Notes: Conviction deviates from canon directly after the timeskip in the manga. Thus, everything that happens in shippuuden is not taken into account in this story.
A/N important: Conviction was originally completely in 2005. Late last year (2007), I decided I wanted to do a rewrite and got as far as chapter 15. Unfortunately, since then, I started several new writing projects and decided it just wasn't worth the effort trying to fix an old fic when there were new ones to be worked on. Every time I reread an old chapter I had already edited, I kept finding new things to fix and it drove me mad lol.
In my humble opinion, my writing style has changed too much for me to rewrite Conviction in any kind of acceptable way and still stay true to its original storyline. As such, I apologize for the inconsistency of the storytelling as Conviction is now a massive mesh of my style as it changed over the last several years. Recently, editing this story has grown less and less appealing because I want much more to focus on my new stories and I feel like it's time to just let this one go.
Therefore, I am reposting the last 13 chapters of Conviction, which I only looked over briefly to tie up some loose ends I'd created with the rewrite. I'm truly sorry to those who had to wait for the rest of this story as I struggled with my indecision.
As of today, you can consider Conviction complete :3 *wipes hands*
Chapter 1: In Search of Dawn
On first glimpse the alley appeared unremarkable. Piles of day-old garbage tossed against stained walls. Shadowy lumps of things better left unknown slumped against trashcans. The occasional rustling of a scavenging rat.
Further scrutiny would reveal the slow, almost languid shift of one of those shapeless silhouettes as it rose and straightened, taking on the form of a tall, hooded man. The head was bowed, its attention riveted on a second anonymous lump lying in the grime of the darkened alley.
A slender arm materialized from within the cloak's recesses as Naruto adjusted his mask. He surveyed his work dispassionately.
The body lay on its side, the head several feet away. Its face was fixed into a permanent expression of surprise. Naruto had finished before his victim had even realized he was about to die.
An easy kill. Little pain. Naruto preferred it that way.
He stiffened as he sensed a surge of chakra approaching.
He dropped to a crouch. His left arm snapped back the material of his cloak as his right unsheathed a three-foot long katana. He swept the blade outward in a graceful arc of silver just as the body of raging chakra barreled toward him.
Blue eyes hidden behind the mask widened when he recognized the dark blur and the enraged chakra.
At the last second, he rotated his wrist. The blunt edge of his sword connected with a crack against Sasuke's ribs, sending the man flying into the alley wall. Sasuke crumpled silently to his knees.
Quickly sheathing his sword, Naruto stepped up to his unexpected visitor and crossed his arms.
"What the hell was that?" he asked. The husky timbre of his voice was the only indication of his fury.
Slowly, Sasuke lifted his head and Naruto nearly flinched at the intensity in his friend's dark eyes.
Suddenly, he was slammed against the damp stone of the wall behind him. His breath was jarred from his lungs as brick chips burst from the wall and scattered at their feet. A hard lean body pressed against his and Sasuke's breath rustled the hair by his neck, just below the curve of his mask.
Naruto gulped in air, mentally cursing Sasuke for making him sound like a yelping seal. "S...Sasuke?" he said.
"You've gotten faster," Sasuke said blandly, as if Naruto hadn't just almost killed him. He forced his knee between Naruto's clenched thighs. His hand tightened on Naruto's wrist and he ground his hips against Naruto's.
"Sasuke," Naruto gasped. His fingers dug into the layers of wet cloak draping Sasuke's shoulders. Water welled up beneath his hand, soaking into the thin cloth of his gloves. The sound of their feet shuffling over the damp concrete echoed off the narrow walls. "What do you think you're doing?"
Naruto's eyes darted toward the end of the alley, where the light from a flickering lamppost pulsed faintly. He thought briefly–and humorlessly–about the possibility of his mission being compromised. Tsunade would flay him.
"Frightening, isn't it?" Sasuke asked, voice soft, at odds with the sharp angles of his body pinning Naruto.
Hot breath seared Naruto's neck as Sasuke's knee rubbed roughly against him through the layers of cloth. For a moment, he thought insanely that Sasuke had read his mind. But then reason kicked in and he shoved at Sasuke's shoulder. The other man wouldn't budge. He stifled a groan and muttered, "What is?"
"How efficient we've become at killing," Sasuke mumbled into his neck. "We don't even think about it anymore."
Naruto stilled at the unexpected response. He groaned aloud this time as a wet tongue lapped at his neck. Sasuke's hand fumbled into the folds of material that separated them, seeking closer contact. Naruto's gaze darted toward the alley end again. Summoning his control, he shoved Sasuke off him, pushing away the temptation.
Sasuke responded by grabbing Naruto's throat and slamming him again into the hard stone.
"Damn it, Sasuke, you jackass," Naruto said through gritted teeth. His vision spotted briefly as he broke the other man's hold. "What the hell's wrong with you?"
"You know you want it." His voice was calm despite the emotion heavy in his eyes.
"That doesn't matter." He rubbed at his throat then the back of his head, giving Sasuke a resentful look that was ruined by the fact that he was wearing a mask.
"Haven't you come to your senses yet?" Sasuke asked. His excess of emotion stood out sharply in the angry lines of his mouth, the deep slant of his eyebrows.
"I'm not going over this with you again!" Naruto stalked past him.
A hand on his shoulder twisted him back to face the angry ANBU captain. Sasuke's nostrils flared. His face was pallid, gray in the dusky light. Naruto lifted his chin so he could look down his nose at him. They were equal in rank and he was only an inch taller than Sasuke, but an inch taller was still taller.
Those dark eyes flickered over to the body cooling in the filth of the alley's contents. "You killed him without flinching, didn't you?"
Naruto's lips compressed. "What the hell is your problem?"
"It's because you don't know him. He's just another completed mission. Any more than that and your conviction falters. We just do our jobs. We don't get paid to feel."
"We can't afford to." It was something he had to accept long ago when taking lives had become a necessity. When killing became your livelihood, you learned to separate yourself from the carnage or risk losing the part of you that could still feel. Naruto normally chose not to think about such things, Sasuke even less.
Including having just molested him in a dank alley next to a corpse, Sasuke was behaving even more unusual than was customary for him. He could see the tension in Sasuke's tightly fisted hand, in his rigid stance, in the whiteness around his pale lips. Something had shaken him-a rare feat. Beneath the waves of anger and frustration that rippled the air around him, Naruto could sense the unrest, as if Sasuke stood at the edge of a precipice with nothing but Naruto's hand keeping him from losing his footing. It scared him like no tailed demon or Akatsuki ever could.
He tempered his questions though, knowing Sasuke would confide in him when he was ready. In the ensuing silence, he felt the inane urge to fidget. He didn't know what else to say. He glanced again down the alley, taking note that the lamppost had died. He turned to leave.
"If I abandoned the village again and you were ordered to kill me, could you do it?"
Naruto paused. "It seems you're the idiot today." The short answer would have been no. Sasuke should have known that.
"Answer me." Sasuke stepped forward.
"What are you getting at, Sasuke?"
"When you're standing over someone you've known all your life, ready to kill as you're trained to do... what does it mean if you can't do it?"
"It means you're human," Naruto answered simply.
"What if that person deserved to die?"
The pieces fell into place. Naruto reached up and removed his mask, revealing bright blue eyes shadowed with concern and whiskered cheeks. Blond hair fell in messy locks against his forehead, the rest of it hidden beneath his hood.
"You saw Itachi." It wasn't a question.
Sasuke grabbed a fistful of Naruto's cloak and dragged the man against him, his mouth clamping hungrily over Naruto's. It was a bruising scrape of dry lips and sharp teeth.
"Sasu... Sasuke..." Naruto clawed at the hand keeping him in place.
"Don't fight me," Sasuke whispered against his mouth. His tongue slipped past Naruto's lips, forcing entrance into the moist warmth, relishing in the remembered taste.
Naruto felt his knees go weak at the need in his best friend's voice. He was tempted to give in to that mouth that tasted of cool relief on hot summer days, the kind that made him sag in satisfaction, in sated thirst.
The illusion was marred, however, by the sour tang of blood and other excrements tainting the air in the narrow alley. It was dangerous to linger any longer. The entire situation reminded Naruto that most dreams, especially the attainable ones, were never without their sacrifices. Dawn remained forever on the horizon, forever out of reach.
And with that dismal thought, he pushed himself away from that sinful tongue.
"This isn't the way to handle it," Naruto said-or rather, panted-breathless from Sasuke's assault.
Sasuke dug his nails into his palms in order to keep from jumping the blond anyway and to hell with how Naruto thought he should handle being unable to complete his life's mission.
"You don't know shit," Sasuke said angrily. His eyes flared red for a moment, leaving the brief impression of a spiral. He closed his eyes and tilted his head back, nostrils flaring as he drew in a deep breath.
Naruto watched as he seemed to reign himself back in, the turbulence of his emotions carefully receding back beneath his veneer of control. Encouraged, Naruto smiled his blindingly radiant smile and ruffled black hair affectionately. Sasuke swatted at the hand with a flash of irritation. Naruto grinned wider, relieved to see him acting more like himself again.
Sasuke needed time to sort out his thoughts. No matter how concerned Naruto was, he could wait until Sasuke was ready to tell him what had happened with Itachi. The fact that he was here and alive after an encounter with his brother was enough for the moment.
"Come on, I'll show you where I'm staying. We can head home tomorrow."
Sasuke watched mutely as Naruto leapt deftly onto the roof of the next building. He returned his mask to its place and moved to follow his friend.
"Has Sasuke returned yet?"
Without looking up from the scroll he was reading, Neji shook his head.
"He's never late," Sakura said to herself. She gnawed at her lip as she paced across the polished floor outside the Hokage's office.
Neji glanced at Tenten with whom he was standing watch and they exchanged exasperated looks. In any other situation, Sakura might have apologized for badgering them. As it was, she couldn't be bothered to care about what they thought right then.
"Sakura," Tenten said. She offered the pink-haired woman a friendly smile. "Sasuke is an ANBU captain, and he's got Kiba with him. I'm sure he's perfectly fine."
"Yes, but...he's never been late coming back from a mission before."
"Uchiha is fine," Neji said. His nose was buried again in the scroll and his gaze was lowered although Sakura had the distinctly uncomfortable impression that those pale eyes were observing her.
The office doors suddenly flew open. Neji and Tenten stood to attention.
Tsunade scanned the faces of the three ninjas-two blank, one anxious. "Get in here," she ordered.
They obeyed, Sakura biting back any questions she had. She lost that battle, however, the moment she saw Kiba standing before Tsunade's desk, Sasuke pointedly absent.
"Where's Sasuke? What's happened to him?"
When Kiba held his tongue, she barely resisted the urge to grab him by his white vest and shake him.
"It's alright, Kiba. Tell them what you told me," Tsunade said, taking her place behind her desk.
"We came across Itachi."
At this, there was a sharp inhale as Sakura gasped, clutching at the lapels of her jounin vest.
"Sasuke went after him while I completed our mission. When he didn't return by the time I finished, I went searching for him. All I found were traces of blood and their battle ground." Here, he paused to snort. "Every tree for a mile around had been leveled. I couldn't find where he'd gone, even with Akamaru's nose. The rain had washed away his scent."
Sakura resumed gnawing her lips to keep from shouting at the Hokage to act. Sasuke couldn't have lost, she assured herself.
"Kiba, take Neji with you and track him down. He's probably just somewhere licking his wounds. Drag him back if you have to."
Kiba nodded curtly.
All eyes turned to Sakura.
"Send me too." She already knew what Hokage-sama would say, but she could be just as stubborn. She'd learned from the best, after all.
Tsunade regarded her for a moment, expression indiscernible. "No, Sakura. You are too emotional when Sasuke is concerned. It's unfortunate Naruto isn't here."
Sakura bit her tongue to refrain from making an angry retort. Naruto was arguably even more emotionally unbalanced than she was when it came to Sasuke. But between the two of them, the only one who stood even a minute chance against Sasuke's obstinacy was Naruto.
"Next to Naruto, I'm the closest person to him. I'll bring him back. Please, Hokage-sama."
Sakura didn't need to mention that being second closest to the stoic young man was only marginally better than not knowing him at all. She knew he cared for her, proven every time he had saved her life on a mission and on the rare occasion he accompanied her to a snack at Ichiraku's of his own free will. But all the same, she had never seen him without that wariness in his eye. She would catch a glimpse of his smile-rare but precious-and ache with the desire to see it directed at her.
"You are not suited for this job."
"I am a jounin! I am more than qualified for a simple search mission." It galled her that, despite their history, Tsunade still found her lacking. It wasn't her ninja abilities Hokage-sama doubted. It was whether or not Sakura could remain level-headed in situations that provoked emotional duress.
She couldn't help feeling vaguely betrayed as Tsunade's expression darkened. Neither of them had ever had much patience. Sakura swallowed, knowing full well the consequences of inciting her former teacher's temper. Nonetheless, she met Tsunade's gaze evenly.
This time, she wasn't going to be left behind.