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CHAPTER ELEVEN

"Things come apart so easily when they have been held together with lies."

- Dorothy Allison -

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Planning for Sasuke and Masami's wedding is in full swing by the spring Sakura turns seventeen. She throws herself into work at the hospital to distract herself, practicing her healing, refining antidotes, and studying Tsunade's case notes.

Sasuke keeps her busy too. They find an abandoned house on the outskirts of the village, and it becomes their place, a rendezvous point of sorts. Sasuke brings bedding from home (his family has so much that it won't be missed), and uses it to freshen up the musty mattress. They do their best to make things homey. Sakura opens the windows to let in sunlight and brings flowers to color this dark place. They clean together until things are liveable, if not sparkling.

"It's almost like a real house," Sakura says.

They're lying in bed, holding hands. She enjoys this as much as the sex, the togetherness that comes in the aftermath, when the world feels gentler and Sasuke's love is all hers.

He hums, a low, skeptical sound. "If you ignore the spiders and the mold in the cupboards."

Sakura laughs and smacks his shoulder playfully. "I'm trying to be optimistic here!"

Sasuke pushes her onto her back and settles on top of her. His weight is warm, heavy, the sweetest sort of gravity to pin her to the earth. She cards her fingers through his hair and wraps her legs around his waist. He isn't trying to make love to her again, she doesn't think. Just wants to hold her down and keep her safe, make her his in some smaller, more innocent way.

"I wish this could last forever," Sakura says.

Sasuke kisses her forehead. His breath is a whisper against her skin when he says, "Yeah. Me too."

There's a tenderness to this moment, soft with all the devotion they try not to speak of too much. Things are easier here in this makeshift home they've put together, a dead place brought back to life with lilies, love, and April sunlight. There's a simplicity to their affair, as if they both have choices outside of these locked doors. They have so few times of peace in their imbalanced world that interrupting this one feels criminal, but Sakura has to. She needs to know where they stand.

"Are you going to keep seeing me after you marry Masami?"

Sasuke goes rigid on top of her, then he pulls away and lies on his back beside her. "I didn't think you would want that."

Sakura closes her eyes. Her skin is sticky with sweat, she can feel his come between her legs, and there will be a faint mark on her throat from his more zealous kisses. She'll need to heal that before she leaves, erase any and all proof of their passion, because anything less would be foolish.

"You're right, I don't want to be the other woman," Sakura says. "I don't want to hide and lie for the rest of my life, but… I'd rather have some of you than none."

Sasuke pulls her against him, holding her close with trembling hands, and Sakura lets herself cry. Her pride is a small, broken thing, so a few tears hardly matter. They start in her breath and spill from her eyes, trailing down her cheeks until they fall wetly on Sasuke's chest.

"I'll figure out something," he says. "I promise."

Those are pretty words, Sakura thinks, but they're empty.

That night, when she lies in her own bed, she looks up and tries to find shapes in the water stain on the ceiling, the way children do with clouds. There is a heart and here is a tanuki and that over there must be a bird. And weaving in and out of these imaginings, she regrets offering herself so freely. She's better than that, stronger, worth more than being used.

It doesn't matter anyway. Sasuke would never cheat on his wife, not even for her.

The next morning, the Yondaime assigns her a solo assassination mission in Kiri, and she takes it without question. Her target is the Mizukage's assistant, who has been lobbying for the Mist to break its alliance with Konoha, and if she disappears it will be all the better for the Uchiha regime.

She finds Satou Airi eating dinner with her partner at a fine restaurant on Tsubaki Street. They hold hands on top of the table and laugh together, a couple as lovely as any she's ever seen. After Satou parts ways with her girlfriend, Sakura follows along behind her at a discreet distance, hidden by the silver fog. The spring breeze swirls the mist around her, dampening her skin, like walking through clouds.

Satou's apartment isn't far from the restaurant, and it's easy enough to climb the back of the building and sneak in through a window. She tries to scream when Sakura catches her in a strong hold, but it only takes a kunai to the throat and a whispered threat to silence her.

"I'm not here to kill you. The Hokage sent me to do that, but I'm going to let you go."

Sakura releases Satou, and she scrambles away, one hand clasped around her throat like she needs to assure herself that it hadn't been slit.

"Why?" she asks. "Sabotaging a mission could get you executed."

"Because Uchiha Fugaku is no Hokage of mine."

Satou rubs her throat, then draws her hand away, frowning at the spot of blood on her fingertips. "You're a rebel then."

Sakura nods. "You need to disappear after tonight, unless you want another Konoha assassin coming after you."

Satou leans against the wall, eyes closed. "And where do you think I should go?"

Sakura wipes her kunai on her red shirt and returns it to her tool belt. "To the Mizukage. Tell her what happened here tonight, and that the Uchiha clan can't be trusted."

"And the rebellion can?"

"Yes," Sakura says. "It can only benefit everyone to help us."

Maybe this will be enough, and maybe it won't, but she leaves Satou alive to decide for herself.

Sakura reports to Minato as soon as she finishes briefing (lying to) Fugaku. She tells him about her mission, Satou and the message to the Mizukage.

"If we could regain the Mist's support, it would go a long way to strengthening us," Minato says. "Things are coming to a head soon. If we don't act, we may lose our momentum—and our allies."

"I know." Sakura looks at the floor. "I think the rebellion is ready."

Minato puts a hand on her shoulder and asks, "But are you ready?"

She's made her life on lies for so many years now that they come easily to her, but she tells the truth anyway. "No. It's right, what we're going to do, but… not all of the Uchiha are guilty of Fugaku's crimes."

She thinks of Sasuke, his quiet smiles and gentle hands. The kisses they share in their hidden home, loving each other like the husband and wife that they can never be.

"Every war makes casualties of the innocent," Minato says. "It's the price we pay for peace."

That isn't a fair answer, but it's a real one, and Sakura knows she's going to have to learn to accept it.

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The Uchiha compound has always been full of rumors. They're all family in one way or another, no matter how distant, bound by the gift and burden of the Sharingan. His aunts, uncles, and cousins seem to gossip about every little thing, a habit Sasuke finds distasteful. And annoying. But today he's thankful for the big mouths in his clan, because he overhears something useful: Auntie Etsuko heard from her daughter, whose husband just returned from a mission to Nanmoku, that Itachi was sighted in the area yesterday.

Instead of reporting it, as he should, Sasuke heads north, hoping as hard as he can that he finds his brother.

"He stayed here," says the innkeeper in Nanmoku, after he gives a description of Itachi. "Don't know where he went, though."

Sasuke summons two ninken and has them sniff around Itachi's room. It only takes a moment for Yuki and Wakana to catch the scent, and then they're off.

The sun is low in the sky by the time they cross the border into Waterfall territory, and Sasuke's hopes with it. He watches the moon creep through the clouds while dusk settles over the land, following close to the ninken, but they start arguing over where to go as Itachi's scent grows fainter.

"North," Yuki says, her yippy voice high and stubborn.

Wakana growls. "He headed northeast, or I'm a cat."

"It's pointless. He's too far ahead by now," Sasuke says.

He dismisses Yuki and Wakana, then heads home. The trip is just long enough to give him too much time with his thoughts. He was an idiot for imagining he could catch Itachi, who is so adept at not being found.

His father is every bit as furious with him as Sasuke knew he would be.

"What would you even do if you found him?" Father asks. "Fight him? Try to drag him back home?"

Sasuke keeps his head held high. "I just wanted to talk to him. To get answers."

"The answers are plain," his father says. "He's a traitor. And anyone who joins him is a traitor too."

"I would never—"

Father holds up a hand. "Good. Then you'll understand why you're under house arrest for leaving the village without permission."

Sasuke bites back his anger and says, "Fine. For how long?"

"Two weeks."

Sakura. He's supposed to meet her at their almost-home in an hour, and if he follows orders he'll be stuck in his room, throwing shuriken at the target on his wall.

"You understand?" Father asks.

He only nods and says, "Yes, sir."

But as soon as his father leaves, Sasuke sneaks out of the house, scales the back wall of the compound, and sneaks through Konoha to meet Sakura. He's late, but she doesn't hold it against him.

She throws her arms around his neck and hurries him to bed, impatient today, her nimble hands working to get him out of his clothes and on top of her. Sasuke takes the time to undress her too, because ever since they lost their virginities in the meadow, he tries to give her the intimacy of that contact, sharing their nakedness together. Sakura turns onto her belly, whines his name, and begs him to have her now, just like this.

Her voice is muffled and embarrassed when she says, "I—I've been wet just thinking about you."

Sasuke takes her then, and he finds that it's true.

Later, after they're as satisfied as sex can make them, Sasuke pulls her on top of him. Sakura happily straddles his waist, smiling, and runs her nails down his chest. She keeps her touch gentle enough to barely redden his skin, leaving only the sort of scratches that will fade within minutes. They're gentle with each other most of the time, on the off chance that Sakura might miss a bruise or bite mark when she heals the stray evidence of their encounters.

Sasuke grasps her thighs, admiring the feel of her muscles there. She's strong, his girl, in so many ways. She could handle rougher sex if they had the chance to indulge in it, but that's something they'll never have. Not as long as they're forced to hide.

"I'm under house arrest," Sasuke says, and Sakura's smile falls into a frown.

"What for?"

"Going after my brother. He was spotted in Nanmoku, and I thought it would be a good idea to search for him." He snorts. "It was stupid. If Itachi wanted anything to do with me, he wouldn't have gone rogue."

"It wasn't stupid," Sakura says. "I'm sure your brother had good—had his reasons for leaving, and I doubt they had anything with wanting to abandon you."

"Like what?"

She tugs on the ends of her short hair, then says, "He's a rebel, isn't he? Maybe he just wanted to do what he thought was right, and he couldn't stay here for that."

Sasuke grips her tighter without quite meaning to. "Do you think that would be good for Konoha? Rebelling?"

Sakura goes very still, but she keeps her gaze steady on him. "No, of course not. You know I don't like the way things are run, but civil war would be worse."

He hopes she's telling the truth, but sometimes, in his moments when trust doesn't come easily, he wonders if either of his teammates are on his side at all.

Sakura looks away and says, "I wonder what your brother was doing in Nanmoku. It's a peaceful place from what I've heard."

"I don't know. I didn't find out much except that he passed through." Sasuke rolls her onto her back. "It doesn't matter, and I don't want to think about it."

Sakura nuzzles his throat, but she whispers, "Maybe you should think about it, though. It's not doing you any good to push these things down."

"Not right now," he says. "Please?"

She won't resist easing his pain. Maybe that's selfish to exploit, but he needs her too much to care.

Sakura wraps her arms around him and says, "Kiss me."

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It's Neji who tells him about Hinata, and when Naruto hears the news he shakes, feels a familiar heat stirring in his chest. He closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and wills himself not to disappear into the well that lies inside of him, a place of roiling waters where the Kyubi is kept.

"Are you sure?" Naruto asks.

Neji gives a short, sharp nod. "Yes. Hiashi performed the ritual this morning, quietly and privately. I think he wanted it done before anyone could put a stop to it."

Naruto wipes at his eyes. He can't afford to cry right now, not when Hinata needs him. "Do you know where she is?"

"Yes. She went to the woods behind Mr. Kurosawa's grocery store, by the river."

Naruto doesn't even say thank you before he starts running. His heart pounds harder, faster, more from grief than exertion. He was throwing shuriken at a target in his backyard this morning, bored and restless, wasting time while Hinata was branded with a cursed seal.

He finds her at the riverside, as Neji promised. She sits with her pants legs rolled up, feet in the water, long hair fluttering in the wind. She looks over her shoulder when he approaches, smiling gently, so calm for a caged bird. Naruto sits beside her and does his best not to talk or cry. Hinata doesn't need his rage or his sorrow right now, because neither will fix this. The only useful thing he can offer is friendship.

"Are you okay?" he asks.

She starts to nod, then shakes her head. "I-I don't know. It wasn't a surprise. Father can't afford a weak heir, and—"

"You're not weak," Naruto says. "You've worked so hard to get stronger, and you have. Besides, strength is about heart too, and you've got the biggest heart of anybody I know."

She reaches up and touches the fresh mark on her forehead. It's an ugly thing that doesn't belong on someone as beautiful as Hinata.

"Thank you," she says, voice timorous, quivering on the wind.

Naruto takes her hand in his and squeezes. He wants to ground himself to her and this moment. She's here, strong enough to be all right through this, and maybe if he hangs onto her he can be okay too. Hinata glances at him, and he sees that her cheeks are pink, but she doesn't pull her hand from his.

"I understand, sort of. I didn't have any choice either, when I got made into a jinchuriki." Naruto pulls up his jacket and shirt, showing off the black seal on his belly. "See, I'm marked too. You're not alone."

Hinata's gaze lingers on his stomach, her eyes wide and lips parted. He didn't expect her to be shocked by the sight of his seal, but maybe she is. Then she looks away, blushing right down to her throat, and stammers something about needing to get back home.

Naruto knows he should keep his mouth shut, but he can't let her go back to that place, not without trying to help.

"You don't have to," he says, too fast. "You could come home with me."

Hinata finally looks at him, and for someone who can see the secrets hidden under everything, she certainly seems surprised.

"But—but why?" she asks.

Naruto grasps the nape of his neck. "Because you shouldn't have to go back to a dad who would hurt you like that. It's not right, and—well, I want you to be safe."

He's got to be as red as Hinata now, and waiting for her answer is shortening his breath, making it catch in his chest, needle sharp.

Just say yes.

"Naruto…"

She tugs her hand from his and whispers, "It's not so bad. Better me than Hanabi, and it—it had to be one of us."

"That doesn't mean you have to stay there," Naruto says.

"Don't. Please?"

She stands and hurries away from him, not even bothering to put her shoes back on. Naruto goes after her, pushing through the branches and brambles without care for what he snaps or steps on. She's running ahead, so he runs after her. Hinata is fast, but he's faster, and it doesn't take long to catch her. Naruto grabs her arm, spins her around, and pulls her against him. He doesn't know why he's holding her, but it's done, and she's close enough that he can smell river water and the earthy, herbal scent of her shampoo. She trembles, forehead pressed to his shoulder, and says his name. There's so much sadness in it, but he doesn't know what to do to help. This is greater than him, what's been done to her, and it makes him feel small, useless.

"Please," he says. "Let me help."

Hinata leans away, just enough that she can look up at him. She's no longer shaking, and his hold on her is firm, as safe as he can make it.

"Okay," she says. "I'll go with you."

When Naruto brings Hinata home and explains what happened, his father asks her to wait in the kitchen while they talk.

"She can't stay," Dad says, once they're alone in his room. "What were you thinking?"

Naruto shakes his head. "We can't just leave her with her family, not after what Hiashi did to her! It's not right."

His father looks up, breathing deeply, like he's trying to gather his patience. "No, it isn't, and we'll take care of that soon, but not yet. And if we steal Hyuuga Hiashi's daughter out from under him, it's going to cause trouble."

"No," Naruto says. "I won't let her go back to that place."

His father looks at him, steady again, understanding written across his face. But it's a hard, distant sort of sympathy.

"Do you understand what this would mean? Hinata is the property of the main house now. She doesn't have the privileges of an heiress anymore. If Hiashi wants to hunt her down and take her back, he has every right to."

"She isn't anybody's property," Naruto says. "She's a person. A really good person, and she doesn't deserve—"

"No, she doesn't." Dad pitches his voice lower and says, "For right now, this is how it has to be, but I promise things won't stay like this way for much longer. We're almost ready for the coup, and when it happens, the Hyuuga ways are going down with the Uchiha clan. I need you to be patient."

Naruto looks at his father, and for the first time he sees the man who's killed countless enemies, the rebellion leader who puts the cause before everything else. It's to be admired, he thinks. But it's also disappointing.

"If we can't protect one person, what are we fighting for?"

His Dad sighs, and there's a resigned sound in it that Naruto has never heard, not even when his mother died.

"We're fighting to protect every person in Konoha, not just one," Dad says. "Now take Hinata home."

Naruto finds her outside, sitting on the front steps, twirling a wildflower between her fingers.

"It's okay," she says, before he has a chance to explain. "It was nice of you to try, Naruto."

Naruto walks Hinata across the village the way he was told to, but he can't shake the knowledge that this isn't right. Every step feels heavy, weighted with that sense of wrongness. When the gates to the Hyuuga compound come into sight, he grabs Hinata's wrist and turns her to face him.

"Leave with me," he says. "Now, before anybody notices that you never came home."

"Naruto—"

He leans closer and says, "You trust me, don't you?"

Hinata looks up at him, and there it is, that open belief in him that only she has ever given.

She says, "I do."

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The news of Hinata and Naruto's desertion breaks in the early hours of the morning. Sasuke's mother wakes him and delivers the news quickly and clearly, giving him no chance to misunderstand. His best friend stole a member of the Hyuuga branch house—the former heiress no less—and now Hiashi is out for blood.

Sasuke dresses as fast as he can and runs downstairs to find his father.

"We can't afford a rogue jinchuriki," is the first thing he says. "I'm sending our best shinobi out to track him. And I'm going myself."

"What are you going to do when you find him?" Sasuke asks.

Father looks to him, his expression unyielding. "Depends on if he comes quietly."

Then he's as good as dead. Naruto is far too stubborn to submit to enemies.

"Let me go with you," Sasuke says. "I can talk him down, convince him to come home."

Father clasps his shoulders. "No. I need you here, to watch over things in my absence. The village is fragile right now, and we're liable to have a riot if we don't keep order."

"But—"

"I'm trusting you, Sasuke. Prove that you're the leader I know you can be."

It feels like betrayal, no matter what he does. But he's a son of the Uchiha, first and foremost, so he nods.

Father sets out before dawn has fully broken with a large contingent from both their clan and the Hyuuga. It seems like overkill to Sasuke, and dangerous besides. Konoha will be vulnerable without as many loyal forces to protect everyone, and surely Naruto won't need that much manpower to restrain.

It might take that much to kill him, though.

He can't consider that, not right now.

Sakura finds him outside the Hokage tower only minutes later. She looks a mess, hair thrown back into a sloppy ponytail, dark circles under her eyes and combat clothes wrinkled. None of it makes her look any less beautiful, but it shows her worry plain enough.

She hugs him first thing and asks, "Is it true? Did Naruto really go rogue?"

Sasuke steps away from her. She won't want to touch him in a moment anyway.

"It's true," he says. "My father just left to go find him."

Sakura opens her mouth, closes it, then says, "Shouldn't you be with him? To make sure Naruto doesn't get hurt?"

Sasuke straightens, standing as tall as he can. "I was told to stay here, to make sure things stay safe in the village. And—I need you to leave. I'm meeting with my father's lieutenants to make a plan."

"What kind of plan?" she asks, and in her eyes he sees that disgust he expected, and anger too. "What could be more important than ensuring that Naruto stays alive?"

"I'm rallying all of the Anbu and the rest of my clan to patrol the streets and keep things under control. And just in case things go south, I need every healer in the village at the hospital… including you. So you should get going."

"Is that an order?"

She'll never love him again, not after this, but she'll stay safe at the hospital.

"Would you refuse if you have a choice?" Sasuke asks.

Sakura looks him in the eye, stubborn as ever. "I would."

"Then yes, it's an order."

Before she can answer, there's a scream, then a blazing noise, and Sasuke turns, Sharingan wide awake. A fire is consuming one of the Yamanaka houses, summoned by his cousin Saiyuri, who's fighting Ino.

"Get to the hospital!" Sasuke shouts to Sakura.

She looks to Ino, then him, and makes a grief-stricken noise.

Sakura runs, but not in the direction of the hospital. She sprints toward Saiyuri, summons chakra to her fist, and hits his cousin square in the chest, hard enough to throw her twenty feet backwards. A blow like that will have killed her, Sasuke realizes, in a distant way that doesn't feel real.

Sakura helps Ino to her feet, then glances back to him, tears running down her face. She only takes a moment to mouth two words: I'm sorry.

And then she's gone, disappearing into the crowd that has gathered outside.

Panicked civilians are flooding the streets, and Sasuke sees more fires in the distance, homes and businesses going up in smoke. People fighting and dying under his careless watch, because he was distracted by the girl he loves.

Sasuke rushes to Saiyuri's side, but it's far too late. She's broken, lifeless, her chest caved in by one punch. Sakura did this, and he doesn't think it was the work of a moment, an impulse to save her friend. She was too sure, too confident in her choice, for her to kill his family without conviction or planning.

Sakura betrayed him, has perhaps been working against him for as long as he's loved her.

The captain of the Anbu runs over, and he has a cohort of his comrades with him, their faces hidden behind impassive masks.

"We need to fight. Do we have orders to kill?"

Sasuke closes Saiyuri's eyes, dark and blank, the red of the Sharingan extinguished.

Then he stands, faces the captain, and says, "Yes."

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AN: Many thanks to Heat in Freezing and Deep Poetic Girl for helping me get this story back off the ground! My love for SasuSaku has been incredibly renewed lately, and I'm thrilled to be working on TVOTE again.

I've also been stunned by the number of people who have continued to follow this story since I started writing it, and every single review has encouraged me not to give up on it. So I want to thank all the readers who have taken the time to comment; your support has meant so much to me.

All right. Now back to working on Chapter Twelve!