Disclaimer: I do not own any part of Naruto.
Wow. Nearly another year before another update. Terribly sorry, but senior year is everything everyone has ever complained to you about. Final SATs, college applications, finals, senioritis. It's all true, and it's all a pain in the ass... Not to mention my loss of computer during part of summer.
But don't worry! I finally got a new laptop, and finals and everything is over. I have no excuses not to write anymore. I can't believe that this story has turned into such a big project! (–coddles story–) Oh, my wonderful baby pet. You've grown from a vicious plot bunny to a nice chocolate one with all these psychedelic people loving you.
As always, thanks to the lovely reviewers who take the time out of their day to make mine, and a special thanks to Animegirllie and adikk, who drew me lovely fanart (the links are featured in my profile). You guys are serially the bestest EVER. Serially.
'We will hurt to hurt'
The thorns said to the roses
'But, sometimes,' the thorns reminded
'Sometimes, we will hurt to love.'
Neji walked towards his cousin's new home with only one resolute thought in mind. He would let her stay with here in Leaf not because he approved, but because he didn't know if he could stand the loss of his closest friend.
He took a breath before knocking once on the back door, clearing his mind in preparation for what was to come. He didn't have words yet in mind, but an overwhelming sense of determination steeled his form.
Hinata came to door a mere moment after his knuckle left the wood frame. Though her eyes widened slightly at the sight of him, she didn't not seem altogether surprised.
"Neji-nii-san, Tenten-san just left a moment ago. She said she was going to replenish your supplies before the two of you had to leave." She stepped backwards to let him into the house.
He nodded to her slightly as he entered, glad for once that Tenten won't be there to hear his words.
"I apologize for my harsh words earlier, Hinata-sama," Neji said cooly. He watched as she walked towards the stove, where a kettle of water was heating.
She turned to him and smiled gently. "You only said what was on your mind, Neji-nii-san." She reached upwards to open a cupboard and took down two mugs and a box of tea leaves.
The sight of his cousin, looking so natural and at home in this admittedly warm kitchen, Neji couldn't help but think she belonged there. The mugs were white and of a cheap-looking porcelain; they couldn't compare to the fine china cups that Hinata had grown up using. She was wearing a thin, oversized navy sweater and loose grey pants–a far cry from the silk robes that all the members of the Main House had been attired in. But still, she looked more comfortable than he had ever seen her.
"Neji-nii-san, I know that you think that I have to return to the Hyuuga, but I simply cannot do that."
He had always heard a tremor in her tone, a touch of skittish fear that made her seem unsure of herself. But now, her soft voice held a strength that he never knew she held.
"I am happy here with Naruto... There is no place for me within the Hyuuga Clan. I would not be a competent leader or warrior. This is my place, now." The squeal of the tea kettle interrupted her; she picked it off the stove and began pouring hot water into the mugs.
A part of him cried viciously for anger, for her to be responsible to her destiny as a Main House child. But another part wondered if Tenten was really right. Was he being selfish for demanding that she fall into a preset role that, like he, didn't want to be in?
"How do you know that you really belong here?"
Hinata turned and smiled, more brilliantly than he had ever seen, as she handed him a mug of steaming tea.
"Love." The answer was simple, short, and sweet. When he didn't say anything, she blushed pink and looked back down into the mug of tea she was holding in both hands. "I-I know you think that it's a silly ideal, but... It's really why I want to be here. I am very happy here, yes... But I think I would be happy anywhere as long as I was with Naruto."
She looked up at him, her eyes a pearly white. They were just like his, a gift and curse all in one, only hers were filled with faith and hope. "Don't you feel the same when you're with Tenten-san?"
Neji jerked backwards. "Tenten?"
Hinata flushed even deeper. "T-that is, I mean... Tenten-san and you... A-are close, are you not?"
"She is my companion," Neji answered evenly.
"A-and don't you always prefer when s-she is near?" Hinata struggled to verbalize her thoughts, lost in embarrassment and her own shy nature.
Neji thought for a second before answering. "Yes."
"Then you care for her, right? E-even if it's not in the way I meant," she continued.
Neji nodded. "She is very close to me."
It was difficult to say out loud, Neji noticed. He had grown so use to her presence that he had taken her for granted. However, she was one of the few people he trusted, and she had always been with him. He didn't know if he cared for her in the way Hinata had implied, but he did care for her, and he needed her to be near him.
He quickly shook himself from his thoughts. He walked closer to his cousin, keeping his face neutral. "I will not take you from here forcefully," he quietly conceded. "If this is your choice, then I respect it, Hinata-sama."
She reached out her hand to touch his arm. "Thank you, Neji-nii-san." She beamed up at him. "And please, only Hinata. There is no more need for formalities."
Neji stepped backwards, suddenly feeling awkward within the moment. "Tenten and I will depart as soon as she returns. Thank you for your hospitality."
She nodded her acceptance. "And Neji-nii-san... I know you care for Tenten, but I think, if for nothing more than as a reminder, you should tell her too."
Not use to expressing his emotions, Neji merely nodded jerkily. Yes... If for nothing more than as a reminder, he would tell her that she was important to him.
With that in mind, Neji turned towards the door and awaited for his teammate to return.
There were certain defining moments in her life, Sakura realized, that held nothing more than dread. The feeling killed her inside. Not quite so sweet as anticipation, dread grabbed onto her and seemed to be able to stop her lungs from functioning.
Sasuke's eyes bore into hers, flickers of emotion swirling in the inky darkness. She wished helplessly that she could read what was in them, because the silence was crushing her.
"Are you sure?"
The pause in time was broken; his voice shook her out of her dream-state.
"I'm sure." Staring at him, desperately trying to keep her voice from quaking. Knowing that this was the moment that would define everything.
She waited for his response, for a question, for anything. Anything to keep her from having to tell him, anything to keep him from disappearing in front of her.
Sasuke was silent, brooding. Nothing about his form revealed how hard his heart was pounding against his chest.
"D-don't you want to know?" The waiting was worse than anything, and she couldn't keep it inside anymore.
The way his eyes caught into her soul broke her heart. "Tell me."
Sakura clenched her hands inside the folds of her sleeves to keep from visibly trembling. "He said... Itachi said that the secret of the Mangekyo–the secret to attaining it–is for the wielder to kill the one he holds most dear to him."
He hand shot up and grasped her forearm with alarming speed, his inaction broken by the sudden movement. His grasp was not gentle; in fact, she was sure she would wear a bracelet of bruises the next day.
"Are you sure?!"
"Y-yes!" she gasped out, more out of surprise than pain. Unconsciously, her other hand had risen to settle softly on his.
The touch shocked him, as if electricity had passed through them. He released her arm and took a step back. His eyes, no longer on her, were focused entirely on his hand. His visible distress scared Sakura more than the threat of physical harm.
For a moment he stood in silence. He made no visible attempt to say or do anything.
"Sasuke?" She tentatively whispered, her voice breaking with worry.
He looked up to her again, his expression steely and harder than she had ever seen it. "Good. That's all I needed to know." He paused for a moment, his gaze not softening as it bared into her. "You are no longer indebted to me."
"What will you do?" Sakura fought to keep the desperation out of her voice. She wondered how he could keep himself so calm, when she was being ripped to shreds.
The corners of his lips tightened. "That is not your concern."
She took a step towards him, no longer able to keep herself physically still. "Sasuke, please. Itachi... He's not... He knows. He knows you're going after him. Please, it's dangerous, and I don't want anything to happen to you." She was babbling, the words bubbling up to her lips before she could quell the rush.
His voice was measuredly monotonous when he spoke next. "It doesn't matter. You're not involved in this."
"Please, Sasuke. Listen to me." She poured her emotions into her eyes, looking up at him with a kind of desperation she never knew she could have.
"Sakura. You have your freedom. I don't need you anymore."
Her breath hitched as she took another step closer to him, as if her nearness could persuade him to listen. "Don't you... Don't you care?" She looked down, willing for courage to say how she felt. When she looked back up again, there were tears in her eyes. "I-I love you. Doesn't that mean anything?" She reached up and clutched his hand, holding it to her. "Don't you... Can't you love me too?"
He sucked in a breath of air, jerking back away from her. A kind of strange rage filled him, agitation clear as his eyes flashed red in the shadows.
"Of course I can't love you," he hissed into the dark, as if his anger could justify how much he was hurting her. "I am the Avenger. I'm using you because you're a whore and a spy."
It was as if all the air had rushed out of her lungs, as if her heart had stopped beating because someone was squeezing it too hard. The pain was excruciating but she couldn't diagnose where it was coming from. She fell to her knees, a choked sob slipping from her lips. She couldn't look at him.
His voice was almost gentle when he spoke again. "I promised I would give you your freedom... Nothing else."
Her eyes squeezed shut, as if blocking his image from her view could make his words false, and she started shaking her head. "No."
Though he was silent and she couldn't see him, she could still feel his presence in front of her. "No," she repeated again, this time more forcefully. She opened her eyes, pleadingly reaching up to him. "I don't care what you can or can't give me. But please... Please let me go with you."
He had turned away from her so that he was facing the window. She couldn't see his face, couldn't see that his fists were clenched in frustration.
"I know you said that you have to do this, but please... I don't care what happens, I just want to be with you."
In a blur of movements, he materialized in front of her, pulling her up by her wrists. His face was so close to hers that it could have been a prelude to a kiss. "You don't understand anything," he whispered. "You think that by saying this you change everything. It doesn't."
"But at least I can try." Her voice was breathless but her eyes were passionate and bright.
When the silence enveloped them once more, she couldn't stop herself from asking one more thing. "What are you afraid of?"
His lips covered hers without warning, mouth hard and demanding against hers, a jolt of liquid heat passing from her mouth to the pit of her stomach in a nanosecond. She felt weak, quivering like a newborn lamb against his chest.
"You ask me what I'm afraid of?" His voice was rough, belying the emotions he had tried so desperately to hide. His hand rose to stroke her face in a mockery of comfort it was designed to give, his thumb brushing softly over her lips. "This." His head bent to take her in another kiss, this one longer, more leisurely. He broke it to repeat the word. "This." Somehow his arm had wound around her waist, pressing her ever so much harder against him.
Subconsciously, she felt her head tilt back as he kissed her again. He nipped at her lips, asking for the entrance she willingly gave, his tongue teasing against hers. It was different from all the kisses before, as their emotions–her fear, his anger–overwhelmed them in a flurry of touches.
She barely noticed when his hand moved down to cup her breast, barely noticed as he led her, stumbling, backwards towards her futon. She didn't notice has his hands began pulling roughly at her obi, didn't even notice when the silky robe began sliding sensuously down her body. She concentrated on him, the solid form in front of her, memorizing the kiss as if it were the secret to breathing, living, itself.
Just as suddenly as he began he stopped, pulling slightly away from her, looking at her with an intensity that made her insides squirm. Except for her thin undergarments, she was naked. She shivered slightly from his gaze as she waited for some kind of reaction.
He stood there, almost stunned, as he looked at her, his muscles strained. He looked furious, at her or himself she couldn't tell.
And like that it hit her. He was afraid. Genuinely afraid of how he felt around her, afraid of how he was acting.
She took his hand, praying that he wouldn't yank it away. She pressed it to her lips in a kiss, a blessing, so gentle that it made him freeze, before looking up to him again. "Sasuke, I love you."
He let out a breath he didn't know he was holding, reaching for her again. She allowed him to tip her backwards onto the mattress, sighing as his form covered hers. Her fingers were less than skilled as they reached to undo his clothing, but she got the job done.
His lips seemed to be moving everywhere, covering her like rain but making her body burn even hotter. She arched against him, overwhelmed by the sensations spiking through her system, moving against him to fuel the friction. They were silent for the breathy moans that escaped her at every caress.
She wished she could will her mind to think, wished she could comprehend anything beyond the fact that Sasuke was there, pressed hard as he rocked against her. Yet all her mind seemed to be able to digest were the feelings Sasuke was evoking.
His hands smoked over her alabaster skin, worshipful in the way they moved over her ribs and hips. Though she couldn't see his eyes, she could feel the connection between them, so intensely tenuous that it made her heart want to break all over again.
The pressure that built became too strong, and as a particularly angled thrust made her mind seem to shatter into a million pieces of iridescent pleasure, Sakura couldn't help but gasp out his name. She felt him stiffen for the merest of seconds before he resumed his movements, joining her in release moments later, body quivering from the indescribable feelings rushing through him.
He maneuvered their bodies so that her back was pressed against his chest, an arm thrown carelessly over her waist. It was a position meant to comfort, and she couldn't stop herself from falling into the warmth of his form against hers. However, even when he relaxed against her, she knew that the spell was broken.
As the waves of sleep began washing over her, Sakura understood that a decision had been made. It was all she could do to pray that Sasuke would still be laying next to her in the morning.
He didn't want to let himself think. Surrounded by the smell of her, her skin smooth against him, feeling the steady rise and fall of her chest as she breathed... He wanted to stay there forever.
A part of him was screaming at his stupidity, foolishness, weakness. How could he have broken? Even now, she felt so small and delicate beneath him. How could she have made him behave like this?
His mind whirled, strangely detached from his body, as he thought about the repercussions of their actions. He brutally stamped those thoughts down, willing himself to sleep, to offer her one last comfort before he had to hurt her again, always again.
He couldn't love her. Couldn't.
If anything, for her sake.
She awoke almost instantly, the rush of air brushing against her shoulder as he carefully extricated himself from her side. She listened as he rose and began putting on his clothes, but didn't bother to turn around.
"Am I ever going to see you again?" Her voice was raspy with sleep.
He didn't say anything at first. "I don't know."
That statement made her angry, though for what reason she wasn't sure. She pushed herself upright, pulling up the light blanket they had kicked to the ground to cover herself. "Don't."
He looked at her expectantly, now fully dressed.
"Don't go! There is no 'I don't know', Sasuke. If you're going to leave, then just tell me that I'll never see you again." She looked down, suddenly vulnerable after her bitter tirade. "I can't keep hoping. It hurts too much."
Then all of a sudden he was behind her, his speed as inhuman as ever. He knelt down and wrapped his arms around her thin shoulders. For a moment, he simply rested his chin at the crook of her neck, breathing in and out.
She felt the tears, sliding hotly down her face, but didn't make a sound. She knew, deep inside, that his heart had chosen, and that she wasn't what it wanted. Nothing she could do or say would change that.
Sasuke pulled back, releasing her shoulders but keeping his face close to hers. "Sakura..." he breathed. "Thank you."
She had barely any time to feel surprise when she felt a dull jab at the base of her neck and the haze of unconsciousness began to once again roll over her.
His name, a stillborn whisper, died on her lips.
"What do you mean, you have to leave?"
Sakura shook her head softly at Ino, trying to dispel the blond girl's protests before they even began. They were both kneeling before a low table, sharing a pot of green tea on the porch that overlooked the garden. "I found out what Sasuke needed to know. There's no purpose for me here."
Ino grabbed Sakura's hand. "I heard that. But why do you have to leave? There's plenty of room here. You could make a comfortable living here as a geisha. I'd be happy to help you further your training."
Sakura kept her gaze downcast, unable to meet Ino's gaze. She had awoken alone, with the blanket covering her form, at dawn. Her priceless kimono, thrown so carelessly onto the ground in their passions, had been draped carefully over the changing screen.
She was haunted by his voice, his final farewell. Everything reminded her of him, try as she might not to think of him. Though nothing solid had formed in her mind, she was sure of one thing: she couldn't stay in Dream and stay sane.
She looked back up to Ino, hoping that her watery eyes wouldn't be noticed. "You're too kind with your offer. But this place has always just been a transition. It's time for me to find a real home."
Ino, never quite so observant as she was with Sakura, noticed the shift in emotions in her voice almost instantaneously. "Something's wrong." It was said as a statement, not a question. "Is it Sasuke?"
Sakura shook her head, forcing a smile onto her face. "No, that's not it. He's fine. I'm sure."
Ino ducked her head to peer into her eyes, once more hidden under the veil of lashes. "No, something's wrong. I'm sure of it." Her hand gripped Sakura's even harder. "Did he hurt you?"
"No!" Sakura tried to pass it off as a joke, laughing slightly. "He didn't. I'm fine, Ino." She paused slightly. "I'm happy. I have my freedom. I mean, it's what I've always wanted."
A look at Ino's face told Sakura of the battle of questions rising up inside her. "Are you in love with him?"
For a moment, Sakura was shocked at how easily Ino read her. She knew that there were almost no signs that led to how she felt about him, but Ino was able to pinpoint the source of her anguish with one simple question.
"Does it matter?" She was surprised at how bitter she sounded.
Ino bit her lip for a moment, staring at her friend with a mixture of sympathy and surprise. Then, without prompting, she enveloped Sakura in a tight embrace. "Of course it matters," she murmured.
The sudden act of affection brought Sakura's tears to the surface quicker than any words. She gave a quick, breathless sob before sinking her face into Ino's shoulder. "I can't stay here."
Ino was silent for a moment before replying. "No, I don't suppose you can't." She pulled away slightly, but still held her friend close. Pity, like a shroud, was evident in the expression she gave. "How could you let that happen, Sakura?" She smiled slightly to soften the reproach. "Brooding avengers can't ever give you what you want."
"I know. I knew. I was stupid to not... to hope that it would be different." Sakura struggled to vocalize how she felt.
Nothing she said, Ino knew, could comfort Sakura. The only thing she could offer at the moment was support. "Where will you go?"
Sakura shook her head. "I don't know."
"Then stay here until you do." Ino smiled, gently patting Sakura's hand. "I can't let you out into the world without a clue. Until you know, you're welcome to stay here with me."
Sakura returned the smile, eyes still watery, more grateful than she ever thought possible that Ino understood her. "Thank you."
And for the first time that day, Sakura felt at peace with the knowledge that there would be life after Dream, after Sasuke. No matter how painful, she would continue to live.
She would survive, for nothing more than to know that her love would drive her.
End Note: Uh. Yeah. OK. Please don't stab me? At least tell me you enjoyed the smex XD
Thanks to my SmexHotline preview readers! These guys helped make sure that I stayed within reasonable limits of what's appropriate for an M rating or not, and gave me the pre-support needed to complete the chapter. You guys are great!
Next update will come faster, I promise. This story is winding down... Depending on how my mind takes it, the next chapter may or may not be the last one. As always, thanks to everyone for their endless support!