Disclaimer: Everything belongs to Masashi Kishimoto.

Lines in the Sand

Crossed – V

"I have discovered that all human evil comes from this: man's being unable to sit still in a room."

Looking at Temari, Naruto thought it was an extraordinary stroke of luck having her, Gaara's sister of all people, in the group that had kidnapped him. She alone seemed to be the key to calming down Ren. And without her intervention, Naruto was sure he would have never held out as long as he did.

While Temari had been away, the full brunt of Ren's attention brought Naruto as close to the edge of submitting to the fox as he had ever dreamed of, even in his nightmares. Each shard of control that splintered off was that much worse, because he needed it, needed to reassure himself that keeping the Kyuubi at bay was possible; that he could fulfill the very first mission he had ever received, right at birth; that in the end, the Fourth's trust wasn't misplaced, couldn't be misplaced, as Jiji had often put it, because Uzumaki Naruto didn't give up. He may falter, but he would never let it be cut, that one iron thread tethering his will to the impossible.

Well, he'd done a lot of faltering in the last weeks, and without his absolute faith in Sasuke and Sakura finding him eventually, and without Temari, who had made the hour-long beatings cease, he might actually have taken the axe to that iron thread. He might have given in at last to the temptation of releasing whatever of the Kyuubi's chakra could make it through the restriction seals. A part of him would have liked to see everything around him turn to ash. That much was undeniable. And should he ever get the chance to do so without the Kyuubi he would take it.

Though maybe he'd knock out Temari first, taking her out of the equation. Being at the same time thankful for her help and resentful for having been captured was a strange feeling at any rate. And seeing her now sit cross-legged before him, a wooden bowl clenched between her thighs, hands working in a mesmerizing rhythm as she ground something with a pestle, he still couldn't help wonder whether she was playing him. Time had made him jaded enough to recognize that this could all be an act, that Ren might know about everything, and that, at every moment, the comfort she lulled him into could prove his undoing.

He really hoped, maybe naively so, that it wasn't that though, because their original meeting notwithstanding he actually liked her. And it was the duality of his feelings toward Temari that always made the process of thinking about how to deal with her a confusing exercise.

The minutes stretched, both silent, and Naruto kept observing her, letting his mind wander, cataloging what he knew of the rebels beyond the woman in front of him. They rotated their camps every so often—the reason for that was unknown to him. He assumed it had strategic advantages in keeping Konoha guessing and staying mobile, invalidating scouting information only a week or two after they've been discovered. If there was a larger plan at work, he couldn't tell. The rebels, it seemed, were sent out on missions now and then. Most of that information came from his ride on the back of the bulging shinobi he lovingly called Fatso, the one that had broken his ribs to test his bloodline. Bastard.

Naruto had never heard much about clashes between Konoha's scouts and Suna's rebels though, so he wondered what kind of missions they ran. Ambushing the escort of a high-standing government official couldn't happen every week or so. Then again, working against a powerhouse like Konoha probably gave people a lot to do.

Curiously enough, they also rotated men. During the two times they had changed their location now, Naruto had shortly seen the outside of the tent. They would kick him awake and push him out into the center of the camp. There they'd bind him to a pole for newcomers to gawk at. Lovely job, being an exhibit. The dangerous but caught Konoha-nin. De-fanged if you will. They would laugh, cracking cute one-liners to impress each other. A few would throw stones; others were content with sand or spitting in his face. When the stones hit Naruto, blood caressing his temples, he always thought that were was nothing more to it but endure. Their method of humiliating him was a far cry away from whatever Ren dished out. Let them throw sand, he thought then, as long as that guy stays away from me. He had a great memory for faces, after all. And when the day came that he'd stand across them, unbound, they would remember all those little insults and wish they had kept away from him. Just as Ren would eventually wish to have never crossed paths.

In the quiet introspective moments, which he admittedly had rather more often than he'd like, he thought that he finally understood Sasuke. Not just the Sasuke he knew now, but also the one before that, the vengeful Uchiha consumed by a lust for his brother's death so strong, nothing else had a place in his world. That was, until Kakashi-sensei forcefully created that place and shoved Naruto and Sakura inside. Revenge, it turned out, was one hell of a motivator to get you through the day.

Temari added dried leaves to the bowl, looked up, eyes flashing mysteriously, then refocused on her work, going back to grinding that pestle.

How she calmed Ren he could only speculate at, but he had a hunch. When she had been away those two weeks, he had never known who was worse, Ren or the Kyuubi. Bastard Biju of the first order, the fox took its sweet time to heal the damage, keeping him alive but also fully cognizant of the pain: the slashing, stabbing, burning, and God knows what more. He lost count after the first twenty-four hours.

By the second day he wondered if there hadn't been any other way to escape back then, if giving up himself had really been the only option. The Kyuubi continued healing as slowly as it could.

Then came the third day, the worst by far, and Naruto's respect for Kakashi's performance in Orochimaru's dungeon soared. Ren actually managed to make him want to talk. Naruto's lips were bitten bloody at midday; his tongue might have gone next, since even if he wanted to talk, his stubborn streak kept him from it somehow.

So he didn't talk, enduring the beatings—Temari was gone for maybe sixty hours by then—and Ren was working himself into a frenzy. There wasn't much of Naruto's earlier bravado left, aside from a few token efforts. But he still didn't talk. No, ultimately, defeat came from someplace else.

Three days, give or take. After seventy-two hours, a bit more perhaps, Naruto caved, giving in to the pain. The fists kept raining; his head lolled from side to side. A treacherous thought crossed his mind. Just once. A stray morsel flying through the shaken expanse of his mind.

It might as well have flashed like a dying star.

When Ren left him alone that night, Naruto succumbed. The thought returned, and he articulated it into a mental question, almost a plea. He knew it was the worst way to go. Nothing good could come from it. And he did it nonetheless, because a thundering howl of pain shot from his head to his ankles and back at every second, and his endurance found its end at last.

The reply to his plea came with the piercing quality of a lance, thrusting right through the haze of pain, shredding it to pieces.

The Kyuubi delivered. There was no meeting this time, nothing fancy as that. But with each shred of red chakra begged, not freely given, a fact that made all the difference, Naruto could practically feel the Biju's smugness grow as he healed up.

They didn't have to meet each other. Naruto knew well without seeing the fox who won.

To what degree though, only the next days unveiled. Making a deal with the devil had its consequences—he had always known that—but again, the attack came from a direction he didn't anticipate.

This time it was Ren. He found Naruto completely healed the next morning, creating the hypothesis about a healing bloodline. The periods of beatings grew longer, the viciousness increased, and after barely another day, Naruto broke his renewed vow to never ask the Kyuubi for its help again.

It happened again. And a third, a fourth, a fifth time. Naruto begged; the Kyuubi gave; Ren tortured. Then the cycle began anew, each time eclipsing the one that came before in violence.

Eventually Temari had returned, and had he not been bound back then, he would have kissed her feet from toe to toe, while also thinking of smashing her head in for bringing him to this place.

In the present, Temari's voice broke him out of his thoughts. He looked at her through the mattress of filthy blond hair hanging in his face that now reached past his shoulders. She stood before him, looking expectantly, a bowl of the same old slurry in her hands

"Sorry," Naruto said, "mind's been wandering." There was a faint trace of impatience in her eyes, and he thought it best not to keep the food lady waiting.

She took the spoon, shoveling a large glob into his obediently opened mouth in what was by now established routine. The slurry met his palate, sloshing around. A sudden explosion of flavor expanded into every corner of his mouth.

Still slurry, of course, but what kind of slurry, now that made all the difference.

Temari wore an utterly satisfied smirk, assured in her absolute superiority. His reaction must have been pretty obvious, too, because her grin only widened as time went by.

He kept his mouth shut, before he insulted her again on accident. This food was too precious to meet the ground. Rather he nodded at the bowl, and radiating smugness Temari continued to feed him until nothing remained.

"That," he said as he gulped down the last bits and licked his lips, "was the best food I've eaten since coming to this place."

Temari said, "You didn't exactly come here…"

"Not the camp," he replied, quite honest. "The country."

Her stare turned flinty. "If all you do is mock it, then I shouldn't have bothered. The food in Suna is better than any seasoning I can make…"

Seeing the possibility of getting another meal like that abscond toward regions unknown, he said, "Cool it, Temari, I wasn't knocking your food! It was good, I mean it." She still didn't look convinced, so he kept talking. "Rations in Suna were shit, really. And I've had nothing but not-cooked-by-you stuff since coming here. You better believe that was the tastiest fucking meal I had in weeks."

It worked. The satisfied glint returned to her eyes, and Naruto's thumping heart stopped beating so loudly. Crisis averted, he calmed. "What did you do? Must be some kind of desert witchcraft. There's no way a few dried leaves can make that kind of difference."

She pulled a bag from her belt and held it under his nose, and Naruto took a sniff, then recoiled at the fierce itching sensation crawling up the insides of his nose. If he were an Aburame and spice bugs were a thing, this would exactly feel like them making use of their host. "Holy… that's, uh, spicy?"

Temari pulled taut the string of the bag, closing it. "Siem leaves, grown in Hajim. You need the other herbs I used to mediate the—" She stopped abruptly. "Why am I telling you this?"

"Because I asked?"

She gave him a flat look. "You eat, I question. That was the deal."

"Right. And being interested in how you fabricated that miracle of culinary engineering is bad how?"

Her expression willing him to understand, Temari told him in clear words that it would set a bad precedent for later interactions. At his consequent laugh, she threatened the return of the old slurry.

"There's nothing wrong with talking," he began, more carefully. "What am I going to do, write a book about you?"

"You could report whatever I tell you."

"If I actually make it out of this place alive I'll probably have other worries than your cooking skills. No disrespect intended. They are worthy of talking about, but I'd probably wait until I see Chōji or something. He can appreciate it much more."


Naruto paused. He hadn't planned on naming any other people than his teammates and Gaara. Talking about Chōji had been his first real slip in her company and he quickly continued talking, hoping to gloss over it while cursing and celebrating the mentality-shifting experience of eating good food. "A friend," he said. "But I'm serious. Chances are that we're going to continue this for a while. Would it be so bad to talk about some superficial stuff for once?"

"I'm here to get information on my brother, nothing more."

"And you will get them, I promise," he said, nodding, "but isn't there another topic, something? Gaara's the only thing I've talked about for weeks now. It's maddening."

Giving in to a random urge, Naruto made a face at her.

She looked like she'd punch him again, then sighed, plopping back onto the sand, resting her chin in her palm. "Suppose I agree. What do you want to talk about? And I'm warning you—anything war related and this is over."

"Fair warning," he said. "I'll try to keep my spy-nature in check. So…"


"Well, who are you?"

Temari scowled at him. "You know who I am. Stop playing games."

"I know that you're Gaara's sister. I know that you can pimp this sludge into something actually edible." He paused for a moment, then added, "I also know that you're not a virgin anymore."

She was up in a flash, growling into his ear, "Careful, Naruto, you're talking about things you know nothing about."

"Did I lie?"

"If all you do is give me crap then I'm leaving. I've better things to do than listen to your shit."

He wanted to say 'Uh-huh, like getting ploughed by the commander' but controlled himself. She didn't look like she was joking. "Sorry," he said trying to look contrite. "Just making conversation."

"You suck at small talk."

An objective and truthful statement as far as he could tell.

"I wasn't trying to make small talk."

She glared at him. "Ask something different, then. Something not about me. I won't give ammunition to a tree-hugger."

"That almost sounds as if you have faith in my escape. I'm…well, moved doesn't really fit. Honored maybe?"

Her growl became louder. Just a bit more and she'd be easy to mistake for a lioness. Naruto steered clear of the danger zone just before that could happen though. "Easy. Um…okay, something not about you, right? I can do that. Though you are fairly interesting. Actually, I think I've got something!"

"Go on," she said, arms crossed in front of her chest, a warning glint in her eyes.

"Now," Naruto began, "hear me out, please. Next one is an observation in general—not about you, I promise—so don't kill me, don't withhold the food, and don't leave, please?" She didn't respond and he continued, "What's up with Suna women?"

Temari turned to leave.

"No! Wait! Let me finish, damn it." She paused at the tent flap and he said, "I don't mean it like that. I just…it seems weird to talk about this, but I've wondered since I arrived in Suna…aren't Suna women jealous of all the prostitutes?"

Naruto heard himself speak and if he weren't bound he would slap himself silly for how he structured his question. To his surprise, by the time he had finished, Temari was sitting again.

"Why should they be?"

"Well, there are so many, right? Much more than I've ever seen in Konoha or Fire Country. And they're so open with it. I've noticed it in Suna, red everywhere, and one of my teammates had a bit of inside information. I just find it weird that they aren't, well, reviled I'd say. At least by other women. It's more like they're…honored?"

Temari tilted her head. "Why should they be reviled? Nothing they do is wrong if they do it out of their own will."

"But shouldn't the wives be more angry?"

Temari hummed a low tone. "Suppose a husband cheats on his wife with a prostitute, is that really the prostitute's fault, then? I don't see the logic in that."

"I've witnessed a few wives creating scenes and making trouble back in Konoha."

"That's ridiculous," Temari said, shaking her head. "If the husband is caught cheating it's clear who's at fault. I know no woman in this country who'd blame a prostitute for that."


Temari raised an eyebrow. "You've been to Wind Country how long now?"

"Almost a year? Time's not my strength right now."

She ignored the swipe and continued, "You should've noticed that the desert isn't the nicest of places."

"You can say that again."

"There's no water, people go hungry all the time, and it's much easier to die out in the desert than in your green forests. It's…easy, I guess, to feel that life's against you. There's not much merriment to go around."


She looked at him as if he were a dense child. "So we take pleasure from wherever we can, and we honor those that bring a bit of light into our lives. Priests, dancers, cooks, musicians…They all are revered here. Physical pleasure is just one possibility of many—certainly a strong one though. It's not love, but often it doesn't need to be. Why should someone be angry at a woman who brings solace to so many, when it's not even her fault to begin with when a man cheats?" She paused. "Same goes for the men, by the way."

"The men?"

"Of course. Or did you think brothels are only catering to guys? For every establishment of that kind you have at least another one that serves the other side. Needs go both ways, you know?"

"Oh? That's pretty detailed knowledge. You've been to many such establishments, then?"

She shot him a look, half-amused, half-warning, then rose. "That's none of your business," she said, stretching, before collecting the empty bowl and the spoon. "It's getting late. I'll try to make it tomorrow."

"Are you leaving because I asked?"

She laughed. "You're not that important, Naruto."

And as Naruto watched her go, he wondered about that strange bit of information he had just received. A pleasure-oriented society underneath that deadly pile of hot sand she called her country.

He could buy into that.

Half a day's travel away from the point that split Fang Country into north and south, the makeshift group of Iwa-nin halted in front of the large stretch of forest separating them from the entrance to Wind Country.

It was raining. Blood that was, and Rōshi pinned his gaze on the lump of flesh that had been a talking shinobi just moments ago. Slowly the ringing from the explosion subsided, and Rōshi forced himself to take a deep breath when he noticed his teeth grinding one another into dust.

He had been wondering why there had been no resistance at all, when they, hidden as a merchant caravan, traveled through the north of Fang Country, closing in on their target with each passing day. That Konoha would have something up their sleeve had been a given. This, though, came unexpected.

A few paces to his left, standing amid the other Iwa-nin Ōnoki had sent them as support, Daichi stared at the forest with naked fear entering his eyes. The first time that brat is too shocked to speak, Rōshi thought, shaking his head minutely. But if this hadn't been a situation where the boy was overcome by horror, he would have been far more worried. That at least, if nothing else, might be a good thing. He'd been far too happy about marching into a warzone, and Rōshi had begun worrying that this brashness would make him abandon caution the moment he saw an enemy. It had been ages since Rōshi last felt the thin veil of anxiety that cloaked you when you feared for someone else's life.

His eyes returned to the forest before them. There existed an enemy now, though it was an intangible, inanimate one; and that foe had just put the fear of God into Daichi. In time that fear would be overcome, but for now it kept the boy alive, which, in the end, was all he could ask for.

Rōshi stepped to the others. "There's no way but through. If they think that's all it takes to stop us, we'll have to prove them wrong, eh, boys?"

Some murmured a 'yeah' into the blowing wind; others kept staring at the forest as if it was transforming into a deadly beast before their eyes, sallying out to swallow them whole. Daichi belonged to the latter category.

"Listen up." All eyes fell on Rōshi. "You know what I contain, so stop worrying. There's no amount of explosives on this earth that can kill me. I'll scout our path. You keep behind me at all times, and nothing will happen. Understood?"

Grim nods all around.

Rōshi started for the forest, circulating his Bijū's chakra through his body. That the third Hokage, or one of his advisors, would think of preparing against an Iwa attack on Suna had been a given. Nevertheless, Rōshi wondered what kind of resources it took to transform an entire stretch of a country into a veritable death zone. No surprise that there hadn't been any civilians even close to the forest.

Ahead there would wait nothing but traps and exploding tags on them, and before the day was out, Rōshi knew, he would probably have lost another member of his group.

Once more, Sakura and Sasuke sat at the Daimyo's table, a lavish feast spread out before them. Unlike before though, they were in a large hall this evening, the event more formal in nature. They were waited upon, and contrary to their first dinner, Sakura saw the guards who had been mere shadows before stand in full view, right next to the pillars and braziers scattered throughout the hall.

While surveying and assessing their threat level, Sakura sliced the roasted piece of pheasant on her golden plate, dipping it into the spiced up honey sauce. Invitations to dinner had come from Iho and Yui before, and Sakura had no doubts that this last, forced occasion was Sawada's work. Maybe he didn't want to deal with them in an informal setting any longer, and his father, weary of fighting, had given in.

Her teeth broke through the brown crust, the taste of coriander and the hint of mint a pleasant surprise. Avoiding further stressing the bonds between the family members was a good principle, really, but this utterly awkward dinner wouldn't help matters, no matter how much the Daimyo wished it to.

Since their arrival she'd had ample opportunity to observe the workings of this family, even with Taichi's restrictions and constant supervision. And though still wondering about the openness showed to her at times, Sakura understood one thing above all else: This family was broken.

The continuous tension between the eldest and youngest brother had reached its peak during the last weeks; Sawada treated Iho with nothing more than contempt, disdain lacing every syllable whenever they spoke. Yui had insulated herself from anyone but Sakura. The two had shared a few more meetings, and in each and every one of them, Sakura's inexplicable feeling of unease grew.

Likewise, the Daimyo, who had projected wisdom and strength at first, turned out to be an old man with too many burdens to shoulder, particularly that of keeping his family united while also keeping a semblance of peace in his country. Both tasks at which he failed. He was a nice man though, maybe too nice. Or at least he was wise enough to not show his scorn for Konoha openly, if he harbored any.

Sakura lifted a cup of wine to her lips. Taichi, who sat beside the Daimyo, had caught her staring, and now his eyes drilled into hers in response. She was the first to look away—no need to cause trouble so close to their departure.

Next to her sat Yui. Today she was followed by a personal cupbearer Sakura had seen a few times in the last weeks. She was a beautiful woman with a black braid reaching down to her ankles, who was approaching Yui for the sixth time this evening. When she knelt on the small, yellow cushion beside her mistress to refill the cup, the length of the braid became even more apparent. Like a snake it coiled at her feet, the jade ornament at the end of her braid meeting the ground with a soft clinking sound.

Yui was out to get drunk, and Sakura couldn't fault her. The ominous silence at the table as everyone ate their dinner; the tension you could almost grasp with your hands; the glares, scowls, and frowns going around…

Sakura refocused on her food after Sasuke tapped her leg once under the table. Tomorrow, away from any controlling influences, they'd be able to search for Naruto. How? She had no idea. But anything was better than doing nothing at this point.

We're coming for you, Naruto. Hold out.

As Yui's cupbearer approached again, the Daimyo shot his daughter a glare, which was a rarity. Usually his attention was solely reserved for his two sons, through all the fault of their own.

The glare eased into a worried frown. "What is the matter, Yui? You seem intent on falling prey to vice tonight."

Not the nicest words ever spoken, but Sakura was glad that at least someone was speaking now. With all that silence going around, the Daimyo could have whispered and the eunuchs in the eastern wing of the palace would have heard it.

Yui shrugged nonchalantly, face flushed. "I just feel like it, father, that is all. From time to time indulgence can be a blessing, would you not agree?"

"That is not how a daughter of this house be—"

Screeching drowned out the Daimyo's voice. Knives hurtled at him, each spinning in perfect unison, pushed by a gale of wind coming in sharp behind them. Murder in his eyes, Taichi was already on his feet in front of his master.

On instinct, Sakura jumped away from the table as more knives knocked over the goblets and bowls on top. Too late did she realize that more than a few shot at Iho, but Sasuke had already grabbed the youngest son by the scruff of his robe, pulling him back.

They joined Sakura, whose eyes went rapidly from left to right to top and back. The attackers hung at the pillars or stood by them, all wearing the uniform of the royal shinobi guard. Taichi snarled at them as he deflected their projectiles with a frightening accuracy, not one knife making it close to the Daimyo.

Yui was staring wide-eyed at what happened, having crawled back with her cupbearer, who tried her best to calm the princess. Sawada, Sakura finally realized, was the only one not looking surprised. He calmly stood up, staring at his father, the hail of knives continuing.

"Sawada!" the Daimyo shouted. "Stop this madness!"

There were traces of actual regret in Sawada's expression, which quickly vanished though. "I did not wish for this, but you left me little choice, father. It is time for our country to take back its pride."

Why now? Sakura thought, as Sawada shot at a glare at Iho, who was taking cover behind Sasuke and Sakura.

Rage creeping over his face, Taichi growled, "You would kill your own father over this?"

"I knew of your presence, so I had no worries that he would die. Stand down, Taichi, and my men will stop their assault." His next words were for his father: "There is nothing you can do. Rescind your title and all this ends. I fully intend to let you live out your life in the palace. Unburden yourself, father, and spend the remainder of your time in peace, before taking that last journey to Odaya's palace."

Sawada raised his hand; the knives stopped coming. The room was empty of noise.

Then the Daimyo spoke. "Unburden myself?" A cracked laugh. "It seems I raised a fool. You think the people will follow you if you take my title by force?"

"Your guards follow me, do they not?"

"Sawada," Yui spoke from beside her cupbearer, gripping the woman's arm tightly. "Please. It doesn't have to be like this…I—"

"Enough!" Taichi's shout was laced with enough killing intent that, for a second, Sakura froze. God, she hadn't felt that much since their fight against Kabuto. Taichi tightened his grip around the kunai in his hand, staring right up at the attackers clinging to the pillars. "You traitors know me well after all these years. You should know that I will keep my promises. Come down, put away your weapons, and I'll make sure your death is painless. Stay up there, and I will come for your when your inevitable loss is at hand."

They didn't move.

"Choose!" Taichi thundered. When nothing happened he said, "Konoha, I count on your support," his tightly controlled chakra flooding the room in waves. "Honor the treaty."

His chakra is so dense, Sakura thought, holding the knife she had used to eat in front of her, oil clinging to the blade still.

Sasuke needed no Sharingan to see that everyone had gone to hell. The old Daimyo was staring at his oldest son as though all of this was just a nightmare, soon to end. Problem was, it wouldn't, and Sasuke knew that Sakura and he had to make a choice now. Glancing at her, he saw a reflection of his own thought process—she had come to the same conclusion then, and really, he had expected nothing else.

"I'll keep him alive," Sakura said, nodding at Iho, who sat dazed on the floor beside her.

Sasuke knew he needed help for this one. "You remember—"

"Just go already," she said, a strange smile on her face. She was remarkably calm, and when she positioned herself defensively before Iho, Sasuke set off.

He rushed the first enemy in sight, two leaps away, and the fight in the hall resumed as Konoha made its decision. Most shinobi were moving in on Taichi; some stayed back to get a hold of Sasuke; two ran past him at Sakura. He didn't stop them, concentrating fully on the man in front of him. Metal clashed; pained cries rang out as the first few fell victim to Taichi's fists.

The ugly creak of bones rang in Sasuke's ears, but he had no time to worry anymore. Body flowing in a violent rhythm, he jabbed at an eye, following with a hook that stopped midway and transitioned into him sliding his leg behind his opponent's feet, pulling them away, then shifting out of range when a row of punches came to his left from a second shinobi.

He pushed the unbalanced man before him forward against the table they had eaten at. Plates and cutlery rattled as the shinobi fell backwards, then the noise cut off abruptly. Uncaring, Sasuke reached for the first utensil he found, drilling the spoon into the left eye, while leaning forward and avoiding the blade that sliced the air above him. The man under him opened his mouth in a scream. Only after a few seconds did the sound reach Sasuke though. It gained in volume, rushing all of a sudden through his ears as if he was listening for the first time. The cries of agony around him returned, as did the roar of flying metal, buzzing when propelled by wind, and then came Sakura's voice.


He jerked away from his screaming victim, rolling sideways over the table, feeling an intense but only momentary shame at having been caught in a Genjutsu, out of which Sakura had broken him.

Above, a blade was on direct course to his face, only a few inches separating them. Then a spike of earth broke through the table at his side, jagged and sharp, drilling into the arm that held the sword.

Sasuke lurched up, lashing out against the speared arm. The sword fell to the ground, clattering. One squat later, Sasuke had a weapon and his opponent lacked his head. He nodded briefly in thanks at Sakura, who was kneeling on the floor, a corpse and Iho beside her.

Taichi was circled by dead shinobi, most of his attackers resorting to distance, hurling shuriken and knives at him. As Sasuke ran at his next opponent, he saw Taichi pull one of the pests clinging to the pillars from her safe spot with a string of chakra.

The closer Sasuke came to Sawada, the more opposition he found in his path. Now with a sword in his hand, he had everything he needed to step up his game. The blade raced from side to side, then stabbed forward, was reversed, blocked, changed grip, and lastly became death as he whirled on the spot.

One shinobi went down; his comrades approach with more vigor. A wholly inappropriate grin tugged at Sasuke's lips. In a dark part of his mind he admitted, quietly, that he had missed this. Not exactly the killing, but the fighting. It was a sense of emptiness inside him that had just started to fill up during his first bout of combat in this country, when the rebels had attacked their caravan.

The smell of blood and waste started to linger as the body count increased.

He grew more offensive, lashing out with more precision, more strength, more agility. It was so easy to get the back in the hang of things. Far easier than usual, he thought, and Sakura played a large part in that particular phenomenon.

The moment his guard weakened, a wall of stone covered him. A fraction of a second in which his side was exposed, and a nasty spike erupted from the floor, breaking apart the marbled tiles. At times her techniques required specific maneuvering around them, but he took the added security any time over free range of movement. Fighting like this was like having a thick, reactionary armor, and in time it would feel completely natural.

A weight attached to a chain hurtled at his head. Sasuke sent his current opponent to the ground with a kick to the shin that pushed a resounding crack past his eardrums. The weight, as expected, met Sakura's protection, breaking the wall but falling down uselessly afterward. Wheeling around, Sasuke grabbed the chain and the weight, tugging hard. The kunoichi at the other end lost her balance for a second, and Sasuke threw the weight back at her head.

A dull thud of metal hitting flesh later, the woman slumped, her head caved in.

Only two more to go, and both went down easily thanks to Sakura. Then Sasuke was in front of Sawada.

The prince calmly watched him approach, and Sasuke mentally commended him for not running away.

The certainty of defeat lingered in Sawada's eyes, but also an underlying strength of principle. He wouldn't run from his decision, nor would he beg to change his fate. In that regard he was far more agreeable than his younger brother, who, last time Sasuke had looked, still clung to Sakura like a newborn to its mother.

Shrugging, Sasuke raised his sword. What the prince did and didn't consider honorable behavior wasn't his problem anymore. Before Sasuke's blade met the shock of brown hair though, Taichi's voice stopped him.

"Don't." The command in that single word was enough to make Sasuke pause. "It isn't our place to spill royal blood," Taichi continued. "Only the Daimyo has the right to decide the fate of his family."

Sasuke abandoned his previous attacking stance, letting the edge of his sword trail small, lazy circles in front of Sawada's throat. A heap of corpses lay around Taichi. Not the cleanest work, but quite impressive nonetheless.

"Kill me or don't, Uchiha, but this won't be the last time something like this happens." Sawada then directed his gaze to his father, cold eyes piercing the old Daimyo. "I am not the only one unwilling to accept your rule, father. And as long as Konoha happily eats in these halls that won't change. You betrayed your country long before I betrayed you. That is the truth, and you know it."

Having had enough of this family spat, Sasuke decided to accelerate matters. "Daimyo-sama?"

The old man looked all his years and more when, after a moment of deliberation, he shook his head. Again Sasuke was left with the sensation of agreeing with Sawada on principle. The Daimyo's lead had been weak from what he gathered over time; then again, Konoha hadn't given him much of a choice.

The fate of the weaker, he recognized. It could have been his, easily, had Kakashi-sensei not uncovered the plans of the invasion.

"Put him in chains," the Daimyo spoke, voice exhausted and raspy. "He is still my son. He will always be…but Taichi is right. No royal blood shall be spilled tonight."

Sasuke went to work, tying Sawada's hands together with the chain he liberated from that unfortunate kunoichi whose head he had caved in. While he chained up the oldest, Sakura went with the youngest over to Taichi and his liege. Yui and her cupbearer were there, too. She couldn't quite decide where to look though, or what to say, really. Her eyes oscillated between her father, her two brothers and her cupbearer; her mouth opened and closed, no audible tone leaving it.

At length, Sasuke deposited Sawada on his knees in front of the Daimyo, hands bound behind the back, feet equally bound.

"You did well, Uchiha-san, Haruno-san." Taichi nodded at them—far more respectfully than before, Sasuke found. A tired grin followed the man's words. "Seems like the stories about Konoha's teamwork aren't unfounded after all." He paused, then shook his head. "You normally have a third member in that formation? A scary thought if there ever was one…"

Then the Daimyo stepped forward, his small bow feeling quite surreal. Mostly because it was accompanied by a derisive snort from the prisoner at Sasuke's feet.

The Daimyo ignored his son. "I, too, thank you for your support. Be assured, Sarutobi-dono will hear of your valor."

"That's not necess—"

Sakura stopped. Sasuke's head snapped around.

Taichi was the first to react. He whirled on the spot. Too late. A sword lanced through his stomach, leaving the body through his back. The cupbearer wore a self-assured, almost cocky smile. She pulled out the sword and drove it through Taichi a second time.

Sasuke moved, pushing himself away from the ground with enough force to leave cracks, propelling himself toward the woman with a violent dispersion of air. He was fast; she was faster. Before he even came close, the Daimyo's head got severed. An arc of scarlet fountained from the neck as the body slumped to the ground, a sack of dead meat unbalanced.

Sasuke stopped, distanced himself again and took position beside Sakura.

"No!" Yui screamed. The scream soon transformed into incoherent babbling as she slapped the back of her maid. "No, no, no…You said you wouldn't…You just wanted to—"

The woman batted Yui away like a fly, and the princess fell to the ground, all of her previous grace gone. At the other side Sawada looked first in genuine horror at the severed head of his father, then locked eyes with the cupbearer, a spark of interest driving away the disgust.

"Sawada-dono," the maid spoke, "you seem an honorable man. I think I will have to revise my original plan of uplifting your sister."

Sawada seemed quite interested in the proposal, and a sense of something not quite graspable filled Sasuke. Fear? No, but certainly similar. He slowly backed away with Sakura, behind whom Iho still hid, crawling with them one inch at a time.

"Oh? And who are you?"

The maid changed, not in height but in sex, and Sasuke had an unpleasant flashback to the now-drowned Kabuto—who thankfully had stayed dead. Contrary to the silver-haired menace though, the maid's transformation had nothing to do with physical altering. There was no revolting rippling of flesh and nerves, but a smooth blur, a faint wisp of chakra. Sasuke couldn't quite decide if he had ever witnessed an illusion of that quality before.

Who emerged instead of the maid was someone Sakura and him recognized from a dozen different briefings though. Gray eyes, seemingly chipped from stone, were framed by hair that had become a brown buzz-cut at the sides, but lengthened toward the back of his head where it spilled out in a ponytail held together by a small jade ornament. He wore the beginnings of a chin beard, but it appeared so due to laziness. The rest: all stubble.

Sasuke lacked the words to accurately articulate his current feelings.

Senyaku—leader of the rebel army, now, with this latest regicide, also a king slayer. Sasuke saw Sawada and Senyaku come to an understanding, the heir's eyes flickering over to them, more precisely to Iho.

Sakura threw her golden food knife at Sawada so Senyaku had to deflect it. Then they ran.

Sasuke pushed himself to his physical limit, speeding out of the hall, into the corridors and toward the exit. The entrance to the palace was close by. Then he noticed Sakura was lagging behind. Glancing back he found her to be carrying that useless excuse of a prince, doing her best to catch up. Behind her, Senyaku gained ground, fast.

He should have known this would happen. Sakura was far more compassionate and would never leave that waste of space to fend for himself. Turning abruptly, Sasuke shouted "Move!" as he barreled past her, crashing into Senyaku head-on.

He had no time to see whether she followed his command. Senyaku's sword came at him from every conceivable angle, and after juking to the left, Sasuke ate the plated fist of the man who was now clad in an antique Suna armor. Sasuke smashed through a pillar in the hallway, stopping short at the wall. Hands green, he went to work as Senyaku tried to get past Sakura. Running toward the exit on his own was Iho, back facing them.

Just as Senyaku's sword slashed alongside Sakura's block, slicing into her arm, Sasuke entered the fray again, slower though, still dizzy and injured. The second fist kissed him, and he felt Sakura's body press against his as they tumbled to the ground.

Both were scrambling away from the next attack, when the wide hallway was filled with the loudest screech Sasuke had ever heard, all noise drowned out by it. While Senyaku turned to the cause, Sakura and Sasuke brought distance between them.

Bleeding and enveloped in wind chakra, Taichi came in at high velocity, pushed forward by the squall behind him. Sasuke had barely time to blink, then the old veteran barreled into Senyaku, clinging to the man with all his strength, the wind shredding Senyaku's armor.

"Run!" Senyaku stabbed Taichi, but the man didn't let go. "Take the prince and…" Taichi grunted, blood spilling out his mouth. "Go!"

They didn't need to hear that command twice. Both started for Iho, Sakura soon with him, not looking back and racing through the double-winged doors leading out of the palace. Before the entrance, Sasuke stopped, however, looking back at the two struggling shinobi.

Taichi wouldn't live much longer. Soon Senyaku would have won, no matter the injuries he sustained while doing so.

There was a voice inside him that told Sasuke, in no unclear terms, that his next action wasn't right. The much louder voice however told him that they'd all die if he didn't do it. That his integrity and peace of mind was a small price to pay for keeping Sakura alive.

Without a diversion they'd never make it out of the capital.

Sasuke stopped thinking, blinked once, uttered a silent apology and a plea for forgiveness, then race through hand seals.

A spark of heat surged up his throat, leaving the taste of ash on his tongue as it blasted forward and out of his mouth, shaping into a fire dragon that hit the dome of wind surrounding Taichi and Senyaku.

Sasuke turned and ran. He had no desire to see this. The sound, and the heat on his skin was more than enough, and he never looked back, even as he heard something crumble behind him. He caught up with Sakura on the bridge leading away from the palace, following her into the lower levels of Sukoru.

Much later he would learn that the explosion had ripped apart the support pillars of the entrance hall, bringing down the whole front area of the palace in a chain reaction. For now though, he was just glad that they had made it. He doubted a man like Senyaku would die from that attack, no matter how powerful it seemed to be, but at least it gave them the time to actually leave the capital.

Feeling the cold draft of night, Sasuke closed his eyes. That Taichi had died in the fire of his creation, of that he had no doubt.

AN: So, here we are. Next chapter complete. I hope this one satisfied your thirst for action while still leaving room for the characters to shine through. Tension is ramping up, a coup has happened, Rōshi moves steadily onward toward Wind Country, and Temari can cook. The last one is of particular importance, since who doesn't love a good meal?

I know that OCs can be a sore spot for people, and this story certainly as a few of them (the whole royal household, Senyaku, etc.) but that's the drawback of building on a setting/place like Wind Country about which not much is known. It was my wish to still make these people interesting to you, while also not having them overshadow in any way the protagonists. Hopefully that worked somewhat.

No question this time, just glad that many of you liked the last chapter. Nothing quite like it to boost morale.