Chapter Six

The mission to Suna goes awry. What should have been a simple assignment turns into a battle with the Akatsuki. Sasuke and the Kazekage take on Deidara while Sakura and Naruto fight Sasori, the puppet-master. It takes everything he and Gaara have to kill Deidara, and when it's finally over, Sasuke hurries to help his squadmates, the Kazekage close behind him.

Naruto and Sakura could be hurt. They could be dead. This is the Akatsuki after all, a greater threat than any Team 7 has ever faced before. As much as he resents Naruto for dragging him back to Konoha against his will, he doesn't want to the idiot to be captured or killed. And Sakura—he can't consider her coming to harm. The thought is too painful.

He finds them amidst a graveyard of broken puppets. Sakura is holding Naruto in her arms, weeping, and for a moment Sasuke thinks the worst.

He's dead. Just like Otousan and Okaasan.

But then Sakura says he's alive—injured, poisoned, but alive—and she might be able to save him. Sasuke carries Naruto to the Suna hospital himself. Then he stands back and watches Sakura at work, more than a little in awe as she heals Naruto. Where is the girl always in need of protection? She seems to be gone, and in her place is a medic-nin whose skills rival the Hokage's. Sasuke knew Sakura had become stronger, but he didn't realize until this moment just how much she's grown. Still, he's afraid. What if, even with the help of expert healing, Naruto doesn't survive?

This turns out to be an unnecessary worry. He should have had more faith in Sakura's abilities. She saves Naruto's life, heals herself, and mends the injuries he and Gaara sustained from their battle with Deidara.

Naruto spends the night in the hospital, but Sasuke and Sakura sleep at an inn near the center of the village. He goes to her room at ten o'clock and finds that she left the door unlocked; she knew he would come. It rankles his pride a little, that he is so predictable in his affections that Sakura expected him. But after the day they had he doesn't have the energy to muster any anger.

When Sasuke joins her in bed, she hugs him and whispers, "I was so worried about you today."

"It's over," he says, "and thanks to you we're all going to be fine."

Sakura nods, snuggles closer to him, and within a minute she's fallen asleep against his chest. Sasuke runs his fingers through her short hair, his touch gentle, almost reverent, the beginning of a smile tugging at his lips.

His thoughts stray from the sleeping girl in his arms to the day's battle. Just hours ago, he faced one of the Akatsuki and walked away, barely hurt. It gives him confidence that, on the day he finally fights Itachi, he might be able to survive.

Sasuke opens his left palm and examines the soulscar there. Hope is a dangerous thing, he reminds himself, but he can't help it: for just a moment, he considers a life after vengeance. A life with Sakura.

Gaara accompanies Team 7 on their return to Konoha. They go straight to the Hokage's office to report on what happened in Suna. Sasuke and the Kazekage stand to the back, both silent and stern, while Sakura and Naruto recount their fight with Sasori.

"And his partner? Deidara? I understand you killed him as well," Tsunade-shishou says.

Gaara says, "That's right."

Tsunade rubs her temple. "The Akatsuki are growing bolder. Marching right into the Sand and picking a fight with the Kazekage."

"It's only a matter of time before they come for Naruto again," Sasuke says, stepping forward. "Konoha isn't safe. Not so long as the Akatsuki are roaming free."

Tsunade frowns. "What are you getting at?"

"It's simple," Sasuke says, almost dismissively. "We can hunt or be hunted. I say we go after them before they can come for us."

"And this suggestion isn't at all motivated by your desire to fight Itachi?" Tsunade asks, clearly skeptical.

He shrugs. "I'll kill him regardless. It doesn't matter to me whether it's as part of a mission or not."

"I think Sasuke's right," Naruto says. "Let's take the fight to the Akatsuki."

Gaara nods. "I agree. Better to send our strongest shinobi to face them than wait for the Akatsuki to surprise us."

"You're being awfully quiet, Sakura," Tsunade says. "What do you think?"

She looks to the Hokage, wary and a little nervous. "I see the sense in this, but it seems risky. Maybe too risky."

Tsunade sighs, then says, "It might be, but every course of action is dangerous at this point."

In the end, she agrees, and within a week teams from Konoha and Suna have been assembled to go after each member of the Akatsuki. Sakura tries not to worry, even when Sasuke demands that Tsunade allow him to target Itachi. The Hokage refuses to send Sasuke alone, but she does give the assignment to Team 7, which he has no choice but to grudgingly accept.

Sakura visits his apartment the night before they're scheduled to set out on their mission. Sasuke is awake, sitting in the living room, polishing his weapons. He looks up as she closes the front door behind her.

"You should go home," he says.

Sakura sits next to him on the couch, pulls her knees up to her chest, and asks, "Why?"

"We go looking for my brother tomorrow," he says. "You need to get some rest."

"I can rest here. With you." She runs her fingers through his hair and says, "Promise me you won't go after Itachi on your own."

He's silent for a long, worrisome moment. Then Sasuke sighs, sets down the shuriken he was polishing, and kisses her forehead. "I promise," he says.

Naruto and the rest of Team 7 set out to find Uchiha Itachi in eight hours, and Hinata has rarely been so afraid in all her life. This is the man who slaughtered his own clan, one of the most feared and notorious members of Akatsuki, and tomorrow the boy she loves is going to hunt him down.

He must sense her fear, because when they get in bed Naruto wraps an arm around her waist, kisses the back of her neck, and says, "I'm gonna be okay, Hinata. My team is strong. If we work together we can take Itachi."

What if he's wrong? What if he doesn't come home?

"I can't help but be concerned," she says.

Naruto splays his hand across her belly, casually possessive, and pulls her against his chest. "I can think of better things to do," he says, and Hinata hears the smile in his voice as he mock-bites her shoulder.

Anxiety still tightens her stomach, but she'd rather make good memories than waste this night worrying. She turns over, traces the marks on his cheek with her fingers, and says, "I'm going to miss you."

His grin dims a little. "I'm gonna miss you too."

He kisses her, slowly and tenderly. She's loved Naruto for as long as she can remember, and she wants him to know how much he means to her. But she's not like him; she's never been good at expressing herself in words. So, instead of speaking, Hinata leans into him, wraps her leg around his waist, and kisses back, hungry and a little desperate for his touch.

When she whimpers against his mouth, she means I'll wait for you, and when she bites his bottom lip, she means Come back to me.

Hinata hopes he understands.

Even with the help of Kakashi-sensei's ninken it takes a week to find a trace of Itachi, and then it's only a long-cold trail that leads to a run-down River Country minshuku. The innkeeper remembers renting a room to a man in an Akatsuki cloak last month, but he has no idea where his lodger may have traveled next.

They criss-cross the Fire Country and its neighboring nations, following likely rumors. Naruto can see Sasuke growing more and more impatient as the days pass without any sign of his brother. He broods and keeps to himself, and when he's tired he snaps at his teammates (even Sakura, sometimes).

Three weeks after setting out on their hunt, they finally come across a substantial lead: intel on an Akatsuki hideout on the southwestern border of the Fire Country.

Naruto runs all day, until Kakashi finally makes them stop to eat. Sasuke says he isn't hungry, and he sits off to the side, watching the sunset.

"Do you think he's okay?" Sakura whispers.

"I dunno," Naruto says. "I don't think I would be, if I was him."

She yawns. "I'm so tired. We've barely had a minute to rest in days."

"I know what you mean," Naruto says, rubbing his eyes. "I'm beat."

Only he was awake and alert a few minutes ago. Now he feels sluggish, sleepy, and heavy-limbed. He looks to Kakashi just in time to see his sensei faint. Then Sakura slumps against him, eyes closed. Naruto sees Sasuke standing over them, a hard look on his face, unremorseful and unforgiving, before he passes out.

Sakura's first thought upon waking is: Sasuke lied to me.

Her second is that he must have stolen a sedative from her pouch of drugs and poisons and dosed the food with it.

The sky is a canvas of star-strewn black, like dark velvet scattered with diamonds. A crescent moon hangs in the air, bright and silver, and Sakura finds herself looking to the soulscar on her palm. It's too dark to tell whether the mark is still red, or if it has turned black, signaling her mate's death.

She wakes Kakashi and Naruto, who curses loudly and swears to kick Sasuke's ass when they catch up to him.

"You'll have to beat me to it," Sakura says. Really, though, if he's alive she'll be too glad of his survival to much care about anything else.

They head southwest, and as the sky turns twilight grey, then gold, Sakura keeps stealing glances at her soulscar. It's there on her palm, crimson as ever.

As they approach the outskirts of the hideout, Naruto frowns at her and asks, "Why do you keep looking at your hand?"

Sakura can't think up a good lie, not quickly enough, because then Kakashi-sensei grabs her by the wrist and examines her soulscar. "So Sasuke's still alive then," he says.

She considers denying it, pretending not to know what he means, but Kakashi deserves this reassurance almost as much as she does. "Yes. He has to be."

Naruto's blue eyes widen as realization hits him. "You—you and Sasuke are soulmates?" he asks.

"We don't have time to talk about it," Sakura says, blushing. "Right now we need to find him."

It doesn't take long. Sasuke is alive, just as the mark on her palm promised, but he's only hanging on by a thread. He collapsed next to his brother's blank-eyed corpse, amidst a battlefield boasting cracked earth, scattered with shuriken, still aflame with mundane fire and black Amaterasu. She can tell from a cursory examination that his chakra is almost completely depleted. He's bruised, covered in minor scrapes and burns, his breathing shallow.

After they move Sasuke away from the site of the fight, Sakura heals his injuries, cradles his limp body in her arms, and prays for him to wake.

He knows before he opens his eyes that he's in the Konoha hospital. The sharp scents of antiseptic and alcohol permeate the air, and the scratchy sheets feel uncomfortable but familiar.

Sasuke looks around the dim room—someone thoughtful must have lowered the lights, probably Sakura. His team sits around him, Naruto slouched and asleep in his chair, Kakashi reading a ridiculous, dog-eared Icha Icha novel. Sakura sits with her head in her hands, perfectly still.

Kakashi is the first to notice he's awake. He closes his book and says, "Drugging your teammates isn't a great way to build trust, you know."

Sakura looks up, green eyes wide and over-bright. She murmurs his name, stands, and approaches the bed. Tentative, almost shy, she reaches out and brushes his hair away from his face.

"You broke your promise," Sakura whispers, but she doesn't sound angry or upset.

"I'm sorry," Sasuke says, because he is.

Kakashi kicks Naruto and the idiot startles awake.

"Sasuke!" he says. "You're up." His bright smile fades after a moment, though. "You drugged us, you asshole!"

Sasuke doesn't bother apologizing to Naruto.

"What did you do with Itachi's body?" he asks.

The three of them share an uncomfortable look, then Kakashi says, "We returned it to Konoha."

Sasuke nods. Much as he wanted his brother dead, the thought of Itachi lying outside, body unprotected from the elements and scavengers, turns his stomach. Besides, the sharingan is too powerful a weapon to leave for anyone to find. He expects that this is precisely why they brought Itachi back to the village.

He's released from the hospital three days later, and by then, Sasuke has had ample time to think. He expected to feel lighter, freer, after he killed his brother, at the very least relieved, but instead he just feels empty. As he walks back to his apartment (which seems nothing like home), Sasuke realizes that this is because he's built his entire life around avenging his clan. Now that this is done, now that Itachi is dead, he has no purpose.

She returns from her mission with Team 10. Hidan and Kakuzu are dead, but they lost Asuma, and Kurenai-sensei grieves so openly that Hinata can barely stand to watch it. The soulscar on her forearm has turned black, as if she needed a reminder that her mate is dead.

That night, Naruto holds her while she cries. He kisses her forehead and rubs his strong hand up and down her back, soothing gestures that only remind her of how much she loves him. How much she stands to lose if he should fall in battle, like Asuma did.

Naruto is strong, but he's told her about the Kyubi, and the nine-tailed beast he houses paints a target on his back. What's left of Akatsuki will be coming for him.

Hinata wipes away her tears and says, "I won't let them hurt you."

She knows she isn't strong enough to face any single member of Akatsuki and come out alive, but Hinata doesn't care. She would fight their leader if she had to, would give up her own life in an instant if it would protect Naruto.

The rookie teams haven't been the same since their battles with Akatsuki. Team 8 is sobered by their experience, while Ino, Shikamaru, and Choji seem lost without their sensei. As for Team 7, Naruto doesn't know what to expect of his squad anymore. Sasuke drugged them to go rogue, and now he understands that Sakura lied for years about being Sasuke's soulmate. What little unity their team still had has been fractured.

Even so, he visits Sasuke. His friend has been withdrawn and distracted since he faced his brother, almost as if he didn't expect to survive, and without vengeance to work toward he doesn't know what to do with himself.

Today they spar, and afterward, Naruto and Sasuke sit in the grass and drink from bottles of water, warmed by the spring sunlight, enjoying the blue sky and gentle breeze.

Sasuke won their fight, which irritates Naruto, but not enough for him to ruin this moment. It's the first peaceful interaction he and Sasuke have had in months—maybe because they just finished beating each other up. Their fights seem to either inflame their rivalry or settle an odd peace between them. It's the latter today, and Naruto is thankful for it.

"You know, you've got more to live for than vengeance," he says.

Sasuke picks at a weed, uprooting it from the soft earth. "Like what?" he asks dully.

"Like me and Kakashi-sensei." Naruto points at Sasuke's gloved hand. "And Sakura. She's your soulmate, and it's tattooed on your skin, so you can't ignore her at least."

"Hn." Sasuke takes a swig of lukewarm water, pulls a face, and sets the bottle aside. He's quiet for a long moment, then says, "She deserves better than what I can give her."

"What, you think I haven't noticed that Hinata's too good for me?" Naruto asks, grinning. "But it's her choice to make if she wants to be with me. Not mine."

That night, Naruto holds Hinata close and tells her how thankful he is that she wants him. What he doesn't say is that he's never known this kind of love before, and sometimes he still has difficulty understanding why anyone would care for him at all. But her affection is the sweetest thing he's ever known, and it's slowly teaching him to accept the love he never thought he deserved.

Author's Note: Thank you so much to everyone who's been leaving reviews, following, and favoriting. It's great to see this little story doing so well! And I appreciate your patience between updates this time. I lost a little momentum on this fic, but I think I've got it back now. Also, DeepPoeticGirl is the best for pre-reading this story!