Subject: [FFML] [Fanfic][Naruto] Suiren, Chapter 9: Breath...
From: "Eimii" <>
Date: 12/13/2006, 12:21 AM

Disclaimer: Point out a character in this part that Kishimoto _doesn't_ 
own, and win a dollar! No, really! ...well, not really, but still, on 
the off chance that you _did_ find one, i'd wager on it being your 
imagination, since all the characters that i know of happen to be the 
property of Kishimoto Masashi, and i'm using them without permission, so 

Spoiler and Continuity notice: Er... if anything, this is an 
anti-spoiler section. You really need to know your Chuunin Exam canon 
well to immediately realize what's going on, so hold on tight!

Violence Warning: There are fights in this chapter! More importantly, 
Anko is in the general vicinity of one of these fights; you should 
probably realize what that means, by now. You have been warned!

Non-Yaoi Warning: Y'know, if there are any yaoi fanboys or fangirls out 
there still holding onto some hope that you'll get to see Naruto and 
Sasuke cuddle in this fic... er... nevermind; keep on hoping! And 
reading! Keep reading! Maaaaybe it'll happen... riiiiiiight...

Harsh Language Warning: Haha! This is the first new warning i've had to 
write since these revisions began, because, for the first time _ever_, 
i've uncensored all of the '#$)(&' things that everyone seems to hate...

...So yeah, on that note, i should mention that i've made several other 
_major_ changes to this chapter since i posted it on 
This version combines the last three parts of "Breath" in the original 
numbering scheme, parts 3, 4 and 5, and incorporates several adjustments 
and revisions. Many of these changes are unexpected ripple-effects of 
the changes that were introduced in "Green" (much to my chagrin -_-;), 
while others were introduced to ease the transitions between sections 
and make the story flow better- and then, of course, there are a few 
that i made just because i felt like it. In one case, i tried to make a 
certain technique more 'thematically approprate' to its creator...

All taken into consideration, it might be best to consider this a new, 
'Quick and Extremely Painful' version of "Breath..." I'm tempted to call 
it "Breathe Faster!" but that just doesn't roll off the tongue as well. 
As usual, comments and criticism are always welcome. There's a lot of 
new material in this that has never gone under the hammer before, so go 
to it ^_^;. For those of you who've read this before, i'd especially 
like to hear what you think of the revisions, and for those of you who 
are reading this for the first time, i hope i've managed to make the 
chapter better this time around, as i was never fully satisfied with it 
before. And now, i shall get out of your way; please sit back, relax, 
and enjoy the show!





"What exactly did you mean, when you told Sakura to 'remember her 

"Haha! Have you noticed something interesting, Kakashi?" Absently 
kicking his current enemy across the gallery, the bushy browed jounin 
looked over his shoulder at his comrade. "While I admit that the 
progress of your other students is truly impressive, you were foolish to 
ignore adorable little Sakura-chan!"

Though his tone bore only mild reproach, Gai finished with a 
self-satisfied smile that seemed to say, 'Haha! You are a worthy 
opponent, my eternal rival, but today, victory is mine!' Pausing, the 
mightiest taijutsu master of Konoha faced forward and motioned boldly at 
a pair of Sound nins that were circling just out of reach.

"You left your forgotten subordinate in quite a bind, you know," he 
continued, countering the attacks of the two hostiles with effortless 
ease as he lectured the gray-haired shinobi. "They say a maiden's heart 
burns like a beacon for the man she loves, but a kunochi is a warrior as 
well as a woman. Even if those boys shine brighter, that is no excuse 
for letting Sakura-chan's flame go untended."

Noticing that his rival was barely paying attention, Gai pressed on with 
a bit of a swagger, refusing to be defeated by Kakashi's hip, 
unconcerned attitude. "It is fortunate that she came to me for help. If 
it were neglected any longer, the determination in her heart might have 
simply burned out-"

"Hah!" Fading into view behind Gai's opponents just as the first one 
fell, Anko reached around and grabbed the remaining sound nin under the 
chin, spinning him like a top as she ripped out his throat. "I think I'm 
more worried about the way the she keeps sticking her hand in the fire!" 
she quipped, leering like a maniac and licking the blood from her 

*She- she _stole_ my metaphor! And before Kakashi could even react to 
it!* Trembling at the indignity, but still impressed by the brunette's 
ironic timing, Gai was reluctantly forced to call this match with 
Kakashi a draw on account of interference.

That didn't mean that he would be denied a victory, however. "That 
reminds me of a child I once knew," he mused wistfully, sizing up the 
younger woman. "I can remember how she used to come home with burned 
fingers and lumps on her head after trying to steal sweet chestnuts from 
street vendors..."

Anko's expression soured for a moment, but she recovered quickly. "Well, 
if we're talking ancient history here, I can remember a few things too, 
fuzzy," the kunoichi purred with a predatory grin. "I doubt _anyone_ 
could forget the time you-"

"Ahem, did you want something, Anko?" Kakashi interjected, clearing his 
throat. The copy-ninja's expression of inquiry was for the examiner 
alone; it was as if Gai wasn't even there.

*Such- such style!* It was all Gai could do to keep from crying in 
frustration. Kakashi's tone had struck the perfect balance between 
disinterest and impatience; he had completely taken command of the 
conversation, and now _Gai_ owed _him_ for that conveniently timed save!

*The battle rages on! I must not fail in my next attack!* Clenching his 
fist in determination, then planting it firmly in an unfortunate Sand 
nin's face, Gai valiantly sallied back into the fray. "Indeed, 
Mitarashi! What business do you have here? Shouldn't you be attending to 
your emergency duties?"

"I was on my way there when I saw you and broom-head here talking to 
those kids," Anko replied testily, flicking a couple needles over Gai's 

She was forced to shout her next question over screams of pain, as a 
sound ninja with her needles sticking out of his eye sockets stumbled 
past them and fell through the hole Gai had punched in the wall. "Y'mind 
telling me what the hell you're doing, sending my clone off on some 
errand in the middle of a battle?"

*Clone?* Gai had no idea what Anko was talking about. Looking to the 
masked jounin provided no revelations; Kakashi had trained his face to a 
strategically sound, 'You don't need to know that,' expression. *Cool 
under fire as always, Kakashi!*

Still, armed as he was with a wit mighty enough to ferret out even the 
most elusive truth, the Beautiful Green Beast of Konoha didn't need any 
support to face the wild woman's inquiry. "I think you're mistaken, 
Mitarashi. This is the first time I've spoken to you today," he declared 

Anko's reaction wasn't the whiny denial or chastened sulkiness that he 
expected of her, however. "You mean you didn't know?" Grinning even 
wider than before, she shook with some barely contained emotion.

A glance at Kakashi's impassive face only seemed to strain her control 
further, until finally the dam burst before a torrent of mocking 
laughter. "_NEITHER_ of you noticed that Sakura-chan was a clone? 
HAHAHAH! That's fucking hilarious!"

Reeling as the banshee's wail mercilessly castrated his ego, Gai nearly 
missed the fractional widening of Kakashi's eyes that indicated the 
gray-haired ninja had also taken a mortal wound. *Only now do you 
understand, Kakashi, the venomous bite of disdain.* Feeling a new 
camaraderie with his life-long rival, Gai rallied his spirits anew to 
face their cackling foe.

"What would you know of it, Mitarashi?" he demanded, graciously taking 
point in their counterattack. When the laughing woman had spoken 
Sakura's name, the battle of words had unexpectedly come full circle, 
and _his_ time had finally arrived. "Though I am a fair man, and know 
better than to drink from the poisoned spring of gossip, even my 
wonderful, pure-hearted Lee has had his ears sullied by the rumors 
circulating about you and my precious new student- and now this! It just 
seems too coincidental!"

Standing back to back with Kakashi to show the righteous solidarity of 
platonic teacher's love, Gai pointed an accusing finger at the examiner. 
"If the girl who was here just a moment ago was truly a clone, then tell 
me, what have you done with my darling Sakura-chan?"

*Shit, we've gotta be getting close to Sasuke by now! It's now or 

Trying not to fall out of the canopy as she split her focus, Sakura 
strung together the seals to form a single, slightly unusual bunshin. 
Thanks to her genjutsu, she was reasonably sure the team of Hidden Sound 
nins she was shadowing hadn't noticed her, but one of them was bound to 
sense her hostile intent sooner or later.

To keep her mind clear in the moments it took to catch up, Sakura 
concentrated on adjusting the weapons she had hidden in her kimono. The 
ones she'd be counting on the most were a tad slippery, but she didn't 
have time to worry about it now. Clamping down on her pre-fight jitters 
until they rattled around like knife-edged dice in her stomach, Sakura 
threw herself into the fray.

Invisibly overtaking the trackers as they maneuvered around a wide break 
in the tree cover, Sakura jumped straight through the middle of the 
clearing and sent her clone leaping high into the sky above. When her 
enemies looked up in surprise, she and her doppelganger reached into 
their sleeves and pulled out twin handfuls of wetly glistening needles, 
fanning them in a deadly spray to either side.

Two of the four chose to parry the projectiles with kunai, rather than 
dodge. While they had little trouble intercepting the illusory needles 
raining from above, neither noticed Sakura's 'shadow' attacks. One of 
them had enough time to stagger to the ground before the paralytic 
poison took effect, but the other took a needle in the side of the neck 
and dropped like a stone.

Landing lightly, Sakura nearly fainted in relief when she saw that her 
remaining targets were ignoring her as they warily scanned the 
battlefield; her real attack had been hidden cleanly. Sakura turned her 
gaze skyward to see her badly damaged bunshin falling toward her.

The clone had been completely dismembered and white smoke bled lazily 
from nearly a dozen holes in its body, but it was dissolving much more 
slowly than normal- perfect. Moving into position, Sakura formed a 
series of seals and prayed. *STABILIZE!*

The effect was immediate. Springing back to 'life,' the clone flipped in 
midair to land on its newly reformed feet. Smoke streaming in to fill 
its wounds, the illusory 'ANBU' grabbed his katana and rushed one of the 
remaining Sound nins, who didn't seem to know what to make of this 
startling development.

Pacing the clone as close as she dared, Sakura drew her own sword and 
grabbed a few more needles from her sleeve, moving in for the kill. The 
sound nin reacted in time to block her decoy's first slash, and Sakura 
simultaneously launched her own strike to land at the exact same spot, 
making it feel like the clone's attack had been real.

The startled look in her opponent's eyes was encouraging; he'd reacted 
out of caution, and wasn't expecting the blow to be solid. Adjusting his 
stance, he gave the clone a greater measure of his attention, exactly as 
planned. Sakura's best chance at remaining undiscovered was to keep them 
too confused to realize she was there.

Sensing an attack from behind, Sakura twisted out of the way as the 
Sound nin perched in the trees hurled a kunai at her bunshin's back. The 
weapon passed clean through without resistance, leaving a smoldering 
gash in the clone's shoulder and forcing his comrade to dodge as well.

Her nearer opponent's sword dug a cross-wise gash in the bunshin's chest 
with as he spun aside, but the fox-masked man counterattacked like the 
wound was nothing. Sakura was close enough to read the disbelief in her 
enemy's eyes as swing after swing landed with the weight of steel, even 
as the ANBU slowly disintegrated.

Finding an opening that her more distant foe wouldn't be able to see, 
Sakura ducked under the arm of her 'dance partner,' her left hand 
darting out with the speed of a striking viper. Standing behind her 
victim, the green-haired girl folded the needles back into her sleeve as 
he crumpled, two small holes hidden in the crook of his armpit; the 
serpent's venomous bite.

Planting her sword, Sakura performed the bunshin restoration jutsu once 
more. *Three down, one to go!* she affirmed with new confidence. The 
young kunoichi was then forced to hurl herself to the side as a 
veritable cloud of shuriken passed through the space where she was 

Sakura's heart pounded in her throat as she rounded on her remaining 
foe; had he seen her? A glance found him scanning the clearing warily, 
even though she was still out in the open, so her genjutsu hadn't been 
broken. Looking back at where her bunshin still stood, Sakura nearly 
groaned at her own stupidity as the blade of her sword, stuck upright in 
the ground, glinted at her tauntingly.

After she'd kept still for several seconds the Sound nin growled an oath 
and reached into his thigh holster, pulling out what appeared to be a 
smoke canister. Ducking back into the cover of the trees, he tossed it 
into the center of the clearing, where it proceeded to puff out a thick, 
but not completely opaque fog.

*Poison gas?* It didn't seem likely, with his teammates down, but Sakura 
grabbed a treated cloth out of her gear just in case. Covering her nose 
and mouth with the smoke filter, the green-haired girl pulled her fox 
mask down over top of it.

While she was adjusting the ties to keep the cloth snug against her 
face, a faint whistling sound caught her ear. Sakura looked to her right 
just in time to see a few leaves on the ground leap into the air as if 
they were alive, before a glistening, half-seen ribbon of light shredded 
them to pieces- razor wire! *FUCK!*

As the whistling sound approached again, Sakura made a desperate lunge 
for her sword. She grabbed it just in time to parry a pair of kunai that 
flashed out of the gloom, coming straight at her. He'd definitely seen 
her that time, she observed, trying not to panic as she ducked to roll 
under the hair-fine blade that sliced through the air a moment later.

Drawing up short as another kunai thudded into the ground in front of 
her, Sakura's eyes widened as she noticed how the smoke swirled around 
it, almost tracing its path. _That_ was how he was tracking her! *I've 
gotta get out of this smoke!*

Her opponent didn't seem willing to cooperate, however. Between the 
singing coils of wire that kept her diving out of the way and the sharp 
bits of metal that came flying at her every time she tried to move 
faster than a crawl, he was doing a pretty good job of boxing her in.

Because he kept attacking, however, the quick-thinking kunoichi was able 
to follow her opponent's movements as well. By the way he was leaning on 
wire sweeps and creeping toward one of his downed teammates, Sakura 
guessed he was out of ammunition. Now was the time to finish this, 
before he had a chance to re-arm.

Unfortunately, though the wire disturbed the cloud enough that Sakura 
could see it coming, he was getting better at anticipating which way she 
would dodge. His attacks changed directions faster and more accurately 
each time he forced her to move, and she'd already had a few close 
calls, including a long, shallow cut on her upper thigh.

Deciding to gamble one more, Sakura pulled off her kimono and wrapped it 
around the sheath of her sword. Having her bunshin run down the 
imaginary line she'd drawn between herself and her tormentor, she tossed 
the bundle behind the decoy, disturbing the smoke.

Whistling toward her, the wire immediately dropped to ankle height. He'd 
realized that she had to be touching the ground to change directions 
quickly during a charge.

The grim-faced kunoichi was counting on that. Jamming the sword into the 
earth at an angle, she hopped up to balance on the hilt. She felt the 
sword vibrate as it caught the whip-like blade and wrapped it around. 
Drawing a kunai in one hand and two poisoned needles in the other, 
Sakura launched herself toward her target, shadowing the bunshin and 
sprinting as fast and as low to the ground as she could.

The edge of the clearing approached almost too quickly; it hadn't seemed 
nearly so close when she was stuck on the defensive. Surging up the tree 
that she'd pinpointed as the sniper's nest, Sakura was greeted by a foe 
with wild eyes and a ready sword. *Crap! Too tight!*

There wasn't any room to move in the branches of the tree her opponent 
had chosen, limiting her avenues of attack to a single path; one which 
the sound nin charged down sword first, straight through the gutted 
bunshin. Then, at the last moment, his attack faltered mid-lunge, 
allowing her to twist out of the way unscathed.

Parrying his textbook follow-up slash, she planted a needle firmly in 
the side of his neck and flipped back out of reach. Sakura waited to 
make sure he was truly paralyzed before liberating his short sword and 
moving to a safer position.

Visually locating all of her prey in the rapidly thinning haze, Sakura 
grew very still, straining her senses for any sign of hidden enemies. 
She was surprised when she found one almost immediately- and so close! 
She was practically on top of him!

*Dammit, I'm sure there were only four of them! Did they call for 
reinforcements?* Shifting carefully, Sakura focused on a patch of 
underbrush where she'd caught a hint of motion.

The subject of her scrutiny must have felt her hostility, for he 
immediately rose to his feet, revealing the familiar, brush-headed 
visage of a former classmate. "Genin, Team 8, Aburame Shino" he 
announced without emotion or ceremony, not looking her way.

*Shino?* What the hell was Shino doing out here? It was possible that he 
was following Sasuke as well, but it was just as likely to be a trap. 
She'd be damned if she was going to fall for such a simple ploy after 
the fight she'd just had; she had make sure he was real, somehow.

A glance at her bedraggled bunshin revealed it to be in the final stages 
of disintegration, but it might still be salvageable. Carefully lowering 
herself to the ground and circling the suspect ninja, Sakura performed 
the restoration technique once more, holding the kodachi under her arm 
this time.

The copy of her up in the trees stirred without fail, slowly rising to 
his feet to face this new threat. "Prove it," the fake ANBU answered 
cautiously, sheathing his blade.

"You're not very trusting," Shino observed, stepping out of the bushes.

The clone tilted his head skeptically. "Should I be?"

"Of course not."

*Above!* Momentarily distracted as she turned her gaze skyward, Sakura 
was surprised again when 'Shino' suddenly melted into a writhing 
mountain of bugs. Flowing across the ground like a living wave, the 
swarm retreated back toward the cover of the underbrush.

"Satisfied?" the taciturn boy queried from his perch on a nearby branch. 
He was looking in her direction warily, but Sakura could tell that he 
still wasn't sure where she was.

Breathing a tired sigh, Sakura relaxed, laying her sword over her 
shoulder. "Alright, I'm satisfied. I've heard of the bug-using Aburame 
Clan," she admitted, releasing her genjutsu.

A tiny thrill of satisfaction coursed through Sakura as Shino flinched, 
ever so slightly. He'd been looking right at her without even realizing 
it. Then the true reason for his surprise reared its ugly head. "...A 
girl," he observed intelligently, his gaze lowering by a fraction.

"Eh?" Glancing down, Sakura realized that her tattered gray t-shirt was 
flayed open diagonally in front, and the loose binding she'd tied over 
her breasts had been neatly bisected as well. Apparently she hadn't 
escaped the Sound nin's last attack _completely_ unscathed.

"Aaaaah!" Blushing to her shoulders, the masked kunoichi favored her 
ogler with a murderous glare. "Wh-what are you looking at?! Turn 
around!" she screeched, punctuating the command with the point of her 
sword. Surprisingly, Shino complied without argument, allowing Sakura 
run over and retrieve her kimono.

"How long have you been watching?" she asked as she smoothed out the 
garment and inspected the damage, her anger temporarily pushed aside as 
she remembered the odd way that Sound nin had hesitated. Going over it 
in her mind, Sakura realized that his body language had showed all the 
signs of being paralyzed in fear, just for an instant.

"I noticed the smoke, and arrived shortly before you defeated that last 
one," Shino answered candidly. From the sound of his voice, Sakura could 
tell he was still looking the other way.

So it was possible Shino had aided her; the green-haired girl couldn't 
help but feel a little disappointed. "He seemed distracted. Was that 
your doing?"

"Unlikely: your final technique was... impressive." For a moment, Sakura 
almost thought Shino sounded a little uncomfortable. "Even if I'd tried 
to divert his attention, I doubt I would have succeeded," he added.

*Huh? Final technique?* Sakura failed to see how making a suicidal dash 
at a prepared opponent could be considered good strategy. *I guess maybe 
Naruto might think that, but he's an idiot.* Still, the revelation that 
Shino hadn't helped her made her feel slightly better. She didn't need 
anyone to protect her.

Taking off her scarf, Sakura tied it around her waist to hold the kimono 
closed and retrieved her katana. Then, lifting the fox mask slightly, 
she pulled the poison filter out from under it and put it away. "Okay, 
you can look now," she declared, crossing her arms over her chest.

Stepping into the clearing, Shino favored her with a flat look of 
appraisal, lingering for a moment on her mask. "You sound familiar," he 
declared without inflection; it was a statement of fact, rather than an 

*He didn't even apologize for staring!* Sakura fumed, bristling in 
irritation. "We've spoken before," she replied dryly. She didn't have 
time to explain her situation right now, but the tanned girl vowed that, 
one day, she would show him the error of his ways.

When Shino nodded in understanding, she turned to go. "If you'll excuse 
me," she concluded impatiently, "I have a job to do."

"You're following Uchiha Sasuke?"

This frank observation gave team seven's kunoichi a moment of pause. 
"And if I am?" she ventured warily.

The bug boy didn't answer immediately; he probably didn't have a 
legitimate mission of his own. "I overheard a conversation between the 
Hidden Sand genin before Nara's fight," he offered after a moment. "They 
have some plan that cannot proceed without Uchiha Sasuke's presence. I 
don't believe Shiranui-san was aware of this when he ordered Sasuke to 
chase them. I'm attempting to intercept Sasuke before he catches them."

"I have no objections to that," Sakura allowed, trying not to sound too 
eager. Even though she'd resolved to protect Sasuke all by herself, if 
necessary, she was grateful to discover that she wasn't alone. "We 
shouldn't waste any more time," she suggested urgently. "I was shadowing 
these ninja because they were tracking him, but it's going to take some 
time to find the trail they were following."

"That won't be necessary; I can follow them by scent," Shino corrected 
in the same matter-of-fact tone he always used.

"Eh? How?" Could bugs do that? Sakura supposed it made a certain amount 
of sense. Scent was the most primitive of the senses; even the simplest 
creatures could 'smell' the chemicals in their environment. She'd never 
heard of bugs finding people that way, though.

The sunglass-clad boy motioned for her to follow. "I will explain while 
we move."

"This scent!"

"What now? The shampoo again?"

"A fight, kid," Pakkun grumbled testily. "The ninja following Sasuke got 
into a fight."

"Huh?" Pausing before his next leap, Naruto turned to give Kakashi's 
weird pet an angry, impatient look. "Did they catch up with Sasuke?"

The dog shook his head. "No, one of the five fought and defeated the 
other four, and then left with... something else that arrived 
afterward." The pug-faced mutt grimaced, and Naruto was proven wrong; he 
actually _could_ get uglier. "Those two are still following Sasuke."

That seemed like an awful lot of information to find out with just your 
nose, the blond boy thought- and what did it matter if the folks chasing 
Sasuke beat each other up? "How do ya know there was a fight?" he 
prodded, bounding to another branch to keep up with the pink-haired girl 
ahead of them.

Sighing, the summoned beast elaborated. "All of them smell like blood, 
and the four that stayed behind stink of poison." He sniffed the air 
thoughtfully. "To be more specific, the poison is a neurotoxin made out 
of vines that grow only in the Forest of Death; it's commonly used by 
Konoha ninja."

"Konoha? He's on our side, then, right- the one that won?" Naruto 
pointed out, his irritation fading.

"We can't know that," Pakkun cautioned with a grave frown- or maybe that 
was just his regular face, but he certainly _sounded_ serious. "They 
were traveling close, but it's impossible to say if they were together, 
of if the fifth ninja was following the others. If they were together, 
that one could be a traitor for either side-"

"No, the one that used the poison is definitely an ally," Sakura cut in 
mysteriously, not taking her eyes off of the trees ahead. The only thing 
readable in her voice was the absolute certainty that she was right. 
"What about the last one?"

*Sakura-chan...* Naruto was starting to worry about his teammate. She'd 
looked half-ready to kill the stupid dog when he'd asked about her 
shampoo, and she'd grown eerily quiet since then. *Well, at least she 
ain't mad now,* he mused uncertainly.

Pakkun's manner again grew uncomfortable. "That one's even more 
worrying," he explained hesitantly. There was definitely a frown on his 
ugly mug this time. "It's not even human..."

Crouching low, the dark-skinned girl squinted at the branch in front of 
her critically. "And they're sure this is _exactly_ what the notes look 
like?" she asked, turning to her partner.

"Positive," Shino confirmed. "Destruction bugs do not completely 
understand the concept of 'color,' but they can tell from the 'taste' of 
the paper where the different kinds of ink are."

A pair of fine green eyebrows furrowed behind Sakura's mask as she 
resumed scrutinizing the two distinct patterns before her. One of them 
was most likely written in invisible ink and the other in regular ink, 
to hide the secret of the note's trigger. If that was the case... 
"Alright, I think I know what we're dealing with," she proclaimed. "Good 

As inscriptions dissolved into a swarm of bugs and began insinuating 
themselves back into Shino's clothes, the tall boy cocked his head to 
the side. "You must be quite experienced with traps, for I remain 
uncertain of how this one functions."

*Damn straight! I was the top of my class in traps!* Sakura 
congratulated herself, but she couldn't fault Shino for not catching 
this one. It seemed to function in a way that she'd never heard of 

"It's a motion sensing trap, but the wires aren't really tripwires in 
the traditional sense. Instead they're tuned to produce sound at 
particular frequency when they vibrate, which will trigger the notes 
near them. They're under high tension, so just landing near them should 
be enough to set them off."

The sword-wielding girl stood, glancing around and mentally pinpointing 
where Shino's bugs had located the notes. "Unlike our perimeter wards, a 
bunshin couldn't set them off. Our notes react to chakra entering within 
a specific range," she elaborated. "It should be possible to disable 
them, but it will take some time."

"Then perhaps we ought to set them off. The lead we've gained on Sasuke 
won't be great," Shino pointed out. According to Shino's scent tracking, 
the Sand nins had made a hard turn somewhere, probably to throw off 
pursuit. When Sakura had caught their physical trail again, the signs 
indicated that Sasuke hadn't passed yet, so he'd probably been delayed 
by a false trail.

"There may be more of these we haven't found, and setting them off 
should serve as a warning to proceed cautiously," Shino added, looking 
in the direction that Sasuke would be approaching from.

After a moment's thought, Sakura nodded in agreement. "Indeed. Better 
safe than sorry."

"A kunai near one of the anchor points of the wire should do it," the 
bug-boy predicted, reaching into his coat.

"Yeah- wait!" Frowning, Sakura went over the pattern of the traps in her 
head once more. "There's a narrow path left open for observation; the 
one that set these might still be here watching. Let's do this another 
way." Making room beside her, Sakura created a pair of clones.

"You stated that a bunshin would be unable to trigger them," Shino 
observed flatly.

"Not with motion, no, but there is a way." One of the clones continued 
talking for her as Sakura raised her concealment genjutsu again. "I'm 
betting we can draw out our watcher at the same time."

She was about to explain her strategy, but Shino was already looking at 
the cluster of trees where they would find their would-be ambusher. 
"Sasuke may change direction when he hears the explosions. If he does, 
should I attempt to intercept him?" the serious boy asked.

Sakura couldn't think of any reason to argue. "Sounds like a plan, just 
give me some warning first. You go clockwise?" At Shino's nod, the 
masked girl drew her stolen kodachi in one hand and her last poisoned 
needle in the other. "Okay, ready? Here we go..."

Taking a calming breath, the green-haired girl and her chosen 
doppelganger began circling the danger zone to the right, leaving the 
other clone behind while Shino vanished into the forest on the left. The 
traps didn't cover a large area, and Sakura had to remind herself not to 
rush, since Shino wouldn't be able to move as quickly or stealthily as 
she could. The aim was a pincer attack, so coordination was important.

Their distraction began right on time, and Sakura slowed to allow her 
personal decoy to find cover. Starting quietly but quickly growing in 
volume, the bunshin she'd left at their original position was singing. 
In theory, if she hit the right pitch, she could start a sympathetic 
vibration in the wires and trigger the explosion notes.

Beginning low and climbing the scale steadily, the false Sakura's voice 
echoed clear and strong through trees, easily marking her location. 
Hopefully, their prey would take the bait, or at least be distracted for 
a moment. Positioning herself, Sakura prepared to pounce, but as the 
wordless song entered the high registers that they'd practiced endlessly 
in kunoichi training, all hell broke loose- literally.

Dropping her poisoned needle, the kimono-clad ninja clung desperately to 
the branch she'd just landed on as the forest to the left of her erupted 
in a deafening wall of fire. "HOLY FUCK!" Sakura didn't even hear the 
sound of her own voice as she swore; she hadn't expected the explosion 
to be nearly that big.

Ducking behind the tree trunk for shelter against flying debris, the 
startled girl almost missed her cue as a familiar Hidden Sand genin 
jumped backwards out of a hiding place close to the edge of the inferno 
and flipped away, her eyes closed against the intense heat.

*Now!* Dashing in to intercept, Sakura attempted to knock the giant fan 
out of Temari's hands. To her surprise, the blonde girl flinched as she 
drew close, twisting away at the last moment. Opening her fan as she 
landed, Temari glanced around warily, adopting a defensive stance and 
searching for the source of the attack. Sakura then realized that her 
decoy bunshin had been blown away by the explosion. *Dammit! Shino, 
where are you?!*

As if summoned by Sakura's thoughts, a pair of kunai whipped past 
Temari. Leaning to the side for a retaliatory strike, the older girl 
presented Sakura with her back once more. Bounding forward to knock the 
blonde out with a single blow to the base of the skull, Sakura was 
frustrated again when Temari seemed to sense her right at the moment of 

Cancelling her windup into a block, the Sand nin hopped away, releasing 
a Kamaitachi in Sakura's general direction. The wind attack was blunt, 
but blanketed a wide area, and Sakura found herself blown back several 
yards before she managed to regain control.

While she was finding her bearings, the unmistakable deadpan of Aburame 
Shino echoed from Temari's other side. "Plan B," he declared, his voice 
growing distant even as he spoke.

*That jerk!* Even if this was what they'd agreed upon, he could have 
stuck around long enough to do more than throw a couple kunai! *Dammit, 
he'd better keep Sasuke safe, or I'm gonna introduce that jackass to 
Mom's favorite family-sized can of Raid!* Returning her attention to 
Temari, Sakura found that her opponent had also been affected by Shino's 

"Gaara!" Her eyes widening in realization, the blonde made as if to 
follow the sound of the retreating voice, but was brought up short when 
a handful of small projectiles whistled across her path.

Mentally berating herself for not preparing more poisoned needles when 
she'd had the chance, Sakura came up quickly on Temari's left to cut the 
blonde off if she tried to chase Shino again. With her back to the fire, 
Sakura blazed through the bunshin seals in record time, creating a ring 
of fox-masked ninja to surround the other girl.

"No you don't!" one of the decoys snarled, while Sakura began closing to 
melee range once more.

Frowning, Temari responded by whipping her fan around in a cutting arc 
that annihilated half of Sakura's clones in one go. "I don't have time 
to deal with you!" she snapped, attempting to run through the opening 
she'd created.

Sweeping in low and unseen, Sakura finally managed to connect with 
tripping kick, sending the other kunoichi tumbling into the branches 
below. Still, Temari had almost dodged that time as well; she'd reacted 
to the attack only a moment too late.

As she jumped down after her prey, Sakura frantically tried to piece 
together what was happening. The Kamaitachi that had taken out her 
clones hadn't even been close to hitting her, so Temari couldn't see her 
_all_ the time, but whenever she closed to strike, Temari seemed to know 
exactly where her attacks would come from. This told her that the Sand 
nin's ability to pierce her genjutsu had a limited range- perhaps a few 

Sakura was immediately forced to revise this assessment when a blast of 
wind scythed over her head as she dropped down into the lower canopy. 
Temari was staring in her general direction now; the lack of a follow-up 
attack indicated that blonde still couldn't see her, but that had been 
too close.

Looking around, the green-haired girl noticed the smoke from the nearby 
fire rising through the gaps in the leaf-cover, and suddenly understood; 
the motion of the smoke had given her away again.

Moving out of the thickest part of the haze, Sakura reappraised her 
opponent. At a distance, she couldn't touch Temari; when she threw 
needles, the cloaking effect on them faded fast if she didn't use a 
'shadow' ruse, giving Temari plenty of time to dodge and counter with a 
wind blast.
If she closed to melee range, however, she would be totally exposed, and 
she didn't like her odds in that situation; Temari was looking a lot 
fresher than she felt after, fighting those Sound nins. Striking with 
ranged attacks from just outside of Temari's 'zone' was probably her 
best bet, but first she had to find out how close she could get before 
Temari could sense her.

Approaching warily as her remaining five clones circled like jackals, 
Sakura readied a handful of needles and a kunai while the copies drew 
both katana and kodachi instead. It was a thin ruse, but every little 
bit helped. Forty feet dwindled into thirty, then twenty.

At ten, Temari bolted for it, clearing the path with a small swipe of 
her fan. The blonde had probably swung at random, as Sakura wasn't in 
the path of her attack, but when the green-haired girl moved to follow, 
Temari pivoted and released another Kamaitachi behind her.

Having seen this knock-back technique before, Sakura regained control of 
her flight quickly, but still couldn't avoid the blast. Catching hold of 
a passing branch as she fell, the young kunoichi growled in frustration; 
she's walked right into that one. With scowl, Sakura swung back to her 
feet and leapt off in pursuit.

*Damn, this guy is better than I thought. Looks like we're gonna have to 
get serious.* Shifting to hide his left hand from the bug-user, Kankuro 
paused to test the wind. It appeared the weather was on his side this 
time; he was upwind of his opponent, so using a poison gas bomb wouldn't 
be a problem. *Alright, let's finish this quick, Karasu!*


Not daring to take their eyes off of each other for more than a moment, 
both Sand and Leaf nonetheless glanced down as Temari burst out of the 
trees and landed on the branch between them, next to the black-clad 
ninja's anxiously twitching puppet. The blonde girl was watching behind 
her warily, but spared her teammate an angry, worried look. "Kankuro, 
where's Gaara?!" she demanded.

In spite of himself, Kankuro felt a rush of relief at his older sister's 
return. "It took you long enough," he chastised with a grim smile. 
Turning his body slightly, the Kugutsu user began explaining the 
distance and direction of their teammate in sign. "I've got this guy, 
but the- AAAAH!"

Nearly falling from his perch in shock, Kankuro leapt away, staring down 
at his hands; he now had a large needle driven cleanly through the 
center of each palm. "Shit!" Glancing around for his attacker, the 
puppet master felt a peculiar sense of foreboding as he found a trio of 
masked, sword-wielding ninja bounding up through the trees after him.

"Damn, a Hunter?" Landing on the vertical face of a tree-trunk so he'd 
have something solid at his back, Kankuro began removing one of the 
needles with his teeth. Controlling Karasu with the other hand, he 
slowly drew the puppet back to his side. It was painful and awkward, but 
there was no way he could face a trained ninja-killer without full use 
of his hands.

To make matters worse, it appeared that the bug-boy had used the 
distraction to hide again. At least his green haired assailants were 
keeping their distance for the moment, circling like vultures about 
twenty feet away.

"Don't stop moving!" Temari commanded, coming as close to panic as 
Kankuro had ever seen her when Gaara wasn't concerned. "She's using some 
kind of cloaking technique!"

*Aw, crap!*  Doubling over, Kankuro launched himself between two of the 
circling clones. The sudden jolt nearly stabbed the needle through the 
roof of his mouth, but he kept pulling. He was dead meat if he couldn't 
use his hands, but he was a sitting duck if he stood still. 
Unfortunately, he couldn't evade and control Karasu at the same time, 
which rendered his best weapons useless.

When he landed, Kankuro was mildly surprised to find Temari rushing to 
his side; had he not gotten the message out fast enough? "Get Gaara and 
go!" he urged. "If that Uchiha brat finds him-"

"You won't be able to watch my back like that," his sister replied 
curtly, placing herself back-to-back with him on the branch. "Move when 
I move, but concentrate on tending your hands. Afterward, you go and get 
Gaara. I'll deal with them."

*Temari...* Unsatisfied, but feeling it unwise to argue in the middle of 
battle, the Kugutsu user continued prying the needle from his right 
palm. It was hard to ignore the clones, though, as they caught up and 
began circling again; something about this situation was hauntingly 
familiar, but he couldn't quite put his finger on what it was.

Abruptly, Temari shifted her weight and began turning left. As he 
adjusted his footing to mirror her, Kankuro heard the clang of steel on 
steel, and felt his sister's arm jerk.

*Heh, it's hard to sneak up on someone who knows everything there is to 
know about how the air moves.* He was no slouch himself, but Temari had 
always fared better than he when confronted with concealed enemies; her 
training had made her highly attuned to her environment.

Finally yanking the needle free, Kankuro barely managed to whip Karasu 
around to block when a kunai flew out of the tree cover below, 
clattering noisily off of the puppet's armored shell. It seemed the 
bug-user was back, and he was full taking advantage of the fact that 
Temari couldn't defend him from ranged attacks.

As he scanned the trees for this new threat, something caught his eye. 
Watching the bunshin carefully as they hopped from branch to branch, 
Kankuro noted how the leaves vibrated slightly when a particular 'clone' 
landed. "Temari, the one coming around this time is physical; she must 
have dropped her cloak," he whispered.

Nodding in acknowledgement, Temari set herself to receive, but still 
kept her stance loose, just in case the ANBU was trying for a bait and 
switch. If the enemy swapped places with a bunshin using kawarimi, the 
attack could still come from an unexpected angle.

Almost too predictably, it was the strange 'clone' that charged in this 
time, leaping high for an overhead slash. Waiting until the last 
possible moment to be sure that the one she was fighting was real, 
Temari raised her fan to arrest the green-haired girl's descent with a 
jab to the ribs.

She was rewarded by firm contact and a pained, hacking cough. "Enough 
games," the blonde murmured in satisfaction. "Hurry up and go! This 
one's almost done, but watch out for the other," she ordered.

Before he could reply Kankuro felt Temari's shoulders tense violently 
against his back, and the shadow of the girl above them began to ripple 
and warp. Looking up, the last thing he saw was a sky-blackening curtain 
of crawling, chittering bugs descending upon him. *Aaaaw, fuck me...*

Holding his arms out to his sides, Shino waited patiently for his 
message to be relayed through the swarm. Moving in waves, the bugs 
returned to him, crawling up his legs and into his clothes until the 
writhing black mound at his feet melted away to reveal the motionless 
form of Kankuro.

Shino had allowed the bugs to feed just long enough to ensure that this 
opponent wouldn't be able to cause them problems in the future, but it 
was past time to move on. Unlike her teammate, Temari hadn't foolishly 
fallen to her knees and attempted to scrape the destruction bugs off 
with her bare hands.

Instead she had run, and the ANBU had given chase. There had been no 
sign of them since, but the swarm told him that the his unexpected ally 
had stopped moving away, so they were likely fighting again.

After a moment of consideration, the Aburame Clan heir decided it would 
be prudent to ensure that the green-haired girl won before continuing 
his pursuit of Sasuke. She was formidable, but probably only chuunin 
level, and Temari had displayed skills equal to those of a chuunin, in 
his estimation.

Leaving the unconscious puppet-user where he lay, Shino leapt off, 
listening carefully as his tiny companions told him which direction his 
quarry had fled. It wasn't long before the musty perfume of the forest 
thinned, dissolving into a cool, fresh breeze, the murmur of moving 
water replacing the rustling, creaking voice of the wood.

*Ah, there was a river in this direction. Not a poor tactical choice,* 
Shino observed thoughtfully. Submerging herself in water would be far 
more effective than attempting to manually remove the bugs, but that 
plan could also easily backfire. Shino's speculations were realized when 
the trees parted and he caught sight of the ANBU dragging an unmoving 
body away from the riverside.
Landing and alerting the fox-masked ninja to his presence, Shino nodded 
in greeting. The girl gave him only a cursory glance of acknowledgement. 
She spared another knowing look at the bugs streaming toward him from 
Temari's body before continuing her examination of the blonde.

"Is she dead?" he inquired cautiously.

"She's stopped breathing, but she still has a weak pulse," the ANBU 
replied in a hopeful rush. "Come over here and hold her arms in case she 
struggles," she commanded, gesturing him forward.

Shino quirked an eyebrow in inquiry, but obeyed. Moving around to 
straddle the Sand nin's legs and grab her wrists, he watched his 
puzzling companion kneel beside Temari and tilt her head back to clear 
the airway. "It may be too late to revive her. If she was weakened 
enough to drown, her body may not have sufficient chakra to resume 
normal respiration," he observed clinically. "Why-"

"Her heart's still beating," the green-haired girl countered, pulling 
off her mask to reveal a defiant scowl. "If she lives, maybe we can use 
her to force Gaara give up without a fight- unless _you_ want to fight 
that monster?"

Reaching into the sleeve of her dripping kimono, she extracted a small 
leather pouch. "If I grind a Soldier Pill, she can absorb enough of the 
drug sublingually for at least a small adrenaline boost." Popping one of 
the pills, she bit down with an audible crunch.

Shino only half-heard this explanation, however, so busy was he staring 
at her face. Now he understood why her voice had seemed so familiar 
before. "Haruno...?" he wondered confusedly, bushy brows riding high on 
his forehead.

"I'll explain later," Sakura snapped. Sticking a finger in her mouth, 
the industrious kunoichi extracted a glob of unpleasant-looking red 
paste. Grimacing in disgust, she grabbed Temari's jaw with her free hand 
and proceeded to smear the pulverized Soldier Pill under the Sand nin's 
tongue. Then, taking a deep breath, Sakura covered Temari's mouth with 
her own.

Temari seemed to react as soon as their lips touched. Shino had to 
hastily adjust his grip on the tall girl's arms as she convulsed, 
coughing up two mouthfuls of water before she managed to suck in her 
first greedy gasp of air. "Haah! Huh? Wha-?"

Opening her eyes, Temari stared around dazedly until her gaze fell upon 
Sakura. "What the he-" Temari's face contorted in shock as she lapsed 
into another fit of wet coughs.

"No..." Paling, Sakura recoiled. "Not again! I didn't even do the stupid 
seals this time!" she cried, shaking her head in denial. "This can't-"

"Like hell it can't!" Temari rasped, trying to sit up. "I know- eh?" 
Noticing that Shino was still restraining her, Temari heaved sigh of 
exasperation and looked away, pinning Sakura with a hood-eyed glare. "I 
know ya felt it! Ya think _you_ got a problem with this? I'm the one 
_in_ the fuckin' bitch!"

Fresh horror bloomed in Sakura's violet eyes as her face tightened into 
a mask of barely contained panic. "Wait! It happened slowly last time; 
if we hurry-"

"JUST DO IT!" Temari snapped impatiently.

Wincing, the green-haired girl gave a jerky nod. Then, before Shino even 
had a chance to ask what was going on, Sakura lifted Temari's head and 
leaned down to kiss the blonde kunoichi once more.

Taken off guard by the torrent of longing that flowed through her as 
their lips met, it was several seconds before Sakura realized that 
something was wrong. *It wasn't like this before.*

Last time, her copy's memories had crashed over her like a tsunami; 
she'd barely been able to keep her head above water. This time, it was 
like she was standing on a low cliff above the sea; she could taste the 
salt on the wind and feel the spray on her face, but- *It's not 

Moving to disengage, Sakura was surprised when Temari surged forward to 
deepen the kiss. The desperation in her partner's eyes made Sakura 
hesitate, but after almost a minute of fruitless groping the 
green-haired girl reluctantly broke contact and pushed Temari away. 
Taking a moment to catch her breath, she gave the blonde a worried 
frown. "It didn't work."

"No shit? I never would'a noticed if ya hadn't fuckin' told me," Temari 
growled, her voice thick with sarcasm.

*Well, at least I know she still 'me,'* Sakura mused ruefully. The 
abrasive attitude could have been Temari's influence, but that tongue 
was definitely familiar.

Sakura bit back a retaliatory barb when she noticed the tears of 
frustration dripping down Temari's cheeks. "I... look, I don't think 
there's anything seriously wrong. You probably just don't have enough 
chakra right now," she murmured consolingly, wiping the moisture from 
the older girl's face.

Blinking at Sakura's touch, Temari reddened, her expression softening 
with embarrassment. "Yeah, I figured that's what it was," she conceded 
with a heavy sigh. "I mean, I could feel ya, like ya were reachin' out 
ta me, but-"

Sharing a sympathetic look with her strange reflection, Sakura lowered 
Temari head to the ground and crossed her arms. A deep furrow creased 
her brow as she pondered this unpleasant development. "we'll just have 
to try again after you've recovered a bit," she concluded. "Hopefully it 
won't be too long. How are you holding up? Is she-?"

"What's going on here?" Shino interrupted in a hard monotone, reminding 
them that he was there. Still straddling Temari's legs, he gave the pair 
with a wary look.

"Uuuuuh...?" Sakura peered uncertainly at Shino, then cast the prone 
girl a questioning glance. *What should I say?*

"Don't look at me, I'm the one flat on my back with some pervert holdin' 
me down," Temari spat. "Speakin'a which, if yer gonna hump my leg, 
would'ja mind movin' that thing a bit lower, lover-boy? I know that 
ain't a fuckin' scroll in yer pocket." The blonde wiggled her hips for 

Laughing out loud when Shino fairly sprang off of her to land a few feet 
away, Temari sat up and rubbed her wrists. "Heh, guess ya picked that up 
from Kiba, huh?" she teased, giving Shino a nasty grin. "You guys close 
like that, or what? C'mon, be honest; I won't tell anyone."

Not rising from his defensive crouch (probably for one rather prominent 
reason that Sakura had no trouble discerning), the tall boy shuffled 
uncomfortably, blushing to the tips of his ears, but remained silent.

"She's me!" Sakura blurted, standing up and getting between them before 
her double's behavior could cause further confusion. "I used a technique 
that implanted a copy of me in her mind- a weird, perverted copy! I 
can't believe you just did that!" she hissed, blushing furiously as she 
turned to glare at the foul-mouthed kunoichi.

"How am I the pervert? _He's_ the one with a hard-on!"

"And you rubbed up against it!"

"He started it! And it made 'im stop bonin' my thigh, didn't it?" 
Grimacing, Temari stiffly getting to her feet, the glanced down in 
disgust. "Fuck!"

Jumping at the blonde's curse, Sakura glanced around warily. "What?"

"She doesn't wear 'em either! How the hell can they stand it?" Temari 
demanded, gingerly picking at the bottom of her sodden dress. "No wonder 
she's such a bitch; she walks around with a fuckin' fish net crawlin' up 
her ass." Lifting hem of her skirt almost to her waist, she proceeded to 
tug at the offending mesh body stocking.

"What the hell are you doing?!" Sakura shrieked, her dark skin turning 
almost maroon. "Stop that!"

"What? It's a fuckin' pain," Temari whined unconvincingly. A naughty 
smirk graced her lips as she finished up and smoothed down her skirt. 
"...See somethin' nice?" she wondered, casting a sly glance at Shino.

"W-what the fuck is your problem?!" Sakura sputtered, a crimson haze 
creeping around the edges of her vision. If her 'copy' didn't stop 
acting like a total freak she was either going to die of embarrassment 
or fly into a murderous rage; her face felt like it might burst into 
flame at any moment.

"Ah, c'mon, I'm just teasin'!" Temari took a step back, holding up her 
hands in submission. "I mean, look at 'im; he's like a fuckin' tomato in 
sunglasses an' a dorky overcoat!"

Glancing over at the sole witness to her shame, Sakura had to admit that 
Shino did look pretty funny. His gaze was still locked at the level of 
Temari's crotch, and though he'd hunched his shoulders a bit to hide 
behind the high collar of his coat, Sakura still noticed a thin line of 
red trailing down from his nose.

*At least look somewhere else, pervert!* Sakura scolded with her eyes, 
following her own advice when she found her attention drifting toward 
bulge in Shino's shorts that had sparked this entire stupid incident.

Instead, she turned to examine the opposite river bank, waiting for her 
blood to cool. Halfway through her second, slow ten-count, Sakura 
pricked up her ears as a familiar sound echoed through the depths of the 
forest: the thunder a hundred identical, irritating voices, screaming in 
unison. "Naruto?"

Flipping away to land unsteadily on a nearby branch, Uzumaki Naruto 
watched as a geyser of sand tore through the main body of his clone 
army. *What now?!* Even after his super-ultimate best new attack had 
been defeated, the pillar of flowing stone just kept rising, and it was 
getting thicker too. where the hell was it all coming from? There was no 
way Gaara's stupid gourd could hold that much.

As Naruto looked on in disbelief, the sandstorm started to solidify. A 
pair of massive arms and lumpy limb that might've been a tail split off 
from the main body, and a swarm of obscure blue markings started 
crawling down from the tip of the tail to spread over the entire 
horrific mass. They seemed to calm the twisting chaos wherever they 
encroached, until finally the air settled once more.

"T-that's the monster inside him?" the orange-clad boy wondered in awe, 
staring up at the mountainous creature before him. *Man, he's even 
uglier than the stupid fox.* Naruto supposed it sort of looked like a 
tanuki, but it was all lumpy and deformed- and it didn't even have feet! 
It was like a giant mashed-potato monster!

As if he'd been offended by Naruto's unspoken comment, Gaara lowered his 
freakish, lantern-like gaze to glare at the blond boy in contempt. 
Frowning at Naruto like he was disappointed with how puny his enemy had 
become, the demon raised one malformed claw and started closing his 
fingers. It took Naruto a moment to recognize the gesture for what it 
was: Gaara was using the Desert Coffin technique.

Naruto began backing away, but a single panicked glance around revealed 
that he was already trapped. Like dancing vipers, tendrils of sand 
swirled around him weightless menace. They moved slowly, but 
deliberately; Gaara was taking his time, savoring Naruto's death rather 
than going for a quick kill, as he had with Lee.

*Dammit! Why the hell'd he get so big if he's just gonna use the same 
cheap tricks?!* The most galling part was that the he was too drained to 
escape even this half-assed excuse for an attack. "Pasty-faced bastard! 
Come down and fight me for real!" Naruto sneered, trying to goad Gaara 
into giving him some more 'personal' attention.

As the sand drew closer individual strands started to merge into a 
suffocating cocoon. *At least he didn't get Sakura-chan,* Naruto mused 
nervously, praying that the pink-haired girl wouldn't reveal herself. 
There was no way she could rescue him now.

"Don't move. I'll get you out of here."

"Sakura-chan!" Naruto started to turn around but a slender arm snaked 
under his shoulder, reaching up to clamp a hand over his mouth. A second 
arm then wrapped around his waist, tightening until he felt a body 
pressing firmly against his back. Two small bits of topography coupled 
with the sound of her voice told Naruto who his captor was, and for a 
brief moment he was too stunned to react.

"Settle down and don't move around or stare at him too much," the 
kunoichi behind him purred calmingly. "He might notice us if he senses 
your killing intent."

It was then that Naruto realized the fingers of the Desert Coffin were 
no longer closing. Still more than a yard away, the stalking sands 
twisted and writhed aimlessly, as though they'd forgotten what came 
next. *Wh-what the hell?! How'd she-*

"Good boy," Sakura congratulated him brightly, sending a shiver of pride 
down his spine even as he felt a strange stab of annoyance. "Okay, here 
we go!" The blonde boy felt the grip around his waist tighten and 
suddenly they were flying through the air, bounding from tree to tree, 
away from Gaara.

*Why doesn't he attack?* Rather than sending the grasping sand after 
them, the ridiculous-looking beast was still staring at where they had 
just been, and Naruto could swear that the giant tanuki's mouth was 
hanging open in an almost comical look of confusion.

Sakura didn't stop moving until they could no longer see the huge 
clearing that Gaara's transformation had created. Making for a shady 
hollow nestled between the roots of a massive, ancient tree, she 
released him the moment they landed. "I've got Naruto," she whispered 
into shadows of the undergrowth.

The first thing Naruto discovered when he was able to move again was 
that he'd been mistaken about his rescuer's identity. When he turned 
around, it was not the face of a pink-haired angel that greeted him, but 
instead a slant-eyed animal mask framed by a wild green mane.

"ANBU?" he guessed, backing away. She was tiny, not much taller than he 
was, and she was wearing some sort of funky punk getup instead of armor, 
but the mask was the important part, right?

"This everyone?" another vaguely familiar female voice murmured from 
over his shoulder.

Spinning on his heel, Naruto found Shino and Temari standing behind him. 
Between them, they supported the stumbling, half-dead form of Sasuke. 
The Uchiha heir didn't seem to know who most deserved his dark, 
suspicious glare, so he was giving everyone an equal share.

"Sakura-chan!" Naruto blurted, barely remembering to keep is voice down 
as he looked around frantically. The final member of Team 7 was nowhere 
in evidence. "Sakura-chan's still back there!" he hissed, taking a step 
toward the battlefield. "We gotta find 'er before Gaara does!"

Stiffening, Shino turned to peer sharply at the ANBU. The tall boy said 
nothing, but it was clear that he was having some sort of silent 
conversation with the fox-masked kunoichi as the two of them exchanged a 
long, piercing stare.

"I'll go find her. The rest of you should get back to the village as 
fast as possible," the green-haired girl finally decided, her voice firm 
and unreadable.


himself as the sound of splintering wood and crumbling stone vibrated 
through the ground beneath his feet. Gaara's horrifically distorted 
voice filled the air, shaking the trees with the sheer force of his 

"...It's difficult enough conceal just one person other than myself, so 
it would be best if I went alone," the ANBU explained, looking down to 
check her weapons.

"What about Gaara?" Naruto protested vainly. He knew that Sakura would 
be in good hands with one of Konoha's elite security ninja, but it felt 
like he had unfinished business with the brooding Sand nin.

Pausing, the ANBU turned to put a comforting hand his shoulder. "You've 
done enough; everyone here is tired. Don't worry, I'll find her. Just 
get back to the village and leave the rest to the professionals." With 
that, she turned and leapt back up into the branches above, disappearing 
from view almost immediately.

"There's a fuckin' _excellent_ explanation fer this, just so ya know," 
Temari drawled, looking past Sasuke to give Shino a sarcastic smirk. 
"But that can wait. Fer now, I think we should listen ta the woman an' 
get our asses outta here."

With seeming reluctance, Shino nodded, shifting his stance to indicate 
that he could handle Sasuke by himself. When Temari let go of Sasuke and 
moved to depart, the bug-user finally broke his silence. "Are you really 
ANBU?" he asked confusedly.

"Her, ANBU? Ain't she from the Sand?" Despite the fact that these two 
actually used words when they spoke, Naruto still had no idea what they 
were talking about. "Wait, why the hell are ya helpin' us?" he demanded, 
suddenly remembering that the blonde girl was supposed to be his enemy.

Frowning, Temari made a cutting motion near her throat. "Fuckin' keep it 
down!" she hissed, impatiently turning to leave. "It'd take too long ta 
explain, let's just go! I'll get someone ta put it inta monkey-speak for 
ya when we get back-"

"Hey!" Reaching for Temari's trailing hand, Naruto felt the bottom fall 
out of his stomach when a bone-chilling female scream cut the air. 
"Sakura-chan!" Not thinking twice, the orange-clad genin bolted in the 
direction of the cry. *Wait for me, Sakura-chan!*

Moving away from the group, Sakura changed directions as soon as she was 
out of sight; she wasn't getting any closer to that monster than she had 
to. *What he hell is with that, anyway?* She'd have to review her 
clone's memories carefully once they returned to her.

Rolling up her sleeve, Sakura examined the character for "evil" on her 
arm. Anko had told her that the technique would end when she 'defaced' 
the seal, but her so-called 'teacher' had never explained to her how she 
was supposed to do that.

Vainly, Sakura tried to recall any useful information about this 
technique that might have accidentally leaked into her brain. *Why does 
she always have to be such a fucking victim in her dreams?* If her 'Anko 
persona' ever bothered to try and defend herself from Orochimaru's 
nightly advances, Sakura was confident that she'd be able to remember 
any techniques she used. If only-

"Ah!" In a flash, a simple set of seals flickered across her mind's eye. 
She wasn't sure how she knew, but Sakura was _positive_ they were 
related to the 'Oketsu Bunshin' technique, and they weren't the same 
ones Anko had used to create the clone. *Damn, that's nice; I wonder if 
I can remember anything else.*

Practicing the motions a couple times, Sakura took a deep breath and 
focused, letting her body move on its own. It was hard to trade her 
normally perfect chakra control for the uncertainty of raw instinct, but 
there was a feeling of 'rightness' about the way the power moved down 
the pathways opened by her seals. As she reached the end of the 
technique, Sakura lifted her mask and bit her thumb, wiping a smear of 
blood across the mark on her arm.

At first nothing seemed to happen, but then she felt a presence nearby. 
Looking up, she saw her doppelganger land on a branch a few yards away. 
Crumbling where she fell, the pink-haired girl clutched the tree beneath 
her and started trembling like a leaf.

"Hey!" Sakura called softly, waving to the clone. "Are you okay? What's 

"...uuuuaaaAAAAGGH!" Emitting a barely human scream of agony, the 
bunshin tensed up like she was having a seizure and then suddenly 
_exploded_ into a fountain of steaming red blood and black serpentine 

"S-Snakes?!" Drawing her swords in an instant, Sakura knew she was 
already too late. She managed to knock a few of them out of the air, but 
was quickly overwhelmed by the cloud of slick, squirming bodies. Reeking 
of iron and decay, the snakes lashed out at anything within reach, 
including each other. Sakura was bitten over a dozen times before she 
managed to cut herself free and spring away.

Her escape was timely in more ways than one; as she landed, Sakura was 
forced to grab the tree trunk beside her when a wall of sand plowed 
through the space where her clone had expired. The blast missed her by 
only a hair, leveling the trees in front of her in a path as wide as a 
road and miles long.

*Gaara!* Even if he couldn't see her, she was dead for sure if she 
caught one of those! Before Sakura could reposition herself, however, a 
familiar sensation began to build in the back of her mind, like a 
towering wave looming over her.

*Not now, dammit!* Bracing herself, Sakura fought to maintain her 
concealment jutsu as the clone's memories poured into her, hours of 
experience and sensation compressed into the blink of an eye.

She nearly wet herself as the pain came- agony beyond imagining, like 
her insides were tearing themselves apart and trying to escape. Reaching 
a terrible crescendo with her 'death,' the torture only intensified as 
her perception then seemed to shatter into a million pieces like a 
broken funhouse mirror.

The pain and confusion multiplied horribly as she realized she was 
seeing through the eyes of the snakes. Hunger and bloodlust filled her, 
driving her to kill and be killed over and over again, consuming her own 
flesh in a mad, suicidal frenzy.

Quickly slipping beneath this unrelenting stream of torment, Sakura 
barely noticed when deep shadow fell upon her, but in the moments before 
the unconsciousness finally claimed her, she looked up to see a great, 
sandy claw descending, and then she saw no more...

-     S     U     I     R     E     N     -

To be continued...? 

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