabuto compliments it with a genjutsu to muffle the sounds of their breathing, footsteps, and the rustling of their clothes. They move on silent feet out of the room and down the stairs, backs against the wall.

The barroom has transformed into a war room, with chairs pulled up around a large round table in it’s center. Honoka sits at the honorary head of the table, surrounded by nine other farmers whose eyes are all on her. Drinks have been set in front of them all, but no one raises them to their lips. There’s a low murmur of conversation between them as Honoka sits in silence and stares at the tavern door. The bartender is still present, wiping down the same glass as their eyes cycle between all the entrances and exits.

Honoka clears her throat and all conversation ceases; "Alright. Harvest is next month, so we don’t have a lot of time left. How are we on defenses, Sota?"

One of the men, clearly too old to still be farming, replies, "Seong-Hyeon should be returning with the black powder any day now. According to his letters the powdermonger was good for it, didn’t look too close at the counterfeit headbands and papers, just like we heard."

Honoka nods, the knot between her eyebrows failing to come loose; "Was he able to get any firearms?",

Sota winces; "He said that the powdermonger didn’t have any to spare, but… you know how he is. He probably let that anxiety get the better of him and quit while he was ahead."

Sakura feels with her sixth sense the chakra covering Kabuto move towards the table. He glides around it like a ghost, the crackle of chakra surrounding him raising the hairs on the back of the peasants’ necks. When he passes Honoka he dips in, sprinkling something colorless and odorless into her drink. He moves away and Sakura shuffles closer. She drip-feeds chakra into Honoka’s mid and hindbrain, imagining the feeling of her throat going drier and drier. After a moment, Honoka takes a sip of her drink.

"Can’t be helped," Honoka sighs, "The powder kegs are valuable enough on their own. So long as we can fashion a fuse and make a spark, they’ll do. Sound Village thugs will be coming to collect on the tenth, so we’ll need to have all our tools ready to be used as weapons and the road and river barricaded by then. Kyōko, have we made any progress on the river?"

Kabuto sprinkles the powder into Sota’s drink next, and Sakura leads him to take a sip.

A young woman with boyish short hair speaks up; "Yeah, so, you know how a ways upriver is that old village, Geojin? The one that turned into a ghost town? Well we were looking around and a lot of the old irrigation systems they put in place still work, so we can just close those dams instead of having to use ours and risk them getting too close too soon. Would that work?"

Kyōko is next on Kabuto’s list as he circles around the table like he’s playing a demented game of Duck, Duck, Goose. Sakura plays along.

Honoka shifts restlessly in her seat, but forces herself to smile and reply, "So long as we can get there and back with time to spare the night before, it should. Now… The big question. The last several meetings we haven’t gotten any closer to an answer, but it’s getting down to the wire. We have to decide this now. Are we evacuating everyone else?"

There’s a long silence before a middle-aged man with a dark complexion and a shaved head sighs, "I mean, what choice do we have? This isn’t their fight, anyone who isn’t here didn’t consent to this… revolution, if things go wrong–"

"Fuck’s sake Ryo– Every single meeting you go on and on about this being a matter of safety but it’s not," a man so young he’s little more than a teenager cuts in, "It’s a matter of logistics. We don’t have the resources to just pack everyone up and leave and send them off in the middle of the night! Even if we sent people off on the water buffalo, in every wagon we have and in every boat we have that’ll still not be enough for everyone! If we try to trickle it out over the ten day harvest people will notice and they’ll talk. It’s just not feasible to send everyone away!"

Powder in their drinks and dryness in their throats. Kabuto comes around behind Sakura and taps a message on her back; O N E   M O R E .

"It is absolutely a matter of safety," one of the older women fires back, "Pyong-Ho, if this goes badly, they will kill everyone. They’ll burn Tadami to the ground and salt the earth. They will erase any trace of us having ever existed! I don’t want that for my children, for my grandchildren! If we send them away they can escape that!"

Kabuto drops the last dose into her drink. After Sakura’s ministrations, she takes an angry swig. Now all there is to do is wait.

"Like there’s any escaping a ninja," an older man scoffs, "Anyone who flees will be tracked across oceans and deserts. Doesn’t matter how good you are at Hide and Seek, the shinobi always cheat."

The older woman runs a hand through her iron gray hair; "It’s not too late to hire rogue ninja to–"

A tall, broad-shouldered man breaks his silence by slamming his fist on the table and shouting, "Absolutely not! Why do you think we’re starving?! It’s so they always have enough to eat! If we cave and hire ninja to protect us we’re no better than that cowardly piece of shit squatting in the daimyō’s palace!"

"They left their villages, they hate the system as much as we do!"

"Have you even looked in a Bingo Book lately?! It’s full of monsters too insane for even those glorified asylums to handle! They can’t be trusted to uphold a contract!"

"It’s not like we even have the money to pay them, anyway."

"But without them, all we have is a couple casks of gunpowder and a bunch of farming equipment! How are we supposed to–?!"

There’s a loud clatter as Honoka is the first to fall out of her chair, convulsing on the ground. Her pupils have blown out, her limbs extended, her spine curves with each convulsion until she’s all but completely arched off the ground. There’s not much time to fret over her. Sota is the next to fall into a violent seizure, foaming at the mouth. Everyone Kabuto visited drops in short order, one after another, and those who remain frantically dart between the afflicted with no idea how to treat them.

The tall man points to the door; "Go get help! Go!"

One of the five remaining farmers, a young man, looks to the door and starts to move. Sakura catches him before he can. The young man makes a run for it, but trips over a chair she’d convinced him wasn’t there, slamming face-first into the ground. The packet of poison goes flying out of his pocket as he falls. So Kabuto’s been busy, too.

The young man pulls himself to his feet and makes it to the door, but it’s too late. Honoka violently seizes once, twice, a third time, then falls completely limp to the ground. Sota follows, then Kyōko, then Ryo and Pyong-Ho and the poor older woman. The five remaining farmers stare at the scene, eyes wide, jaws on the ground. The bartender keeps wiping down the same glass.

The tall man spots the packet and snarls at the young man, "You, you son of a bitch you turned on us?!"

"W-what?! No, no I– What are you talking about I–!"

"Don’t fucking lie to me! You slipped that shit in their drinks!"

"I-I swear to you I didn’t–!"

Sakura takes hold of the young man’s brain again, and after a moment his eyes go wide. He should be seeing an ANBU tattoo peeking out from the tall man’s sleeve.

He grits his teeth; "All this time… All this fucking time you–!"

The young man reaches down and pulls a dagger off his belt. The tall man’s eyes go wide and he doesn’t have time to react before the dagger is deep in his throat. He crumples to the ground, letting the young man go. The three remaining farmers, an older man and two women, stare at him in complete shock.

The younger of the two women points at him and screams, "Get the knife away from him!"

They rush the young man and grab him by the arms, but he flails wildly in their grip, smashing one’s nose in with an elbow and dropping the dagger. The younger woman runs in, grabs the dagger, and Sakura tricks her brain into sending an excess of adrenaline rushing through her bloodstream. In a breathless panic she starts stabbing the young man repeatedly in the chest, over and over and over. By the time she’s knocked away from him it’s too late. He falls in a bloodless heap in the middle of the carnage.

The older man grabs a chair while the older woman tries to talk the younger one down. Sakura drops her hold on the younger woman to take hold of the older man. When he turns around with the chair in hand, the women’s positions will be reversed, the younger standing where the older truly is. He creeps up behind the older woman, raising the chair high above his head. He brings it down on top of her skull. It fractures with a loud crack and she falls limp to the floor.

The younger woman lets out a shriek of terror and rushes him with the dagger. Sakura doesn’t intervene. She watches them struggle, the man using the chair like a makeshift shield and the woman desperately trying to stab at him around it. In a split second she gets a lucky shot, weaving around the chair and burying the dagger in his gut. He staggers back and topples to the ground.

As the young woman’s hands fly up to cover her mouth, eyes filling with tears, the bartender finally sets down their glass. They reach behind their back and pull a kunai off their belt. They toss it with a practiced hand and it pierces the young woman’s throat. She topples to the ground, twitching once, twice, then going still.

"And then there were none," Kabuto remarks as they both drop the genjutsu concealing their presence, "Excellent work, Sakura, Raven. Let’s get going, if we leave now we can intercept the agent carrying the black powder."

Sakura doesn’t say anything. Kabuto stares for a moment, then just shrugs and heads out the front door. The bartender’s Transformation drops, revealing the gray and black fatigues and porcelain bird mask of a Sound ANBU. They start to head out after Kabuto, but pause next to Sakura.

They ask in a deep, feminine voice, "I’m always curious about how you genjutsu types weigh what you do, at the end of the day. Do you feel like you killed them?"

Sakura’s voice comes out hoarse; "Yes."

Raven is quiet for a moment, then remarks, "Well. You’re the first I’ve heard say so."

They leave Sakura alone in the room. Once they’re through the doors Sakura darts between the bodies, looking frantically for someone, anyone who isn’t dead yet. Miraculously, the woman who’d been hit over the head with a chair is still breathing. She likely has a concussion, but she’s not dead. Sakura runs behind the bar, grabs some ice, wraps it up in bandages from her pack, and runs back to the woman. She uses the rest of her bandages to secure the ice to the swollen part of her skull, then gently slaps her cheeks to rouse her.

The woman blinks herself awake, bleary-eyed; "Wh– Who–?"

Sakura puts a finger to her lips; "Ssssshhhhh. Listen to me. You need to play dead for a little bit longer, okay? After ten minutes, get up, get your family, and leave. Tell everyone you can what happened here. The Sound Village did this, they tried to assassinate everyone here, but you can be the survivor. If you’re smart and you’re careful you can bring them to justice. Just remember to play dead for ten minutes exactly. Don’t fall asleep. Alright?"

The woman stares at her, eyes unfocused; "Oh… Okay…"

Sakura quickly nods and, with some rearranging of the broken and overturned furniture, obscures the woman’s head from view before making her way out of the tavern. Before she crosses the threshold she drops a simple genjutsu over her face, giving her red-rimmed eyes and tear tracks on her cheeks. She and Kabuto return to their wagon and Raven disappears into the darkness. Their mule limps along the road, Kabuto up at the reigns and Sakura sitting in the back.

"Check the cargo," Kabuto orders, "I think I saw one of the street rats trying to steal from the wagon."

Sakura pretends to check, and reports, "Looks fine to me."

13, October, 1000

Shikamaru is in the midst of kicking Sasuke’s ass at shogi when Sasuke suddenly asks, "About how much does the Nara Clan keep in savings?"

Shikamaru’s brow slowly arches, his piece hovering an inch above the board; "… Really wish you weren’t so fuckin’ awkward, Sasuke. The Hell kind of question is that?"

Sasuke frowns at him for a moment, but his face quickly snaps into a look of proper embarrassment; "Oh, f– No, I’m not– Listen, I haven’t actually been engaged in clan politics for like… I was gonna say six years, but no, actually I never really have. I’m not trying to like– I just need a point of comparison for something."

Shikamaru lets his eyebrow come back down and sets his piece on the board, taking one of his pawns; "For what?"

Sasuke moves one of his lances and explains, "Now that I’m a chunin I can finally access the Uchiha Clan’s bank account. When I first looked at the amount in there I was fine with it, it is a lot, but… After a bit, I started thinking that for a whole clan it didn’t seem like all that much. We were both pretty big and pretty rich, all told, but it’s been a minute since I’ve actually had a real sense of perspective about clan stuff. I was eight, an eight year old probably doesn’t have the best sense of scale where wealth is concerned."

Shikamaru drums his fingers on the board, one half of his mind making calculations and the other looking for his next move; "How much is in the account?"

"Twenty million ryo."

Shikamaru immediately looks up to meet Sasuke’s eyes; "The account’s been locked since the massacre, right?"

"Yeah. Assets frozen, too, but considering we didn’t invest much outside the clan it’s not really necessary."

"Then yeah, there should definitely be more money in there," Shikamaru replies, "With a ninja clan that size raking in money from normal missions, the police force, and all kinds of investments, even after taxes twenty million is next to nothing. You’re sure the account was locked?"

Sasuke takes one of Shikamaru’s pawns; "That’s what the brass kept telling me. I requested a list of statements covering the last six years and it didn’t show any change. After that I… I went looking through my old house to see what my father’s records on the account looked like, but anything that hadn’t been looted was so damaged by the elements I couldn’t read it."

Shikamaru closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose, groaning, "Great. More shit that doesn’t add up. Exactly what I needed. What a drag."

Sasuke narrows his eyes; "You know, last year you asked me if I trusted Tsunade. When I asked you why you wanted to know, you put it off, said we’d maybe talk about it over shogi."

Shikamaru drags his hand down his face; "Yeah, yeah I did say that didn’t I?"

Sasuke gestures loosely to the board; "Well, here we are."

"Here we are indeed, gimme a second," Shikamaru mutters, pulling himself to his feet and closing the storm shutters around the engawa, "Between my missions and not really making any progress I’ve been keeping this to myself, but if the whole Sakura-Orochimaru connection only hinted at you being a central piece of this puzzle this confirms it. You deserve to know."

Sasuke leans forward, bracing his elbows on his knees; "Alright then, let’s hear it."

Once all the storm shutters and shoji are closed, giving them privacy, Shikamaru settles back down and begins, "So. This all started when we got the mission to go after Sakura. Right off the bat I got the feeling that something about it was wrong. A bunch of genin and a chunin being sent on an A-Rank into enemy territory is one thing, now that I’ve got distance from it and know you vouch for her I can understand that was probably the only way Tsunade could get people on Sakura’s trail before it went cold. That’s not the problem. The problem is Sakura herself."

Shikamaru locks eyes with Sasuke; "Level with me, Sasuke. You know Sakura. You know her better than any of us, better than you think. Would she really resort to going rogue just because she’s got an inferiority complex?"

Sasuke stares at the arrangement of pieces on the board for a long moment, before letting his eyes slide closed and sighing, "When we were six, Sakura tried to turn herself in to the police because one of her library books was a day overdue. To get her to break the rules you need to make her desperate or show her a loophole she hasn’t already found."

"That’s exactly what I thought," Shikamaru continues, "But I also thought of something else. Judging by what I saw from Sakura in the second and third exams last year, Sakura’s willing to do whatever is necessary within the confines of following orders and the rules. So Sakura going rogue on her own doesn’t make sense, but what about Sakura going rogue because someone put her up to it?"

Sasuke’s eyes snap open, wide with shock; "What?"

"Think about it, from the perspective of the brass Sakura is the perfect low-risk, disposable mole in Orochimaru’s operation," Shikamaru explains, "She’s clanless, has no kekkei genkai, has an existing connection to Orochimaru through the curse mark, and is absolutely dedicated to following orders to the bitter end. My thought was initially that Tsunade had put her up to it, then took advantage of you being emotionally compromised to send us all after her on a mission doomed to fail that would cover her tracks."

Sasuke jolts up, nearly knocking over the board, exclaiming, "Are you serious?! That…" Sasuke’s eyes shift between Shikamaru and the board as he actually thinks the hypothesis over, then he slowly sinks back down, "… actually makes a lot of sense."

Shikamaru nods; "Yeah. But aside from your endorsement, when we got back from the mission I confronted her myself. Stupid move, I know, but I hadn’t slept in thirty-six hours and was feeling like a piece of shit, so I thought a bold move was in order. And I got lucky this time, because it actually paid off. Tsunade gave me information."

Shikamaru moves a piece and takes Sasuke’s lance without looking at the board; "Kakashi was the one who found Shino in the middle of that huge forest fire that started a while after we left. All that was in the overall mission report was that he’d gone after us, ran into resistance, and they left him for dead out there. What Kakashi reported is that the forest fire was set according to Leaf procedure for trapping hostiles and erasing material evidence. Kakashi found Shino before any evidence on his body had been destroyed. There were black stains on Shino’s jacket nobody had time to identify, beyond them not being blood or soot. Tsunade said that if this is an inside job, if someone from the village had Shino’s attacker waiting in the forest to take down our backup, then that jacket would disappear from the hospital without a trace."

Sasuke stares at his back row, eyes darting between his king and his generals; "… Shino got a new jacket after the mission."

"Yeah, he did," Shikamaru replies, "Because none of the nurses or orderlies could find his old one when he was discharged. Poof. Gone without a trace."

"So either Tsunade was gloating about her own coverup, something she’s definitely not stupid enough to do," Sasuke slowly remarks, "Or…"

"This doesn’t go all the way to the top," Shikamaru finishes, "It goes past the top. Kakashi said the forest fire was Leaf procedure but considering the ruthlessness of that tactic I’d say it’s probably more like ANBU procedure. ANBU is supposed to only answer to the Hokage, but I wouldn’t put it past Utatane or Mitokado to have their own inroads with them."

Sasuke frowns at the board, rubbing at a spot on the center of his forehead; "I… don’t know if I’d peg them as the conspirators. They have the authority, yeah, but… Unless they’re really good actors they seem like they couldn’t care less about Sakura herself. They…"

Sasuke’s other hand clenches into a fist; "Do you wanna know how long any conversation I try to start about retrieving Sakura lasts? Two minutes. At best. They don’t give a shit if she spills village secrets, because they’re convinced that there’s no way she could even know any. They don’t even care if she dies. The only thing they care about is that I care about her, because if I go after her again Orochimaru might snap me up and steal my eyes. They slapped her name in the Bingo Book and that’s the end of it as far as they’re concerned."

Shikamaru shrugs a shoulder; "Remember, they’re shinobi, same as any of us. They really could be that good of actors. And like I said, Sakura is a perfect low-risk, disposable mole. The fact that they don’t give a shit about her just makes that even more obvious. Though her name already being in the Bingo Book is more compelling. Even if they were accepting the possibility of her dying by Orochimaru’s hand you’d think they’d try to mitigate her getting killed for the bounty by some rando before she can get them any good, workable information."

Sasuke leans his cheek on his fist, staring hard at the shogi pieces; "Could it be someone in ANBU itself pulling the strings?"

"Maybe, but that’d be a hard lead to chase all the way down," Shikamaru replies, "You and me are adjacent to people who would actually know the identities of high ranking individuals like squad leaders and the ANBU Commander, but we’d get our asses wrecked if we were caught trying to actually find that out ourselves. And with the secrecy that surrounds the whole operation, even if we did rustle up whoever orchestrated it it’d be too easy for anyone else involved to disavow them as a rogue element playing by their own rules."

Sasuke scowls at the board and grumbles, "And I still can’t tell what all of this has to do with my fucking bank account."

Shikamaru takes a few more pieces off Sasuke’s side of the board; "I don’t doubt that officially your account has been locked and their assets have been frozen these last six years. I also know that with the police force gone ANBU has usurped all matters of internal law enforcement in the village. Your clan’s case has been the sole jurisdiction of ANBU and the Hokage’s office– including the Council– since the massacre. When investigating a crime you need unfettered access to all the information related to the victims. Your clan’s account has been locked, sure. But only the front door. The back door has been wide open this whole time. "

Sasuke’s jaw drops; "You’re saying–?!"

"Someone in the tower could’ve been embezzling from your clan’s account this whole time," Shikamaru cuts in, "And they’d have all the resources at hand to make it look like nothing had ever happened. Like I said, between Orochimaru having been after your eyes in the first place and the money missing from your account, either the Uchiha Clan or you specifically play some role in this. It might turn out that these things aren’t related. But going after Sakura almost got all our friends killed. This might get a friend of ours killed, if things go wrong with Sakura. I’m not throwing out a clue until I know for sure it’s worthless."

Sasuke can’t help a bitter little laugh; "Well, at least that rules out Tsunade. She didn’t even know the Uchiha were all gone until she met me."

Shikamaru nods, taking both of Sasuke’s generals; "Is there anyone else you can think of on the level of the council or the Hokage that could be in on this? I know officially the council is just Utatane and Mitokado but I know other old fogies who can’t handle retirement would cycle in and out of the conference rooms when the Third was in office. Any of them stick out to you?"

Sasuke’s brow furrows, a strange intensity in his eyes for a few tense seconds, before his face relaxes and he shakes his head; "No one’s jumping right out at me, but I’ll keep my eyes open the next time I’m in the tower."

He lets his face drop into his hands and groans, "God this is a fucking drag."

Shikamaru takes his king and snorts, "You’re telling me."

7, November, 1000

Any warm feelings coming home to the Land of Fire’s dense forests brings up in Sakura quickly drain from her as Orochimaru leads her Southeast, hugging the border with the Land of Hot Water. The land here slowly dips down the closer you get to the ocean, diving below sea level before it’s even in sight. The ground turns marshy, threatening to suck you down into the mud and trap you for the great beasts of the swamp to find. Sakura nearly rolls an ankle twice in their journey. Orochimaru travels through the land like she would navigate through her grandmother’s house, with ease, familiarity, and a light fondness that brings a quirk to the very edge of his mouth.

After two days, they’re close enough to the ocean that fog rolls off it in the morning, saturating the air with a salty tang. It’s almost refreshing, this early in the morning. How it brings visibility down to a foot certainly is not. Some of the swamp trees have given way to limestone spires, but the landscape is no less crowded than it ever was. The mounting sense of unease settling heavy in Sakura’s gut doesn’t budge.

"You’ve been very quiet, Little Flower," Orochimaru remarks as he strolls through the pre-dawn darkness, "Something on your mind?"

Sakura purses her lips and pushes some hair out of her eyes, taking a long look around; "I’m just… I suppose I’m just wondering how much further we have to go?"

Orochimaru pauses to shoot a taunting grin over his shoulder at her; "Really? You’re wondering if we’re there yet?"

Sakura frowns at his back; "I was trying to be diplomatic about it, but yes. You said it would take two days to get to Ryūchi Cave, and this is the morning of day three."

"Doubting my sense of direction, are we?" Orochimaru wonders with a sing-song lilt coating his voice like caramel.

"Not at all," Sakura replies, "Just perhaps wondering if you didn’t slightly undersell how long the journey would be."

Orochimaru whirls around to walk backwards, putting a hand over his heart and a mock-wounded expression on his face; "Does that really sound like something I’d do, Little Flower?"

Sakura answers that by frowning deeper and arching a brow.

Orochimaru laughs, rich and dark; "My little teacher’s pet, you catch on quick as always! But this time I wasn’t having fun with you. Ryūchi Cave is a cagey mistress who guards her secrets jealously. To find her you have to be deliberately seeking her, and to seek her is to accept that your route to her will take as long as she thinks is necessary for you to traverse it. Sometimes it takes two days, sometimes three, sometimes five. You never know for sure. I simply gave you my best guess."

Her bangs fall back into her face and Sakura stubbornly tries to talk and blow them out of her eyes at the same time; "So then how do we know if we’re there?"

No answer. Sakura pushes her bangs out of her eyes, and she’s utterly alone in the swamp. For a moment, all she can do is try to blink the shock away. The second she does, her stomach does a flip. She immediately reaches out with her chakra sense, trying to ferret out what genjutsu Orochimaru is hiding under, but immediately hits a gigantic bank of chakra. There’s chakra all around her, soaked into the marsh, running through the veins of the trees, floating in the fog. It’s as if she’s suddenly stepped into a gigantic body, it’s chakra network thrumming around her in time with it’s heartbeat.

Sakura bites her lip and for a moment starts to refine her focus, but stops herself. What good is that going to do? This is Orochimaru’s game, this is how all her training has been since the day she arrived and it’s not about to change. He explains something in the vaguest possible terms, then leaves her to sink or swim alone. Whether or not she can decipher his hints is part of the training. Sakura takes a deep breath, stands up straight with her shoulders back, and walks resolutely forward.

Ryūchi Cave will reveal itself if she seeks it. She keeps that in the center of her mind as the ground beneath her feet slowly starts to firm up from muddy marshland into limestone. The sun has to have risen by now, but the fog shows no signs of burning off. If anything, it’s getting thicker. Sakura purses her lips and pushes on. She won’t blink, not for Orochimaru and not for the snakes of Ryūchi Cave.

A breeze whirls in from the East, blowing away a section of the fog to reveal what appears to be a humble temple entrance built into the side of one of the larger limestone spires. The gilding has been worn away by years of salt water damage, but the structure is remarkably well-kept. Two massive stone statues of rearing cobra sit on either side of the front steps, their mouths wide open to reveal needle-sharp fangs and long forked tongues. More striking than any of that, however, is the simple presence of a young woman sweeping the porch.

She perks up and turns to Sakura with a look of surprise. She’s dressed almost like a miko, but not quite. Her hakama are a deep forest green, her dark hair has been pulled into three separate buns, and around her forehead is a delicate golden tiara with two green ribbons attached at the temples. On a cord around her neck hangs a jade pendant carved in the shape of a tomoe. Sakura can’t help the frown that slowly unfolds across her face.

The young woman smiles kindly down at Sakura and bows from the waist; "Ah, welcome to Ryūchi Cave. You must be a pilgrim seeking the White Snake Sage. I am one of her disciples, Tagorihime. You look exhausted, poor thing, you must come inside and rest a while."

Sakura lets her mouth fall open, slowly replying, "Uh… Thank you for your hospitality."

She climbs the steps and follows Tagorihime through the front doors into a dark antechamber lit by a few flickering braziers. Incense burns at the foot of another statue of a rearing cobra, this one monumental in scale and carved from white marble. Sakura is dimly aware that Tagorihime is saying something about getting her some food, but she’s too busy scanning the room.

Beyond the statue are two hallways that fade into darkness; Tagorihime disappears down the westernmost hall. The incense has something of a salty scent, not unlike the fog outside, and nothing like Sakura’s ever smelled in a temple. Sakura looks to either side of the door for somewhere to put her sandals and doesn’t find a shoe rack. Sakura crosses the distance to the two incense sticks and intently watches them burn, taking meticulous note of the rate at which the incense shrinks.

At just that moment Tagorihime’s voice chirps from down the hall, "You’re quite lucky, I found some treats in the pantry."

Sakura turns to see Tagorihime returning to the room, beaming with two plates of umeboshi and rice in hand. She settles down cross-legged on the floor in front of the statue and beckons Sakura to join her down there. Sakura, for a moment, only stares at the pickled fruit. The umeboshi Orochimaru keeps in the storerooms are the sour, salty sort, but these carry the unmistakable scent of honey. Sakura sits across from Tagorihime and takes the plate.

"I’m surprised a temple of ascetics would keep something like this in the pantry," Sakura remarks.

Tagorihime giggles, "Even ascetics need a bit of energy every now and again. Keeping a whole sacred cave system in order is honest work, certainly, but when there are only three or four of you around at a time to do it the task is quite fatiguing. The snakes aren’t much help, for reasons I imagine should be obvious. Now please, eat. I wouldn’t want you to meet the sage on an empty stomach."

Sakura’s eyes are focused on the plate. After a moment, she lets them slide shut, and takes a deep breath in through her nose.

The scent that hits her is absolutely putrid. It’s the scent of rotting flesh, rotting fruit, rotting wood, the pure encapsulation of rot.

Sakura opens her eyes and glares at Tagorihime; "You’re good at this. But I’m better. Drop the genjutsu and let me pass."

Tagorihime cocks her head to the side with a concerned tilt to her brows; "Whatever do you mean? You must be exhausted from your long journey, poor dear, I–"

"Shoes aren’t allowed inside temples," Sakura cuts her off, "Most of them have places for visitors to put their shoes just inside the door. The incense smells like the fog outside, and it’s burning too fast. You did almost have me with the umeboshi, if I hadn’t been suspicious already I probably would’ve just given up and taken the opportunity to eat my favorite food again. But it was my favorite food, and that was too perfect a coincidence for me to trust it. Like I said, you’re good at this. But I’m better. Let me pass. I won’t ask a third time."

Tagorihime isn’t the first thing to break. First, the food on Sakura’s plate melts into a black sludge filled with misshapen lumps and wriggling pieces. Sakura shoves the plate off her lap and onto the floor as the firelight flickers out, the floor turns from hardwood to limestone and the monumental snake statue starts to crumble. Tagorihime’s smile stretches into a misshapen grin, her mouth falling open to reveal sharp fangs and a forked tongue. Her form shifts, limbs retracting, skin shedding to reveal white scales, eyes turning a bright gold with dagger-like pupils.

"Clever clever," she hisses, "Your chakra would have been so delicious, arrogant as you are. You may think you are skilled in genjutsu, but we have the wisdom of centuries behind ours. You are a hatchling who hasn’t shed her egg tooth."

With a deep, resonant snap, the image of the temple falls away, dropping Sakura into a dripping cave lit only by the faint glow of luminescent crystals jutting out of the ceiling every few yards. Sakura glances over her shoulder in search of the entrance and finds only a winding path disappearing into the dark. She looks back just in time to see the back half of a white snake, speckled with green scales and half the size of Sakura herself, slither into a hole in the wall and disappear.

Sakura tentatively takes another look back over her shoulder. To be this deep into the cave system already when it felt like she’d barely stepped through the front door of that temple… Maybe she should have held her tongue.

Sakura heads forward, deeper into the cave, but she has a feeling that it wouldn’t really matter which direction she went. She finds herself hovering near the wall, fingers dragging along it to keep track of her position in the low light. Through her gloves she can feel the smooth surface, worn down by so much water and the motion of massive snakes that it almost has the finish of chrome. The glow from the crystals twinkles off veins of minerals in the walls, the points of light like stars in a night sky.

The tunnels take her on long, winding paths, their shifts in direction and elevation so gradual Sakura stops being able to tell what way she’s headed except 'forward'. Periodically she checks to see if she’s under the effects of Sly Mind Affect Jutsu or anything similar, leaving shuriken lodged into the walls or scoring a small line in the stone with a kunai and waiting to stumble upon them again, but she never does. Keeping track of time becomes next to impossible. She could’ve been walking for minutes or hours. All she knows is that the ache in her feet has been slowly and steadily getting worse the further she walks.

Eventually her path opens up into a larger chamber with glowing crystals covering the ceiling, lighting up the whole room. Geometric crystal shards litter the floor, each no bigger than the palm of her hand. Sakura tentatively steps into the room, eyes running over every inch of it. Once she’s at the center the ground pitches and rumbles beneath her feet. Sakura trips to her knees. As she shoves herself up slabs of earth a foot thick shoot up and block the two entrances, sealing them up so tight not even air can escape.

Sakura looks wildly around before a youthful, female voice chirps, "Well that’s not good!"

She whirls back to the entrance she came through to see a girl, probably a year or two younger than her, leaning against the barrier blocking her way. Unlike Tagorihime her manner of dress is much more casual, her white and blue robe lacking sleeves and ending far above the knees. Her white sandals resemble those of a gladiator instead of a ninja, her dark hair is up in two buns, her face is framed by a gold tiara and a pair of blue earrings shaped like tomoe. She’s resting her chin on her hands, smirking merrily at Sakura.

Sakura schools her face into a frown and asks, "And who are you?"

She cocks her head to the side with a giggle; "You may call me Ichikishimahime! I wouldn’t waste much time talking to me if I were you– You have quite a task ahead of you if you want to get out."

Sakura’s brow furrows and she turns to examine the other exit. The slab of rock covering the way out is covered in geometric divots, each cleanly carved and shaped. She slowly looks down to the pieces of crystal at her feet. At first glance she’d thought them pieces randomly chipped from the chandelier of crystal above, but now that she takes a closer look they’ve all been cut into pyramids, diamonds, squares, etcetera and etcetera. Sakura picks up a pyramid-shaped red crystal and holds it up to the door, closing one eye. It would fit perfectly into one of the square divots.

"This is really the trial," Sakura remarks, turning back to arch an eyebrow at the 'girl', "A matching game."

Ichikishimahime throws her head back with a hearty laugh; "Even after walking for so long you’re still full of yourself! Your chakra is going to be even sweeter once it’s worn down! Go ahead, try your best! Give it your all! You’ll waste away trying to prove your worth!"

Sakura rolls her eyes and turns away from the girl back to the pieces of crystal on the floor. She pulls a pair of bobby pins out of her weapon pouch and pins her bangs back before settling down on her knees and starting the process of methodically separating the crystal pieces into categories based on their shape. After what feels like three hours but was probably one, Sakura has ten different piles in front of her, each consisting of around fifteen to twenty crystals. She then picks up one crystal from the pyramidal pile and closes one eye. She compares it against the holes, finding about five where it would fit. She repeats the process for each shape, this taking what feels like one hour but was probably two.

Once Sakura has finished, she laces her fingers under chin and frowns at the door. The gems she has fit all but one of the holes on the door. The remaining hole is a strange shape, a pair of rectangles sitting at a right angle to each other, and is just slightly too small to finagle two of the rectangular gems to fit in it without taking any drastic measures. Sakura picks up two of the rectangular gems and holds them next to each other. Theoretically she could maybe adapt an Earth style technique to melt the two together, but crystal requires precision even she hasn’t mastered to manipulate it, and–

Wait.

Sakura stands up and crosses the distance to the the door. She takes one glove off, reaches out, and places her hand against it. The feeling of stone against her palm is unmistakable, with the same smooth finish as the tunnels beyond. Sakura closes her eyes and takes a deep breath, pulling Earth chakra out from the base of her spine. She channels it down through her feet and up and out through her hand. The chakra that leaves her feet pulses through the ground, up into the walls, pooling in the glowing crystals, treating the earth like it’s an extension of her body. The chakra that leaves her hand hits open air and dissolves into nothing.

Sakura opens her eyes and turns to Ichikishimahime; "Okay, I’ll admit it, that one was a lot better. I don’t think I could’ve tricked every mundane sense at once, especially not as well as you did."

Ichikishimahime frowns and sticks a forked tongue out at Sakura, blowing a raspberry; "You’re a big fat cheater, just like little Orochimaru. But you did think outside the box to figure out the trick, so I guess I’ll let you go on. I’d like to see you try and cheat Tagitsuhime."

Sakura blinks and Ichikishimahime has instantly reverted to the form of a white and blue python, the barriers blocking Sakura’s path disappearing with her human disguise. The snake slithers quickly out of sight and Sakura is left utterly alone in the chamber. Sakura takes the moment to stretch and quiet her growling stomach with a food pill. After taking an inventory of her weapons and supplies, Sakura sets off further into the cave.

She doesn’t get far. The chamber is still a light in the distance when a hard weight slams into Sakura’s back. The unmistakable piercing pain of snake fangs buries itself in her neck. They pull a pained shriek from her as they withdraw, and a deeper pain shoots through her veins in time with her heartbeat. Her vision blurs and spins, then clears to reveal a woman with fair skin and dark hair towering over her. The woman’s hair is pulled into one bun that spills into a ponytail, a golden tiara perched upon her head. She wears the red and white robes of a priestess, with a necklace of three red tomoe settled around her neck.

The woman speaks in a voice that is high yet resonant; "I am Tagitsuhime. You have slithered your way around Tagorihime and Ichikishimahime’s trials, but this is not a puzzle to be solved. This is a test of your heart. If you cannot withstand it and your heart breaks, it is mine to consume."

Sakura tumbles to her knees, the pins in her hair coming loose and her bangs falling down over her eyes. The pain is nothing like the curse mark. It is oozing and cold, settling heavy wherever it touches and penetrating down to the bone. Sakura grits her teeth, pushing herself up to her knees with one hand and shoving the hair out of her eyes with the other.

Standing above her is no longer Tagitsuhime, but the unmistakable shape of Kakashi. Immediately Sakura starts to whisper "He’s not real" over and over under her breath, but the pain courses down her arms and the look of disappointment in his eye forces her to look down towards his feet.

Kakashi’s voice is weary as he asks, "What’s the point of this? How is this getting you any closer to fulfilling your mission? You could’ve slipped poison into Orochimaru’s saké and started slowly poisoning him months ago. Instead here you are, blatantly following in his footsteps. What are you really trying to accomplish?"

Sakura bites her lip and hisses through her teeth, "He’s not real, he’s not real, he’s not real–"

There’s the scuff of sandals on stone and Sakura’s eyes are instinctively drawn back behind her. Naruto is glaring down at her, teeth grit in a snarl, eyes blazing red and hands clenched into fists. It’s Naruto as she last saw him, as he was the moment before she fired an arrow of Yin chakra directly into his heart.

He sneers, "Face it, you didn’t take this mission because you care about the Leaf Village. All you’ve ever wanted is to prove to everyone that you’re better than them. That’s why you’ve been treating these spiritual tests of character like they’re exam questions with a right answer, because you were just itching to prove that all the time you’ve spent studying genjutsu was actually worth something."

"You and Orochimaru are a match made in Heaven," Sasuke’s voice spits from her left side as Sakura’s eyes travel up his legs, past his brace, all the way up to the disdainful glare he shot her way every time she’d fallen short of the standard he and Naruto set, "You’re both know-it-alls obsessed with learning more, no matter the cost. You’ve been hurting and killing innocent people on his order so you can stay under his wing. You’ve been manipulating people who are just as much Orochimaru’s prisoners as you are, all in service to your mission. You and Orochimaru treat people like things."

On her right Ino appears, shaking with equal parts rage and fear as she snaps, "You talk such a big game about doing this for your friends, for the people you love, but you hurt them the worst. You left your mother and Kakashi all alone. You tossed me aside like trash. You broke Sasuke and Naruto down, you fought to kill them, you made Sasuke’s leg give out and were ready to drown Naruto. You said horrible things to them, as far as they know you hate them. All they wanted to do was help you and you spat in their faces."

Kakashi is gone and Gaara stands above her, cold eyes staring at her from either side of the scar she gouged through his face; "You rake them both across the coals for being reckless and stupid, but you’re worse than them both combined. You feel it, don’t you? The Curse Mark eats away at your mind, when you use it you act like an animal. The more you’ve used it the more shortsighted, the more aggressive, the more arrogant you’ve become. It’s a curse. And you’re utterly addicted to it. What will happen when you accomplish your mission? The Leaf Village will want to finally get rid of it or seal it off indefinitely. You’ll be stuck with your own meager chakra reserves, your own skinny body, things you’ve barely worked on fixing with training because why train when the curse mark can do everything for you?"

Naruto is gone, and her mother’s voice is exhausted, exasperated, at the end of her rope with this girl who just won’t listen; "What do you even want, Sakura? What comes after Orochimaru dies? What comes after you come home a hero? Do you just settle down as the next matriarch of the Uchiha? Do you become a jonin and teach genin for the rest of your life? Do you use the skills you learned here to join ANBU and manipulate and assassinate yet more innocent men and women who just want to live lives where they don’t have to worry about starving? How can you even go back to the Leaf Village after what you’ve seen here?"

Sakura looks up. All the people she knows are gone. A face she has only seen in photographs stares back at her. Rin is her height, thin but not as dangerously, worryingly skinny as Sakura is now. She stands up straight, not as a posture put on to make people think she knows her purpose, but the natural result of certainty and determination.

A voice Sakura has only ever imagined asks, "Who are you, Sakura Haruno?"

Sakura feels like she’s turning to stone as the pain permeates her body down to her cells. She wants to cry, but realizes after blinking that she already has been. She stares down at her hands as they brace against the ground, desperately straining to keep her upright. Her body is shivering violently, like she’s out in the middle of a blizzard. Everything they’ve said is no more and no less than what creeps into her mind every night as she lies in the darkness of her room on her cot, staring at the ceiling. Of course it is. This is genjutsu, it turns the mind and the heart against themselves. Her mind and her heart turn on her every time she lets the doubt seep in. So how does she always break that spell?

Sakura closes her eyes and goes back to the moment that brought her here. She remembers biting down hard on the side of her tongue, the tang of blood filling her mouth. She remembers the burn, the ache of the muscles in her legs as she forced them forward, running gracelessly but with all the passion, all the fury and speed her skinny little body could hold, to protect one of the few fixed points in her world.

Sakura opens her mouth and quietly replies, "I know that every single thing I’ve done, that I’ve endured, that I’ve given up, it’s all been for love. And I believe… I have to believe that a life lived with love and with courage is one that will end, however it ends, without regret."

There’s a long silence, punctuated only by the sound of water dripping from the ceiling.

The voice that breaks it belongs to Tagitsuhime; "So there is something strong inside you. You may be our most interesting pilgrim yet."

The seeping, freezing pain disappears as quickly as it arrived. Sakura slowly lifts her head and looks around. There was no fade, no flicker, no skip. One moment she was in a narrow, damp tunnel, the next she’s in a massive, excavated cavern lit by enough crystals and torches to make it seem bright as daylight. Rows of stone tablets covered in ancient writings flank a walkway leading to a temple entrance flush against the rock wall, the very mirror image of the illusion Sakura entered through. Tagorihime and Ichikishimahime kneel on either side of the massive doors, heads bowed, eyes closed, hands folded in their laps.

Tagitsuhime stands on the front steps, smiling down at Sakura; "You have passed our three trials. The White Snake Sage awaits you within the temple. I will leave you with a piece of advice. A strength can easily become a weakness if it is used on the wrong battlefield. Consider your weapon carefully before you draw it. Now go. The Sage will become impatient if you dawdle."

Sakura drags herself up to her feet. She feels like she just came out of a fight for her life– and if Tagitsuhime was being serious about eating her broken heart, that isn’t so far off the mark. Sakura climbs the steps to the double doors and pulls herself through them, stepping into a dimly lit chamber that smells of clove and cedar wood. At the head of another set of steep stairs is a massive stone throne carved in the shape of a coiled dragon. The first ten coils of the White Snake Sage’s body lie draped across the throne. Her tail winds throughout the room, piled on top of itself, looping around and around and disappearing off into darkness. The Sage adorns herself with gold bands around her tail, an emerald pendant easily the size of a boulder, a bejeweled black turban and an orange headdress. Clenched in her jaw is a massive cigarette holder with the source of the clove scent burning at it’s end.

Sakura immediately drops to her knees and bows so low her forehead touches the floor; "I-it’s an honor to meet you, Your Holiness."

The laugh that… emanates from the White Snake Sage is dry and rattling, like the sound of dead leaves crunching underfoot; "Where were these manners when you faced Tagorihime and Ichikishimahime? I ought to eat you for being so two-faced, Hatchling."

Sakura feels an embarrassed flush spread up her neck all the way to her forehead; "Y-you… would be within your rights to do so, Your Holiness. I didn’t show this place and it’s inhabitants the respect they deserved. Tagitsuhime reminded me of my place, and I… I-I beg your forgiveness."

Another rattling laugh, this one with a warmth to it; "Get up off the floor, Hatchling, you’ve made your point. I hardly expected you to be humble. Your students never are, Orochimaru."

Sakura rises back to a sitting position just in time to see Orochimaru emerge from behind the White Snake Sage’s throne. It’s rare to see a naked, unvarnished emotion on Orochimaru’s face, at least when he’s sober. And now… Now he’s staring at her in pure, unadulterated shock.

A section of the White Snake Sage’s tail undulates out and bumps Orochimaru’s back, knocking him slightly off balance; "What’s the matter, boy? You expected her to make it, didn’t you?"

Orochimaru shoots a quick glare up at her, but doesn’t respond. He makes his way carefully down the staircase to Sakura, eventually stopping right in front of her. He kneels down, offering his arms; Sakura takes them, letting Orochimaru help her back to her feet. He doesn’t let go. His expression is… complicated. He’s not smiling, his lips are pursed, but there’s something… bright in his eyes. He opens his mouth a few times, but no sound comes out, and he has to close it again and look away for another moment.

Finally, he murmurs, "I’m… impressed. You… You did quite well to make it here."

Sakura can only stare at him, mouth hanging open. That’s the first compliment he’s paid her that wasn’t coated in a thick glaze of mockery or a damnation through faint praise.

She lets herself smile; "Thank you, Sir."

"Now," the White Snake Sage booms, snapping them both out of the moment, "Come forth, Sakura Haruno. It’s time for you to sign the contract, and for us to see what kind of summoner you become."

Sakura’s eyes are wide, locked on the giant snake that looms above her, surrounds her, threatens to constrict her. Orochimaru gives her arm a gentle squeeze, the most reassurance he’s ever given her.

Sakura bows at the waist; "It would be my honor, Your Holiness."