Disclaimer: NARUTO and its characters were created and are owned by Masashi Kishimoto. Original characters (Tsubasa Hibari © TA. RAYNE) and plot are the property of the author. No copyright infringement intended.

Title: Heaven Hold Us

Pairings: ShikaNeji, KakaGen, InoKiba

Rating: M / R (language, themes, violence etc.)

Genre: Drama/Angst/General

Summary: A series of Post-War BtB one-shots [BtB Flashforward]

Timeline: Post Fourth Shinobi World War. 4 months after the War.


HEAVEN HOLD US

IV

by Okami Rayne

Taking out the trash. Once upon an ANBU nightmare, that'd meant something to Genma – or maybe to Kaika; his name-taking, ass-raking, ANBU alter-ego. Taking out the trash had made him feel like maybe he provided some kind of moral community service: insofar as ANBU was 'moral' and murder was considered a service rather than a sin. His actions during that time weren't necessarily condoned, but they weren't condemned either – and that'd given his 'meting out the mayhem' jobs an exhilarating, satisfying, carte-blanche edge.

But there was nothing satisfying about this.

No exhilaration.

No carte-blanche pass-go.

And no sense of irony whatsoever as his aerial axe-kick smashed one Inuzuka Kiba several trash-bags deep through a snot-green, junk-filled, rust-pitted dumpster. The kid hit with enough force to dent the metal underbelly, which sent the whole damned waste container skidding across the narrow alleyway like a shopping cart spinning off its wheels. A startled woman who'd been snatching a smoke out the back of her apartment shrieked a high note and scrambled back indoors.

A few lights went on in the windows of the buildings to either side.

Couldn't be helped – or handled any other way.

An Inuzuka in beast-mode didn't make for a quiet or discreet fight. But rather than have the whole damned neighbourhood freaking out, Genma figured the rundown back-alley nearest to his ninja barracks would curtail some of the drama. Or at least contain it up until the locals got twitchy and called in the law-abiding do-gooders. Or worst case, the local ANBU force might just come a-courtin'.

Right now, the residents were probably more curious than afraid. Hopefully assuming it was some drunken brawl, surely not a ninja free-for-all.

Surprise, surprise...

He didn't have time to assess the nature of his audience. Akamaru exploded against his right flank like a white cannonball. Pitched sideways mid-air, Genma crash-landed against a residential fire-escape that snaked along the nearest building and went roly-fucking-poly down three flights of zigzagging stairs.

Clang-fucking-clang.

His skull rebounded off the guardrail several times, but he caught himself against a windowsill, his elbow smashing clean through the glass to startle the peeping-tom residents on the other side. Two men screamed some big-balled, citizen-arrest version of bloody murder but Genma was too deep in the ass-end of semi-consciousness to flash his Goei Shōtai credentials or register what was yelled or threatened.

Get up…

He barely got his feet beneath him before Akamaru came hurtling down the stairwell overhead, sharp nails clicking and scratching on the metal, all snarls and foam and rabid promise. Fun times. Though to be fair, Genma would sooner have had his ass gnawed off by Kiba's ninken than chewed-up by whatever ninja-goon tag-team showed up when the residents started calling in the higher-ups.

He was supposed to be a higher-up.

Great. He was sliding down the respectable ladder faster than Akamaru was sliding down those last flights of stairs.

"Fuck it…"

Genma picked his ass up.

Ignoring the screaming tenants, he kicked off the windowsill and leapt the guardrail just as Akamaru's jaws closed like a bear-trap behind his sailing heels. He rolled mid-air and cracked down into a tight crouch in the alleyway. The balls of his chakra-charged feet cushioned his landing, saving him an ankle-rupture and a Zimmer-frame for life.

Didn't save him from the nasty kickback.

Like a shockwave rocking from his feet to his head, his chakra bottomed out, pulling his blood-pressure with it. He fell forwards onto his palms, hacked out a cough, a curse and a nice shiny globule of blood onto the garbage-strewn, piss-stained dirt. He swiped the back of his wrist across his mouth, breathing hard.

The crash of cans rolling, wheels screeching.

For fuck's sake…

Gotta hand it to the kid, he didn't roll over easy.

Neither did Genma.

Shoving back, he rocked onto his heels just as the snot-green dumpster punched towards him with the railroading-force of a freight train. He sprung out the way, felt the breeze of the container's stinking passage and slammed his shoulder up against a crusty metal backdoor, knocking the "no loitering" sign sideways.

His tenketsu gave a weird little pins-and-needles shiver.

His lungs shuddered against another cough.

No time to snatch even a sip of air.

Kiba sprung up all pop-goes-the-weasel, landed on an opposite dumpster and balanced on all fours with freakish agility despite the taijutsu ass-whipping Genma had given him.

"Ki—"

Kiba sprung.

Genma backpedalled into a trashcan, grasped the cold, rusty lid and swung back to cymbal-crash the broad metal saucer straight across Kiba's snarling face.

Solid crack.

Solid dent in the metal.

Solid five second breather, allowing for Genma to steady his tenketsu as Kiba went skidding sideways, clawed fingers carving grooves into the dirt. Snarling, the dog-nin simply shook off the hit, swaying slightly on the spot.

Still fucking game.

Breathing hard, Genma held the trashcan lid like a riot-shield, weighing moves against minutes. There was only so much of this shit his body could take for prolonged stretches. Kiba was younger, healthier, and clearly out the deep end of the chakra-sickness still riding the asses of the older generation. While Genma had already turned a corner insofar as the sickness was concerned, he wasn't out the woods yet – and his body had no problem reminding him of this very humbling fact.

Good thing I don't need chakra to end this.

He made to step forwards.

And then Akamaru dropped down between them and went red.

Literally, went red.

White fur exploding into a bristling crimson coat.

Genma sagged back against the wall with a "you've-got-to-be-shitting-me" expression phasing across his face before his eyes sharpened and cut between the two threats. Aside from the wardrobe change, the dog didn't look any larger by comparison – and no two-headed monster erupted from their combined Inuzuka beast-mode bag of horrors.

Best to keep them separate.

Divide and conquer and avoid the two-headed freak show…or three-headed…given that Genma was pretty sure this Inuzuka brat had mastered some twisted Cerberus version of the Inuzuka-Style Human Beast Mixture Transformation.

Quite a mouthful.

Not unlike the bile riding up the back of his throat.

Genma's chest hitched against a cough, his vision going a little dark around the edges. Or maybe that was frightened residents yanking down their blinds, switching off their lights and boarding up their windows.

A baby started crying.

Wailed like Ino had wailed, high and wet and…damn.

Genma flinched, almost turned his head at the sound.

Akamaru braced to pounce.

Distracted, it took Genma a half-second longer to react. But only another half-second to get creative. He sent the trash-lid still grasped in his hands spinning frisbee-style towards the lunging dog, aiming for the throat. The damned ninken simply caught the lid in his jaws like a pup playing fetch. The dog dropped into a feral crouch, teeth bared around the rusted metal, crunching it between his fangs like a fucking cookie.

Genma's brows went up. "Well shi—"

Kiba leap-frogged over the dog's back with a "surprise-mother-fucker" drop-kick aimed square at Genma's head. Genma twisted out the way, did some lame version of a one-handed cartwheel that might've been smooth and seamless if his tired mal-coordinated brain wasn't more committed to the task of sketching out another taijutsu run-around that didn't end with more of Kiba's blood on his hands.

So far, he'd been playing mainly on the defensive.

Mainly…?

Okay. So maybe he'd pulled out a few "don't try this at home" moves that belonged more to the offensive chapter of the battle-tactic rule-book – but hey? Needs must.

Not that it'd gained Genma much ground.

And he needed ground.

Because rather than tiring, Kiba was growing progressively pissed and primal – and maybe at the root of it all, just too proud to back down. Didn't seem to bother the brat that his right-hand mutt was now the same shade of red as the blood leaking from the gash in his own stubborn head. Kiba's left eye was puffed shut, but the right one burned a wicked gold. Beast-mode ferocity at its slice-and-dice finest.

Bred in the bone violence.

Genma's brain gave a taunting snort, Sound familiar?

No doubt about it. Only now, his veteran response was to be the level-headed sonofabitch in this claws-out scenario. Sure, the old killer instincts were itching to kick in his mental doors, but he didn't have the chakra or the conscience to indulge them.

Maybe you do, said a dangerously soft voice in some boarded-up corner of his mind. Find out. You've been wanting to for weeks.

Yeah, but not like this.

Genma spat blood, eyeing Kiba and his rabid pooch through his lashes before he took a broad step south and backed away, palms down and hands out to the side in another futile attempt to end what he wished had never started.

At least not with Kiba.

Certainly not with Ino.

Shit…Ino.

He needed to get back to her. That is of course, if Iwashi or some other interfering action-hero hadn't exploded past Genma's kicked-in door and gotten to her first. How the flaming fuck was he supposed to explain that? Explain her. Naked. Unconscious. Probably bruised and definitely bloody from that KO he'd given her? For a man wanting to keep his hands clean, he was doing one hell of a bang-up job.

On both counts.

This whole knock-down-drag-out with Kiba was costing Genma more than chakra. But Kiba had no intention of a ceasefire. He wouldn't stay still long enough for Genma to appeal to the small, rational part of his brain that wasn't being chewed up by animal-fury.

Kid had no mind to listen, no eyes to see…well, eye.

Genma glanced at the swollen side of Kiba's face, all bruised-fruit purple. The rest of the dog-nin couldn't be looking too rosy either. Beneath all that mesh-vest cloth and leather, the kid was probably turning several shades of the black-and-blue rainbow.

Not that Kiba hadn't gotten his licks in too.

He was a good fighter.

A hard hitter.

And Genma's guard was seven times down.

Keeping distance, the Tokujō worked his jaw from side to side, felt the swollen hinge creak. He was pretty sure his eye was still bloodshot from where the dog-nin had decked him back in the apartment. Maybe he should've stayed down. Let the Inuzuka take Ino off his hands. Off his conscience. But no. He'd gotten up and he'd gotten in on it like some glutton for suicidal glory because...

Because Kakashi had asked him to.

And why the hell not? This whole shit-show might as well have been a damned dress rehearsal; the practice run before Genma started doing Kakashi's bidding for real. Not because he cared. Not because he felt compelled. But because he'd be commanded. Ordered. All sharp salute and clicking heels, marching along like the good-little Goei Shōtai he was because that's the way it'd all shake out in the end.

Focus, asshole.

Kiba had inched left.

Genma stepped right, conscious of the fact that Akamaru had begun to slink off the other way, turning circles around them both. Guess they had the same idea about the whole divide and conquer tactic. He couldn't keep them both in his line of sight. Didn't have any dōjutsu advantage.

Unbidden, Raidō's voice pinged shuriken-like around his brain, drawing some blood.

"It's a difficult adjustment for him. Being next in line. And without the Sharingan."

Really damned annoying, how his mind kept boomeranging back to that silver-haired, grey-eyed bastard instead of focusing on the fight at hand. Kiba was already sizing Genma up again, checking him for weaknesses.

There were plenty to be found.

But Genma's body could bullshit an opponent about as well as his brain – at least on the days when he wasn't sick, spent and maybe a little soul-sick from struggling upstream, going against the current of the chakra sickness, the genjutsu mind-fuck, and the current shit-creek rapids looking to capsize whatever stability he'd managed to secure for himself.

Row, row, row your fucking boat, Shiranui…

Only there was no going 'gently' up this stream.

Maybe that was a good thing. Because sure…some restless, rejected, roughed-up part of Genma's psyche might've had a little more fight left in him. Despite the tiredness. Despite the cost. He might've even wanted to let off some steam and seriously throw down – ideally with Kakashi – because unresolved sexual tension aside, he had a serious bone to pick with that next-in-line bastard.

Maybe back at the Memorial Stone, he might've even pushed for it.

Asked for it.

But he'd never asked for this.

For the kids. For their drama. For the Yamanaka headache – scratch that…the Yamanaka heartache. To say nothing of the Nara one too. They both hit too close to home. Shit. Genma had been dodging the younger generation – along with the crippling Infinite Tsukuyomi genjutsu hangover – ever since the War. Had been doing an all-star job of it too, up until a certain silver-haired wolf had collared him into playing watchdog.

Damn you, Kakashi.

Just because Hatake had a hard-on for 'past-sins penance' didn't mean Genma was looking to take one for the sensei team just because all the good people, the right people, were either benched or buried…or just too burned out to do what Kakashi needed them to do.

Needed Genma to do.

Shit. Better to be needed for this, than for nothing. Nothing.

"My leaving had nothing to do with you."

A tightening along Genma's jaw, along his throat.

"I trust you with her."

Severe error in judgement, right there.

Lot of that going around.

And around…and around…like the big red dog circling in his peripheral vision before passing beyond his line of sight entirely. Genma clocked the ninken directly on his six, well aware that he was now sandwiched between Kiba and the mutt like a fresh slab of sirloin. Maybe that was being generous. Suddenly he felt a little more on the minced side of the meat equation. Not feeling too fresh either. Medium. Well-done. Maybe even a little crispy.

God-damned chakra…

He'd been riding on pure adrenaline trying to taijutsu-smack the fight outta this kid. Maybe if he stopped pulling his ANBU punches and let that sweet dark veil fall across his conscience.

Ah. He really, really wanted to.

"Inuzuka," Genma warned for what felt like the final time, hands still out to the sides as he moved into the centre of the alleyway. "Enough. You've got balls. Congratulations. But keep swinging your dick around and you'll be leaving here without it. Back off. Now."

Brat actually smiled.

His yellow eye glowed, the pupil-slit as sharp as his needle teeth.

Genma sighed the long-suffering sigh of barely-there restraint and lowered his hands, hips twisting as he edged into a defensive stance, senbon sliding cold between his right-hand knuckles.

Fuck tired.

He was getting irritated now.

And irritated meant dangerous. Meant the boarded-up place in his head wasn't battened down all that well.

"Don't be as stupid as you're starting to look. Do the right thing here, Kiba."

"Right thing?" Kiba snarled, his words roughened into a base gurgle at the pit of his throat, a dark imitation of a human voice. "Like you did with her?"

Genma stopped short. Looked him dead in the eye – and then said very slowly into the silence, "Nothing happened, Kiba."

"My nose doesn't lie."

"Nothing happened."

"I smelled you on her."

Through his teeth now, lip curling back. "Nothing. Happened."

"I can smell her on you now."

"Because we fought."

"Because you fucked."

Genma's spine drew taut as piano wire, the angles of his face going hard as flint. The accusation sawed through whatever remained of the pock-marked moral grain inside him, splintering something in his eyes, in his voice. And against better judgement his mouth moved with the same aim-to-kill accuracy as it always did when kicking discretion straight in the nuts. "Yeah. Who'd have guessed her dick would be bigger than yours?"

First mistake, running his mouth.

Second mistake, not accurately predicting the "consequence in action".

Oddly enough, it wasn't the red-faced, nostril-flaring, death-glaring Kiba.

It was Akamaru.

The dog rushed Genma from behind. Did it the right way too. Didn't go full-pelt or straight-line predictable. Jumped off the walls and dumpsters to either side of Genma a couple of times to throw the Tokujō off, get his feet weaving, his balance trippy – and his eyes off Kiba.

It was only for a second.

A second was all Kiba needed.

"GATSŪGA!"

Shit.

Leaping sideways, Genma butterfly-twisted the hell out of the way, avoiding Kiba's tunnelling fang but not the red-furred mass of rabies that counter-slammed him into a mountain of trash bags with enough impact to smash every collapsible, splintering and fragile piece of shit tossed inside them.

Pain knifed into Genma's back.

A broken bottle, a shard of plate, or some filthy piece of fuck-knows-what sliced into him deep and fast, punching a yell from his burning throat, along with another hacking cough that ended up blood-speckling Akamaru's muzzle in a hot spray.

Germaphobe the dog was not.

That huge fanged maw hinged wide open towards Genma's burning throat.

Genma threw up his left arm in reflex – and felt every single one of those wild serrated teeth sink bone-deep into the meat of his forearm.

Hello pain, my old friend.

Genma had been bitten before. A few times by Kakashi's pack – play-bites, Kakashi had assured him – several times by Waif, and maybe four or five times by the average stray over the years. Those 'pound-force per square inch' nips, however, rated so god-damned low on the bite-scale that their nibbles felt more like a couple of bad hickeys compared to the 900+ PSI bite of this rabid, off-the-leash, chakra-crazed Inuzuka ninken.

Genma felt the bones in his forearm snap as surely as he heard them.

Radius. CRACK.

Ulna. CRACK.

Two clean breaks. Just like the breaks in his head. The shoddy two-by-fours snapping apart in his mind, letting out a half-starved version of what – or who – he'd spent months keeping in.

Genma screamed, but his eyes didn't.

The pain washed out to pure adrenaline.

Sure, he was one arm down, but he still had a fist fulla senbons in his good hand – and a tide of unchecked violence pushing him to use them.

Oh, he did.

His head went back, his fist drove up, and he plunged his sweet shiny babies straight into the tender meant of Akamaru's flank and tore, slamming his foot up into the ninken's hip at the same time.

Akamaru yelped, teeth dislodging in a bloody rip, body canting.

Kiba roared something.

Genma barely heard it.

He rolled out from under the whimpering dog and zeroed in on Kiba like a weapon without conscience – only he wasn't. Even with his busted, bleeding arm cradled to his chest and the sweat dripping off him in sheets, his stalk was unmistakably measured as he advanced. He was very much in control of himself – or at least, in control of that part of himself that might've fallen headfirst into the rising tide of ANBU black.

He did not lose control in the moment.

Though the mental boards snapped and the old "kill-or-be-killed" instincts kicked in, Shiranui Genma never, not even for a moment, lost sight of who he was or what he was about to do.

Not once.

Which made it all the more chilling.

And if Kiba hadn't been rage-blind and reeling from the whole 'nobody-kicks-my-dog' trope, he might've felt that chill. Might've clocked on. But the fury carving up his swollen face became a mask, blinding him, blinkering him, tunnelling his vision and all that raw animal hate in the wrong direction and towards the wrong reaction.

Shame really.

Given the kids enhanced instincts, he really should've seen it coming. Read the warning. Read the danger. Hell, read the whole damned moment.

He didn't.

Genma really wished he had.


He looked older. Was older, of course. But not the in the way that months mark a man. The age in his eyes went deeper than she remembered – and of course, Sakura remembered. Even as she gave a hiccup of surprise and did a doubletake of the crimson-haired man who walked up to the nurse's station, looking a little leaner in the face and a lot harder in the body than she recalled, she'd have known those grey eyes anywhere.

The clipboard went lax in her hands. "Hibari."

The Tsubasa cocked a hip against the station and inclined his head, the permanent furrow between his brows softening slightly upon her appraisal. He almost cracked a smile. "Been a while."

His stare was direct as it had ever been.

It threw her.

As it always did.

Flustered and flatfooted, Sakura felt the faintest hint of a blush cresting her cheeks despite the cold dry air coughing out through the hospital ventilation system. It didn't help that along with his matured and war-chiselled features, Hibari was dressed sharply; he wore a modified black kataginu vest with deep-red trimming over his standard-issue shinobi vest. A crimson bandage-like obi vined about his waist, terminating in straight black hakama pants. The only sign of his former rebel-yelling outfit was that he sported the familiar hand guards and arm-bracers, suggesting he still carried his ridiculously large blade – and also his eagle.

Yes, it certainly had been a while.

And what about you, billboard brow?

Ugh. Under the harsh and unflattering fluorescent lighting, she probably wasn't the kind of throwback he'd committed to memory either; dressed in wrinkled, sweat-stained scrubs, every blemish amplified, her pink strands hanging lank and stringy about her greasy, drawn face. She'd pulled a double shift to once again cover for Ino. Was pretty sure she stank of sanitiser, sweat and cheap grainy coffee.

"More than a while," she said, scratching a hand back through her greasy strands.

Hibari must've noticed her embarrassment, because he treated her to the same slow-mo once-over he always had in the past – and strangely, the familiarity of that rakish look served to ease her tension even as it upped her pulse a little.

Huffing a laugh, she gave him a mock-exasperated look. "You haven't changed a bit."

The humour fell flat…because while he was busy eyeing her, she was eyeing him too, and her medic-trained gaze knew where to look. Along with the obvious rough-hewn angles that time and hardship had carved into his face and body, she didn't miss the scars scoring his chest beneath the mesh vest. Raised and angry scars, vanishing down beyond the obi.

His expression pulled a little tighter at her inspection.

"Yeah. Not one bit," he deadpanned, taking no pains to hide the drollness of it.

Sakura met his gaze and found the same brazen look standing in his eyes before he spared her further embarrassment and glanced around the hospice, ticking his chin toward the line of curtained wards. "How bad is it here?"

"Still bad, I guess. But getting better. And Hanegakure?"

Hibari grunted. He took a long time answering that. "Bad," was all he said.

The truth of that hung heavy for a moment. But between them, it was a shared weight. While Konoha's main hospital had grown steadily quieter over the weeks, it was still relatively full. Time hadn't stopped here since the War. But Sakura found that for just a moment the routine activity dulled into background static, fading in and out like a volume knob being twisted; the back-and-forth whisper of slippered feet beneath the whoosh of doors swinging open, the clang of gurneys rolling past, the rustle of curtains being drawn across wards and blinds clacking down for privacy in private-room windows. Even the buzz of the intercom and the various blips and beeps of electronic activity went unmarked, unnoticed.

It all tuned out as the past tuned in, bringing the harsh lines of Hibari's expression into sharp and unforgiving relief. She shook her head. "I'm sorry."

He cut her a look out the corner of his eye and tried for a smirk, one brow cocking up. "You turning me down already?"

She couldn't even find a huff for him – and the faint prickle of emotion stinging the backs of her eyes was very sudden and very unexpected. "How many, Hibari?"

His expression closed off and he leaned back from the station, his gaze tracking away, just like his voice. "Didn't come to Konoha to discuss death tolls."

The brusque response might've hurt once. But given whatever – or whoever – he'd lost, it was to be expected. She sighed. "Why did you come?"

Again, that direct look.

Sucking a breath, Sakura's stared back, trying to work her brain and voice until a shrill monotone pierced the air, setting off an alarm at the nurses' station. She jumped, the clipboard clattering to the ground. Hibari simply swayed back a pace, watching with bemusement as Sakura scrambled to reorient. She clocked the flashing light and burst past him down the corridor, steps quickening as she swung into one of the dimly-lit private rooms where the drone of a flatline whined a high and terrible note.

"I didn't mean to…"

Sakura froze at the voice, then sagged against the doorjamb, legs going weak with relief. In the bed was a child, a girl no older than seven or eight, body twisted a little awkwardly and mouth hanging open. But her eyes were closed in dreams, not death – and standing beside her, looking pale and frightened, a pre-teen boy fumbled with the small white heart-monitor clip, attempting to re-attach it to the end of the little girl's finger.

"I was trying to move her," the boy stammered. "I-I thought she'd be more comfortable…I'm sorry…"

There was no chance to respond.

Sakura sensed Hibari coming up behind her before she felt his dangerous stillness at her back – and no matter the time that'd passed, no matter who he was or wasn't after the War, she anticipated his reaction before he could start forwards into the room.

"Hibari!" Twisting fast, she slammed her hand up against the heaving slab of his chest and pushed him back a step, eyes fastening on the aggression rising in his eyes. "She's fine," Sakura said, pitching her voice as firmly as her hand against his chest, angling her head to try and snare his fuming gaze. "Hibari. The clip fell off. She's fine. He wouldn't hurt her." She fisted his vest when he ignored her, almost shouted, "Hibari! It's her brother."

Hibari went still – stopped dead in his tracks.

His heartbeat gave a vicious jolt beneath her hand and instantly the heat in his glare guttered out to a chill glow. A look he turned on her with the barest trace of aversion; like she'd ambushed him. He tried to keep it off his face, the brief flash of betrayal – and the pain beneath it – but she saw it. Felt it. Clearly as she felt the ridges of his scars beneath her hand.

She eased the press of her palm against his chest, tapping once, soft as the apology in her eyes, in her voice. "It's her brother," she said again, nodding to encourage some recognition, some response. "Hibari?"

Hibari's face remained rigid, breath holding hard beneath her touch before his shoulders eased down on a slow stream of breath. He gave a faint, almost imperceptible nod, his tempered glare liquefying into grey obscurity.

Sakura swallowed, uneasy and suddenly very aware of their closeness.

And the strange look in his eyes.

She snatched back her hand and slipped into the seamless diversion of medic-mode, re-attaching the clip, checking the little girl over, making a show of assessing the IV drip and cannula; pulling out all the tools of good professional bedside manner to reassure the big brother before ushering him with the gentlest of touches from the room, encouraging him to get some sugary snacks and solid sleep.

"I won't leave her," Sakura promised.

The boy hesitated, especially when he came within range of the unmoved harbinger of justice barring his exit. Sakura frowned over the boy's shoulder and Hibari stood aside at the last possible second, eyeing the kid like maybe he wasn't all that convinced of his innocence. Or maybe Sakura was reading too much into the Tsubasa's thunderhead frown. If anything, Hibari's gaze seemed to have gone inward, his focus detaching from its original target even as he watched the kid drift off in an aimless wander towards the nearest vending machine.

"You have changed," she said, not unkindly.

Hibari looked askance, and his tone was anything but kind. "Has he?"

The edge in his voice cut her to the quick.

Took her breath.

She fell back a pace like he'd kicked her in the sternum. There was no apology in his eyes. Just the steadfast stare that demanded an answer. It felt like a counterattack. Something to punish her for blindsiding him – using the memory of his sister against him.

That's completely different…

Was it? Didn't seem to matter all that much. A poisonous combination of hurt and anger flowed through her. It was foul play either way. She'd once trusted him with that fragile, wounded part of her heart – only to have him use it against her?

How dare he.

Sniffing, she turned on her heel and put her back to him, needing to escape both his gaze and the question. She snatched up the medical chart at the end of the little girl's bed and stared so hard at the data her eyes almost crossed through a blur of angry tears.

It took a lot not to snap the clipboard in half.

The clock across the room, ticked, ticked, ticked.

Behind her, the door closed.

Her spine tightened, head coming up. For a second, she thought he'd left. Then she heard Hibari sigh. The kind of long, soul-deep sigh that dredged up from the same bottomless and tired place his voice eventually came resonating out of.

"Guess that answers my question."

"Question?" Sakura rounded on him, growling past the hot ball in her throat. "You don't know him."

Hibari cocked a brow and spread his hands as if it were obvious. "His stellar reputation precedes itself."

"As did yours once," she snapped back, nails digging into the back of the clipboard – part of her wanting to hurl it at his head.

He was looking at her with what now? Impossible to tell. By the dim light, his face fell half in shadow, dark crimson bangs hanging blade-like either side of his hollow cheeks and stern jaw.

Unforgiving silence.

Sakura searched what little of his expression she could decipher and grasped onto her anger – it was easier to wield. She picked her best weapon. "You could pardon Neji's crime," she reminded, though her voice shook, almost stumbled, on that name. "What harm has Uchiha Sasuke ever done to you personally?"

"Does it need to be personal?"

"You know it is to me."

Blinking slow, Hibari crossed his arms as loosely as his heels and leaned back against the door, almost casual as he observed her, which made his next words all the crueller. "If he's lucky, he'll get Hōzuki Castle."

The Blood Prison.

No rehabilitation.

No redemption.

Nothing.

Nothing. Like the carefully blank look on Hibari's face.

Sakura's throat closed even as her gaze widened on him. And just like that, the anger drained out of her, leaving her stricken. She shook her head at him in cold astonishment. "My god, Hibari…" she whispered. "Is this why you came here? To mete out your justice? To punish him? To punish me?"

Hibari was across the short distance and looming over her so quickly, so aggressively, Sakura barely had time to rock back on her heels, much less suck in a breath of surprise. Stunned by the change in him, she teetered for a second, canting away before she squared her stance to glare back up into the angry storm that rolled across his face, his eyes, his entire body – that solid chest heaving with temper and with…what?

A charged silence burned between them.

The little girl's saline bag went, drip, drip, drip.

Incrementally, Hibari's eyes narrowed on her, cutting across every square inch of her face. "Punish you?" he husked out, and it was then that she recognised an acute frequency to his anger. His frustration. "You punish yourself."

His words rocked her on the spot.

A sharp and high-pitch ringing filled her ears…

Like the kind after a bomb goes off…

The clipboard clattered to the floor, maybe a few pieces of her heart too. "Damn you."

Hibari gripped her shoulders with both hands, fingers digging in just shy of bruising, shaking his head. "You're damning yourself," he said. "Don't."

"Don't what?" came her wrangled snarl, the ache in her chest making it impossible to steady the pain in her voice. "Don't love him?"

As if she hadn't tried.

Hibari read it in her face and his touch softened. It terrified her more than his cruelty. She slapped him away without backing off, chest heaving as she pulled a ragged breath, that ever-present agony quivering inside her. Truly, it'd never stopped hurting ever since she was a pathetic child, standing at the gates, watching Sasuke turn his back on her love…just as he always had.

Always would…

"Sakura."

She looked at Hibari with something close to desperation before she raised her trembling chin and steeled her voice, "I love him."

Hibari laughed; a rough, abject sound. "Oh I know you do."

"And you can't stand it," she cut back, needing to hurt. To wound. Too devastated to be cautious. Stupid. She knew his temper. To hell with it. "You're no saint. So you're what? Jealous? Or envious? Because I can still love him? Because I can still forgive him? Has anyone ever done that for you?"

The muscles in Hibari's face flexed hard, but the tempest swirling in his eyes calmed for a very sudden, very telling second. "Yes."

Not what she'd expected.

Not what he'd expected either.

Hibari jerked a little and blinked, like he'd let something vital slip. His fingers twitched where they hovered near her arms before he very slowly and very deliberately lowered his hands away from her. He stepped back. "Yes," he said again, expression closing off. "But that doesn't mean they should have. Or that I ever deserved it."

If Sakura hadn't been so hurt, so exposed, so busy trying to harden her heart against him and what he'd revealed, she might've dared to heed the very clear, very frustrated point he was making – even if his delivery lacked all sense of delicacy or tact. He'd never claimed to possess either of those qualities. And gods, if she hadn't been fighting to keep the tears from her eyes, she might've caught onto the world-weary stillness standing in his own. That dangerous eye-of-the-storm calm which spoke of something far more tender and understanding than his temper.

But that understanding threatened to reveal too much.

She couldn't, wouldn't hear it. And damn him for assuming she'd ever want to hear it from him. If it hadn't been for the sleeping child, she might've hit him. With her open palm. With her fist. With several pieces of furniture. Hit him. Hurt him. For daring to hurt her in a way no one else had ever dared to – because no one would ever speak so cruel a truth directly to her face, even if they believed it.

Not Kakashi.

Not Naruto.

Not anyone.

They'd have spared her the agony. But not Hibari. The bastard. She shook with restraint, fists gnarling at her sides. She let her mouth do the damage. "I was right. The War has changed you, Hibari…seems it's changed you for the worst."

"And you think it's changed him for the better?"

It was Sakura's turn to laugh, a strangled, watery huff. "You tell me." Only she didn't dare give him the chance. "Oh, but of course, don't bother. Judge. Jury. It's not like you're ever going to let me forget that you've condemned him already."

"Not my call to condemn him, even if I wanted to."

That stopped her short.

Blinking fast, she drew her chin back, waiting for the kicker. Nothing followed that statement. "Wanted to?" she echoed, seizing onto the words to fend off the confusion his reply had inspired. "You say that like you haven't been condemning him this entire time."

"I didn't come here for that."

"No, you came to condemn me for loving him."

Hibari held her stare for a countless beat. "I don't have to."

You punish yourself.

The denial of that thought, and everything he'd said up until this point, swelled inside her like an inflating balloon. Filling up her lungs. It was so painfully hard to breathe. Because at the heart of everything she was feeling – the fear, the fury – was that unshakeable grip of utter futility because—

Sasuke doesn't love you.

She refused to recognise it or accept it. But it stood in the room between them, a looming, bitter verdict. Sakura tried to overturn it, tried so hard to summon up her anger and an argument but the single trembling word out her mouth fell out shocked and shaken. "W-why?"

Hibari's head came up a little. He frowned.

"Why?" she half-snarled, her body straining towards him, towards his harsh unmoving figure and his darkening expression and oh god it was all so horribly senseless and sadistic and— "Why are you saying these things to me?"

"Because no one else has," Hibari snapped, his scowl softening at her stricken look, before it slid from his face completely, replaced by blunt certainty. "And because no one else will. That's not kindness, Sakura. It's cowardice. It's cruel."

He could just as well have slapped her.

"Cruel?" Sakura choked out, eyes rounding on him incredulously as she came forward a pace, clinging to her anger like a lifeline. "What gives you the right? Who the hell do you think you are that you can say these things to me? We're nothing to each other. Acquaintances at best."

He gave her a reproachful look that glanced off, lost on her, because it didn't matter that she'd once witnessed the bitter cauterisation of his wounds back in Hanegakure; or that once upon an Ino-Shika birthday party she'd shown him her own unhealed, unloved heart. And rather than curse her stupidity, or call her out on loving the very man that'd dealt her the blow, Hibari had set his disapproving mouth against her stupid oversharing head and wished her everything she'd claimed she wanted – still wanted – which was the one thing he seemed hellbent on taking away from her now.

She welcomed the resurgent anger…it kept her out of Hibari's reach. Out of whatever twisted realisation he was trying to pull her into.

As if you don't know.

"Shut up!" Sakura hissed, grasping her head between clawed fingers for a moment before fisting her hands at her sides and levelling Hibari will the full force of the hot green acid eating into her gaze, bringing her voice down a trembling notch. "We're nothing. You flirt, I blush, and we fight for the same side. That's it. Just because I was stupid and naïve enough to have once told you I loved someone I shouldn't have? I shared that with you. I trusted you with that and yo—"

"Why?"

"What?"

"Why?" Hibari challenged, his frank expression unchanged, despite the faintly rising edge in his voice. "You said it yourself. We're nothing to each other. Not now. Not then. So why did you tell me? Trust me?"

Sakura's heart flipped at the question, the damning cross-examination setting her anger and her argument straight on its ass; fresh pain pushed up into her chest, into her throat. She swallowed it down and snatched a quick, hard breath, backing away from him, shaking her head, rooting about her spinning mind for an answer. "I don't…I wasn't…"

Hibari came forward, matched her step for step. "Why?" he pressed, as much with his voice as with the challenge in his eyes. "Don't stop now. Judge. Jury. Tell me. State your case."

"I wasn't—"

"Why did you trust me with it? Stranger that I was. Bastard that I am. Why?"

"Stop it."

"Tell me why."

"I…"

"Fuck it. I'll tell you why." He stalked her across the hospital room, his stride as steady as his voice. "Because you know now, as you knew then, that unlike the ones who love you, I was never the kind of bastard to ever mince my words. I speak my mind. Damn me for it if you want. Hate me if it helps. Doesn't change the fact that you once told me what you did because it's easier to trust a stranger with the truth if it means you can go on believing the lie, along with everyone else around you. Only they don't believe it, Sakura. And deep down, neither do you."

In that moment, the only thing Sakura honestly wouldn't have believed was that it was possible to hurt any more than she already did. How wrong she was. She almost fell. Ended up stumbling the last few paces away from him.

"S-Stop it."

"Tell me I'm wrong."

Fresh agony welled in her throat, in her eyes. She backed up until she couldn't anymore, hands out behind her like a blind woman, fumbling along shelves and surfaces until she hit the wall. Hard brick at her spine and cold pain at her chest. "Please. Stop."

He did. But not before he drew toe-to-toe, stopping within inches of her, obliterating the distance she'd tried to put between them; gazing down at her with that furious look that anyone else might've mistaken for rage. It wasn't. Because rage might've been kinder. Kinder than the angry concern. It cut too close to pity.

"For better or worse, you trusted me then. So trust me now when I tell you; you deserve better. And yeah, that better isn't me." He paused, gave that it's weight before leaning in to deliver the damning verdict. "But we both know it sure as hell isn't him."

A black bomb in her head. In her heart. A detonation of excruciating sadness and intolerable shame. White-hot pain pushed into the backs of her burning wet eyes and into every crumbling line in her face.

She broke.

Turned like a small and beaten child against the wall, pressed her dry, chapped hands to her face as the tears squeezed out from between her lashes, spilling between her fingers.

Oh gods. Oh gods.

There were no gods. Or if indeed they did exist, they were as distant and indifferent to her pain as the far-burning stars. Lightyears removed from the astronomical cosmic blunder that had somehow misaligned her miserable destiny with Sasuke's – dooming her into a constant pining orbit, forever spinning around his dark gravity in such a pitiless, pointless way.

The War had hurt.

This hurt more.

Why him? Why? Why?

Hibari's hands settled on her shoulders. Grounding. Devastating. She whirled in his grip, tears trailing like comets. She crashed into him with a meteoric WHAM – only she impacted without a curse, a cry, or even a whimper. Soundless. As if caught in the cold dark vacuum of the harsh and starry space that'd damned her so completely.

WHY!?

Teeth bared, Sakura slammed her hands against Hibari's chest again and again and again. It was all she could do to keep from screaming, wailing, waking the child, waking the world.

WHY! WHY! WHY!

But even as the hits landed and he took the brunt of every hateful blow, it was an outburst fuelled more by futility than fury, each punch falling weaker than the last until he grasped the back of her head and she crumpled into his embrace, mouth open against his heaving chest in a wordless cry.

"I love him," she mouthed, over and over. "I love him." Over and over.

Rough fingers carded back through her filthy hair.

She dug her nails into his back. "I love him so much I hate it," she gasped, not even certain the words were bleeding out. "I hate it…but I c-can't stop…god, please…I can't stop…"

"Sakura..."

"I-I want to stop…Hibari, please…make it stop…I'm…I can't…I can't…"

"I know…" Hibari's arm locked around her and he sighed long and low, the rumble of his voice falling like a bass note in his chest. She felt it against her cheek, rough as the fingers stroking through her hair. "I know you can't."

There was something in the way he said it.

Confessed it.

"I know."

The words falling hushed and hoarse, without the sardonic bite. He sounded almost desolate…resigned. It yanked her from the void. Brought her crashing back to earth. Gulping a breath, Sakura stiffened in his arms and drew back enough to glance up through a film of burning tears, searching his face as her own creased with a painful, dawning empathy.

"Who is she?"

Her words stopped him cold.

The fingers smoothing through her hair froze against her scalp – just like the breath in Hibari's throat. He drew back, stared down at her for a long and guarded moment. Sakura stared back, the desperation to know, to understand, was naked on her face, in her eyes.

"You said you know…you know."

Jaw tight, Hibari reached up, swept a thumb lightly across her lashes. She caught his hand, held on and didn't let go. Not of his fingers, nor of his gaze, watching as the wary shield of his expression cracked a little at the corners of his eyes.

Sakura shook her head, whispered. "Who is she, Hibari?"

Hibari swallowed, seemed to find his voice with an effort. "Was she," he corrected.

Sakura's eyes widened on him and he immediately looked away from the anguish swimming in her stare. "I…Oh, gods…I…Hibari, I'm sorry. I'm—"

He twisted his hand from her grasp, but he didn't pull away – at least not physically.

Sakura chased him with her eyes, trying to draw him back. Because finally, a grim understanding seemed to be smoothing over the unbearable rawness of his rough-handed treatment of her heart. His aggression, his frustration.

"You know…" she whispered. "You know this pain…you…"

His throat worked tightly for a moment.

She touched his right clavicle, drew her fingers across to where a familiar chain snaked down beneath the mesh vest, and she couldn't help but wonder if there were more than two pendants hanging there now. "You loved her?"

Hibari worked his jaw from side to side, grey eyes fixed across the room even as his fingers resumed their slow graze back through Sakura's hair.

"Hibari…you loved her."

"I lost her."

"But you loved her."

"She loved me," he corrected before she could ask again, voice thickening with self-contempt before he cleared his throat, lips twisting in the blackest of smiles. "Loved me. Forgave me. The whole nine."

"But that doesn't mean they should have. Or that I ever deserved it."

Sakura's heart throbbed against her breastbone. "And you couldn't stand it…" she whispered again, echoing her former words, only this time without the scorn, without the sting. "Just like you can't stand me forgiving and loving him. Do you think I'll end up like her?"

He looked at her. Said nothing. And really, that screamed everything. The storm in his eyes demolished any attempts to play it pokerfaced.

Scanning his face, she dared to call his bluff, betting whatever was left of her heart on his answer. "Did you love her at all?"

"You want that from him. So you want to hear it from me."

"It's different."

"He tried to kill you. And I might as well have killed her. It's not so different."

Sakura's breath hitched. "Did you…?" at his puzzled look she hesitated, eyes fastened on him as she added, "Kill her?"

He shrugged, the weight of it bearing down on his body as well as in his voice. "She's gone, isn't she?"

"That's not the same as killing her."

"I couldn't save her."

"You're still not denying that you loved her."

"I won't tell you what you want to hear."

"No. You won't. But I don't believe you didn't love her," Sakura said, her hands snaking under cloth and over mesh, right around the taut planes of his back until her nails found those tiny crescent moons she'd carved into his skin just a few short seconds ago, daring him to deny it. "You must have. To have come all this way to stop me going down the same path she did. You loved her."

"Doesn't mean he'll love you."

There was too much roughness in his voice, too much pain beneath those words, for her to mistake them as anything other than the protective warning they were intended to be.

"So is that why you came here? To protect me? From him?"

"Not from him."

No, only from herself.

A sobering chill went through her. "Not from him…" she echoed, looking away to let that square somewhere in her mind before she looked back to Hibari, imploring him with her gaze.

He gazed back as if not understanding what she wanted from him. Or perhaps pretending he didn't. "It's okay, Hibari…don't start sparing me the truth now."

At his frowning silence, she clarified, "You can say it. Please." She held up a hand to ward off the warning look he gave her or any words that might've followed it. "I won't make it mean anything. About me. About Sasuke. It's different."

"It is."

"Because you loved her."

Hibari's lashes shuttered down as if in pain then flickered open again. "Little good it did her." At Sakura's apologetic wince, his lips crooked in a smile so achingly sad it hurt to look at him. "Guess you've got me beat there. At least your boy is still alive."

A tear slipped slow and unbidden down Sakura's cheek. And they both knew it wasn't shed for her. "Hibari. I'm—"

He gripped her chin lightly but firmly, exerting the gentlest pressure to keep her mouth from moving, her lips from speaking. "Accuse me of being a tactless interfering bastard. I am. Hate me for hurting you, because I know I have. That isn't what I wanted, but it's what it is. Either way, I didn't come here to punish you."

She blinked at the rasp in his voice. Hadn't realised how much those words had hurt him.

"I know."

"You need to know that. I need to know that you know that."

"Even if you don't deserve it?"

He smiled a fraction, ceding her right to withhold. "Fair enough."

She spared him. "I know that, Hibari. At least, I know it now."

"Do you?"

"I do."

"Promise me."

"I promise." And she meant it.

Because for all the hurt, he hadn't come to punish her. He'd come to protect her. Save her from herself. The way he couldn't save his sister. His mother. Or whoever this woman was that he'd lost. And lost her to what? To the War? To something else? Something worse?

What could possibly be worse?

She sensed he wouldn't have told her even if she'd dared to ask. She almost did, but his thumb pressed a little harder into the underside of her jaw before smoothing along her throat. He shook his head. It wasn't just his look or touch that stayed her. It was understanding. Understanding that suddenly there was more common ground between them than there was the nothingness of time, distance and different lives.

It felt…oddly pure.

This impersonal, yet wholly personal moment.

She knew in her heart that for all his brazen and hot-blooded flirting, Hibari probably didn't think about her any more than she thought about him. Clearly, he'd loved someone…lost someone. As had she. Only with Sasuke, it was a constant never-ending loss, a sucker's game. It was rigged against her, always. And Hibari had come to warn her against it, force her to fold whilst everyone else was content to let her play…even playing along…to spare her the short-term hurt, never mind the long-term pain.

"That's not kindness, Sakura. It's cowardice. It's cruel."

It wasn't that simple. Wasn't that black and white. But in Hibari's mind, it was clear. It was judged. Tarred black. Deemed wrong. And he'd tried, in a horrible, fumbling, utterly inappropriate way, to spare her.

Which is more than Sasuke has ever done for you…

Though it's not as if Sasuke hadn't warned her. The same way Hibari was warning her now. If she'd had tears left to shed, she'd have wept. Instead, she tilted her cheek into Hibari's comforting touch and watched him through her lashes, hollowed out with a kind of numb acceptance.

Strange…

With Hibari, it was never romantic pursuit or interest on either of their parts that had reunited them in the seasons since that first mission. More often than not it was a shared circumstance, a political coalition and sometimes just pure coincidence…

Or sadly, in most recent times, a nationwide crisis.

But it had been cookie-cutter simple between them; same old and safe. The battle had come, as it always did. They'd fought for the same side, as they probably always would. He'd flirt. She'd blush. They'd go their separate ways, back to their separate worlds. It had always been so beautifully uncomplicated.

Until of course, it wasn't.

She hated him a little for that…because on the rare occasions she did think of him, what was once a harmless ego boost would now forever be a haunting reminder of the warning he'd given and the lie she'd tried so desperately to believe – if only to keep her heart from breaking all at once. What made it all the harder? The sad irony that the only person simultaneously harsh enough and kind enough to call her on that lie was someone who didn't love her anymore than he risked losing her.

She wasn't in Hibari's life.

Maybe that's why he could do it.

Say it.

Risk it.

He didn't love her, so he couldn't lose her. Unlike Naruto, or Kakashi, or anyone else who might've cared enough to tell her truth – if only that truth didn't carry the risk of her cutting them off completely for ever daring to speak it.

Hibari could take that risk.

Because Hibari didn't love her.

Didn't need her.

But he respected her. Cared for her. Maybe more than Sasuke ever did.

Or ever could.

And again, it's not as if the Uchiha hadn't tried to warn her.

Dammit.

The tears came again. She leaned into Hibari, hesitant, shaky – suspecting he'd push her away given the sense of sad finality hanging like a blade over the silence. Surely this night would cut off all roads that might've seen their paths cross again in the future. Maybe they'd meet again in War. But never in passing. He'd never flirt. She'd never blush. They couldn't go back. He'd rung a bell that couldn't be unrung. And the shrill chime of it went through her like a death knell.

"You're not coming back, are you?" she murmured, even as he held her.

Hibari didn't answer right away. Took his time stroking a hand back through her hair again. "No," he eventually said. "I've no reason to."

That stung more than it should have. Considering there was that whole big nothing between them. Or at least, there hadn't been before tonight. Now there was a tragic sense of empathy and understanding born of shared loss. Loss married to heartache and divorced from all sense of control…and that brought with it a world of hurt. But it was a shared world, even if they resumed living in separate parts of it.

"Hibari? I need you to do something for me."

He stopped stroking her hair, waited.

Sakura craned her neck back, saw the guarded look cutting into his expression and gentled her voice to a whisper so soft and forgiving it passed like a pardon between them. "I need you to say goodbye before you leave. Promise me."

Hibari's expression flickered at the request, brows pulling together softly, something scudding across his grey eyes.

She'd never know what that was.

Just as she'd never know what he might've said in response.

He made to speak at the exact moment the double doors down the hallway banged open on a shout, "Medic!"

Like a flipped switch – or more like a world turned on its axis – Sakura came to immediate and grounded attention. Her eyes darted to the closed door, ears pinned to the bustle of the orderlies and the rumble of gurneys down the corridor.

Hibari released her, took a broad step back.

His warmth vanished and cold reality rushed in, freezing her on the spot. She shook her head, trying to orient outside of his arms. "I—"

"Sakura." His voice steadied her. He nodded towards the door. "Go."

Go. Yes. Of course. She had to go. Rolling up the sleeves of her scrubs, Sakura started towards the exit, then stopped and turned back, half-twisting towards the girl in the bed, momentarily torn. At least for the two seconds it took for Hibari to claim the drooping armchair, dragging it up to the side of the bed before sinking down with his legs kicked out ahead of him, treating her to the faintest of nods.

He wasn't going anywhere.

Neither was her promise to the boy.

Sakura shot him a parting, grateful smile – then she went to work. Blessed, familiar work. It pulled her headlong out of the complicated messy depths of all they'd shared in that room and into the next fray. The shock of said 'fray' snapped her wholly to attention, especially when she identified the injured party being deposited from stretcher to gurney as none other than—

"Kiba?" Sakura gasped, almost stopping in her tracks, winded at the sight of him. The orderlies wheeled in his ninken close behind. Both master and mutt were out cold, bleeding and busted up, but still breathing.

The rest was a blur.

She'd later remember jogging alongside the wheeled stretcher, speaking in clipped, professional tones to the two shinobi that'd brought him in, calling out orders and relaying details to the staff…

She'd remember Shizune materialising like a ninjutsu summon, taking over with such liberating efficiency it felt like a godsend…

"Sakura. Rest. I've got this."

She'd remember backing away, giving ground, feeling guilty but also utterly confident in her decision to pass Kiba into those reaching hands…

Safe hands...

Steady hands…

Like the ones that'd shaken and held her back in the room…

The room…

She'd remember turning, almost running, retracing her steps back to the private ward…throwing open the door and halting cold in the entryway as the little girl sat up grinning in her bed and the pre-teen boy looked up from the armchair where…

"Where…?"

The sound of banging doors down the corridor and Sakura lurched back into the hallway – just in time to glimpse flashes of the slowly receding figure, one frame at a time with each flap of the doors; the long and rolling stride, the backward reach of the firm leather-clad arm, muscles bunched while he fastened that ungodly blade across the breadth of his back, shoulders rising and falling as he swayed away like a passing storm, head never turning, step never wavering…flashing in and out of sight between the gently swinging doors.

It was the last time she'd ever see him.

Knew it deep in her heart.

A sad tremulous smile quivered across her mouth even before the boy clasped her hand, tugging softly.

"He said to tell you."

"Tell me what?"

She already knew. It's not as if he'd promised to say it himself – or even at all.

"Goodbye."


A/N: I hope this update finds you all safe and well, my dears. As always, these sporadic and irregular instalments come stuttering from my heart on a tide of immense gratitude to all who continue to support my works with their kind feedback and messages and the time taken out to read and enjoy. During this unprecedented time across the globe, I hope this offers some entertainment, escape or just a little break to breathe. Forever thankful for all of you. Xx

A/N 2: As well as following on from previous chapters, I once promised several reviewers one-shot closure on the loose end regarding Hibari and Sakura and here it is, signed, sealed and finally delivered. It also hints at where the SasuSaku storyline would (or wouldn't) go further along the timeline – and as if you hadn't guessed it, BtB would diverge massively from post-War canon from here on out….which yes, my lovelies, includes the altered fate of a certain Hyūga Neji. I will state it explicitly now – he was always going to return in the BtB-verse.

A/N 3: While I remain on hiatus and technically speaking BtB remains a strictly stand-alone series (from the first BtB instalment right through to UtS) I keep Heaven Hold Us open to development of the storyline whenever time and inspiration permits. I do this for many reasons. Right now, I want to reach out during a tough global time, as well as acknowledge you all and remind you guys that I haven't, nor shall I ever, forget every kindness, message, review, word, question and piece of feedback gifted to me. I hear you. I thank you. It keeps me going. Every damn time. Stay safe, luvs. X