ATTENTION: THE SEQUEL TO THIS STORY IS UP, TITLED 'OF BLOOD AND WILTED BLOSSOMS'.

So go read and review it, bitches. 8D

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((make way for the nostalgia and heartfelt babbling)).

Firstly, I'd like to thank every person that reviewed this because, wow, it just means so much to me and I'm grateful to each and every one of you and if I ever met you I'd probably give you a hug and snap your spine in half. You'd totally deserve it. Mel, I love you so much, and thank you a million times over for dealing with me and my spoilers and reviewing. Nazaliasan, I have to say, that's probably the longest review I've ever received and I appreciate every single word. Again, everyone else, thank you so so so much. I hope the sequel is just as great, but I'm taking a break. I do not know when it will be up, and I really think (speaking to a lot of people, my friends, AIM and such) are still catching up and I understand completely. (dodges glass bottles thrown at my skull). I know, it's long!

I seriously never thought I'd get this far. I mean, I put up the first chapter on a whim, a pure and utter whim because I wanted them drunk. I never thought I'd make it chapter five, and now I'm on 30. After 378 pages of Verdana size nine font, I had a story that I'm so wrapped up in I had to keep it going. Hell, this is going to be my career, might as well get used to it. Funny, how I don't have drive to do homework or laundry but I'll stay up to do this. Who am I kidding; I don't like sleep. I don't know what this fic has got, quality-wise, that makes you all like it; I mean, I like it 'cause it's MINE, I don't need a reason. With the big words that I use just because I can and the angst and the humor and the crying and the constant mood swing quality, brought on by characters and not just because the author is (somewhat) crazy...lol, fuck it. "We writers are suffocated by insanity", says me, says my profile, therefore I can say it is. I swear I could make someone love this couple if they read it. But in case I can't, I can just debate people in circles out of some pathetic pride.

The plot for the sequel is basically that Sasuke, Sakura and the others are going undercover as the group that was enlisted by Itachi, taking their place. (Sugiyama, Tenshon, Hanabi and others). INFILTRATION. But with all that's been going on, you think they can live through it? ((I doubt it.)).

If you want to read the sequel, I guess you should put me on your favorite authors list or something, because I'm still 'eeh' ing about the title for it. My profile is always up to date, and it'll say what I'm working on, what I've put on hold, and I always put up previews for new chapters and stories, so check it.

Lyrics are "Sorry" by Chris Daughtry, and not the band Daughtry, this is something he sang on American Idol. And I really thought it fit...only the bold though, (aside from sound effects).

((I was seriously tempted to have someone get hurt in the epilogue, like it's all happy and WHAM, someone gets impaled by a dozen kunai.))

This is the closest to 'happy' and a 'wrap-up' I'll get. I'm leaving for vacation tomorrow morning, so I won't have access to internet. (twitch). Reading this, I was sort of crying and laughing, that strange thing that doesn't occur too often, with that moodswing quality that'll throw you off emotionally. I'm just so happy there's more. This is how I wanted to end from the very beginning aside from a few minor technicalities, and, truthfully, I'm not completely happy with it.

If you've read the whole thing and never left a review before, I'd make me really happy if you would, because, well, I want to know what you liked about it.

But you know, you're never completely happy, because if you sit there and edit it over and over you just start rewriting it and nothing, nothing is ever perfection. And I'm SO not.


Epilogue: The Bloodstained Horizon

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"If I told you, I've been cleanin' my soul...

And if I promised you, I'd regain control...

Will you open your door, and let me in?

Take me for who I am, and not for who I've been?"

--

Universal, and yet oh–so–familiar words that made something in the aging jounin halt.

"I'm sick of crying."

He'd heard the words many a time from his students and they had always held that same intangible determination. This time was no exception; now, he could appreciate her fully as he rose his eye to hers, watching her blink once. Red irises disappearing for half a second behind curled, ebony eyelashes and slightly tumescent lids, only to resurface with a little more summoned resolve.

"I know I can't go. But I know what I want."

Often this did not occur, a woman staring him down in fierceness and defiance in a manner reminiscent of a headstrong pupil, not an intelligent jounin who had experienced and seen death, just like him. A world of heartbreak that people like them were meant to endure. He didn't expect that fire in her eyes, a glower more than anything, surveying him with an expression so crystal clear. And different from most times, he was ready to comply to her wishes.

He appreciated her strength, much more than he had in anyone else. Sexism? Not at all, but certainly no other woman would have done it. Not to him.

"I want you to find him. Him, and whomever was responsible." She broke off, both eyes fixed upon his one.

A long pause. He couldn't find the heart or temperament to look her directly in the eyes for more than one reason, instead gazing past, over her shoulder at the ripple in the sky. Breaking dawn.

"Please," she whispered, fingers vibrating slightly as she took his hand from his side and wrapped her long fingers around his gloved palm. Out of habit, smoothing the imperfect folds.

"I will do...everything I can," he muttered quietly. A voice as flat as the horizon reached her ears; though it was saddening, being her only respite, it had to remain this. Static. Unable to blossom.

With her other hand, she slipped it beneath her bandages to reveal her fist clenched around an obviously small object. Pulling her fingers apart...

Slivers of light, effectively slitting the inky blanket that was a sky free of sunlight, chose that moment to shine and glint upon the ring, lighting up beautifully in her ivory palm.

"Kakashi...what should I do with this?"

Seeming slightly annoyed, he watched her impassively with his dark eye and used his strong, dexterous fingers to close hers around the band. "What sort of question is that? Keep it."

She had a retort ready, but thought better of it and closed her mouth tightly, silently sliding the ring into her pocket underneath her red robe. The man knew there was more she had to say and if he didn't know better, he'd say she was unsure of her feelings at this point. He was not prudent; there was no guilty conscience weighing him if he had brought it up, but of course that may have revealed, to her and to him, the nature of his own feelings. He wasn't sure of his own, but of course he would ignore them at every point.

Suddenly conscious, he let go of her hand, still staring intensely out at the streaks of swift–moving colors, staining the blackness with a bit of reassurance. A reminder of the new, of the hopeful and the uplifting. Stinging winds swept leaves across the roof, catching in her dark locks and sending noticeable chills through her bare arm, uncovered by the crimson robe. She folded them over her chest.

He stepped past her, sandaled footsteps unheard against the shingles as he stood unusually close to the edge and leaned, peering down. Kurenai watched his behavior curiously and considered asking him what he was looking at, but then she heard what he must have been listening to all along.

Turning, she walked up behind him and leaned around his broad shoulder. A fleeting glance; she saw his expression change behind the mask as he listened to the snuffles. As he watched the girl, practically a daughter, suffer.

A floor down, sitting in the wide, ivory windowsill with her pale face buried in the silky folds of a long black shirt. Lank pink locks unable to obscure the red and white, sewn emblem that stood out clearly against the dark material. Knees drawn to her chest, fingernails digging into the shirt as if she was holding on like her last resort, the only lifeline. Pathetic little snuffles that she hated letting people hear.

Sakura whimpered and muttered something Kurenai could not decipher, but from the look on the gray–haired jounin's face, he could. He sighed.

The medic rocked a bit, keeping her face covered as she soaked the shirt that did not belong to her with endless tears. Still muttering, she clenched her fingers into a shaking fist and slammed it, almost absentmindedly, against the top of the sill. Kakashi's lips twitched through his sad, impassive facade as though he might have smiled; the jagged split that broke through the wood made Kurenai want to grin too.

THUMP.

The dull sound jerked them from their quiet muse that had occurred under the pretense of this less–than–cheerful scene; both jounin rose an eyebrow to each other curiously, and when it was clear that neither had an answer, they turned on their heels in unison. Kakashi hurried to the edge of the roof, overlooking the backyard and the small garden of thriving tomato vines, and listened. Kurenai's eyes narrowed as she struggled to place the source of the sound and the gray–haired jounin deftly lowered himself, swinging his legs into an open window on the second floor.

"Hey–!" Kurenai quickly followed in similar fashion; the muted thumps continued and she was greeted with a strange sight. Now she realized the sound was more of a fierce slam and it took her a few moments to understand what was going on as the scene unfolded.

Sasuke didn't flinch as Naruto's sandaled foot slammed into the drywall, mere inches from his head. His back against it, just on the other side of the door frame as if waiting for the girl to emerge and scare her as a joke.

This was no joke.

Hinata remained silent and fidgety behind the blonde, twisting nervous fingers around each other so roughly they seemed to be losing blood within them. They were white. A couple of times she opened her mouth, so determined to speak, but every time lost the courage and instead flinched violently, accompanied by a squeak. Naruto brought his foot back and kicked the wall dangerously close to the bowed head of ebony locks, though he didn't seem to care in the slightest. Face contorted in anger and flushed red, his cerulean eyes flashed as he crushed his toes against the surface, ignoring the pain, watching him. Waiting.

Waiting for him to look up and answer.

"I just can't! Fucking! Believe you!" He managed to say, breathing hitching out of palpable rage. Sasuke did not react. Loose, limp arms rested at his sides, palms turned up, fingers resting where tendons held them.

"You couldn't even–you couldn't even apologize!" Naruto burst out, barely suppressing angry tears.

"Naruto–" Kakashi's interjection echoed in the hallway, resounding off the wood floors.

SLAM.

Kurenai stared at Sasuke. He was more prone to react violently, but he didn't look up.

"You come home and you yell at her? You act like an ungrateful bastard and say that?"

SLAM.

Unresponsive, despite the crumbling drywall pelting his pale face.

"And when she's upset enough you just...you...Sasuke, that guy is DEAD!"

SLAM.

Kurenai and Hinata gasped in startling unison as Sasuke's fist now rested in the decent–sized dent that Naruto had created; the blonde stopped in mid–kick and stomped on the floor, fists clenched at his sides.

"I'm sick of–"

"NARUTO!"

Every head whirled in Hinata's direction, expressions indicating they were clearly taken aback by her sudden outburst, but she didn't stop there. Clearly distraught, red flooded her cheeks as she stammered out the words that even made Sasuke look up.

"Stop. Y-you don't know, you didn't h-hear–"

Her voice broke and she closed her eyes, struggling not to stammer as she compiled the shortest version, Sasuke's defense. "Something bad...h-happened and...it wasn't his f-fault," she whispered, eyes brimming with tears. "The prisoner, th-the man that k-k-k–"

"Hinata, how did you find out?" Kurenai asked quietly.

"I overheard–Hanabi– who heard from," She swallowed, lip trembling; "She heard from one of the ANBU. He–"

A strange noise sounded from Sasuke's throat: A growl of frustration, helpless and yet guttural in quality, so every eye was on him as he rose his head, looking at Naruto with such passionate hatred. At first Naruto stepped back, apparently wary of the Sharingan, but it became clear–

The whites surrounding his onyx irises were bloodshot.

Raising a hand, Sasuke observed it with unnaturally intense interest, watching it vibrate, every little exhausted tendon struggling to hold it up.

"Your eyes..." Naruto began, suppressing a violent flinch as the frighteningly inflamed eyes fixed on him. "Were you outside her door all night? Didn't you sleep?"

Breathless, croaking laughter erupted in the silence, suffocating all present with the sound; it scraped down to the bone like the sharp blade of a knife; Sasuke rose his head. Hinata squeaked again and grabbed a fistful of the blonde's nightshirt, tugging softly.

"Sleep...hn..." The avenger's voice trailed off, the hint of a facetious laugh still decorating the few words uttered. Violently shaking his head, although it seemed more of a jerk, a tic of some sort.In an undertone, with halting breaths and a few pauses allowing for Naruto's angry snarls, Hinata relayed the incident to him as gently as she could. In the end she broke, letting her hand fall away from him and cover her face to hide the tears spilling from her celestial, white eyes.

"WHAT?" Naruto demanded, and Hinata shrunk back against the wall, unable to look the blonde in the eye. Watching his friend continue to wrack with those strange, strangled laughs, unable to keep any part of him still, he stared at the floor, reliving in only a fleeting moment that time not too long ago when he had believed Hinata to be dead. Short–lived, perhaps, but that same painful, burning feeling of failure, that was there. As if unworthy to walk the earth, because you had let someone down in the worst possible way.

"That...that bastard!" Naruto burst out, eyes now holding pity for the dark–haired shinobi, still against the door, still shaking.

And it just had to happen to Sakura. It had to be her. It had to be him.

It always had to be them.

A relationship held together by the most fragile strings was still forced to snap. But shouldn't things only have one breaking point?

The door they had been conversing and screaming outside of opened. A bloodshot jade eye appeared in the thin space, surveying the gathering in the hallway with a slightly furrowed brow. Thin strands of pink, lank and bloody, fell over her pale face as she slid her fingers into the space and pushed the door open, not meeting anyone's eye. She seemed to find the floor a fascinating thing to observe and she stepped silently over the threshold with something bunched in her arms. Casting a wary glance at all present, she picked absentmindedly at the dried, caked liquid on her chin and then her gaze found the man sitting against the wall, also staring into nothing. Shakes subsiding. He rose his head to look at her with ruddy eyes, and she was the only one who could find the emotion, toiling behind a curtain of ebony locks. Behind eyes that would forever remain sheltered against the world, for fear of vulnerability.

Behind lips that would never speak a weakness.

And a breath was held in every throat, lying in wait like the audience of a play. It was no entertainment, yet it felt that way, the certainty too palpable to be false.

The medic turned on her heel slowly, inclining her head out of nothing but the absolutely necessity it called for. To say it may have been respect would be laughable. Standing over him, holding his shirt stained with blood, sweat and so many bittersweet tears, her eyes narrowed even as his gaze held no threat to her. Contrary to the belief of those watching, he was struggling to apologize without making it quite so perceptible.

"Don't try to do so much."

"I can't let you suffer like this!"

"Well, is it any wonder we failed?"

"Sasuke–kun..."

"It's none of your business."

"You're just like him...just like him..."

"Promise me."

"I can't."

"I wish I'd never met you!"

The sound of broken bones broke the awkward silence, along with a distinct crumbling; Sasuke seethed as his body was forced into the drywall, letting his head and shoulders curl closer to his body in response to Sakura's kick. The sounds: Hinata's high–pitched screech, Kurenai's gasp of surprise that she managed to catch in her throat. Naruto reached for Sakura's arm, perhaps to pull her back, but Kakashi shook his head.

Broken.

Broken.

Broken.

Even in bare feet, the pink–haired kunoichi had succeeded in shattering a few more ribs in addition to the ones already bruised from her punch the day before. Pressing harder, grinding her heel into just the right spot until he rose a shaking hand and wrapped his fingers around her tensed calf, tugging in vain.

After a moment of glaring down at him, she brought her foot back.

"Same to you," she spat. No one had a clue what she was talking about except for Sasuke, and the words hit him as painfully as her abrupt kick to the chest. Shaking body now partly embedded in the drywall, crumbling, white pieces falling away to rest upon the floor and his lap.

Raising her arm, she pointed with a dangerous, threatening finger to the bathroom at the end of the hall. "Fifteen minutes."

As if he dared disobey. No choice in the matter. Besides, who else was going to stitch every sorry piece of him back together?

If his chest had not been completely numb, he might have found the courage, no, the gall to open his mouth and retort sarcastically. Though he knew very well he was in no position to say anything.

Letting her arms relax, she relinquished her grip on the shirt she had slept with and let it unfold, touching the floor. Taking another end, she snapped it once to unwrinkle it and draped it over him with no remorse in her eyes. Ignoring his grimace of pain, the girl turned on her heel and stomped down the hallway to the bathroom, footsteps echoing ominously in the unnatural stillness.

SLAM.

"Um...we'll b-be downstairs," Hinata stammered, taking Naruto by the sleeve before he could protest; a nod from Kurenai sent the white–eyed girl hurriedly tugging him to the stairs. Kurenai turned to Kakashi.

"Shall we take him–?"

The stoic jounin shook his head again, sighing as he looked at the Uchiha, body still pressed into the wall. His forehead was on his raised knee, struggling not to make a sound in spite of his injuries.

Fucking. Pride.

Sobs could be heard from behind the door that had just endured a dangerously violent slam.

The woman stared at Kakashi with piercing eyes, clear puzzlement etched on her face, and he could only stare stonily back until she realized that he knew better than she.

After watching his students grow, he must have realized how useless it was to try.


"Naomi!"

Dead silence.

Marlena slammed her hand upon the spotless, disinfected counter and muttered, "That girl, I swear..."

Dramatically shoving her chair back, she stood and walked around the counter, heels clicking in a loud rhythm on the tile to let everyone know that she was up and on the prowl. Therefore, there would be no signs of any of the experienced nurses that knew their way around. For poor Naomi, the newest addition to the staff, she would be in trouble when Marlena found her.

The assistant's eyes were narrowed and sharp and looking for the mousey–haired little girl that had started only two days ago and at the moment was supposed to report to her mentor as was required for new inductees. She had not seen her all morning, reason to believe the girl wasn't doing her job.

Rounding a corner, Marlena stopped in her tracks.

A bloodied kunai rested on the sea green tile outside the door where Kami and Hikari were held, and the strangely symmetrical spatters of crimson radiated not only from the weapon (it seemed as though it had been dropped), but seeped from under the closed, heavy door. Rushing forward, she kicked the kunai away and lunged for the handle, not bothering to look before she stepped–

SQUELCH.

Breath caught in her throat, it was a long moment before she willed herself to look down at whatever was soaked her ivory high heel.

Brunette locks soaked in blood, attached to a skull that had been clearly crushed to pieces, perhaps underneath the heavy boot of the man that Marlena knew had been responsible. Still, no one was supposed to know she had connections. The two young girls that had been occupying the beds just last night, begging Naomi to stay up just a few more minutes. Looking out the window at the fireflies and those stars, telling them all the horrible truths and foreshadowing their untimely incident. Hoping against hope it wouldn't come to pass, the day when the man with the bloody eyes came back for them.

No one could escape him.

Marlena dropped to her knees, ignoring the dead woman's hair she was kneeling on, and clutched at her throat, retching–

Dark, murky coffee, the only thing in her stomach as of that morning, expelled from her mouth as she vomited all over the tile.


He nearly slipped on the moist tile, dampened from the suffocating steam of the shower. Catching himself by wrapping his fingers around the edge of the counter, he straightened as regally as he could despite the unbearable pain his fractured ribs caused. Shutting the door behind him, he lingered obstinately to display his resistance to his injuries. Willing his narrowed, still bloodshot eyes to not wander to the glass sliding door of the shower that thankfully was so foggy it was impossible to see through. Nevertheless, it was all bothering him. Through his daze of pain he could still hear the water draining. Imagine her lathering that stupid soap all over her skin. And that damn, lingering scent of cherries from her shampoo.

Whatever had possessed him to buy that for her so long ago was the same something that was forcing him to remember just how soft her skin was. He'd touched it. He knew.

He heard her shut the water off abruptly and the glass door slid open; her arm appeared, pulling the towel from the metal bar and into the shower. A wave of pain swept through Sasuke and forced him to grasp the edge of the counter for the second time, and he sat himself on it as Sakura stepped out.

He kept his eyes fixedly on the tile as she shut the door behind her. Towel wrapped tightly around her body, effectively covering all of the bare, luscious skin from beneath her bruised collarbone to above mid–thigh. Jade eyes surveyed him, eyes that he dared not meet, and she gasped quietly. It stuck in her throat.

"I need to heal those now," she muttered, dropping to her knees and grabbing something from the cupboard under the sink. She straightened. Without asking for his assistance, she swiftly began to remove his shirt, the panic obvious in her eyes. He let her move his limbs in whatever direction and let his head fall back against the mirror, breathing shallowly, weakly. As her fingertips trailed swiftly, applying pressure in certain troublesome gashes, his vision swam as the stinging, numbing sensation hit him in waves. Spasms, ruthless muscle jerks forced his breaths to hitch abruptly as she finished with his wounds.

"Get on the floor," she ordered snappishly.

With you, gladly. It took him a moment to find the strength to lean forward and look her in the eye. "What?"

Squeezing her eyelids shut, the medic prayed for patience. "Please, do as I ask."

She supported his weight as he slid from the counter, landing gingerly upon the tile. Lowering him to sit on the floor, she kept her hand underneath his shoulder as he laid flat on the cool tile, sending chills up his burning back. Kneeling beside him, she rubbed her hands together; something clear and glutinous was on them.

"This is really going to hurt."

No answer.

Biting her lip, whether in concentration or regret, it was not certain; placing her light, experienced hands upon his chest, she pressed gently. The muscles beneath the skin convulsed accordingly but Sasuke willed himself not to make a sound. So she continued. Feeling for the misplaced bones and nudging them back to where they belonged, though as tender as she tried to be, no amount of care could keep the pain away. His head hit the tile loudly, masking his groan. His eyes closed as he forced himself to breathe normally, ignoring the spreading numbing sensation throughout his torso.

"I'm really sor–"

"Shut up," he moaned. I know that I deserved this.

The medic fell silent, sinking her teeth into her bottom lip as she kneaded a spot carefully with a bit of chakra, intent on prodding the bone to it's original spot; he tried to sit up, body curling in response.

"You can't do that," she whispered in a hushed voice, still talking to him as patient as she knew how. "You need to lie still. Injuries to the ribs are the worst and take the longest to heal."

Which means it'll take the most energy for you to heal, since we don't have the time, Sasuke thought savagely, irritated, as always, at her lack of concern for her own body. Always for him. Always her patience, her kindness, her tender care that he never deserved.

He convulsed again, face contorted in extreme pain as he struggled to sit up once more.

"Stop it!" she cried shrilly, holding him down firmly, fingers splayed across his pulsing chest. Carefully, she raised herself on hands and knees and slid a leg over him, lowering her hips comfortably on top of his, straddling him. "You can't move around!"

Cursing fluently, he threw his head back, seething as she continued to heal him. Soft, shushing sounds tumbled off her lips as if speaking with a child.

Or maybe just a man, his pride at it's lowest. Everything...at it's lowest.

"I–didn't...mean it," he managed to say, swallowing noticeably.

Her hands halted in their therapeutic movements. He looked up at her, perspiration dotting his forehead as his chest rose shallowly up and down, surveying her the best he could through the tears of pain obscuring his vision.

"I...I know you didn't," she whispered, looking down at him with a soft gaze. Tender, gentle, all that she was with him, all that he wasn't with her.

"I really didn't," he hissed through gritted teeth, groaning a bit as her practiced fingers continued.

"It's okay. I know."

"No, it's not okay," he retorted so harshly that she seemed taken aback. He was insisting it was his fault, something she was not used to hearing.

"I need to wrap you up," she murmured quietly. He raised himself gingerly and leaned back on his arms, and she remained immobile for a moment, still straddling him. Nothing covering her but that little towel.

Somehow, without moving from her position, she was able to reach the gauze and carefully wrap his chest, smoothing the bandages taut against his barely–healed skin. Placing it aside, she trailed her fingers down the tight bindings across his ribs and whispered, "You should be fine, now. Just don't overdo it." Knowing perfectly well that he would, for some reason.

Nodding curtly, he ignored the dull pain, now subsiding, unable to stop his hand from brushing damp, long locks that had been obscuring her glowing face. Annoying, it was, as was the intoxicating scent of her shampoo invading his senses. He leaned forward, wincing slightly, and placed his forehead against hers just to touch some part of her warm, flushing flesh, murmuring–

"Thank you."

Habitually nudging her neck and collarbone with his nose, she felt his soft locks brush her cheeks gently.

"You should get going," she breathed, hating the words, true as they have may have been. She wanted to sit there on that cold bathroom floor and let him continue those lavish ministrations, teasing her and pleasuring her and muttering all those words he'd never say in public against her warm skin. She wanted to let him crave her, just like he always wanted to but never had the chance. She wanted no one to know where they were and wonder about their disappearance, and they'd have no idea. She wanted him to press her body against the nearest door and nip at that one little spot that made her whine. She wanted him to touch her 'til the sun went down and the room would be thrown into darkness.

She didn't want to leave.

Above all, she didn't want to be herself. Not one of the most powerful kunoichi, trained under a Sannin, or a medic. Not a shinobi. Not Sakura Haruno. Just a girl with a guy, without anything to live up to, or anyone to tell them a thing.

"Go on," she whispered, carefully climbing off him. "You'll be late."

"You–"

"I have to lock up. Go."

He nodded. She helped him stand and flashed a fake smile, turning away from his piercing gaze as she shut the door. On the other side, he did not move.

Leaning her body against the door, she pulled the towel over her breasts and whispered, "Sasuke–kun. Go."

It was another minute before she heard his footsteps echo down the hallway, heavy yet tentative, walking further away from her.

Whatever happened here...I never meant to hurt you...

How could I cause you so much pain?


Tap. Tap. Tap.

The young man behind the bars did not bother to raise his head, nor did the man sitting in the shadows. The latter fiddled with a small, thin object in his hands, but his dark, glittering eyes followed the armed shinobi that walked past their cell.

"For a woman, she's damn heavy," the guard grumbled, though it was only a girl's body carelessly slung over his shoulders, treated like a useless sack. An ANBU mask was attached to his belt. To the prisoners' surprise, the guard unlocked their cell and wrenched the door open; the physical condition of the males inside was no threat and would most likely remain that way. Many tries, many attempted escapes, all ending with a severe beating by the man with the bloody eyes himself. At this point, they were running out of options, though their captor was considerate enough to let the bearded man smoke.

A quiet, muffled "Ohh," was heard as the girl's body hit the stone floor, head hitting the ground loudly. The young man surveyed her intently and almost apprehensively, for that one single syllable...it sounded too familiar.

CHHK.

Tiny sparks flared in the corner of the cell, though they flickered and were only used to light the man's cigarette, which he gratefully smoked.

"You'd do better to bring that over here," the young man said crossly, in a way that suggested he'd always been one to order others around. His white eyes flashed in the darkness.

The girl moaned again, presumably in pain, and the shinobi sighed, muttering... "Byakuugan."

The familiar symbol etched in the metal glinted, and he held his breath as his eyes glittered, surveying the girl silently. Senbon. Some were her own, even; embedded in her neck and torso. Paler than he'd ever remembered, and after the obvious beating she'd taken, her hair had still managed to stay in that feminine hairstyle, those two little familiar brunette buns.

He gathered her upper body in his lap, looking down at her with a disgusted expression. This was how she'd ended up.

Gritting his teeth, he deftly removed a senbon from her collarbone and let it hit the floor; his companion looked up.

"What are you–?"

"It's...Tenten."

The girl whimpered and turned her face into the boy's chest, breathing shallowly. There was no color in her face. Hand fairly steady, he removed another from her flesh and continued, more tenderly than he had ever been with anyone.

The man in the corner got to his feet and walked over, staring down at them with deep concern; the look on the boy's face was set in frightening stone. Anger. Shadowed eyes and thin set lips.

"Why?"

The man rose his head, took a long drag on his cigarette, but did not answer.

Brushing a strand of loose hair from her face, the white–eyed boy slammed his fist against the stone, fingers clenched, knuckles white.

Why her?


The village was awakening to it's humble morning routine, but few noticed the well–known apprentice sitting on the bench near the gates. Despite her notoriety, this morning, out in the comings and goings of the people, she was as solemn and sedate as the rest of them. Overall morale was low. She sat, slumped under the flickering beam of the streetlight.

That same bench. The one that he'd had the decency to leave her upon, thinking of the two words he had never said.

I'm sorry.

His kusanagi gently hit his thigh with every step, nestled comfortably in it's sheath. The stiff bindings beneath his attire held his ribs in place. Tentative footfalls on the stone path caught her attention and she immediately felt a rush of guilt, for they were supposed to leave before the sun had risen and here she was, sitting on a bench. Knee–deep in pity that she wholeheartedly expected him to scold her for.

He sat next to her, turning his face away so she would not see his grimace of pain, for he did not want her pity or her care. Hand resting upon the cold seat, inches away from hers. Both clad in black gloves with pale fingers.

"I remember–"

Sakura stiffened, ready for the painful memory she was about to be forced to endure, relive; why was he bringing this up now?

"–when you used to smile."

She hadn't expected that. She turned to stare in puzzlement at him, but he was intensely interested in the leaf skittering across the stones. Anyone would think he was just speaking in hopes of a civil conversation, but she saw the way his eyes narrowed slightly and his back hunched a bit, as if shielding himself. He would never stand up tall and admit the things that made him cry. Those things he only uttered to her at his lowest points. Pride was of the utmost importance, and he would not have anyone think otherwise.

"I'd watch you, when you did. And I'd wonder how."

"How I..." Sakura trailed off, unsure of what he was getting at. "Smiled?"

"You made it look so easy. Naruto would make a decent joke, and you would smile. Kakashi would be late, and you would shake your head, but smile. Hell, rain made you smile."

Chancing a glance at him, she saw his fingers, still resting not too far from hers, twitch. As though he'd thought to move of them of his own accord.

"Even in class, before I'd even been on your Genin team, you would smile at everything."

His fingers moved again. Closer.

"And then...you started smiling at me."

A wistful, sad smirk appeared on his face, and it seemed to take an enormous effort to slide his fingers over hers, linking them through protectively.

"But I didn't deserve all that. You were always there when I needed you, and when I didn't. Or...said I didn't."

"Sasuke–kun, don't say that," she whispered, turning her body and holding their hands in her lap. "I did all that because I wanted you to be happy. That's all I've ever wanted for you!"

"I never wanted you to get into this. This...fucking mess."

"And," he added quietly, turning to look her in the eye. He tightened his grip on her fingers, biting his lip quite hard, unable to find his next words. Knowing better than to press him, she let him sit in brooding silence as the sun continued to rise and the people continued to pass them as they headed for their morning destinations. A few were surprised to see the Uchiha Sasuke, the traitor, sitting on a bench with the Hokage's apprentice, staring her in the eyes without speaking. Holding her hand, nonetheless.

A shrill squeak of surprise turned quite a few heads, and they couldn't help but stare.

After all, it wasn't often that the stoic bastard Uchiha, object of too many girls' affections' to count, grabbed a girl and crushed his lips against hers without a warning. And when she responded eagerly, pulling him closer by latching her hands onto his shirt and returning his sudden, fierce display of affection, well hell, it was practically entertainment.

Running her fingers down the side of his face, she moaned quietly as he tasted her fully, attacking her with almost carnal desire, meeting her tongue for the esurient passion of one held back too long. She welcomed him without regret or hesitation, wrapping her fingers in his dark locks and pulling him against her completely. Capturing her bottom lip in both his own, using his teeth to earn her breathless moan; it wasn't so difficult to know what she liked. Bruises never bothered her.

"I'm...sorry," he whispered, though it was more a of a seductive, low growl than anything; he did not wait for her response as he kissed her again, pressing his weight against her. She relented and her body fell back, flat on the bench, while her fingers positively tugged on his hair, using it as leverage to continue tasting his tongue. Hard, passionate, raw. Her breath hitched and she let her head fall back against the seat, licking her lips.

I'm sorry I've hurt you.

I'm sorry I love you.

"I forgive you," she exhaled, speaking every syllable against his burning lips. Breathing stilted, completely stolen by his sudden act. Jade eyes sparkling in the glow of the still flickering streetlight, she pressed her lips to his once more. Chest rising heavily, color high in her cheeks.

"Good."

Giggling, she punched him lightly in the ribs for his bluntness (he winced) and she screeched as he shoved her off the bench. Her back hit the ground and she squealed loudly, attracting quite a bit of attention as he smirked predatorily down at her, straddling her comfortably. Struggling not to laugh as she felt her burning, swelling lips, pink locks splayed across the multi–colored stones. There was an air of tense apprehension that Sakura was intent on understanding.

"Sasuke–kun..." she began. Looming over her ominously, he placed one hand near her head to steady himself.

He didn't answer, but instead leaned down to touch his lips to hers.

He hesitated.

"I really do forgive you, you know," she said softly. Tenderly placing her hand to his face, she stared into him, remembering every time he had caused her pain. Every time he'd called her annoying, every time he'd said to stay away. And to think now, he was learning to love her back...

Say you won't leave me...

Will you believe in me?

"I can't undo...what I've done," he murmured. But I can try.

"Sasuke–kun."

He held himself inches from her face, barely able to stay away from her. To not touch her. To not hold her. Something buried so deep in darkness cried for a little reassurance.

A part of him yearned for her.

"It's going to be okay."

Wrapping her arms around his neck, she pulled him close and spoke against his lips once again, seductively, breathlessly:

"So kiss me, you bastard."

He did not care who was watching, he did not care about anything else, and he certainly did just as she asked without any second thoughts. An Uchiha, priding loyalty above all else, his loyalty to her.

Of course, perhaps it was only luck that he was just damn good at leaving her breathless.

This seemingly impossible scene unfolding, leaving the citizens of Kohona in stunned silence as they watched. Not only would this gossip fly quickly...

Ah, such beautiful mood swings.


Hinata was the first to spot them coming from a distance. Squinting in the sunlight that brightened and thrived with every passing second, she placed a hand above her eyes and spotted them.

"Naruto," she whispered. "There they are."

The blonde followed her gaze, cerulean eyes narrowed against the brightness, and his face broke into a wide grin. Perhaps the difference was noticeable from so many feet away; Hinata could tell.

Now Tsunade turned, taking a step forward, along with Ino and Shikamaru. An unfamiliar woman hung back nervously, unaware of the proceedings or whom they were waiting for to complete the group.

The couple walked mockingly slow, side by side, Sasuke's expression normal: Serious, placid, insufferably pretentious, while Sakura, low and behold, was smiling. The difference was subtle and strange and yet particular and precise in nature. The faint trace of a smirk lingered on his handsome face, but being in present company with strangers he hid it as was his personal, prideful custom. No intertwined fingers, no linked arms, and Sakura rose to her tiptoes and waved, hand moving in a graceful arc for her beloved teammates and mentor, apparently not taking notice of the docile stranger.

They didn't need all that.

And we're standing in the middle of nowhere...of nothing and everything...

Sasuke noticed how even on her tiptoes, she would still be so much shorter than him.

"Hurry up, Sakura–chan!" Naruto called gaily, waving both his arms back and jumping up and down ecstatically, an excited child.

Sakura turned her back on the group and took Sasuke's gloved hands, pulling him along in a vain effort to increase his speed, or perhaps put him in a sunnier mood. Rolling his eyes pretentiously, he purposefully dragged his feet with a smirk, for which he earned a giggle and a poke in the ribs.

Eventually they drew level with the small gathering of shinobi and faced Tsunade's towering form, along with her obvious expression of disapproval.

"Taking after your sensei's bad habits, I see."

Sasuke quirked an eyebrow while Sakura stared at him out of the corner of her eye, deliberately implicating the Uchiha for their late arrival.

"Bad habits? I'm inclined to disagree, Hokage–sama," Kakashi mused, rubbing his chin in mock thought as he strolled up to them, appearing to come from the direction of the village.

"What's your excuse?" Tsunade demanded impatiently.

"Saying goodbye. Oh, and there was the most fascinating entertainment–"

Sakura's knuckles cracked ominously and the famous Uchiha glare was, in full, glaring glory, burning into the side of Kakashi's face, and their dear sensei left it at that.

The blonde Sannin pursed her lips in obvious disfavor to the jounin's weak justification, then turned to the stranger, placing herself out of the group as not to intrude. They seemed quite nervous, but Tsunade kindly beckoned her forward and did the same to Sasuke and Sakura. The medic took a few steps forward while the dark–haired shinobi hung back awkwardly.

"This is Yuna, the mother of the child you and Sasuke kept alive in the compound," the Sannin explained, indicating the young woman that had stepped forward, carrying said child in her arms. An inch or so taller than the medic, waist–length dark locks and tears of gratitude already forming in her coal black eyes. Sakura glanced over her shoulder and tugged on Sasuke's sleeve, then inclined her head in grave respect to the woman.

Yuna rushed forward and threw her arms around Sakura, catching her by surprise as the child was crushed between them; he smirked in a very reminiscent way and quirked his little eyebrow at Sasuke, who returned it with a playful scowl.

"My only child...I cannot thank you enough," Yuna whispered, letting go, sweeping the back of her hand across her dark eyes and attempting a weak smile at Sasuke, who nodded politely and stepped forward to touch Sakura gently. Splaying his strong fingers across the small of her back and reminding her to keep her slowly breaking composure as she bowed her head quickly, hurriedly sweeping her fingertips across her eyelids.

"He was sweet," Sakura murmured, smiling at Yuna.

"And an ace at poker–OW!" Hinata, thankfully, had the sense to step on Naruto's foot; Sasuke sighed while Sakura mentally wrote a reminder. Hit him for that.

"Well then," Tsunade interjected. "I think it's time for all of you to get going."

The two shinobi inclined their heads in unison and backed away, letting the Sannin take the floor.

Inhaling deeply, she marshaled her thoughts, running a hand through her long blonde locks and shaking her head in deepest regret. Standing before the six young shinobi and one aging jounin, she sighed.

"I'm really sorry...that it's come to this. It's obvious that this is a mission of the highest ranking. The most dangerous thing you will most likely ever have to do in your entire career...or life."

They stood in pairs with stiffened resolve and thick skins, with sad and heavy and bruised hearts. Six young shinobi thrown headfirst into the dangerous world that, in comparison, was rarely explored. They knew the intricacies of life behind their towering, gated and intimidating walls.

It was time to brave what lied beyond them.

"You are the best our village has to offer. You are the most experienced. You have endured every grueling task thrown at you, in life and in the way of shinobi, and now you will be put to the ultimate test."

Naruto nodded firmly, cerulean eyes staring at his Sannin. Hinata glanced down and saw her white, shaking fingers intertwined with his, the comforting clasp of his tan, calloused hand. Expression hardening, she slid her fingers from his grasp and the blonde watched as she seemed to lift her chin with something that he knew was confidence.

"I won't lie to you: Your lives are constantly on the line. There is no second you will be safe. You will be forced to use every skill you have to survive, or to gather information. And sometimes you will be forced to...kill."

Shikamaru stared determinedly ahead, that dedication and loyalty he seemed to call upon when the time was right. When it was needed. Ino cast him an admiring look, then nodded also, her azure eyes narrowed.

"And even so...not all of you may make it home alive."

Sinking swiftly into every mind, a fact known from the day they signed their name on the dotted line, kicking the playground ball underneath the bush and emerging with a shiny kunai. The abrupt night and day change from innocent child to a licenced murderer. Heard time and time again, written across the blackboard one thousand one times so everyone would remember. A fact that had become inevitable and came with the prestigious title of shinobi.

"Remember all that you're fighting for," Tsunade murmured quietly. Falling into a serene silence in which nothing was heard but the panicked thoughts of a million people, those people they fought to protect. They wanted to live another day, and these handpicked ninja, trained to kill, would give and defend and die...for the lives of so many others.

"Haruno, Uchiha," she addressed sharply; both rose their heads in acknowledgment, but the Sannin was gathering her thoughts once again, eyes softening as she watched the shinobi holding onto one hovering, bated breath. Sasuke's fingers slid around the curve of the medic's waist and tightened convulsively, yet reassuringly. Tsunade watched this with a solemn gaze, observing the reactions of the shinobi standing behind them.

"Play your part. And...be careful."

"We will, Tsunade–sama," Sakura replied. Even though it wasn't how she felt, she gave her mentor a wide smile and turned to face her teammates, letting that infectious smile, no matter how much of a vain attempt at happiness it was, spread. Affecting each and every shinobi facing her, putting that little smile on Hinata's face, the grin underneath Kakashi's mask, and Naruto's boyish grin.

"Good luck," Tsunade added, waving them away as if ridding her hands of troublesome children. Her grin told them otherwise. "Now go on!"

Naruto punched his fist into the air, jumping in excitement. "ALL RIGHT!" he burst out, sending a flock of frightened sparrows twittering away, into the crimson sunrise they were facing. That they would run to in discovery and fear and never–wavering hope and would illustrate the path taken from now on. The inevitable race against the unknown, against time.

As the shinobi began to walk through the gates, Sasuke turned Sakura to him roughly, staring down at her intensely with his fingers still pressing on the small of her back.

"What I said...didn't sound very apologetic." It was a statement.

Sakura grabbed hold of the front of his shirt and rose herself on tiptoes, stretching to whisper in his ear despite being a few inches too short. "But I knew you meant it." Letting her eyes fall closed, she breathed, "Besides, maybe I don't like you gentle."

Raising an eyebrow, Sasuke was able to keep a straight face as he swiftly slid his arm around her waist and lifted her easily, throwing her over his shoulder. Everyone else turned to watch as she laughed loudly, latched onto the back of shirt by wrapping the material around her fingers. Seemingly unaffected, he turned with a barely concealed smirk and began to walk out of the gate, dark eyes glittering in the sunlight as she pounded on his back.

"Sasuke–kun, I'm capable of walking!"

The dark–haired shinobi halted abruptly and she out a squeal, jerking as though he would drop her. Looking away, so no one could see the amused grin on his face that faltered slightly as she pounded him a little harder.

"Relax," he muttered, glancing back at her flushed face. Jade eyes stared up at him with some surprise at his bold actions and at his next words... "You know I'd never let you fall."

With that, he leaned forward and she slid off, catching her protectively around the waist as her feet hit the ground.

She stared at him a for a long moment, aware of the others staring at them with amused smirks or blank expressions of surprise, and perhaps this was the reason she took him by the shirt and pecked him gratefully on the cheek. Before he could react, however, she ran behind him and jumped on his back, latching her arms around his flushed neck and pointing to the sunrise.

"Look how far Naruto is ahead," she whispered against his burning ear, tightening her legs around his waist.

Right on cue, the blonde raised his arms above his head and waved them in an obnoxious, attention seeking manner, yelling, "Oi teme! Slowpoke! Let's go!"

Scowling darkly, Sasuke jogged forward and Naruto turned, dragging Hinata along by the wrist as he started sprinting. "You'll never catch up to me!" he boasted, and Sasuke lowered his head, grinning. Ignoring any pain in his ribs for the sake of pride.

Sakura felt his body tense in her grasp, heard the low, guttural chuckle vibrating in his throat, felt his hands tightly, protectively, grip under her thighs. Glancing over her shoulder one last time, she raised a hand in a parting to Tsunade and let out a shriek of surprise as the stubborn, skilled, arrogant man took off.

The world was three: Her. Him. And speed.

She clung to him tightly as they raced past people, visible only as blurs, and her breath was stolen from her lungs, leaving her thoroughly exhilarated. As she stared into the slowly rising sun, golden and pink and burnt sienna streaks across the sky, long hair whipping in the wind created only in the wake of his incredible speed, she let out a laugh. A real, genuine laugh that had not been heard or felt in so long it left her reeling from the experience. Laughing, when they could very well be running to their deaths.

It was crazy, she was crazy, but hell, who wasn't?

--

When I say I will always be there...will you believe?

--

So watch them run into the vibrant colors of dawn.

As their silhouettes are swallowed by the bloodstained horizon...

--

To Be C0nTinuEd.