AN: Updated, after forever and ever. Thank goodness it's summer vacation :) I've missed this site.
This was ridiculous.
Sakura should not have been dominating his thoughts this much. But even now, as she walked unhappily beside him past the gates of Konoha, her final words to him still raced through his mind.
"I thought I at least meant more to you than that."
He had nothing to admit. He had played his part in this little game—she had to have been playing along as well. No girl would be that naïve, to blindly trust with her whole heart. She had to have known things wouldn't turn out perfectly. No girl held onto the idea of a fantasy romance past the age of twelve.
But apparently she did.
Sasuke stole a sideways glance at her and found her eyes staring resolutely ahead, determined not to show any form of weakness at all. Sasuke couldn't tell whether she was angry, or saddened, or nervous about the thought of being around him for three solid days.
"Don't bother talking to me, Sasuke," she suddenly said, breaking the tense silence between them. "I'm not going to get caught up in any new game you may or may not have planned for this trip."
Well. Sasuke guessed she was feeling more defiant than anything at the moment.
A smirk slid easily across his face. "And what makes you think that I might start a game?"
Sakura dug her heel into the ground, effectively stopping their progress. "Maybe it's the fact that you've done nothing but play games with me since I bothered to find you online."
Sasuke raised a hand and placed it over his heart, and made a dramatically wounded face she had never seen on him before. "That hurt." He was actually making fun of her.
Sakura blew out a frustrated sigh and continued walking ahead of him. She would not get through to him. Nothing she could say would break through his little image of the situation. If he wanted to believe that there was no harm in playing with her feelings, then she would have no problem messing with him right back.
This was insane. And they had only been in each other's company for five minutes. Konoha's gates were still plainly visible behind them. Sakura rolled her eyes and fixed her gaze on the road ahead. Was it over yet?
Thankfully, Sasuke said not another word to her during the journey, even when they ascended to the trees to quicken the trip. The only problem was he didn't need to; his casual smirks said it all. Oddly enough, that aggravated her more than if he had chattered incessantly through the hours it took to reach the village. Not that Sasuke had ever been the type to chatter.
Far too much later, they arrived in the quaint little village that was their destination. They had been lucky that this mission was only on the border of the Fire Country—Sakura would have gone insane if she had had to spend another minute traveling with him.
The village was minute, only about a quarter of Konoha's size. A crowd was gathered around what looked like the main street, the hustle and bustle of the market buzzing with haggling. Shopkeepers grinned at unsuspecting passersby as though willing to pounce if needed, only to duck back under their tents as a rather large breeze kicked up dust. It was a dry day, and the sun beating down on them did nothing for Sakura's mood.
"Let's get food before we start asking questions," Sasuke said, ever the take-charge one. However, Sakura felt no inclination to follow his suggestions today. In fact, she felt no desire to listen to him at all, really.
"I think I'll start with questions first," she stated stubbornly, striding swiftly past him and into the nearest merchant's tent. She could practically feel Sasuke's scowl burning into her back as she went inside.
The tent was a deep, rich purple, and the many expensive-looking beaded pillows scattered around its edges told Sakura that this merchant had acquired a great deal of money in his travels. He must know some pretty high-end people to succeed this much in his business. He would make a great source of information.
"Excuse me," she spoke authoritatively to a figure swathed in ruby fabric. Bent over and turned away from her, the merchant was intently examining a small statue perched on one of his many shelves lining the area. He continued on as if he hadn't heard her.
Sakura cleared her throat and tried again. "Excuse me, sir." She placed a gentle hand on his shoulder and his entire body jumped, his head smacking rather violently on the shelf above him. He emitted a low groan before emerging from the shelf and facing her. His frown pulled down every sagging wrinkle in his face, Sakura noticed with a wince. This was not a good start.
"I was hoping you could tell me about some men you may have done business with," she said in what she hoped was a soothing tone. "I'm looking for a certain man."
"I do not divulge information about my clients," he snapped, irritation dripping from every syllable.
"Then perhaps if I offered you some form of payment in return?" Her professional voice was a bit hard to maintain when he glowered at her like that.
The man snorted in disbelief, and his piggy little eyes widened a fraction. "I will not be bribed!" he exclaimed, waving an arm for emphasis. "A nosy young woman such as yourself would be wise to know your place. I'm sure you have dishes to wash at home." As he sneered down at her, Sakura's temper flared.
Oh, no he didn't.
Sasuke entered the tent just as a heavy man thudded to the ground mere feet away. The man's head hit his shoes, and Sasuke disgustedly stepped back. He raised an unimpressed eyebrow at the girl standing before him.
"I had thought the idea was to get answers out of the merchants, not render them unconscious," he said. Sakura harrumphed and turned her head away.
"He deserved it," she claimed, glaring at the body on the floor. "He called me nosy. I'm sure he'll wake up in an hour or two."
Sasuke dragged the man to a corner of the tent and propped him up so his back leaned against a shelf, as though that would make the merchant look less conspicuous. He smirked at Sakura.
"Next time," he said, "leave the interrogating to me. I'm sure you have dishes to wash somewhere anyway."
Sakura's mouth dropped open. "You were right outside."
"Yes, and you failed," was Sasuke's simple response. "You're lucky everyone else is closing their shops right now. I think no one would be very happy to stumble on this." He nudged the merchant with the toe of his shoe as the man gradually began to lean sideways.
"Shall we go?" Sakura grumbled as the merchant hit the floor for the second time.
The bar seemed to be the only open place left. Sakura climbed onto a barstool and ordered something strong before Sasuke could even sit down next to her. Fortunately for her the bartender was prompt, and he plunked down a mug of warm liquid on the bar, some of the yellow drink splashing onto the wood. Sakura took it without hesitation. Beer wasn't quite as strong as she had been hoping for, but she would take what was in front of her.
"Do you really find my presence that hard to bear?" Sasuke asked her as she began downing it. She waited until she had gulped down the last of her beverage before responding.
"Is that a trick question?" She ordered another, and Sasuke sighed.
"No games today," he said.
"Bull," was the reply. This would be harder than he thought.
"I'm serious. For now it will be only two teammates enjoying each other's company."
"And I'm saying you're a liar," Sakura told him immediately. He wasn't getting on her good side tonight. Or any night, actually.
Damn. She saw straight through the "make nice" strategy. Sasuke called the bartender over and said not another word to the woman beside him.
"This is the hotel the Hokage reserved for us?" Sakura asked doubtfully. She had never been assigned such a grungy place before.
"Like it or not, this is the best the village has," Sasuke told her as he slid the key in the lock to their room. "Feel lucky that it even has double rooms."
"If it didn't I'd be sleeping outside," Sakura muttered.
Sasuke settled onto his bed, and Sakura ungracefully collapsed onto hers. One night. She could get through one night. Just close your eyes, sleep, and when you wake up it will already be day two of the mission, Sakura told herself. If you fall asleep now he can't say anything to you.
Quiet drifted over the two of them, and for the first time in days she felt an odd sort of peace. Her thoughts were no longer in turmoil over the man across the room. For now, she could pretend that he hadn't completely slaughtered her feelings before, and that he could stop these insane little attempts to win her over only to throw his winnings away. She couldn't possibly describe how much it had hurt her, but thanks to her excellent memory of the "rules" every ninja abided by, no one would ever know—least of all Sasuke himself. He never did like weakness, and if he knew that he had gotten to her in any way, that would just prove to him that he had won.
Sakura rolled over so she was facing away from him. It would be blatant denial to say that she would not be thinking of him tonight, but the less she had to look at him, the better.
For a couple of minutes, there was no sound save for the dull hum of the air conditioner in the impossibly hot, cramped room. She lay there in silence, not sure what she was waiting for but waiting all the same. She guessed she was waiting for sleep to come, but her body told her that she was not tired in the least bit. It was maddening.
Sakura glanced over at the clock after what seemed like an hour and found that it had only been half that. Suppressing an aggravated groan that she felt no more refreshed, she sat up and swung her legs to the side of her bed. Sasuke lay still on his bed, unmoving. Damn him. Why could he sleep while she stayed restless?
Screw this. The floor creaked as Sakura stepped across the wooden boards, and carefully she made her way over to the door. Perhaps a walk outside alone might clear her head.
The air was much more refreshing than she had anticipated. The streetlights were dimmer than at home, creating a calming effect as they cast gentle shadows on nearby benches. Sakura wandered through the residential streets until she ended up back at the market square, and found one light still on in the darkened buildings surrounding her.
What is that? She wondered as she strained to make out the sign. It was, of all things, a public library. It had to be at least two in the morning by now…
Suspicious, Sakura approached the building and tried the door. It opened without complaint. Treading carefully inside, she rounded the corner in the hall and the room opened up, to stacks and stacks of barely-lit bookshelves. The place was much bigger than it had looked from the outside; the ceiling was high, couches were arranged against the wall in a reading section, and office desks were gathered in the center.
She spotted a thick head of hair from behind the main desk, and as she stepped forward she glimpsed a young man there. The buttons on his jacket were undone with a white shirt revealed beneath, and she glimpsed khaki shorts. The man was in intense concentration, his pen scrawling frantically across his paper.
"Hello?" Sakura spoke quietly. The pen made an unintentional long scratch across the man's work, and he emitted a low, exasperated noise. People were really irritable here. Sakura made a mental note to just stop speaking to people in this village entirely.
"Oh, hello," he responded with a forced, tired smile. "Technically we're closed, miss."
"Oh, I was pretty sure of that," Sakura explained. "I was just curious about this place. I could see the light from the street."
The man relaxed a bit as he studied her, ultimately deciding she wasn't a lunatic. "I see. I had forgotten to lock the door. Busy with applications, you see." He gestured toward his paperwork, and she squinted to make out the employment applications scattered across his desk. "This place won't stick around for too long. Looks like a new job's the next step."
"You own this place?"
"I do. But the head of the trading industry around here decided the space should be his. He offered me a ridiculously low price, but there was too much pressure from the village for me to refuse." He shook his head. "We need the constant traffic from traders. Bastards, all of them." There was a twinkle in his eyes as he spoke. "I'm guessing you're not a trader."
"Ha, I don't think so."
There was silence for a moment as Sakura considered what he had said. The head of trade was the mission. She had heard of shady dealings, and this was the first piece of good information she had found. Sasuke would be so jealous to find out she had scored first in the knowledge-hunt.
"Well, I'm not sure how late you're planning on staying up, but the computers are still on. Feel free to stay for a while if you need to kill some time." He smiled at her, and she took in just how young he was. He couldn't be much older than she was, with light sandy brown hair and a confident smile.
"Thank you," she said, extending her hand with a smile of her own. "Sakura."
"Syaoran." He took it, and pretended to be surprised as he shook her hand. "Awfully small. You sure you can handle yourself staying out this late, girl?"
Sakura's eyes widened at his unexpected teasing comment. "I could say the same for you. You could be a tiny little guy for all I know."
He stood up, and Sakura was corrected. Tall and lean, he stood a full head taller than she.
"Oh, all right, you win," she admitted.
He grinned, and pointed toward the tiny cluster of monitors in the corner.
"There they are. I'll be up for a while."
Sakura thanked him, and made her way over.
Noir18: You have got to be kidding me.
Noir18: Where the hell did you go?
Sakura suppressed a disbelieving snort. Syaoran looked over his desk at her.
"A friend's online," she explained.
"Tell him to get to bed," Syaoran suggested, humor in his voice.
Cherrylover2: Me? Where the hell are you?
Noir18: There's a public computer in the downstairs lobby. Couldn't sleep. Now answer my question.
Cherrylover2: There's a library in the village. Owner's working late.
Cherrylover2: And I got information for the mission. Na-na-naaa.
Noir18: Remind me why I ever thought you were mature.
Noir18: Get back here and sleep. We have a lot of work ahead of us tomorrow.
Cherrylover2: I'm enjoying a rather nice conversation with Syaoran.
Cherrylover2: Mmhmm. He's very young to own a public library…
Noir18: Get back here.
Sakura laughed again.
"He doesn't like the fact that I'm at some library with some guy at two in the morning," she explained so Syaoran could hear. She heard him chuckle at her childishness.
"I don't see you rushing back home."
She ducked her head to hide her amusement. "Oh, he can wait a while. Won't kill him."
"If I didn't know better, I'd think you were enjoying torturing your poor worried travel guy," Syaoran jokingly commented.
"Trust me, some people deserve it," she answered from across the room. Syaoran shook his head with an amused smile and returned to his paperwork.
Noir18: Sakura. For the good of the mission, do not make me come find you.
Cherrylover2: You're sounding awfully desperate there. Don't worry. Syaoran's taking care of me.
Sasuke could see her devilish smirk in his head. He growled.
Noir18: You can tell this 'Syaoran' to lay off. We have a mission to do, and you can't afford distractions.
Cherrylover2: Don't order me. I rather like this distraction.
Noir18 signed off at 2:28 AM.
That was it. He was going to find her.