Author's Note: Alright, guys. Let me first start out by addressing the obvious. Yes, I do realize that it's been exactly a year and four days since my last update and for that, I'm truly sorry. I've let this story sort of languishing in its own plot and my poor reviewers, once so loyal, have begun to curse me. I'm sighing, bu you can't hear i. Ah well.

So, here's the explanation you guys so richly deserve. I have, in fact, had this story planned out in my head for quite a while. You can ask CAHA partner, Dale, and she'll tell you...I've got pages and pages of outlines done for Dangerous that I've yet to start typing up. I hit a kind of funk--like a writer's block--and couldn't get out of it, though. I couldn't finish this chapter at all. It was...frustrating to say the least.

I resolved to sit down and finish this story tonight, even if I had to play up on my chronic insomnia to do so. But, as I sat down at the keyboard and laid my fingers over the keys, I realized that if I did as I planned, the end of the chapter would no doubt seem rushed and hurried--all those things that I absolutely despise in my stories. It just means I got lazy and rushed what would have come out better with time.

So, as I sat pondering what to do (because it just wouldn't leave me alone, this thought that I'd abandoned my story), I took a look at the length of the damned chapter I was supposed to finish...and gasped. My god, I thought, it's nearly twenty-four thousand words long! And there, folks, was my solution.

Break it down.

So here it is, peeps. I give you half of the massive thing I was working on. We shall hereforth-to call it "Chapter Ten" and when I finish the rest, it shall be posted as "Chapter Eleven". Don't worry though, I don't think I jipped you too badly. There's some interesting subject material to explore and ponder in this chapter. Also, this separation allows for the necessary ellapsed time that I need Sakura to be with our beloved gentlemen, you see. So there.

Alright, now, to end this very long author's note, I must say...

Read on, and enjoy!


Chapter Ten:…Two A.M (Times Aside)…

If the exterior of the mansion had seemed opulent and imposing, the inside was just as much so, though it did contain something of a counterweight in its comfortable, uncluttered furnishings and obviously enjoyed knick-knacks.

At least this isn't one of those houses filled with antiques…though who am I to complain? I'm a thief!

Sakura padded around the wide, expansive place in a pair of silk slippers, provided by her hosts; she was glad she'd worn her only pair of good boots out tonight, or there might have been a little controversy over leaving her regular, dirty work-boots by the door. But…what could she do? Tradition was tradition…

…And if she really dug down deep inside, she could almost remember that her mother and father used to follow that tradition as well…shoes by the door…

Before they died.

Sakura bit the side of her tongue to keep herself from growling; she pushed the half-remembered visions of the past to the back of her mind and tried to focus on her present course. The house had so many hallways and corridors, she wasn't sure exactly how she'd remember their path; survival skills…always know the way out.

If I play the charade well enough I won't need to know the way out…hopefully.

Her gaze traveled over the backs of Itachi and Deidara, both of whom were walking in front of her, leading her, as it were, to the room they said they preferred best. Already, they'd given her a dizzying grand-tour of the house; studies, bedrooms, bathrooms, two expansive kitchen areas and a dinning hall that could have seated all the gangs in the Inner City.

Do they really need this much space or are they just over-blown like that?

What does it matter, another part of her whispered…it's not like you're going to be spending time here or anything.

Oh, but that was an odd thought. Where did that come from? She didn't want to spend time in this place…the den of the enemy…koketsu…

Dangerous Place, Tiger's Den.

Ah hell. She hissed a vulgar word under her breath, something she picked up from her lonely days in the Inner City—a mistake… Deidara suddenly stopped walking, turning to face her and for a moment she thought his eyes flashed brilliant blue. But that was impossible.

She blinked again and he was smiling at her. The light-fixtures in the hall were wall-sconces; placed upward toward the crown-molding, they gave the effect of muted light…and in that particular setting, with the soft glow bouncing off a decorative mirror that probably cost a fortune, Deidara's smile seemed to be equal parts teasing and amused.

"Ah, so you do speak! You've barely said a word since we entered…un…" He tossed his head a bit and laughed, "Ita-kun was just getting worried that you were …intimidated."

"I was not worried, Deidara." The Uchiha had apparently come to a stop when Deidara did; the three of them were paused in front of a tall set of double-doors made of dark-wood. Sakura eyed the panels from beneath her eyelashes while her hosts traded expressions.

Deidara smile at his lover and shrugged, "Yea, that's right…Ita-kun never worries about anything." The blonde rolled his eyes and Itachi's narrowed. He cocked an eyebrow but said nothing.

The doors, Sakura noted, were rich and expensive-looking. There was a subtle trim on the outer rim, one of ivy-vines and leaves; it looked fragile, as if it was done by hand. In the center, where the two doors met, was a symbol; a sun and a moon, intertwined and pressed to the middle of the form was a black star. It was odd, but the star seemed made of a solid gemstone, dark and captivating. Sakura found herself staring into it, trying to remember where she'd seen something like that.

For a long moment, nothing happened—and then some of the soft light from the sconces bounced over the faceted surface of the stone and it glittered with promise…power. Startled, Sakura blinked and turned her gaze on Itachi.

His eyes—obsidian and dark like the star—were trained on her; beside him, Deidara's blue-gray gaze seemed to laugh at her, amused. Sakura found herself blushing a little for no reason she could contemplate—what was wrong with her tonight?

I suppose it hurts nothing to admit they're charming. Charming, morally-corrupt, arrogant murderers

with nice cars.

Itachi gave her a small smirk, walked past her and seized both door handles with a loose-grip. Then, with a stylish and practiced flick of the wrist, he pushed both doors open and an abundance of warm, golden light spilled over Sakura as she followed her darker host inside, baffled.

When Deidara had informed her that they're personal favorite room was next on her guided tour, Sakura expected them to lead her in tandem to a finely decorated bedroom and make a pass at her; she expected to have to talk her way out of an invitation to their bed and would have gone home, justified in her hatred for the rich, pompous assholes who had to have their fingers in everything.

But the sight that met her eyes was not a bedroom—didn't even have a futon in it, actually. It was a library…a huge, multi-floor library. Sakura's eyes widened and she didn't even bother to hide her awe; it was just too ridiculous to try.

The room was expansive, wide but was also tall and circular in shape; it spiraled upward for three floors. It seemed as if every floor in the house had been built around it, but from Sakura could tell, there was only one entrance—the door they just came in through. Clever, of course. No one can sneak up on you. And there was only a small pair of windows on each floor.

Privacy and security; a room with a view and no doubt a stash of weapons somewhere in here.

The idea made her lips tilt upward in a smile.

Deidara favors knives, no doubt. Sharp, witty—that was Deidara's style…it would be the same with his weapons, she was sure of it. She almost turned to smile at him and then stopped herself, mid-spin and froze a bit.

Shit. I'm getting too comfortable here.

Complacency. The prey's first and most telling mistake when in the presence of a predator…

She eyed them carefully.

Or a pair of them.

In an attempt to cover her last move, Sakura turned and pretended to glance over the book spines on the shelves nearest to her. She caught some familiar titles, some old—some very old—and some modern works. Leather-bound editions of the classics, the romances and every philosopher she'd ever read—and a great deal of ones she hadn't—stood in elegant display, sometimes contrasted by the more eccentric works. There were quite a few mangas in one section and then a few rolled up scrolls, pushed carefully into something that resembled a diamond-form wine-rack.

She had never seen such an assortment.

"You like our collection?" The voice curled softly into her ear, like warm velvet and Sakura shivered; she didn't need to look over her shoulder to know exactly who was behind her.

"It's amazing." She gave Itachi an honest answer; her parents, from her birth, had instilled in her a love of literature and reading, even if it was a book of nursery rhymes. Sakura was one of the few in Seven who chose to steal books from the places they plundered. She and Scholar had forged a friendship over that odd fact.

She could readily admit that Itachi and Deidara's library was a dream to her; oh, her mother would have loved all this! Her father—he would have been absorbed for hours and she would be right there at their feet, reading on the carpet…

And then, with ruthless efficiency and a will that she forged in the darkness of lonely days and nights, she pushed those thoughts away. More and more her parents were appearing in her mind.

More and more she missed them.

Itachi was behind her and she turned to face him. He cocked an eyebrow at her and then moved away, taking a seat in one of the two arm-chairs in front of the roaring fire-place.

Deidara was moving that way as well and Sakura followed behind, unsure. Deidara made to go to the other chair and then stopped, glancing at her. They seemingly had the same thought at the same time and then Deidara shrugged, smiling. "You take this chair, nyako…I will sit on the floor."

Sakura blinked at him, a little disarmed by his offer—and then she shook her head firmly. "Deidara-san, this is your home; you will sit in the chair." His polite choice—to surrender the chair to a lady-guest—shocked her, though whether it was because she wanted to believe he was a monster or because she had rarely ever been treated like a lady wasn't clear to her in her own mind. Either way, she decided, she could not take the seat.

Olive branches were a tricky thing.

The blonde looked like he was about to reply in protest, but Sakura acted first. She stepped around both the empty chair and Itachi to stand on the ornate Persian carpet before the fireplace. She folded her legs beneath her and sat down tailor style, leaning back on her hands to regard her hosts with a small smile.

There was silence as they regarded her as well; Deidara looked surprised but then smiled ruefully, amused by the looks of it. He shrugged as if to say, "Well…" and then took the seat.

Itachi was watching the way the firelight played over Sakura and decided, just then, that she made a wonderful decoration for his library. Her ridiculously colored hair, pale-pink like her lips; aquamarine-jade eyes that sparkled at him with keen intelligence and cunning. Oh, she was a beautiful thing, reclining there on a carpet that cost more then some cars, totally unimpressed by the splendor or expense of their home and its furnishings; he knew the look of appreciation though—the expression he'd seen on her face when she saw their library.

He tossed Deidara a small, wry smile; Deidara cocked his head and rolled his eyes, unperturbed by his lover's obvious attraction to the girl. They'd only seen her twice and yet…she had such an effect on them…

…on both of them.

Sakura watched them, hoping.

They don't seem overly threatening…could be an act though. With a frustrated inner sigh, she admitted that there wasn't really an immediate, neat way out of this situation. I assume they want to…talk…so maybe…

She continued to smile at that and reminded herself that if every there was a time for it, now was it.

She would have to play…nice.

Just for an hour…or two…and then they will have gotten whatever amusement they could possibly stand out of me and I'll be outta here…

I hope.

She just had to pray that they didn't ask any personal questions. She was really beginning to get tired of remembering the past.

"Would you care for something to drink, Sakura-chan?" That was Itachi, using such an honorific at the end of her name, its connotation suggesting familiarity. He gestured to the bar, set into a nitch just beside the fireplace. "Vodka, scotch?"

Deidara chuckled, "She looks like the type for mixed-drinks, Ita-kun. How about…Sex on the Beach?" He dropped his voice and whispered it, looking beautiful. Sakura was a little mesmerized by the way his blonde hair fell over one half of his face and spilled over his shoulders; the way his eyes danced with the fire-light.

She was sure she was blushing faintly.

"It seems, Deidara-san, that you and Itachi-san are always offering me alcohol." She smiled and tried to look as innocent as possible. "Is that because it's all drugged or because you think I can't hold my liquor and I'll just pass out here on the floor for your entertainment?"

Deidara actually laughed aloud and Itachi's lips twitched upward. "Not drugged, Sakura, just potent—and, I assure you, were you going to entertain us in the facet you're implying, a bed would be so much more comfortable than the floor. Don't you agree?" His eyes were trained on her and she felt a rush of warm tingles along her spine.

Deidara's chuckle broke in, "Ya know, ya can't be too sure, Ita-kun—some people like waking up sore." He cocked an eyebrow at Sakura, looking mischievous, "It's half the fun for me."

Itachi blinked once and took his gaze from Sakura to Deidara for a long moment. His obsidian eyes narrowed and his lips twitched upward at the corners—predatory. Deidara blinked, feigning innocence and licked his lips slowly, arching his neck so his head tilted back and his hair—luxurious and fine—spilled over his shoulders in a wave of gold.

Sakura felt a blush—a furious, heated one—rushing up her own neck and she was suddenly very warm. She wasn't a virgin—thank the Heavens—but these two were so forthright. They said everything that was on their mind, sparing no thought for propriety, she was sure. They were supposed to be sophisticated and yet…they were so blatantly sexual. Was this how they behaved all the time? Or was it just behind closed doors?

Or just around me?

The thought was a little worrisome.

And then she realized they were both watching her, looking at her with the same hungry intensity that previously been focused on each other.

And there was hunger there.

She glanced at them from beneath her eyelashes, unsure how to proceed. They were exuding confidence here—in their territory—and her normal supply of self-assurance seemed have drained from her. She had no idea what to do now.

I'm not sleeping with them.

She actually wanted to roll her eyes at herself. Of course she wasn't going to sleep with them! She couldn't even imagine that she'd thought of that…what in the name of all the kami would have possessed her to even consider…

Then Itachi gave her a slow smile…

…and she completely lost track of her thoughts.

Oh…gods…

((O0oo0O))

Naruto and Sasuke were already three-fourths of the way to Miner's Peak District before the darker boy could find it in himself to fully lighten his mood. He didn't know why his stomach was so heavy with fear for Sakura, but he couldn't afford to be distracted by that right now. They weren't in Seven's territory anymore...

...they couldn't risk being inattentive to their surroundings.

Miner's Peak District was a two-hill county made up primarily of several large "condominium-apartments" and a few mish-mashed retailers. Garish neon signs and standard cookie-cutter advertising was visible in nearly every shop window and most shop-keeps had that greedy, beady-eyed expression that brooked no good for poorer folks. All in all, Miner's Peak was a sleazy tourist trap; a large hotel stood at the very edge, over looking one of the few lakes on this side of the Curtain. This was where outsiders came—tourists for all seasons—to stay for vacation. The mainstream and over-crowded, pseudo-flourish spin the district so carefully maintained made it seem classier and more upscale than the rest of the Inner City, but the truth was, to anyone from the Upper City, Miner's Peak was trash through and through.

All, of course, except for Edwin's Pizzeria.

True enough, pizza was a mainstay staple in Seven's dietary regimen, but there was a reason they trudged seemingly endless miles to Miner's Peak for the food. Sure, there was a closer pizzeria—just a few blocks from Seven's main dig-in actually, but that place, called "Ray's" was under boycott.

Truthfully, the owner of Ray's was a greedy man with a hunger for money, money, money. He used run of the mill ingredients but insisted that his pizzas were of such superior quality that everyone should buy them; and he sold them for real cheap too. However, despite the financial strains that a teen gang in the Inner City inevitably faced, Kakashi always insisted they go to Edwin's, in Miner's Peak—just another one of the many eccentricities their leader had engrained in all of them. Edwin used better, more wholesome ingredients, imported from outside the city and even if his prices were a little higher, he often gave them discounts and was a genuinely nice guy. Kakashi-sensei claimed they were friends from the old days, when the silver-haired leader was still pawing around in his wealth. "I gave that up, though," Kakashi would always say with a vague smile, "So much better to pal around down in the muck with the good people, ya know?"

Quite frankly, Sasuke sometimes wondered if Kakashi had lost his marbles.

Now, walking along with Naruto, he pondered his own strange mood.

He didn't actually have a word for it yet, nor a reason. He felt agitated, tense—and it bothered him not to know why. At first, he thought it was perhaps because he was hungry but his appetite had never caused such a reaction before and so it was unlikely that it would start now, right? And then his next thought was that he was worried about Sakura's prolonged absence. Usually, she told him and Naruto before she went out…but …

…that couldn't be it either.

And so, he was left to examine the dull pounding in his temples and the hopelessly off-key humming Naruto was issuing as a method to entertain himself.

Of course, that near-silent torture could only go on for so long before Naruto tired of it himself. They rounded a corner and passed along the rear of the gaudy hotel that served for the tourists. They were nearly to Edwin's when Naruto asked, "Do you think Sakura-chan's got a boyfriend she isn't telling us about?"

Sasuke nearly choked on his own breath, turning to look at Naruto in disbelief. "What? Where did that come from?" But he shook his head, not waiting for the blonde to offer an answer, "No, no…she'd have told us…or someone else would know. Don't be so foolish and nosy, dobe."

Naruto pouted, "Why do you always call me that? I have you know, I'm just as smart as any of the others and I'm ten-times the street-rat that they are! Bet on it!"

The dark haired boy rolled his eyes, "Yea, yea. Whatever."

They walked on in silence, eyes peeled. The way they had come up wasn't so dangerous because they passed along the back route—but on the way down, to avoid the movers-and-shakers returning from Peak's only nightclub—they would pass more directly through the town. That would be more dangerous, considering. They weren't at war with the group who claimed Miner's Peak—however, the uneasy alliance they had was not something that Sasuke counted on for protection.

Made up primarily of young females with sharp minds, quick hands and tongues like wicked tools, the prevailing gang hereabouts was called "Sin". Their connections, Sasuke had reasoned, must run deep; months ago, a large prostitution ring was uncovered in one of the Inner City's feeble attempts to right itself. However, when all those arrested should have been tried and convicted, they were simply let go without hassle and there had been no more mention of prison or trials. And those arresting officers, those youthful idealists?

Missing, presumed—with good reason—dead.

Such was the way of it for those people trying to reform the corruption of this place—corruption that touched everything and bred more corruption in the darkest corners of human hearts.

Home, sweet home.

The neon sign in the pizza shop's window was the first thing Sasuke saw when they finally made it to their destination; Naruto clapped, gleeful.

Sasuke rolled his eyes and they went around back, to the service door. Save for the single, flickering light closer to the opening of the alley, it was shrouded completely in inky blackness, no doubt by purpose. Utilizing the cover, they blended into the shadows, searching the darkness for any one who might take exception to their presence; when they didn't find any, Sasuke raised his hand to the door and rapt three times, then once, then twice and then once again. It was Seven's code knock—hell, it even added up to seven!

Iruka's idea, Sasuke knew.

Twitching with impatience, Naruto danced in place. "Ah, come on! I want pizza!"

Sasuke stayed silent, used to this kind of thing.

A few moments later, the service door slide open and disembodied head appeared there—that of Kaiza, the secondary pizza chef. He looked around in the darkened alley and then down at the two teens; a smile split his face and he gave them the thumbs up. "Haven't seen you two around in a few weeks; usually, they just send the cousins up." He laughed.

Naruto ran a hand through his own hair subconsciously, "Yare, yare! We couldn't take being trapped down in the dig for much longer tonight—everyone's run off and is doing their own thing." His stomach growled loudly—very loudly—as if to remind them all and the blonde winced. "And I'm hungry. Sasuke said he'd treat."

Sasuke cocked an eyebrow, "I said that? When did I say that?"

Naruto turned to stare at him wide-eyed, "But…but…"

Kaiza laughed at the stand-off. "Alright, alright. Is it just slices for you two or are you guys takin' some back for your friends?"

Naruto opened his mouth to answer, but Sasuke cut him off, knocking him across the back of the skull with his palm. "We'll take a whole pie…large." He fished into the pockets of his pants and pulled out some cash, a small portion of the cut he took from their last run. Pushing the cash into Kaiza's hand, he nodded. "Half-cheese, half pepperoni."

Kaiza nodded, "Give me fifteen minutes." He slipped back inside and the door slid shut; Sasuke looked around, spotted some large, discarded shipping crates and took a seat. Never did they go inside the pizza parlor—it would be too obvious that they didn't belong there and Kakashi was very adamant about keeping their cover.

Naruto came to sit beside him, leaning shoulder to shoulder with his lover, swinging his legs off the edge of the crate; five minutes passed in silence.

A chime sounded somewhere to their right and laughter floated out into the darkness—feminine, ultra-sexy. Sasuke turned his head, watching as a pair of tall, leggy women came walking down the side walk, obviously having just left the pizzeria themselves. They walked some space apart from one another—not too close at all—and said nothing to one another, walking in silence like an upset couple. Naruto's eyes narrowed and he shifted upright on his crate to watch them more fully; they were turning the corner, coming down the back alley, only they hadn't seen the two boys as of yet.

Maybe it was just the way they walked, the way they moved as if they weren't afraid of the shadows down the alleyway or the possible dangers of the city's darkness—but Sasuke felt the a spike of tensed energy tighten his spine; he kept his eyes trained on them.

One was a plain brunette with an unexceptional face and dark eyes; however, she was possessed of a smooth complexion and her assets were displayed quite nicely in straight-legged blue jeans and a quarter-sleeved top, showing just the right amount of cleavage. Her hair was bobbed short, just at her shoulders and her body language fairly screamed "I'm the Girl Next Door".

Her companion, however, was something all together different. Wild violet hair was pulled back into a high-held style on the back of her head, the ends trailing down around her neck; her skin was tanned lightly, as if she had spent a long afternoon at the beach a few days ago. As the women came closer and passed under the flickering light a third down the alley, they looked up and caught sight of the waiting boys and they paused, under the light and stood absolutely still.

They didn't look frightened, only mildly surprised; the violet-haired women cocked her head and locked eyes with Sasuke across the way, hazel to obsidian.

"I judge by your colors that you're a bit out of your territory, boys." That was the violet-haired woman, speaking blithely; her eyes slid over them, passing over Naruto's blue bandana folded across his forehead and Sasuke's, tied loosely around his neck. She seemed to grin at them, showing too-pointy teeth at both ends of that expression. "What brings you to Miner's Peak?"

Sasuke shrugged, nonchalant by purpose. "The pizza, of course. Kakashi sent us." He deliberately mentioned their captain, knowing that Sin's mistress and Kakashi had some kind of—supposedly—friendly history and still kept in touch. A tentative treaty had sprung up between the two gangs, but it wasn't set in stone and on occasion, if the two groups crossed paths…

…Needless to say, Sasuke wasn't looking for a fight tonight.

The violet haired girl looked raised an eyebrow, "Kakashi, hmm? How is he? He hasn't been around in…ages." She drawled the word and her right hand caressed the area of bare skin visible above the waist band of her low-slung cargo pants, almost as if she were petting herself. Sasuke wanted to gag.

"He's fine, of course. Kakashi-sensei is a very capable leader, isn't he Sasuke?" Naruto was uncharacteristically smooth in his interception of the girl's comment and Sasuke had the urge to flash him a smile. "Of course, Naruto. No one would suggest anything else."

The other girl, the brunette, arched an eyebrow and crossed her arms across her chest, "Your Kakashi-sensei is nothing compared to our Lady." She wore a smile on her lips but her eyes were cold, mean. "The Lady is twice the commander Kakashi will ever be and a more capable provider."

Naruto's eyes narrowed, angry and Sasuke quickly—but covertly—tugged his hand to draw and refocus his attention; his lover's temper was—if anything—legendary.

And Naruto loved Kakashi, would defend him against any enemy.

I'm really not up for a fight tonight, Sasuke thought again.

"We shall have to agree to disagree, if you please." He glanced at the back door of the pizzeria, sure that at any moment, Kaiza would stick his head out. "We'll just get our pizza and be on our way."

The violet-haired woman looked at them steadily and then directed a reproachful glare toward her companion, which instantly brought the brunette to heel. A look of shame and upset crossed her face and she averted her eyes to the ground.

The dominant woman looked back to them, smiling apologetically. "You'll have to forgive Shizune for her outburst—she does not like your sensei and the feeling is mutual, I'm told." She shrugged, "Old history."

The brunette, Shizune, winced, "Gomenasai, Anko-san."

The one called Anko raised an eyebrow, "I'm sure, as I'm sure you would have been doubly sorry if the Lady found out you were badmouthing Kakashi-sensei in front of his own people." She cocked her head to the side, "Hmmm, on second thought maybe I'll tell her myself, just to teach you a lesson."

Shizune's head came up with startling speed and she locked gazes with Anko, "No! Please, Anko-san. I'm sorry, I'm sorry! I'll apologize!" She turned to look at Naruto and Sasuke, as if just seeing them for the first time, "I'm really very sorry, really! I have a personal problem with your Kakashi, but I should not have said such things to you! Please accept my apology!"

Naruto stared at her through narrowed eyes, not budging at all, but Sasuke could see that he was considering forgiveness; he, for himself, had already given it.

I've been known to say some things I shouldn't have at times…and being friends with Sakura has given me a…respectful appreciation of a woman's temperament.

Anko glanced at them, a devious smirk on her lips, "Has she apologized enough, gentlemen? There can be no measured level except the one you deem appropriate." She crossed her arms, "I could still report her to the Lady, if you'd like."

Shizune's eyes went wide with disbelief and that woke Naruto up as nothing else could. The blonde glared at Anko, "Enough. She's forgiven." He ground his teeth together, "And you are needlessly cruel to your comrade."

Sasuke sighed internally, Oh hell…

Shizune was murmuring "Thank you" over and over again, but Naruto wasn't paying attention to her; his eyes were trained to the violet-haired woman, who was currently biting her lower lip and looking heavenward in what seemed to be contemplation.

Finally, she shrugged—just a roll of the shoulder, really. "Maybe I am cruel, but Shizune and I don't like each other very much…and I like Kakashi-sensei very much, myself." She smiled at them…no, smirked at them. "That might be it. Or…it could be that Shizune is just a little tramp and she has a bad temper and is a sore loser."

Shizune gasped, stopping her litany of thankfulness to glare at Anko, "What? Well if you can say that than—" but she was cut off, because Anko continued to speak, still looking thoughtful, if disingenuous. "Hmm, Or the reason could be—and most likely is—that I'm upset that I had to come fish her out of this pizzeria on my night off, just so she could settle an argument with our Lady." She looked aside at Shizune distastefully, "If you're going to sleep with our captain, the least you could do is settle your quarrels with your lover on your own time, huh?"

Shizune could only glare, at a loss for words.

Naruto ground his teeth harder, "That shouldn't matter. She's your teammate, you work with her—you're supposed to be nice, or at least cordial." He unconsciously—Sasuke was sure—squeezed his own teammates hand, as if in example.

Sasuke made very sure to make no sound of protest when his lover's unbreakable grip began to border on painful.

Anko shrugged again, "Ah well, point taken, I suppose." She sighed, "Fine, let me cordial about this then." She turned her head to fix Shizune with a glare and a mean little smile. "Shizune-chan, run along back to base and crawl into Tsunade's bed like a good little girl. She misses you so much and you'll have so much to talk about, okay?" She turned her back to the other girl, "I'll take care of seeing these lads off our land and then I'll be right back to file a report."

Shizune stared, the set of her lips screaming bitter hatred. "Of what? The encounter with Seven or of my…slip?" She glanced down, clearly ashamed of that.

Anko cocked her head and looked heavenward with bored eyes, "Who knows? Haven't decided yet, really." She waved over her shoulder patronizingly, "Bye-Bye, Shizune."

Silence.

The brunette was staring, angry but she turned on her heel and started to stalk toward the mouth of the alleyway, her movements stiff with energy. She was almost out when she paused and half-turned, fixing the boys in a glare, catching them unawares. "Please, gentlemen, don't mind Anko-san's behavior toward me—her cruelty. She learned from a good master." It was said with a tone of belligerent retribution.

Anko's head snapped up and around, her feet turning as she shifted into stance; her hand slid to her back and Sasuke caught the glint of moonlight on metal even as she half-drew the knife. A low hiss escaped her from between her clenched teeth, "Dare you to repeat that, Shizune-chan."

Shizune shrugged her shoulders in a fair imitation of the other girl, "Student like Master, like snakes," she called back—and then was gone, out onto the street in the nick of time as the blade of Anko's knife suddenly buried itself in the plaster of the building where Shizune's head had previously been. It was buried nearly to the hilt and it quivered a bit as it settled.

Anko hissed again, "Damn, I missed." She rolled her shoulders as if she were shrugging out of a heavy jacket and then turned to face them, a smile on her face, making her look both friendly and maniacal. "So, your names?"

Naruto was still staring at her disapprovingly, so Sasuke stepped in, "I'm Sasuke and this is Naruto." He made a gesture toward their bandannas, "Of Seven, obviously." He glanced at her, sweeping her body with his eyes, "And you are…of Sin?" It wasn't really a question, more like a prompt and in response, Anko turned her head to point at the scrungie—no, a twisted bandanna—that was keeping her hair pulled back.

Yellow, for Sin.

Sasuke nodded, satisfied with this; bandannas were hard to come by in the Inner-City; the gangs made their own and the only other place to get them was the Upper City—but no one was going there for that.

Anko turned a little bit and leaned against the plaster wall against which Naruto and Sasuke had been sitting when she arrived; she looked all the more comfortable—and friendly—now that Shizune was gone. The cruel person she'd been for those few moments was almost completely gone from her expression now; only the small, faint spark of cold fire in her eyes remained.

"So," she began, "Pizza for dinner?"

Inane conversation to pass the time.

Oh yeay…

"Yea," Naruto joined in reluctantly, "Pizza for dinner." He sat glumly on his crate now, thinking obviously.

Anko raised an eyebrow, "This is an awful long way to come for pizza, boys." She glanced upward, "Come to think of it, isn't there a place down in your territory? Romero's...Romaro's…? Something like that?"

"Ray's," Sasuke supplied.

"Right, Ray's." She hummed a little note in the back of her throat, which made Naruto look up. It was something the two had in common. She glanced at him, sizing him up and then shrugged, a habit for her, it seemed. "So why didn't you guys go down there?"

Sasuke fixed her with a steady gaze, "Kakashi-sensei insists that since we eat so much pizza, we should try to consume only that which was made with certain healthier products from outside the city. He's very health-conscious; he attributes our surprising stamina and well-being as a group to this type of thinking." He narrowed his eyes, "But I suspect—no, I know—that you were already aware of this."

Anko laughed softly, a beautiful if surprising sound, "Yes, yes, I was." She smiled at Sasuke then, looking almost beautiful with the expression.

"You remind me of him, ya know? With your intense eyes and your hair. So much like him." Suddenly, her close proximity became threatening. She was leaning forward, her fingers under his chin and tipping his head back so she could look down into her eyes and measure his expression. Her lips curved a bit at the corners, "Would you like to come home with me, little Sasuke?" She whispered the words slowly between her barely parted lips, the tone sounding almost…snake-like.

Obsidian eyes stared up into dreamy, demented hazel…until a hand descended between them, breaking Anko's grip on him and sweeping Sasuke back against a hard chest, a familiar sensation. The violet haired woman seemed surprised and stepped back, even as Naruto glared at her over Sasuke shoulder.

"Don't touch him," the blonde growled, his ire rising.

Sasuke felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up.

Anko watched them for a moment, taking in the way Naruto cradled Sasuke against him possessively and the way the darker boy didn't fight it at all, just sat there and watched as well, his fingers on Naruto's bare forearm, like a restraint.

Suddenly, she sighed and slumped back against the wall, looking sad. "Ah well, more like Kakashi than I figured, I guess." She looked at them out of the corner of her eye, "Kakashi and Iruka—I forgot to ask, how are they these days?" The question was asked in a melancholy, off-hand sort of fashion.

Naruto was the one to answer, his grip on Sasuke tightening, "They are fine, perfectly happy, of course." He glared at her, "As are we."

Anko nodded, "Of course."

Silence fell.

After a few moments of not speaking, Naruto began to relax his compulsive grip on Sasuke and the darker boy was thankful; he gulped in a large bit of air and felt his head spin. "Ugh."

Anko glanced up at him, ruefully. "I suppose it's my turn to apologize. I'm sorry about that. You…," she swallowed, "…you just remind me of someone I used to know."

Naruto was watching her carefully, but apparently the tell-tale hint of real emotion in her voice worked its magic—Naruto couldn't resist real emotional pleas.

"Aha, hey now! It's alright! I over-reacted a bit myself." He was back to his bubbly, friendly self again and Sasuke was glad—the lack of air-supply to his brain had made it very difficult to think. Now, he found himself looking back and forth between the lazily grinning blonde and a sheepish Anko. "Ah, well," she said, "your pizza should be out any—," she was cut off as the side door to the pizzeria open and Kaiza stuck his head out, grinning.

"Yo! Sorry it took so long, but we had a lot of orders coming in from the hotel." He stepped out into the alleyway, a tall, well-built man grinning like an ape and balancing a large box of pizza on three fingertips. The picture was classic, hilarious…

…and had Naruto, Sasuke and Anko laughing.

The air of tense discord and melancholy having completely evaporated now, Sasuke reached out and accepted the pizza from Kaiza, making sure to hold it out of Naruto's reach. "Back, dobe." He tossed a mockingly severe glare over his shoulder, "If I let you hold it, Naruto, there won't be any left when we get back." He directed a pointed glance toward Naruto's stomach as it rumbled loudly.

Now that it was his turn to be sheepish, Naruto rubbed the back of his head nervously. "Ah-ah-uh. Silly me. I'm just so hungry, Sasuke!" He made a weak attempt to grab the box and then sagged dejectedly as Sasuke maneuvered it away. "No, Naruto! Bad, bad dobe!"

Yep, the mood was definitely lighter now.

Anko was looking back and forth, from the sad, sagging blonde to Sasuke who held the pizza box easily but firmly out of reach and to Kaiza, who stood there, grinning. Suddenly, she moved, ducking behind Kaiza and into the pizzeria through the open doorway. Sasuke gaped at her audacity and Naruto made a strangled sound, but even as Kaiza was turning back around to look at what had distracted them, Anko re-emerged, a small card-board carry-away box in her hand. She handed Kaiza some money—she didn't even bother counting—and kept walking. "Yatta! Kaiza, I'm taking some slices for myself, okay? Just keep the change."

"Oh, Anko! I didn't even see you there!" Kaiza reached out and swept the girl up in a one-armed embrace that had Anko laughing, gasping and trying to hold the carry-out box safely above them. "Ugh, let me down you ham! It's nice to see you too, I promise! Kaiza, let me down!" She struggled, kicking her feet.

Laughing, Kaiza set the ruffled Anko down and patted her on the head, meanwhile tucking the money she gave him into his apron. "Alright, alright, Anko! Have a nice night, kids!" He turned and headed back inside, calling over his shoulder, "Til next time!"

The door closed soundly behind him and the three of them were left standing in a loose formation in the midst of the alleyway, one carrying a large pizza box, the other sagging with hunger and the other standing there with watchful eyes and a carry-out box in hand.

"Well," Sasuke began slowly, "I guess we'll be on our way now. It was uh…nice to meet you." Was that really his voice? He sounded awkward, even to himself.

Anko grinned, "Yea, yea—real interesting! Come back and see me sometime, boys…I'm always around! We'll catch a movie or something!"

Naruto looked up and despite the sag to his posture, his eyes reflected malicious anger.

Anko put her free hand up in surrender, "Whoa, whoa, blondie! I meant it as a friendly gesture, ya know? As friends? Inter-gang politics and whatnot?" She chuckled, "Here, a token of my good will. Should hold you over til you get back to your place, right?" She handed Naruto the carry-out box and watched him open it.

Sasuke glanced over his shoulder, curious. Inside were three pieces of cheese pizza and some garlic dipping sauce for the crusts. Instantly, Naruto's big blue eyes were watery with emotion and he looked up at Anko with an expression that was almost comedic. "Ooooh…thank you! You're an angel!" And then he was turning away, cracking the box open already to get at its contents.

Anko and Sasuke looked at each other, reluctantly bemused with the situation.

"Ah well, my good deed for the day," Anko murmured and started to walk away.

Sasuke reached back, grabbed Naruto by the shirt and tugged him toward the mouth of the alleyway, following a step behind Anko. "Hmm, thank you, but that wasn't necessary. It wouldn't have killed him to wait til we got back." He glanced over his shoulder, even as he said the words, "Or, at least, he wouldn't have died."

Anko laughed a little and shrugged, "Whatever. I felt like it—and I kinda owed him, seeing as I almost sorta-kinda convinced you to come back home with me."

Sasuke ducked his head, "I was never even closed to convinced; I would never do such a thing. With anyone," he clarified, to spare any hurt feelings, "It has nothing to do with you, just that I would never do that."

Anko nodded, "I suppose I can see the wisdom in that. Stay faithful, kid…it's a rare trait these days, ya know?" Her voice carried a note of sadness which spoke volumes.

Sasuke said nothing.

They were approaching the mouth of the alleyway now; Sasuke was looking at Anko and she was looking at him. They paused on the sidewalk, both turning away in the direction they should be going, but both waiting for the other to say something...do something.

Behind them, the sounds of Naruto's noisy gobbling of the pizza continued.

"So," Anko began, "See ya around, Sasuke-kun?" She nodded toward her path, away from the hotel and back down into the residential part just a ways outside Miner's Peak. "I'm going on back to our base; Shizune's sure to be in tears by now."

Sasuke nodded, "And we're going back to our dig-in. Thank you...for...Naruto's pizza." He gestured toward the blonde, who made some vague, sloppy sound of assent as he consumed his early dinner. "And um...good luck with Shizune."

Anko smiled, "Thanks. Take care, kid. I'd come see Kakashi-sensei myself, but I'm afraid that Iruka probably wouldn't like that very much." She hummed a little, seeming to contemplate the possibilities, "Ah, well...another time, then."

The boy nodded, "Another time. I'll pass on a greeting for you."

The violet-haired woman punched his shoulder lightly, "See ya around, brat." Then she pivoted on her heel and began to walk away; as she passed her knife, still buried in the wall, she wrapped a hand around the hilt and pulled. The blade came away sharply and disappeared suddenly; Sasuke only had a moment to see the flash of metal in the moonlight as it disappeared back behind her back.

She was quick.

Then she was gone, striding off into the darkness and Sasuke had no choice but to turn and continue down the sidewalk, sliding along the shadow and carting Naruto behind him all the while. They went nearly through the center of the town, only turning down a side street to avoid the club-goers coming and going and the hotel guests on the mainway. Normally, this was a time for alertness, but tonight Sasuke was almost sure they would make it through just fine.

Before they knew it, they were out of Miner's Peak and Sasuke felt the stiffness in his shoulders loosening up a bit. Back in familiar territory, he let go of his grip on Naruto's shirt and just continued to walk, keeping to the shadows, even as he balanced the box of pizza in his hands.

Behind him, the slurping of sauce and cheese paused momentarily, "Hmmm...Sasuke?"

"Yes, Naruto?"

"That Anko woman wasn't so bad after-all, once she stopped being so mean to her teammate, ya know? This pizza is totally rad!" He was happy, Sasuke noted; he also noted the childish skip in his logic, denoting Anko as nice since she bought him pizza. He fought the strong urge to roll his eyes, well used to his lover's eccentricities.

"Yes, koi, she's pretty nice."

"Yep, she is! But, ya know, teme, something was bothering me a little bit? She's kinda...not all there, right?" He hummed a little, slurping some more cheese and sauce, "What she said about you looking like him? But...who's him?"

Sasuke's brow furrowed, "Kakashi-sensei, I imagine."

Naruto laughed around a mouthful, "Aha, yea right! You? Look like Kakashi-sensei? That's rich, teme!" He snorted and then coughed as some food--predictably--went down the wrong tube. Sasuke paused in his walk to turn and thump his lover on the back forcefully, only stopping this when Naruto gave one final cough and then swallowed thickly.

The blonde smiled, "Where was I?"

Sasuke returned the expression, "Refuting a perfectly good point, I believe." He turned and started to walk again. Naruto was right behind him.

"Yea, yea! So like I was saying, she said you had 'intense eyes' and the same kinda hair, right? But you and Kakashi-sensei don't look alike at all! His eyes aren't intense, they're lazy and sleepy!"

"Your point, dobe?"

Naruto was silent for a moment--or rather, he didn't speak but he did slurp more pizza in his mouth and a small crunch told Sasuke he was munching the crust.

The darker boy waited.

A thick, audible swallow as they turned a corner, coming down the block only a short distance from their dig-in and then Naruto was talking again. "So yea! And what's with the hair? That made no sense at all!"

Sasuke thought about it, "Maybe she meant that my hair was messy?" Self-consciously, he swept his free hand through his hair, not liking the possibility. He wasn't vain, just...not messy. He couldn't be messy, it just didn't work for him.

Naruto hummed along, "Hmmm...naw, I don't think so." He skipped forward a few steps, box still in hand but pizza absent so he could survey Sasuke. He made a sound of distraction.

"What is it?"

"Kakashi-sensei's hair is...light. Yours is...dark, teme."

"So?"

An exasperated sigh, "Whatever, Sasuke-baka. You're dumber than you look." Naruto made to sweep past him, to take the lead in their walk...

...Shifting the weight of the box to one hand, Sasuke reached out, grabbed Naruto's shoulder and spun him around into the side of this building, his forearm pressing down on the blonde's throat and obsidian eyes glaring down into wide, teasing cerulean.

"What did you call me, dobe? Do I need to remind you whose turn it is to play bottom?" He pressed his weight into Naruto and watched with some pleasure as the other boy's mouth opened wide to gasp for breath, his cheeks flooding red with sudden heat.

"Teme," Naruto forced out through his lack of breath and Sasuke smirked down at him, leaning in to nip sharply--painfully--down on his ear, enjoying the way the blonde yelped.

"Koi. You're mine. I'm yours." He punctuated each declaration with another nip, sweeping the tip of his tongue after each to sooth the hurt away. "Now explain to me; what's your point?"

Naruto groaned, trying to push off the wall, but Sasuke held him pinned in place until the blonde glared at him, then bowed his head submissively. With a firm nod, Sasuke stepped away and allowed his lover a decent breath.

"Asshole," the other coughed, "Fucking asshole."

Sasuke chuckled darkly, "Later, darling."

Another cerulean glare.

"So tell me, then. What's your point?"

Naruto made a sound but finally spit it out, "Kakashi-sensei has light hair, teme...and you have dark. His eyes are lazy and yours are...intense." He looked like he wanted to say something else--and judging by the blush rising in his cheeks, it wasn't going to be very manly--but he continued on normally.

"What I mean, Sasuke, is who was she comparing you to, then? Not Kakashi, for sure!"

They were rounding the corner of a street and there was the old weapons factory--home, sweet home. He could see the shadow of the sentry in the doorway and turned his head to look at Naruto as they approached, "Ne, dobe. Drop it. You're reading too much into it, alright? She probably had someone else in mind."

Naruto made a sound, "Yea, that's what I thought too..." And then he trailed off, raising a hand in greeting to Neji, who stepped out of the shadows looking uncharacteristically tense and shifty. "Yo, Neji!"

Neji nodded to them, "Evening." He glanced at the boxes in their respective hands and his lips curved up at the corners slightly, "Ah, go in. I think I just heard Tenten saying she was hungry; I'm sure she'd love a slice."

Naruto looked crestfallen, "I have to share?!" He wailed, affronted. "Oh man...!" Glancing back at Sasuke, his eyes pleaded, "Tell me I don't have to teme, please? Tenten will eat all the pizza! She's such a fatass!"

"WHAT WAS THAT NARUTO?"

Jumping, the blonde spun and took off, his carry-out box still in hand. A barrage of flying sharp-edged stones trailed after him, whizzing through the air and striking out a path against the wall as he dodged forward into the shadows.

Neji coughed politely into his hand and went back to his post, waving a dismissal to Sasuke. The other boy nodded, heading toward Naruto. "Come on, dobe, I think the coast is clear." He took the blonde's hand and tugged him from around the corner of the crate behind which he was hiding.

"Jeeze, Tenten is a maniac, teme. She's got super hearing!"

Another rock flew from the darkness, going straight for Naruto's forehead. Sasuke reached out casually and caught it before it could hit his lover and directed a glare into the darkness of entryway. "Enough, Tenten. Point taken; he apologizes."

A feminine snicker, "Whatever, Sasuke." Tenten's silhouette sauntered inside and out of sight.

Naruto rubbed at the spot on his forehead where the rock would have struck. "Ne. Thanks teme."

Sasuke shrugged, "No one bruises you but me, dobe." He smirked down at him, possessive. "Only me."

The blonde rolled his eyes, "Obviously."

Together they headed back through the doorway, talking quietly to one another.

((O0oo0O))

Watching the two lovers pass through the entryway into the warehouse, Neji sighed internally, worried. Sakura and Hinata weren't back--and the estimated time he'd calculated for the mission was close to ending.

Where were they?

The question burned inside him even as his eyes scanned the streets relentlessly.

They should be back any moment now, safe and in one piece. Nothing's wrong.

But that gut feeling that he lived by—the one that led people to call him intuitive—said that something was wrong…

…very wrong.

He glanced down at the watch he always wore on his wrist—one of the few things he owned for himself and had actually been purchased rather than stolen; a gift from Hinata. He read the time and then frowned, looking back up to check his surroundings.

Five minutes, he decided.

And then he was going hunting.

((O0oo0O))

She was good, Sasori admitted to himself, taking the time to observe, memorize and analyze the way Hinata moved. Silent, efficient and cautious, she slipped from shadow to shadow, gaining both confidence and momentum as she went.

Hurry, hurry…but to where, shiro-chan?

Wherever—whatever or whoever—it was, she was moving quick, eating up the road in long bounding strides, like she was running toward something. He could hear the soft rhythm of her breathing—he was that close—but years and years of covert tailing made him virtually invisible to her, even as he tracked alongside and above her on the roof-tops.

Yes, she was good…

…But he was better.

He watched as Hinata skittered around a corner, dodged effortlessly around a large trash can and continued on, foot-falls nearly silent in the night's stillness. Her pace had not slowed yet—if anything, it sped up.

So eager to get home, little one?

Another corner, another block. Sasori bounded easily from one roof to the next, avoiding loose scrap metal and ripped ducts. They were deep into the Lower City by now and he found himself looking around, memorizing the layout of the path they'd taken tonight—he would be able to find his way back to this point, at least.

Another block; she shifted direction and so did he, following as closely as he dared. She was from the Inner City and young which meant that she—more than likely—belonged to a gang; he didn't worry about his assumption being hasty or miscalculated. Belonging to a gang was almost a default here and if this gang was worth the dye in their bandannas, they'd have a sentry out watching the roofs.

A challenge, even if it was just a small one.

Below him, Hinata was running flat out now—running, as if fleeing for her life. Her breath rasped out into the silence and he could hear it clearly, enhanced only by his unnatural sensitivity. She must have been in a great rush—having a real need—to get to her home.

Home.

The word felt foreign in his mind and he turned it over there, even as he tracked after his prey on autopilot. Home. So simple, so easy—everyone had a home didn't they? Some way or another, every one had a place they chose to call home.

Home is a place called Hell...

He knew his eyes were flat, cold—dispassionate—but he had trained himself not to feel, not to care about anything. He saw the world through a dead, apathetic gaze because he was raised in an environment where to breathe wrong was to take a beating. No crying, no laughing—no emotion of any kind.

An orphan, raised by a relative.

An orphan, raised by the devil.

Devil's way, Devil's eyes...

Sasori might have sneered...

...if only he could remember how.

Below him, Hinata was picking up pace and he slowed, sensing that they were almost to the destination. Up ahead, a warehouse stood dark in the night, a sign on its roof proclaimed it to be a manufacturing place of some kind—and it might have passed along as such if not for the giant blue character for the number seven spray-painted on the roof tiles.

Though, Sasori admitted, one would never see it unless you came across the roof tops.

There, below.

An opening in the side of the building—a loading gate pulled up to make a very large, welcoming entrance; from inside, music played and laughter escaped.

When I last laughed, where was I?

In his mother's lap, he was sure—still a toddler and still innocent of the darkness of this city. The darkness—which took his mother from him...and his father...

...everyone who had ever loved him.

Enough, he commanded himself.

The shadows beside the building were thick, providing perfect cover. Hinata slowed only marginally as she approached at her run and then threw herself forward, into the shadows...

...just as two long, pale arms reached out to engulf her, clutching at her--holding her firmly still in their embrace.

There was a blade in his hand before he realized it—one of his special blades, coated in one of the unique poisons he was so good at creating. The urge to hurl it into the darkness from whence those arms had reached—to find the target unerringly with fatal precision—was so great that he shifted his weight…

…but then paused, observing with the part of him that was—forever—unemotional.

Hinata was not struggling in those arms; she wasn't even attempting to pull away. Instead, she was clutching at this person—a him, Sasori assumed—and murmuring words too soft and quiet for even him to hear. She appeared so immensely relieved that he wondered if she would collapse.

So this must be her "husband"...

He eyed the embrace, noted the warmth of it, even though the male stayed almost completely in the shadows. He slid his knife away, back into a secret pocket beneath his robe and crouched down slowly at the roof's edge, careful of a sentry's eyes.

Re-evaluation.

Then, as if summoned to do so by his thoughts, the male stepped forth from the shadows, arms still wrapped tightly around little Hinata who had pillowed her cheek against his chest. Tall, lean and obviously confident in himself, he held the girl close while his eyes scanned the surroundings, the roofs, the alleyways.

And it was then—Sasori would always remember—that he got his first look at the boy's eyes...

White, pearlescent...

...like hers...

...like Hinata's.

Half-remembered words came back to him then and he wondered at them for a moment, hardly daring to believe that he had actually forgotten them. "Watch out for them Hyuuga, boy--they're nothing but snobs and they're thieves te' boot!" A voice snarled in his mind, grating on his nerves in a fashion that he'd become accustomed to long ago. "They're Upper City nobles mind ye' but they're nothing but trash put on a silver platter and don't ya forget it!"

Hyuuga...

...The clan of the pale eyes.

A flash of memory. Hinata, thanking him by his car; the way she had bowed her head had seemed…oddly noble, didn't it? Aristocratic. The thought had been there before, but he had dismissed it so casually, not remembering.

The Hyuuga Clan of the Upper City...

...scattered to the winds in days long gone by.

Hyuuga Hinata.

Now, he knew her name—knew her—and he wondered at it, this new revelation. A noble—of the Upper City, no less. What she was doing here, in this slum, he didn't need to ask—every one knew of the scattering of the Great Clans after the building of the wall. Obviously, she—and who knew how many others—had come to the Inner City…joined a gang…

…married a husband…

…or—rather—taken a lover.

Marriages in the Inner City were rare to say the least.

So a lover then.

This puzzled him and he paused, watching the pair. Both were Hyuuga, obviously—the boy's eyes if not his stance and sheer confidence told the truth of it. But how was this possible? Surely they couldn't be wed. Maybe…brother and sister?

Then the boy ended that line of thought when he raised Hinata's chin with two fingers, tipping her head back to lay claim to her lips while his free arm wrapped around her waist, dragging the girl closer. Hinata made an indistinct, soft sound that carried to Sasori's ears and not much further, her arms twining around the boy's neck and pulling him down with more pressure.

A raised eyebrow was the best Sasori's meager range of expression could offer.

Not brother and sister, then.

But then…what? Not siblings, but neither looked too much older…so that left…

Cousins.

Ah, yes…that made more sense—cousins. The Hyuuga clan scattered far and wide, but would it be so unusual for two children of the same relative age, probably raised together, to stay close to one another in the large, no-doubt frightening territory of the Inner City? And what of puberty and the like? Hormones and attractions—who could one trust more than your closest friend, your confidant? Comrades in a gang were often involved with one another; it was fairly common, in fact.

The only thing that set little shiro-chan apart from the others Sasori had known was—the fact that her lover was in fact a shiro-san, one of the same family.

But there wasn't a lack of love, Sasori noted—Hinata was very fairly pressing herself against Neji and the boy was pulling her close as if afraid to let her go. The red-head couldn't catch the mumbled, incoherent words between them, but …he could imagine a smooth torrent of lover's nonsense and sweet, whispered nothings.

I haven't heard any of those in so long.

At least, none that hadn't come from the mouth of a willing, paid harlot.

Even now though, those types of interactions were becoming more and more rare. Distasteful, decadent—debauched, he could no longer bring himself to pretend for the sake of his body's pleasure…

He hated falsities.

But this—this sight which met his eyes—was so unspeakably raw in its blatant frankness and undeniable passion, as if it would be no large thing if the two were to suddenly rip the clothes from each other's bodies and take part in the oldest dance known to man.

Sasori would love to know what that would be like—an honest sexual union.

A rarity if ever there was one...

...Even more a rarity than a flourishing garden in the Lower City.

He found the poetry of such a comparison--the image of it--beautiful, smoothing the wrinkles in his thought process and allowing him to see clearly. A couple--a pair of lovers. Little shiro-chan hadn't lied when she said she had a husband--the truth of it was here before his eyes...

...and there was more, of course.

Itachi had given him a mission--to find where the girls had come from, or rather, where the white-eyed Hinata was going. Now, he knew--a headquarters, obviously, for a gang. And she had a lover...

...and love...

...and a lover...

The words kept playing over and over in his mind—in a loop—and he felt his eyes narrowing in the way he'd come to recognize with distraction; forcibly, he dragged himself back from the edge of the roof, cutting off his line of sight, the sight of the two Hyuuga children wrapped in a warm embrace the likes of which he would have enjoyed sharing with someone.

Someone...? Foolish thought; who would take this monster I've become--me--and love it? Who would be so...

...foolish?

Lips twisted in the most minute of expression--it might have been a sneer with some more flexibility--Sasori righted himself, forcing himself to focus on the sky, on the gravel stone that covered the rooftop...

...on anything.

Sinking into the shadows of the roof, he made his way back along the route he'd come, careful of the sentries below--even though he knew them to be quite thoroughly distracted.

No matter; better safe...

Sasori contemplated his own inner thoughts--his processes--as he made his way back toward the Curtain. He wasn't so sure why little Hyuuga Hinata had affected him in such a way--wasn't sure if he wanted to know why--only that it was highly unusual. What was it about her that so disarmed him?

Her innocence? Her frail beauty? Her obvious misplacement in this life when she should have been growing up in the comfort and safety of the Upper City, maybe even still with her cousin—her lover. With a family, with a history and a future.

There was no future for those poor rats of the Lower City...

...they were all dying, they just didn't know it.

He realized, then, that he didn't want that for little white-eyed Hinata--little, honest, real Hinata...

...and wondered in amazement at the fluttering sensation in his chest, the whisper of intense movement stirring within him.

Why should I care what happens to her? Just one of hundreds--maybe thousands. She's just another Lower City commoner, bound to die a product of her environment.

Why care?

And for the life of him, for all his analytical ability and so-called cold-blooded prowess of mind, he couldn't come up with a ready answer.

The Curtain loomed before him suddenly, the trip back having gone much quicker than the one there due, in part, to the freedom to move at a faster pace without fear of being spotted. He had made his way back completely on automatic, but he knew--without a doubt--he could find his path to the gang's headquarters without a problem.

The only question now was...

...would he tell Itachi?

Sasori scaled down the fire-escape near the building closest to the guard post, absorbed so much in his own thoughts that he didn't see the figure moving out of the shadows on his right until it was nearly upon him--a decidedly uncomfortable occurrence. Still, he saved face; turning as if it had been his intention to walk away the whole time, Sasori addressed the figure over his shoulder, "Kabuto."

The silver-haired man--not more than twenty really--bowed respectfully, "Sasori-senpai, I had not expected to see you out this evening. Your patrol ended some time ago, yes?" He pushed his glasses up higher onto the bridge of his nose, taking the opportunity to flick silver-blonde bangs out of his eyes, "I had assumed you would return to your home as soon as possible; I understand that you've recently been out on a mission?"

The red-head rolled his shoulder, a dismissal, "A mission yes, though it only lasted for a few days--Corporation business on the mainland. I am tired, but I do not shirk my duty Yakushi."

Kabuto raised an eyebrow, "Of course not, Sasori-senpai; I would never suggest that. Orochimaru-sama has told me much of your loyalty and dedication to the corporation. It's admirable."

"Hmm," Sasori intoned, turning away fully, "Good evening, Kabuto." He walked away toward the guard post, passing through the gated area with nary a glance at the scurrying, burly men who stumbled to stay out of his way.

It wasn't until he was approaching his vehicle, slowing by the door to carefully peel off his Red-Cloud cloak, that he remembered his early thought.

To tell or not to tell? That was the question, wasn't it?

He never shirked a responsibility, that was true--and he always completed his missions, never turned one down in all his life. Itachi had given him this assignment, this trek, as a mission and therefore, if he weren't to report truthfully, he would be breaking his own record and compromising that which he held dear--his own, real honor.

On the other hand, if he did tell his leader, what would Itachi do with the information? Surely he wouldn't waste time meddling in the affairs of the gang therein, would he? The Corporation--for all its image and propaganda--had nothing to do with that; really, aside from the pink-haired Sakura, Itachi might never have considered it worth finding out anything about their origins.

Sasori could say, almost with a certainty, that it was true.

So, what to do, then? To compromise himself and keep his peace—protecting those little urchins and Hinata by extension—with his silence.

Or give the information over, complete his mission...and trust in his commander, who had never strayed in any notable fashion Sasori could think of.

Decisions, decisions.

His cloak was off, the key was in his hand and he was sliding behind the steering wheel of his vehicle, all the while still pondering the conundrum. What to do, what to do? He turned the key, listened to the car start and then put it in drive, pulling away and out into the night with practiced, smooth efficiency.

Soon, he was out of the residential area and streaking out along the highway, heading to the upscale neighborhood where most of Akatsuki Corp's CEO's had homes--including Itachi and himself. The purr of the Maserati's engine was soothing to his ears and reverberated to some calming effect in his mind.

Tell...

Don't Tell...

Left...

Right...

The highway passed under his car, a dull gray-black ocean of flat waves touched by copper street lights at intervals, unmoved by the passing a crimson wind over its surface. Sasori pushed the car until the speedometer needle hovered around one-forty, one hand propped against the window sill, his chin resting against his fist boredly as he piloted his way down the road, the only car visible in the darkness.

He slowed only when the exit he needed to take came into focus, some distance away; after following it, he knew, there would be two paths to take--a left fork, or the right. Along the left was the eventual path to Itachi's home and a report he might--or might not--make. Along the right...

...his own house...to silence and secrets and keeping his peace against a command.

His house.

A house, but not a home...

And for all that she lived in an old warehouse with who-knew how many others, Sasori considered Hinata--little shiro-chan--more fortunate than he was. A home, not just a place to sleep or live or reside.

A home.

He took the exit, pressing the break firmly as he came up on the fork--left or right? The choice was building an energy in the back of his mind--he narrowed his eyes, perturbed.

Damnit, just make the damn decision.

And stop caring so much.

Still, even as Sasori made the choice--turned down one path to forsake the other--he could see the image of honest white-eyes in his mind, see a smile there on pale lips that tilted with sweet innocence.

That unfamiliar flutter in his chest returned and he viciously stomped down on the gas peddle, venting his rage through his car, unable to express it by dint of the monster he was.

Monster, monster, monster...

The Maserati streaked out into the darkness, growling Sasori's agitation on the wind.


Author's Note (Again): So there it was. How did you like it? Please, do me a favor and don't be shy. Please, go review and let me know how you feel. Oh, and please, excuse any massive grammatical or spelling errors. I have no beta and, quite frankly, I am too tired to re-read this all myself. Gomenasai.

So anyway, please. Review. The story is back on track, but it's going to be some slow going. Have faith in me, please. Your reviews and positive comments keep me going. Show me some love.

-erena g.t. rose.