Maturity

Italics are thoughts.

"…" is speech.

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A young man dressed in a deep blue shirt with an abnormally large collar, white pants, and black sandals stood in the middle of the clearing, hands tucked in his pockets. His ebony hair stood up in spikes, contrasting sharply with his pale complexion. Three comma-shaped marks in a circle marred the back of his neck. His eyes were cold and hard as stone, and held a general bitterness and abiding anger towards the world at large. Uchiha Sasuke was very different from the child who had left the Hidden Leaf eight years before. The Rookie Nine had all grown up and changed; some for the better, some for the worse. Sasuke fancied that he had changed for the better, although he knew that many people thought the direct opposite.

A masked kunoichi was poised on a tree branch, a kunai in her hand. Their gazes locked, ebony orbs clashing with emerald. This Konoha hunter-nin was female, but that was all Sasuke knew, and he had only managed to guess that much because she was wearing a skirt. The traditional mask shielded her face from view, and she wore a hooded cloak which covered her hair and clothes.

She made her move first.

Leaping down from her precarious perch, she charged at him with chakra built up in her hand, releasing it in one explosive burst. Sasuke sidestepped her fist, and feinted with his left arm while lashing out a leg. His kick took her down, but she turned a somersault and landed upright.

A sword sheath rattled on her back; she drew the blade and stroked it lovingly, wielding it in her right hand while her kunai went into her left. Her movements blurred, and the next thing Sasuke knew, a barrage of mixed projectile weapons was headed for him. He bent his knees, and jumped straight up. When he landed, another kunai went for his legs. He did a handstand, but with one hand only. The other hand went for his kunai holster, as the hunter-nin's weapon thudded into a tree trunk.

She dodged a flight of shuriken and kunai with ease, and dropped to the ground from her hiding place high above.

The black wheels of the Sharingan were swirling in his blood red eyes already.

"I know how to counter and avoid the Sharingan. It will not work," the voice was muffled by the mask, but still sounded familiar. Sasuke narrowed his eyes. The Sharingan did drain him of chakra relatively quickly. If what this hunter-nin said was true – that she knew how to avoid his bloodline ability – then she was either one who knew him well, or one who had fought repeatedly with Itachi, who still refused to die by his hands.

He only smirked, and formed seals with a speed that defied the laws of nature. A fireball roared at her, and she stood her ground. Sasuke's eyebrows rose as she was enveloped in the white-hot flame of his creation. "Stupid," he murmured, and turned to walk away.

"Hold it," she called. His eyes widened, and he spun on his heels quickly. A bright cyan shield of chakra was slowly disappearing around her, and she smiled at his expression, although he couldn't see it. In all fairness to him, he recovered well. Many of her other objectives had either gibbered or fainted when they saw that she had survived their attacks using a chakra shield which she had formed in seconds. Although it was possible for some Jounins, shields required perfect chakra control, concentration, and near-complete knowledge on how chakra flowed.

"I can see why you are a hunter-nin of Konoha," a twisted smile stretched his lips.

"You flatter me," the voice remarked.

"So, let's get down to it," Sasuke rushed towards her, his signature attack forming in his hand quickly as indigo swirls of chakra. Her eyes focused on that flowing energy, and she came to a deduction fast. He no longer used the chidori. On his own, or perhaps with Orochimaru's help, he had evolved it to the Raikiri – that feared attack which only Hatake Kakashi, infamous Copy Ninja, had been able to use. What else had he learned during the years they were apart?

She brought up her blade, and met the Raikiri with its flat side. Sasuke's eyes widened again in shock as the chakra he had gathered in his palm abruptly stopped swirling, and flowed into the cool metal sword like water. Wrapping his fingers about the hilt of his kunai, he swung at her forearm, carving a deep gash there before jumping away. She pressed one palm to the sword blade, and drew the chakra into herself.

Her hand glowed with energy, and she placed it over the wound. Sasuke saw the injury heal before his eyes, and he blinked. If Konoha required medical ninjas to work as hunter-nins, were they terribly short of proper shinobi? His mind raced as he bared his teeth in a grin.

"Nice, isn't it? I used the energy you provided to heal myself of the wound you inflicted," she noted dryly.

In a flash, she was upon him, chakra gathering at her hands and feet. She smashed a fist into his face, and kicked him hard in the stomach. Unseen, his hand snaked towards her wrist, and he jerked her arm hard. She fell, but pulled him along. She landed hard, and he pinned her down by her thin wrists, hovering over her.

"Who are you?" he demanded. She swore at him, bringing her legs up in an arcing kick which struck him hard in the back. She ripped herself free, and threw her body backwards.

"It's none of your business," she spat at him, and launched a shower of senbon at him. He dodged all except one, which lodged itself in his thigh. Sasuke curled his hand into a fist when he felt relentless burning and pain in the wound. He plucked out the long needle and flung it into the nearest tree trunk.

"Poisoned, of course. You have no hope, even if you beat me, which I doubt, it's a poison I mixed myself," she announced, sounding satisfied.

Sasuke snarled wordlessly at her. "If I die, you go with me," the first stage of the curse seal spread over his skin, pulsing black marks tainting the purity of his skin.

A vicious aura seemed to surround him in an invisible wind. "Tell me who you are," he snapped gutturally.

She smiled, although he couldn't see it. He could hear the amusement in her voice, though. "Come and see for yourself. By the way, you'll be paralyzed in exactly a minute and twelve seconds from now, and you'll die in three minutes if you don't get the antidote," she mocked.

Sasuke gritted his teeth. He formed seals quickly, and he disappeared.

She looked about her quickly, and smiled.

If he's not behind or around – below!

Chakra gathered in her fist, and she smashed it into the ground. The surrounding packed soil exploded in a flash of blue energy, and Sasuke mouthed a curse as he was sent flying. Each pump of his heart sent the poison further into his circulatory system.

He crashed into a tree trunk, and was limp.

Cautiously, she approached. A shuriken spun at him, slicing off the tallest spike of his hair, and there was no reaction. She frowned. If he were truly conscious, he would have spouted curses at her for destroying the shape of his hair. Was he truly knocked out by that?

She went closer. Unseen, he closed long, shapely fingers over a kunai hilt. When she came close enough, he made his move.

He thrust the kunai into her stomach, and fell back. The poison was taking its toll on him.

Her eyes widened, and then, amazingly, she smiled.

She tossed the kunai aside, the handle slippery with her own blood. One hand was pressed to her stomach, beginning the healing process. "I am certain I will survive this. Are you?" she asked calmly. He only glared at her wordlessly, because there was nothing else left to say. At his silence, her smile stretched. When her blood no longer pumped through her fingers, and the wound was closed, she shook the red liquid off, and then knocked off her mask and hood with a swift, practiced movement.

Sasuke's jaw dropped.

"Am I good enough now, Sasuke-kun?" Sakura asked. Sasuke could only stare at her, dumbfounded.

Cerise-hued hair framed her face in soft waves, falling to the middle of her back. Her beryl-green eyes were cool and emotionless. She pushed her hitai-ate back on top of her head. She was taller now, and her figure was curved nicely. Her red blouse, formerly hidden by the black cloth of her cloak, clung to her in places, showing her body off perfectly. Her black wrap-around skirt was new, he had never seen her wear that before in the time they spent together as Team Seven. Her black knee-high boots were also a new addition to her outfit. Haruno Sakura was a woman now, no longer that childish girl who had chased after her precious Sasuke-kun so persistently. Sasuke thought he was insane for thinking so, but he found her new maturity appealing.

"You have changed… Sakura," he said finally.

"So have you." Her face was still expressionless, and Sasuke privately wondered for a moment whether this was really Haruno Sakura, the girl who idolized him. Then he realized, yes, she was Sakura, but she was the grown-up version of Sakura. They had both changed beyond recognition.

"You are… stronger now."

"The Godaime trained me."

"I see."

Sasuke leaned against the tree trunk, his breathing slowing as she came closer to him, boots crunching on the dried leaves underfoot.

"This will be my last mission as a hunter-nin. Are you satisfied? I picked this mission out of a dozen others to be my swan song, my last perfect assignment, the best end to my career in the ANBU," Sakura said suddenly, out of the blue.

Sasuke only blinked. "You are to be congratulated."

"You have… fifty six seconds left to live," she informed him. He only inclined his head slightly, unable to move anymore.

"Then since you are unable to move, I can finally do this," she took a deep breath and knelt down, leaning closer.

Their lips brushed, so softly that Sasuke hazily wondered if it had really happened, or was a figment of his overactive imagination. He speculated if the wetness on his cheeks now had flowed from his own tear ducts, or had been from Sakura.

Sakura sat back on her heels, eyes unreadable again.

"You've made me stronger, Sasuke-kun. I thank you for that," she murmured.

The world began to blur around him.

"I lied to you just now, actually. This isn't my last mission as a hunter-nin."

Sasuke could only look at her questioningly, although her form was beginning to waver.

"This is my last mission as a kunoichi. As of tomorrow, I will no longer be a shinobi. Are you honored, Sasuke-kun?" she asked.

He could not find the breath to say anything, and then his eyelids dropped as his heart stopped.

Sakura gazed down at the corpse of her one-time crush, and a forlorn tear leaked out of her eye.

With a few seals, she set his body aflame, and collected the ashes in a small container before leaving the place quickly. She had no wish to be reminded that she was the one who had cold-bloodedly slain her former love.

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When Hatake Kakashi awoke the next morning, he found a note tacked to the wall of his bedroom with a kunai. Sakura had written that he was to collect the Rookie Nine as well as their respective teachers and bring them to her apartment at exactly noon.

And that afternoon, when Kakashi knocked down her door as no one had answered, Haruno Sakura's body was found lying in her bed, with a smile on her face and no breath in her lungs. A small pot was clenched in her fist. When Kakashi opened it, he immediately guessed what was inside it, and his eyes were saddened.

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The next day, the body of Haruno Sakura was buried with full honors as befitted the personal apprentice of the Fifth Hokage. The ANBU mask, which was usually included in the coffin, was quietly left out, because they all knew that she had died because of it.

In its place was a small container of ashes, tucked within her stiffened hand.

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A/N: I wonder why I wrote this… /rolls eyes/

Review?

Kyasarinyume07 signing off.