Disclaimer: I can't read, write, or speak Japanese fluently, so I'm screwed on the whole being-able-to-write-a-manga thing.


Konoha Hospital, Maximum Security Wing

There was a price on everything. That was the way of the world, as absolute as the sun rising and falling, as absolute as everything ultimately dying. Even immortals would end in bloodied violence. Every life she had taken, every action by her hands, every word that had passed her lips had to be balanced. Her day of bloodshed in Uchiha compound years ago was no exception to that fact. She had known that, known it.

Then why had the scales being brought to balance come as a surprise?

Sakura knew right then she'd been far too complacent.

In some back part of her mind she'd estranged herself from Itachi and the memories of him. Even in the apathy and agony of their relationship she'd loved him. And even when she'd loved him she'd always known all he would bring her was suffering. They had promised to kill each other, once.

It was the only way she'd known back then how to express her devotion.

But she'd forsaken that promise, that devotion, in order to have Naruto. In order to have Sasuke.

It had been simple to forget all of it when she had been given those boys in return. She felt no guilt, felt nothing for killing those Uchiha. Regret was not something she was readily capable of.

But Sasuke finding out about it had been an unexpected accident. There was no plan for this and there should have been. Itachi would never have let himself go quietly; despite the apathy he'd possessed a streak for cruelty that at times had surpassed her own. And he knew the intricacies of spite nearly as intimately as she did.

She should have known it would come to this.

Something in her stomach churned uncomfortably. It wasn't exactly guilt but…she had never lied when she said she cared for Sasuke, but that wouldn't stop her from cutting him down in a heartbeat. He was a chosen pawn, a useful tool, a man she'd molded to stand beside her while she chased her dreams. And despite that he was a close friend that she'd cherished and doted on with affection.

She felt something at the thought of killing him and it stuck heavy between her ribs.

Her thoughts drifted. The Kyuubi was watching, waiting with sick delight to see how messy this would be.

The fluorescent lights above hummed dully, echoing against the walls until it felt as though the buzzing was inside her skull. The arms around her neck felt like steel, and the hands she had wrapped around his back were sticky with blood. The kunai she had gouged in right above his spine was steady as a rock.

She tried to form the words she wanted and it felt like there was broken glass in her mouth. "What you need to understand Sasuke, more than anything, is that if you make another move to kill me I will end you." The rage and regret made her temples throb. "I love you Sasuke but don't think that will make me pause for a second. Swallow your pride and back off."

In her arms he shuddered with rage. His voice was choked by it. "Pride? Swallow my pride when you're the one who—"

His arms tightened. With a soundless snarl she the kunai dug in further. The pain tempered his anger and his grip around her neck loosened just enough. Enough she wouldn't kill him, not yet.

"Why?" He demanded. "Why in the hell did you kill them?"

She debated lying for a moment but what was the point? In the end all that came out was the brutal truth. "It was something to do."

He sucked in a breath, muscles going rigid under her hands. It probably took every fiber of his willpower not to try and kill her then and there. And at that moment she knew she wanted Sasuke to see every inch of her, as ugly as it was.

She loved him so dearly and she wanted him to see her and to hurt with it. She wanted to see what kind of hatred it would twist out of him.

He bit off the words. "How could you!"

His arms slackened and with a shove he went crashing into the wall. She stood and crimson bled into her irises. She wanted him to see and she wanted to see him."How could I?" Her voice dropped a dangerous octave. "Don't play that self-righteous card on me, our kind doesn't get ivory towers to sit on. I know your sins Uchiha Sasuke. The families you killed, the children you tortured in front of the parents, the collateral damage you caused on missions just because you wanted to really feel it."

Her blood boiled just at the thought, hot and sinuous and needy. Hot and vile and furious.

"You only care because the Uchiha were your family." And she scoffed. "You expect me to care too? I remember all those people that came after you because of what you did to their families. And you know what I remember Sasuke? You laughed, you laughed so goddamn hard and played around with them before slitting them ear to ear."

There was a heavyness around them and it ate her words and swelled. He surged from the wall. "Those people I killed were on the authority of the village, you killed my family just for the hell of it!"

Her rage lessened as she felt the slide of icy contempt. She was a monster and probably a hypocrite, but this still made her fists curl and bones grind. She laughed bitterly. "And I killed the Uchiha on Itachi's authority. It's all semantics when we boil it down."

His lips peeled from his teeth and the killing intent that followed made her blood spark and her chakra sing. It was so familiar and having it directed at her was damn near heady. He growled. "That's not the same, not nearly."

Her eyebrows arched. "Isn't it? Our so called authority comes from that pretty little title of Hokage. It's not sanctioned by god or king or the righteousness of men." Her voice dropped to a sing-song lilt. "I know your sins and I can number the graves of the people you killed on my authority."

He had only needed the smallest warning: a lilt in her voice, a snap of her fingers, her blood pulsing in arousal to give him the barest hint that this was what she wanted of him. Uchiha Sasuke had only needed the barest of excuses to become a monster, and now he wanted to hold her to some higher standard?

It made her want to laugh.

She could hear the bones of his hands straining. When he spoke again his words had a hollowness to them. "What would you have done if I didn't know? Kept playing this game of giving me orders and twisting me around and saying you loved me? How many years would I have had until you got tired of me or I outlived my usefulness and you decided I'd be better off in a grave?" He snarled. "It's all semantics anyways when we boil it down."

"I'm not that fickle Sasuke." All the heat was gone and she answered plainly. "I'm going to care about you until the day I die no matter what happens here. You know the past between us. I hated you when we were children and I wanted you anyways. You were…" She felt almost wistful. "You had so much potential and I just wanted and wanted until I had you. I would never have killed you, you were too perfect."

His voice went flat. "So I'm just some possession to you, something to put on your shelf of fucked up accomplishment and admire. Something to mock because you took everything from me and I still—"

Still loved you. They both heard the words even if he didn't say them.

"I didn't know you then Sasuke." She sighed. "I knew Itachi and he asked something of me. Before this if I'd asked you to kill the Hyuga when we rescued Hinata instead of just knocking them out, you would have. Without question and a song in your heart, you would have."

His fists unclenched but he gave no retort. They both understood.

"I hate this." He spat.

"I know." And they saw each other clearly. "All we have is the future Sasuke, I understand what you're feeling, I do. But killing me won't bring any closure. Nothing good will come of it anymore, just let it die."

Slowly, with violent movements, his headband fell away to reveal the scars of his eyes. The wounds stood out jagged and white and barbed. They were lines that had drowned madness in pain and power in blood. "The day my family died I thought I'd lost everything. My chest felt like there was razorwire around it every second of the day. The only way I could make that pain fade even a little was the thought of avenging them. It was everything Sakura." He sucked in a pained breath and she didn't know what to say

"I tried to run from the village and you shattered me into a million tiny pieces because you wanted something." He laughed bitterly. "You're so petty that it almost hurts."

Her gaze dipped. "You already knew this."

He swallowed. "You inflicted every kind of pain on me to make me stronger and you suffocated me during it with your love and attention. You killed my ambitions so you could replace them with your own and I hated it."

She drew a step closer, heart throbbing against her ribs. He breathed. "I started to forget why I was fighting and it started being about you and me and Naruto and Hanab—" He swallowed her name before he could finish it. "I was changing and I couldn't stop it but I trusted you. I trusted you Sakura!"

That accusation was what hurt the most. She didn't deny him, didn't argue anything. It was all the truth in every ugly inch of it.

He took a ragged breath. "I should be able to kill you. It should be the easiest thing I could ever do and I just can't. I trusted you and you broke it and I still can't kill you! God…" He made a sound and it sounded like a sob. "You fucked me up."

Blood was matted on his palms. He raised one hand up to his mouth and bit down all the way to the knuckle. He didn't even seem to register the pain.

She was petty and cruel and her friends were part possessions. She had loved so badly that she had poisoned all she had touched. She should have felt regret, she really should. She should have felt sorry.

But she wasn't.

Sakura collapsed on the bed, so tired that even her bones ached. "It's your choice. Just go back to Hanabi and—come see me if you want to, come for coffee, train with us." This was the first concession she'd ever made. "But if you can't I'll let you transfer off the team and not come near you again."

"But—"Her voice was starting to fail her. "I still want you as my teammate. That will never change."

He asked one bitter question: "And if I tell the village what really happened that night?"

The air froze and she blazed scarlet. "You wouldn't get the first word out of your mouth."

The putrid fury of her chakra stayed in the air. Things that should have been clear were muddled, hate tempered with love, rage cooled with cynicism, family ties forgotten in friendship, rage diluted with contentment, the hope of some kind of future covering up the past. She had wrought all of this and more.

Everything had its price and the debts were blood. She just didn't know whose it would be yet.

He slid down the wall and sat on the floor, pale and restless and broken edged. They waited in silence for the ANBU to arrive.

There were no more words.

Everything had already been said.

Hyuga Compound

There was a certain malevolence to the home of the Hyuga clan, even if Hatake Kakashi would never admit it. The walls were sterilely white and the wooden walkways shined to the point he could see his own ghostly reflection in them. For so many people living in such a concentrated area there were no voices to be heard and the wind drowned out whatever was whispered in these halls.

Even in the warmth of a Konoha autumn it had an inescapable chill. The Hyuga weight of tradition could suck the life out of any place, and here it laid the heaviest on everyone's shoulders.

"You're certain of these…people, Asuma?" Kakashi asked under his breath. He kept a careful eye on the Hyuga servant leading them down the hall.

Asuma nodded, jittering the cigarette in his hand. "Yeah. This situation is starting to border on desperate. People with similar views are being gathered to see what can be done. We're not going to let the village rot while we still have breath."

If Kakashi had a reply he never got to voice it. At that moment the Hyuga servant turned and gave a short bow before sliding open a door. The two jonin stepped inside and Kakashi immediately scanned all the faces in the room.

On the left side were over forty various jonin, some mission handlers, others familiar faces that he'd worked with on missions over the years. He recognized Raido and Aoba whispering hurriedly to one another by the wall, and Ebisu standing alone in a far corner.

On the right side of the room were two dozen ANBU crouched together or leaning on the walls, and at the front of the group were two of their own with their masks shoved up to reveal their faces. The leader was Yugao, one of his old ANBU teammates, her normally beautiful face drawn and venomous. At her elbow was the recently promoted Gemma chewing on a senbon and looking ready to bolt at a moment's notice.

At the bottom of the room were roughly thirty of the oldest chunin in Konoha gathered in small circles. Kakashi barely knew any of those in the lower ranks; the only one even remotely familiar Umino Iruka who was currently locked in a heated discussion with a fellow teacher.

His gaze was eventually drawn to the center of the room were a long, low table seated over a dozen of the most powerful political leaders and fighters in Konoha. On the end closest to him were both the Inuzuka matriarch and her daughter with their dogs curled at their feet. The two's normally feral appearance had been groomed back to reveal both women had strong faces with a certain kind of proud beauty to them.

To their left sat two grim ninja, Akimichi Choza and Nara Shikaku, clan heads to their respective families. The two men sat with a space between them, an obvious deference to their dead teammate Yamanaka Inoichi slain during the Oto assassinations.

The wounds from that attack were still fresh for some people.

The next four seats were filled by civilian clan heads that Kakashi had met only in passing, and each was known for having deep pockets that kept them firmly entrenched in the council. They were the kind of civilians that had bodyguards from the ninja forces at their beck and call.

Another five seats held more of the Konoha council, all of these men retired shinobi. Some of them had been Kakashi's own superiors when he had been freshly graduated from the academy.

In the final seat was the imperial and undeniable presence of Hyuga Hiashi, the seeming leader over the contingent. At his right elbow was the gnarled form of the deteriorating head of the Hyuga council, white eyes rheumy with age. At Hiashi's left was a pompous male Hyuga who was the youngest person there at the age of twenty-three. From what Kakashi had heard, after both heiresses had jumped ship this distant cousin had been appointed successor to the Clan headship. And considering the haughty overconfidence Kakashi could see even from here, the boy would do Hiashi proud.

Conversation began to die down as Kakashi and Asuma walked in, and suddenly Yugao was at his elbow. "So the sensei to the Death Squad has arrived. How quaint."

A murmur of derision and unease rippled across the room.

He chuckled grimly. "Hardly. Sakura was an obligation and Naruto didn't have the attention span to learn back then, let alone anything else." Unless it had involved Sakura of course, then Naruto had been eagerly attentive.

Back then Sarutobi had expected him to keep Sakura alive and not anything more. "Sasuke was my only student out of the batch, and the minute Sakura decided he was worth the time she crippled him. I was never their teacher."

But they both knew the real accusation of her question. That he hadn't drowned Sakura the first second they'd been alone when she was still a child…

No. It hardly mattered. Her mask had been too perfect and she had never really been helpless, not that monster. Attacking her then would have just forced her to show her teeth sooner.

The murmurs dipped in acceptance, though the mention of Sasuke had rankled them. That a clan Prince had fallen so far galled them even if they had stood by and watched it happen.

Yugao's jaw clenched but she gave him a short nod before taking an open seat.

Hiashi raised his hand up and beckoned to the last open spots, and the two jonin shared a glance before sitting on the cushions provided.

Kakashi sub-vocalized his words. "Asuma you're Sarutobi clan, so you get a seat. I'm somewhat at a loss for why I'm here and not with the other jonin."

Asuma leaned over. "You've been on S-ranked missions for three solid years. You have the most individual battle experience out of anyone here and the highest body count in the village short of her. Like it or not Kakashi, you're going to be a key player in this."

That didn't assure him any. He made some kind of bland reply and the room fell to silence. It was time.

Hiashi looked at each of them with measuring eyes. "I welcome everyone to the Hyuga estate tonight in what I hope will be a productive meeting to fix the ailments of Konoha." He sounded somber enough to be giving a eulogy. "As most of you know, with the Oto assassinations the council has been under quorum and unable to meet. Lady Tsunade has refused to begin seating any new members until the new Aburame's head wedding is done." He spat the last words, and no one dared mention one of his wayward daughters was the bride. "The wedding will be complete within the week but I have little doubt Tsunade will find some other excuse to delay seating."

Everyone there knew that little stipulation had been Tsunade's way of making sure the wedding went off without a hitch. Without quorum the council couldn't meet, and without meeting they were effectively neutered in their power. The Oto assassinations had blindsided everybody but that hadn't stopped the Hokage from taking advantage in the aftermath.

Hiashi continued. "The council makeup is normally decided by its members, but without quorum the Hokage has full discretion to choose who will be seated. While we may be able to subvert some of her appointments to our side that possibility is…doubtful at best. And that's dependant on if she brings in anyone new at all."

No one would put it past the woman to let the council languish into nonexistence out of spite.

Nara Shikaku sighed deeply. "I had hoped to retire soon. How utterly troublesome."

The Inuzuka matriarch snarled. "This lack of quorum is hardly the source of our troubles; we all know this didn't start with the current Hokage."

And they all knew what this was, the political-social shift in the ranks and utter devotion to a new regent in the form of that demon masquerading as kunoichi.

Asuma gave a clipped nod. "Agreed. What's happening now is a symptom. It all started with Her, that incarnation of the Kyuubi no Kitsune."

The murmurs and fidgeting began anew. Kakashi felt the air crackle with hatred and fear at that cursed name.

Akimichi Choza and Shikau shared a dark glance, and Choza cleared his throat. "It's not as simple as killing that girl. She's become nearly untouchable and even if we managed to topple her the forces she's started would move beyond her death. All of the youngest jonin and chunin absolutely adore her and that includes my own son." He swallowed the shame of it before continuing. "The Hokage gives her iron clad protection and puts that demon's beliefs into law. A corpse will hardly uproot that problem, even hers."

Yugao let out a vicious laugh, regarding the Akimichi with heavy lidded eyes and disdain. "You know what we're getting at. Her corpse might not fix it but at least it will be a start. Everyone here knows that girl must be assassinated before it's too late. She's in the bed of what is no doubt the future Hokage and if we wait much longer the Godaime's little campaign to forcefully retire her enemies or to remove their power will destroy any chance we have of saving this village. The clock's on and we have to start somewhere."

"She's right." One of the shinobi councilmen agreed. "At this rate the council will become useless and the clans will no longer be able to sustain themselves and have their dues. The Hokage will rule unchecked and with that demon pulling the strings there will be no stopping the fall that's coming."

Kakashi felt his muscles coil. He felt anger and skepticism but more than that, doubt. "And what do you propose we do then Yugao, just walk up and stab her? I could probably take anyone in this room in one on one combat but Sakura is an entirely different matter. You'd be scraping me off the ground with a knife by the time that was done."

Yugao smirked and waved over her shoulder, voice a smug purr. "Gemma."

The other ANBU came and kneeled at her side. She smiled coldly at him. "Tell them what you told me."

Gemma swallowed, his teeth chattering on the senbon until he ripped it out. "A few hours ago I was placed on a top secret and highly dangerous bodyguard part-surveillance mission by the Godaime."

He looked guilty and glanced away from those seated at the table. Everyone in the room was hanging on his words and Shikaku finally snapped. "Well what?"

Gemma steeled himself. "Myself and the other ANBU were placed to watch over the jinchuuriki. We were told there was some kind of…damage to her chakra coils, and if her chakra shifted drastically in either direction we were to immediately isolate her and notify Tsunade."

The younger Inuzuka woman, Hana, blurted. "The demon is vulnerable?"

Gemma gave a blunt nod. "It seems that way, I can only speculate that Tsunade fears something going wrong with her chakra and needs us to get her to a hospital if something goes wrong."

There were sharp gasps of surprise and then mutters of excitement. The demon, for the first time since maybe that chunin exam when she'd stepped onto the world stage, was weak. Vulnerable. Killable.

Hiashi's lips twisted into a rictus of a smile. "We will need to move quickly if that's the case, as we all know her recovery rates are second to none. This window will no doubt be small."

Shikaku snorted and all eyes fell on him. He spat. "The window may be there, and what if you succeed, huh? If we're not perfect in framing a group outside the village it'll be our heads on a pike. Akastuki isn't around to accuse of all things that go wrong anymore."

Shikaku's lips curled. "If this fails it will be civil war. That woman has gathered around her the most powerful and influential children of this village. She has her Hokage in the Uzumaki, power in Uchiha Sasuke and Rock Lee and Hyuga Neji, future clan heads in Aburame Shino and all three children of the Ino-Shika-Cho squad, and she holds the loyalty of both direct Hyuga heirs if she ever manages to depose Hiashi. That doesn't even count the love of both Sanin, the devotion of all ninja her age and younger, and the strong support of nearly every medic ninja in the village. None of us saw what she was truly doing, we allowed our hatred of her to mislead us into thinking of her as nothing but an animal that needed to be put down. She was not a mindless pawn, but a queen in disguise."

It was like the air was being sucked out of the room and everyone inhaled sharply. They had been blind to what she was really doing and only now did they finally realize that her untouchable status was not a hated accident but a carefully orchestrated thing.

There were monsters and there were monsters, and they'd let one waltz right into power.

Hiashi's smug demeanor turned stormy. "We will succeed and destroy her. She is the glue that holds the new movement together, without her pulling the strings we can rip it apart and end this farce."

Some of the ninja nodded, murmuring agreements. Others looked less than sure and Hiashi noticed their unease. "We must put together a team and ambush her. Are the ANBU going to cooperate?"

Yugao's pale face gleamed triumphantly. It was no secret among those in this room that she had long held grudge against Sakura. First it had been for the people lost to the demon's attack but then it nearly tripled when the girl became the sympathetic ambassador to Suna. Suna, the same village that had assassinated Yugao's lover Hayate during the Oto/Suna invasion nearly four years ago.

Sakura had been close with the Kazekage and had easily persuaded her own Kage to not seek out those who had killed Konoha ninja during the invasion. Battle was battle and war crimes had never been sought. Yugao had been denied her revenge and she had boiled with it since.

"The ANBU under my command will assist in whatever manner you need. Gemma alone can knock out those on his detail to give you an opening. He'll can play unconscious and implicate another village later." She savored the next words. "I will personally take part in the ambush."

Hiashi nodded and glanced farther down the table. Both the Nara and Akimichi shook their heads, and Shikaku interjected. "We will not assist directly, you understand, but I know there are some in my clan who will wish to help. I'll send them your way Hiashi, but if this fails I will deny them."

The Inuzuka's were next. "My daughter despite my objections, says she's in for the attack. But she will only provide support and tracking." The younger Inuzuka glared at her mother but Tsume remained stony.

All the older shinobi council members declined direct participation, but two of them declared an interest to help organize and operate the mission from afar.

The four civilian members of the council all offered up money to pay for any kind of supplies or weaponry that those on the ambush wanted, which was honestly far more than Kakashi had expected them to do.

Asuma fidgeted with a pack of cigarettes. He dropped his voice. "What do you think?"

Kakashi shrugged. "I can't say I'd look forward to fighting her. Even weakened and in an ambush with the best we have to offer...I can't imagine them succeeding without less than a seventy-five percent casualty rate. And if this is traced back to us…well, no one whose opinion matters will hate me for it." He paused and really looked at his friend. "Your entire squad adores her. I haven't seen Sakura with either of the boys directly, but when she was with Ino…"

A shudder passed through him because he would never forget the sight of all that skin stretched between the trees. Ino had become something new on that mission to rescue Hanabi, born between the blood and the skin and the viscera. Sakura had welcomed her with open arms.

"They'll never forgive you." There was nothing else to really say.

Asuma lowered his head. "I was afraid you'd say that."

Hiashi looked to them and Kakashi shook his head. "I won't be directly involved in this."

The Hyuga returned his gaze coolly, but there was a sharp edge of venom belying it. "You were her sensei for a time Hatake; you can at least brief the squad on what you know of her skills."

He clenched his fists under the table. That monster had hid from all of them; Kakashi knew little more than the rest and in fact probably knew less as he'd been out of the village the past three years. But too many eyes were on him and he was still doubted for that farce of playing at her sensei. He could only bite back the complaint. "Fine."

Hiashi moved on to the large groups sitting by the walls. Six jonin gathered behind the table volunteered to be in the ambush, with three more offering to be support. Only one chunin was brave enough to want to be part of the attack squad and at the end there was roughly a main squad of a dozen with more yet to be recruited and nine people to organize and support.

"Those who will be part of this step to rid Konoha of a parasite I commend you. History will look back on you as heroes one day, I promise you that." Those white eyes shifted dangerously. "When thespecifics have been determined you will be contacted for the mission, lay low until then." With that Hiashi stood and left, the two other Hyuga following him from the room.

Kakashi couldn't help but notice no main house Hyuga had volunteered for the mission but three branch members had been casually offered up for slaughter. But it was too late to regret this alliance.

The sides had been chosen; he could only hope that his would be the winning one.

Apartment Complex, Four Days Later

"I'll be back tonight."

Sakura opened one eye slowly, pulling down the sheets so she could see Naruto's face. The room was still dark and cold. What hour was it?

She blinked rapidly and glanced at the clock. "Ah…my god, five AM ? What the hell does Jiraiya want you to do at five that you couldn't do at ten?"

He brushed a hand through her hair before bending to kiss her forehead. "You still get to sleep, what do you care?" The warm smile dulled the insult considerably. "We made a bit of a breakthrough on the seven-point-matrix yesterday, and the more time we put in the faster we can get this patch seal done."

She exhaled noisily. A breakthrough was so far from what she wanted it was galling.

Instead she grabbed the front of his shirt and hauled herself up. In the process the sheets on her slid down. Pale and naked skin enticed him. "Are you sure I can't persuade you to stay a little longer?"

He swallowed, eyes darting to the ceiling. "No…just…no."

She huffed and withdrew, hiding herself from him. "Whatever, go, I'll be here at lunch just in case Jiraiya-sama lets you come home. You know, when he's too busy doing his noon research to actually work."

He chuckled fondly. "Since when did you mind Jiraiya's research?"

She didn't, she was actually quite fond of that man and his perversions. It was just this thing with the patch seal was pissing her off because it was suddenly a race between her and them, and Sakura had always been terribly competitive.

He touched her right leg softly before leaving their bedroom. The front door opened and closed and the emptiness of the rooms surrounding her crept in.

The last few days had been odd, surreal even. Naruto left early in the morning, sometimes before she would wake. Sasuke hadn't shown up for coffee in days and it'd thrown off her patterns and leaft her at ends. Tsunade had banned her from the tower, and trying to throw her chakra around training on a broken seal would like get her chained to the hospital floor.

Sasuke not showing up…wasn't a surprise. There was nothing she could do to fix this, and at a loss she'd already started and then set aside the paperwork to move him off squad if he asked it of her.

Mostly she'd lazed about the apartment and been moody. Well, that's how it looked to the ANBU watching her. In reality when she was pacing, staring at the walls, sitting on the balcony, or reading she was in reality conversing with the Kyuubi. It was a race between her and Naruto to see if she if the demon would be sealed or if she would finally fill her last fealty.

It was proving more difficult than she and the Kyuubi had imagined. While his soul could technically leave her body without the Yondaime's seal to impede it, there was no anchor to keep him around once he left. For the moment they were moving in circles and not getting anywhere because he had no shell and his body had been long ago burned and removed from this earth.

She drifted back to sleep again. She was thinking, half here and half there and absolutely nowhere at all. Her thoughts were muddled, echoes of the autopsies performed days before on the Akatsuki filling her up in every gory detail. It was white and red, sterile until her teeth ached, silver and cold and their viscera spread out like butterfly wings.

She may have been banned from the tower but she had refused to miss those autopsies.

Even disallowed to assist, she'd watched from the observation deck as Tsunade and Shizune peeled those missing ninja apart. The bodies had been mostly destroyed and putting them back together had been a near disaster. They were so broken using foreign chakra to reconstruct had nearly caused cascading failure in the first few minutes. Some of the cadavers had bloodlines, strange ones, and the bodies had been forcibly reconstructed with various chemicals and base elements kept on hand just so they could examine the kekke genkai properly.

Something stirred, silver and cold become boiling and red. There was an idea there churning sticky with promise.

A sharp knock broke the half-dream, sending the wisps of it away. She stumbled out of the bed and her feet nearly slipped on the floor in her haste. Her head ached strangely and she wondered just what that had been.

The person knocked a second time and she snarled and searched for some half-decent clothing to answer the door in. It was in shorts and an oversized shirt she found Hanabi smiling sleepily at her. "Hi Sakura." Andthen the girl breezed right in to find the nearest couch to fall back asleep on.

Sakura's breath caught, the feeling of dark and feathery and familiar racing across her skin.

Sasuke stood slouched in the doorway, limbs clenched like rebar and jaw sharp as any blade.

She blinked, heart racing. "Sasuke."

He turned towards her and she felt the muscles between her shoulder blades pull tight. Her voice stayed airy. "You want coffee?"

"I—" The air pulsed between them, blood and fury barely kept under. He sounded mechanical. "That'd be fine."

Hanabi glanced at them, the tiredness retreating from her eyes. Sakura wondered if the girl could smell the steel and guts and old memories that lay between them. Sasuke nudged her with his elbow, half hiding the girl in the movement.

Hanabi understood the order of retreat for what it was and disappeared to the living room.

They both stayed in the hallway, still locked in the miasma of betrayal and unable to move past it.

"Come inside." She asked.

He stiffened. "Is that an order?"

Her ribs felt more brittle than glass. "No."

He stepped in slowly to test the waters. She walked backwards and allowed him to follow her into the kitchen. He came into the room ten minutes later and she smelled the anger of him more than she saw him. Her back was turned as she made the coffee and it would be so, so easy for him to slip a knife into it.

Suddenly his fingers pressed along her ribs behind her heart. She stilled to acknowledge the action for what it was.

I could have, but I won't.

It's not like she wouldn't have smelled the adrenaline and heard the blade if he'd really been trying, but it was a small indulgence to give him, her back.

"Hanabi's asleep." He told her.

And she wasn't surprised. "I suppose there's something you wanted to say to me." She turned and shoved herself up on the counter. "Go for it."

He bracketed her in on the counter with his arms and his voice was low and feral with need. "Why Itachi?"

For a second she could only see a little boy begging why, why, why did you do it—why me why him why us

She couldn't stay silent, but it took some time to work up an answer. "I was starved for human contact as a kid. He was the first person to…to look at me and not hate me for it. He saw me for exactly what I was and decided that made me worthy."

Even the Kyuubi had hardly thought her worthy back in those days.

"It could have been anyone in the beginning," She admitted. "But he chose me and I loved him for it."

His jaw worked under his skin, sinew and bone wound up so tightly. "Do you always kill the things you love?"

"What I feel for you is so far from what I felt for him it's not even in the same universe." The words that left her turned sharper."Itachi left promising me we'd kill each other and I couldn't express myself any other way besides saying yes and wanting to stick my hands between his ribs so I could feel his guts and make him mine."

"Should I be worried?" It sounded like a joke but it was entirely a threat.

She sniffed waspishly. "I've learned to express myself in more healthy ways since then." She closed her eyes. "You're not the only one who's fucked up Sasuke."

"So that was it." He asked flatly. "He snapped his fingers and you leapt to attention."

"He promised me blood." Her breath was spilling out of her hotly; remembering in bright detail that puberty had come early for her and she hadn't been able to express it properly.

"For what it's worth Sasuke." She swallowed the rush of heat down into an apology. "I'm sorry it's come to this."

He didn't respond and she could smell the coffee burning in the pot.

Things would never be the same again; they were so uncomfortable in each other's presence that her skin was crawling. Beneath that there was something brittle ready to shatter and slice them both to pieces. She couldn't assuage him and there were no excuses left.

Maybe time would bury these pains. Maybe it wouldn't. Whatever happened though, they could never go back to how things were again.

She breathed out and accepted it. There was nothing else to be done for it. "I need to borrow Hanabi tomorrow."

The temperature in the room dropped to subzero and he was crowding her, hands on either side of her hips and stomach pressed between her legs. "Why?"

He was so protective, so damn obvious she could see his Achilles' heel from here.

"I need to get Hinata and Shino a wedding present." She answered neutrally. "I doubt it will even occur to Hanabi that she should buy something for her sister."

The suspicion wasn't spoken with words but by the way he coiled under her. A sigh slipped out. "The ANBU will be watching. I won't put one hair out of place on her pretty, pretty head."

He withdrew like she'd burned him. "Fine."

The coldness remained in the air behind him and there was nothing she could say to make it go away. Sasuke left and took Hanabi with him and the coffee burned and boiled over.

She didn't feel anything.

One Day Later, 9:35 AM

"Sakura, I swear to whatever heavenly being is up there that I'm not on lunch break. This is vital and—don't laugh, I'm not kidding!" Naruto glared up at her, scowling.

The frustration of the last few days was coiling unpleasantly in her belly and it made her grin viciously. "I don't believe you. You know with you waltzing in here and telling me to get my shirt off and get my ass on the bed…really Naruto. You're giving a girl expectations here."

She wondered if this counted as taking it out on him. With venomed words and her back arching and a grin that could cut him if he got to close. She was pissed and it made her blood boil in all the wrong ways.

Naruto though seemed to take it like a godsend to annoy her. "How was I supposed to know you weren't wearing anything underneath the shirt?" He eyed her appreciatively. "I really did need to look at your seal, you know. Not that I minded the show."

She made a crooning noise. "You didn't ask." The foreplay was putting her off, she wanted to shove and bite and dig in but Naruto was too busy grinning and trying to work. She had to move slowly even though she wanted to burst at the seams.

His fingers tapped on her hip. "We have a couple of sketches of the broken outline of your seal but there were irregularities. I came to double check." His fingers nearly bruised her. "That's it."

She barked out a laugh. "Oh, that's it, huh?" Her grin was razors and she pressed closer. "And you're not enjoying this just a teeny, tiny bit?"

He shoved her back on the bed and returned to examining her stomach. Sakura could have just about killed him.

From her perch her legs were spread and Naruto was on the floor crouched between them. The position was comprising but he was just staring at the seal on her stomach and scribbling on a drawing pad propped against his knees.

It was just so…so infuriating.

He leaned in closer to examine the outer edge and his breath pulsed warmly against her stomach. This was so unfair she wanted to scream.

Suddenly he dropped the pad and gripped both sides of her stomach, pushing her farther onto the bed. She gazed at him hopefully but he was staring at the seal so intently he might as well have been looking at a textbook. He was entirely oblivious to the expectant look she was burning into the top of his head.

His breath caught. "It's deteriorating—it's been deteriorating this whole time. Piece by piece." And he swore. "Shit!"

Her disappointment in the lack of more strenuous activity was immediately forgotten.

She looked at her own shattered seal with incredulous eyes, and true to his words she could see the edges fading out. How had she not noticed this?

She put a hand to her mouth to hide her smile. "It must be my blood, the Kyuubi had aspiration of me burning the seal off by making me pure seal acid. With it breaking open my blood must have finally found a chink to eat at."

It didn't really help her any, since it was already shattered. But she knew what this meant for Naruto: setback.

He swore again. "We were basing that new design to incorporate with the leftover pieces! Now—" He gave an agitated growl and kicked the sketching pad. "It's utterly useless!"

She ran her fingers through his hair. "It's all right. The most getting it done right now will do for me is save me from getting nagged to death. The Kyuubi isn't exactly in a position to come busting out right now. We're not on any timetable."

He sighed and rested his forehead against her stomach. "I guess."

He was a sealing genius who enjoyed his art and already he was plotting a new course of action. She was a breaker by necessity. And while they complemented each other perfectly in this regard, when it came to their own development of seals he was light-years ahead of her in skill.

This setback had given her time but Naruto's genius wouldn't be stopped long. But she had her ways to delay him. "I know what will make you feel better."

He snapped back."What?"

"Well let's see." She purred. "Jiraiya-sama gave you two hours to put together a new sketch and in fifteen minutes we've already realized there's no point. Nobody is expecting us anywhere right now."

He glanced up at her, heat sparking in his eyes. "Yeah?"

She smirked. Hook, line and sinker. "Trust me, screwing your anger out does wonders for your stress level." God knows she'd been trying to do just that for the last half-hour.

Uncertainty crossed his face, duty warring with desire. "I should find Jiraiya and tell him what happened. You need this seal."

He wouldn't get away that easily. She slid her hands behind his neck, nails scraping at skin and drawing him up. She kissed him softly and then trailed down his neck, nails digging in and using her teeth as she went.

The pain triggered him and he surged up, slamming her backwards onto the bed and straddling her in one smooth motion.

"Come on." She enticed him. "Is that all you got? I didn't even feel it."

He snarled at her, shoving between her legs and driving her down into the bed. She arched and felt her toes curl.

"We'll be giving your ANBU detail quite a show." He breathed against her neck.

"They know better than to—" She was already working at his shirt. "Better than to watch." Because if they did she'd skin them alive and screaming.

He grinned. "Good." And one of his hands had already started a torturous slide down her abdomen.

She gasped, utterly breathless. "Now that's definitely more like it."

Konoha, Shopping District, 11:37 AM

"So what are we looking for?"

Sakura almost didn't notice Hanabi speaking to her; too busy replaying the morning over and over in her head. Really, she should try pissing Naruto off more before initiating with him, because damn.

Hanabi sighed. "Could you be anymore smug?"

Sakura glanced at her, realizing just what the girl was implying. "Well somebody's not getting any."

"Twelve!" Hanabi objected.

Sakura clicked her tongue. "Most ninja hit puberty around ten, don't give me that."

The girl crossed her arms. "None of your business. Besides, weren't we here getting Hinata a present?"

Sakura hummed cheerfully but didn't answer. The other girl's gaze dipped a bit and suddenly the teasing and taunts were gone. "Why did you ask me to come?"

She felt her smile slip. "Hinata's your sister. I thought this would be fun for the both of us."

Hanabi fidgeted with her sleeve. "You and Sasuke have been fighting and you know I'm on his side."

"We didn't ask you to pick sides." And all of her good mood was evaporating and Sakura couldn't even get angry about it.

"He's been weird since Akatsuki and it just hurts being around you two in the same room." The girl looked up in determination. "I can't ignore it."

She sighed. "It's all said and done. There's nothing you can do to make this any better."

The question hung, the why. Hanabi stared at her and Sakura stared back with glacial eyes. Hanabi looked away first. "Whatever."

That wasn't the end of it but Sakura would let it slide. There was nothing any of them could do, they just had to live and work it out however it happened, for good or for ill.

Hanabi let out a ragged breath. "So are we just going to pretend everything is fine and all damn perfect? Because I can totally start talking about how Neji and Tenten are saying they're not dating and then make out whenever they think nobody's looking."

She smiled ruefully. "If that's what you want."

Hanabi huffed but didn't bring it up a second time, and Sakura grabbed the girl by the arm and pulled them to a halt. "We're here."

Hanabi looked at the store and her jaw dropped. "You have got to be kidding me."

Sakura cackled. "Hinata and Shino are going to be the new Lord and Lady of the Aburame, and since they'll be living at the compound it's not like they need house warming gifts. I want to see that demure Lady Aburame speechless."

Hanabi made a choking sound. "With all that lace—good god, how would you get that on?"

"Very carefully." She responded sagely.

Hanabi's pale eyes widened with glee. "Hinata'll have an aneurism when she opens it."

Both girls shared a glance and grinned, their argument firmly set aside. They linked arms and cheerfully made their way into the premiere women's lingerie store in all of Konoha.

Hanabi laughed. "Hinata's going to hate us."

Sakura just grinned.

Shopping District, 3:34 PM

He saw wisps of black hair first and then the familiar curve of neck meeting shoulder. Konohamaru couldn't help the smile despite his anxiety. When Sakura saw him her face lit up and he threw himself at her. She had to spin around once to dissipate the momentum of his jump and they were both laughing as they hugged.

"God Maru." She set him down and gripped his shoulder tightly. "You're packing muscle on there. Pretty soon I won't be able to lift you like that anymore."

His smile lasted only a few seconds before slipping. There was a reason he was here tracking her down. No one had acknowledged her return to the village and it'd been by pure chance he'd overheard rumors of her being back in town. And he'd been holding onto a secret for far too long.

Something was brewing in the village and it was coming for her, and his uncle might just be part of it.

Her expression morphed from honest joy to worry and then to grim understanding. "What is it?"

"Something's happening and I don't know what." He swallowed. "We should probably tell the Hokage."

"I guess its good I already sent Hanabi back home." Sakura's gaze was calculating. "I'll take you to Hime myself. In the meantime why don't you tell me what's going on?"

Hokage Tower, 4:10 PM

It took only ten succinct minutes for Konohamaru to share the conversation he'd overheard between his uncle and Hatake Kakashi. When he was done the office was silent. Tsunade sat back, face drawn and fingers laced together under her chin. It almost looked like she was praying.

Sakura sat on poised with body angled like a blade: sharp, flat and deadly. They were taking the bait, her enemies were gathering. The plan was coming to fruition half a decade sooner than she'd imagined even in her wildest dreams.

Tsunade's eyes opened and they were amber shaded darkly. "This is troubling." It was a drastic understatement.

Both Sakura and Konohamaru nodded, unable to offer anything more.

Sakura waited, feeling anticipation building in her stomach and kicking around her veins. She called to the Kyuubi. Hear that? Our enemies are stirring, all of the maneuvering has made them realize the corner they're in. And now they're getting ready to show their hand.

A hollow sound came up, the clicking of joints and the gnashing of teeth. The chilling sensation of human hands pulling at her mind made a ripple of something icy flow across her skin. She was still troubled by that new form of his. The way it touched and moved and gripped so tightly.

His tone was low, pleasure and anticipation in one heady combination. It happened sooner than we hoped. Now how will they strike? Blades or fire or poison in your drink…

She had to stop herself from shuddering in utter delight. Inwardly she mused. This could still be a year out; we may only be seeing the first signs.

He answered archly. Or for all we know they're already organizing, all of our enemies gathering together to plot in one convenient place.

Our luck is changing. She had the impression of sharp teeth, of hands on her throat and a slick feeling in her belly. And whenever they strike we'll be ready to bring up the curtain.

The connection abruptly shattered, Tsunade's voice bringing it down. "It's only hearsay, we can't move openly on this. Not yet."

Sakura touched above her right eyebrow trying to steady herself. Now wasn't the time to get distracted. "What you're saying is we can't drag them to Ibiki and strap them to a table." She drawled.

Tsunade smiled tightly. "Accusing top jonin and arresting them on no grounds would cause an uproar, might even send any conspirators to ground. Village intelligence is already turned inward after that utter fiasco with Danzo."

Konohamaru blinked in confusion, not understanding. Sakura knew Danzo's betrayal would never be made public and merely nodded. "So we watch and wait. Fine."

Konohamaru was balled up tightly. "And we just let them do whatever they want? Sakura, they sounded like they wanted to…"

Kill you.

Oh god yes did they want to kill her. And she wanted it more than anything.

Her Maru liked his uncle well enough but he loved her to a level of devotion that was frightening. He would turn on his kin in a heartbeat if she wished it and someday she just might.

"Thank you,Konohamaru for bringing this to light. We'll take it from here. I promise." The Hokage soothed.

He glanced away in a sulk."Yes Hokage-sama."

Sakura rubbed his shoulder. "I'll be safe. Cross my heart." And hope to die.

He glanced at her and she reached out, arms slender and inviting, and he hugged her without hesitation. He was strong and so very talented but in a lot of ways he remained a child.

She kissed his cheek. "Trust me."

He nodded fervently. "I do." And he returned her kiss right above her jaw before slipping out obediently.

Tsunade watched him until he left. As soon as he was gone her face hardened, carved from nothing more than ice and fury and will. "I'm getting to old for this cloak and dagger shit. If we had more concrete information I could bring them in for questioning and end this." And then gut them, but that didn't need to be said.

Sakura sunk back, so languid with delight she was near boneless. "You don't have to justify your reasoning. If we started pulling ninja in and calling them traitors without anything but a thin circumstantials everything would go to hell. We watch and wait and do what needs to be done."

Despite the genjutsu making her appearance not a day over twenty, Tsunade's eyes betrayed her age. "If we sit by too long this may escalate beyond control. It's one thing to be cautious; it's another to let treachery breed itself."

Tsunade could not be allowed to move too soon because that was entirely the point.

Sakura felt a jolt. She caused this woman such strain and refused to stop. But there was no going back. "We both know we can only watch for now, so worrying hardly has a point." She changed the subject. "Are those Akatsuki autopsies finished?"

Tsunade seemed to find relief in the abrupt change and immediately produced a thick folder. Unsurprisingly she also produced a bottle of sake and a glass. Sakura wordlessly uncorked the bottle and poured her mentor a cup.

Tsunade read from the file. "Reconstruction jutsu went well for how badly mutilated the bodies were, but I had to pull half the medic nin from the hospital to keep up the chakra to stop decay. We restored most to full capacity and some of the results were…enlightening."

Sakura took the proffered file and flipped through idly, she was many things but the medic interest in her would always remain. The results from these types of operations were always stunning.

"We're lucky none of the cadavers had more than forty percent of their bodies destroyed, or else the decay rate would have caught the regeneration in a flat minute." Sakura murmured."Then the chakra suck would have just been making cancers instead of rebuilding."

A weary sigh greeted that assessment. "It's a pity; if we'd had some chakra samples we could have restored them further. Got the bodies restarted on their own chakra instead of waiting for the cancers to inevitably hit..."

It was the dream of all medics. Get the original chakra and rebuild the body and then experiment to your heart's content. Reality rarely worked out that well.

Those words triggered the silver boiling bloody mess of an idea that had been sitting in her head, and suddenly a thing half dreamt was unfurling into beautiful fact. The Kyuubi grabbed the thought with a snap, unspooling and untangling it as fast as it formed so even if she lost the thread he would have it gripped tight.

He cackled in abject glee. I knew there was a reason I kept you around.

She took the compliment for what it is worth. I think…with the right supplies, this infinite and similar chakra of ours, I can free you completely.

She could feel his delight, malicious joy, and just a touch of pride in her, the human being no longer entirely human he'd helped create.

Sakura jumped from her seat. "Please keep me updated on any intel leads. In the meantime I'm going to…examine the autopsies at my leisure." The lie was easy and Tsunade let her make apologies and bow out with little fuss.

As she left the office Sakura kept careful track of the ANBU watching her through the windows. This would be a delicate dance to get right but she'd done harder. Without pause she slipped into a wash room on the ground floor and nonchalantly strode up to the mirror and began to touch up her hair.

The washroom was empty and she drew out the clone with hand seals to make sure none of the ANBU would feel the chakra of its making.

For a moment creator and the created started at each other. Sakura raised an eyebrow. "You know what to do."

The clone gave a nod and Sakura left the washroom and then the Hokage tower to head back home. It was exactly where she was expected to go and she couldn't disappoint.

The clone waited exactly fifteen minutes, applied a henge, and then left the tower without receiving a second glance. Under the cool autumn sun with the trees in full crimson, pale yellow, and burnt orange she walked directly to the hospital.

There were things that needed to be gathered. There was an abomination to commit on nature.

Two Days Later, Aburame Compound

Ninja getting married, invariably, always seemed to follow two set patterns. In most instances it was a short and almost brutally quick affair that would more likely than not find the bride and groom in their battle attire fresh from the hospital after realizing they couldn't go without getting married. The speed was mostly due to circumstance; both parties had missions to go on, squads to run, and lives to lead that couldn't be wasted on expensive flourish like a drawn out ceremony.

Conversely, all other ninja weddings were huge celebrations that put their home villages in a freeze for the entire day as festivities played out through the streets. These weddings were always the result of a political marriage: a union for a noble to a ninja they'd become smitten with, a political pact from village to village, or a clan affair that had to be acknowledged.

And the Aburame, even with their secretive nature and the general mistrust outsiders held for them, couldn't escape the latter of these options.

Sakura also couldn't help but mourn that fact.

When dawn first crested the horizon, splashing the sky with a pink-orange glaze over the clouds, Sakura had found herself being woken and whisked away by two Aburame women. Naruto hadn't even gotten the chance to protest before she was gone.

She'd then been stripped of almost every article of clothing she had on, which wasn't much to begin with, and dressed in a stunning orange-red kimono that shimmered like fire. She'd been fitted with expensive jewelry at her wrists and throat, had her makeup done with a painstaking but absolutely perfect touch, and properly had her hair done with fresh crimson lilies woven into the intricate knots.

If this was treatment she got for being a close family friend to the bride and groom, she couldn't even begin to imagine how much Hinata was being fussed over at this exact moment. And that prompted Sakura to laugh, having people buzzing around made her first female friend extremely flustered.

By the time her mirth had run its course Naruto had tracked her down, just in time for him to be swamped with a shorter but no less intrusive fitting. He was less than pleased, but since he was her date they did only the minimum to make him look decent before shoving him out the door.

They were provided a short meal and then were sent to the largest road in Konoha to watch the beginning of the wedding procession. From the gates of the village all the way to the Aburame compound, Hinata was pulled on a silvery palanquin laden with gauzy veils and hundreds of white flowers that just barely obscured her from view. Villagers, shinobi and civilian alike, threw cherry blossoms in the path of the soon to be bride and laughed and cheered.

It was times like this that allowed them to forget the realities of their world, and even Sakura let herself get swept up in the bliss.

When the procession had passed them she and Naruto ran hand-in-hand like untroubled children. They'd laughed and stumbled and barely reached the compound in time for the ceremony. They'd almost been late for all the times they stopped to kiss and share warm, secretive smiles with one another.

For the first time in as long as she could remember, they'd genuinely enjoyed themselves without it being weighed down by their other burdens.

The Kyuubi was silent, sleeping too deeply to mock her. It was a reprieve of sorts and she would relish every moment of it.

They made it in time to be seated on the bride's side for the ceremony. The cushions were thick and utterly lavish. Hinata's side was woefully bereft of people when compared to her husbands. It was, in reality, just herself, Naruto, Ino, Chouji, Shikamaru, a currently visiting Temari, Neji, Tenten, Kiba, and Hanabi after the girl was abruptly deposited by Sasuke before he retreated from the house to sit out the ceremony in the shade of one of the gardens.

Sakura thought, considering how much these people loved Hinata, it hardly mattered that they numbered less.

The soft tinkling of a harp came from somewhere behind her, hauntingly clear, drifting like the tempo of the sea. Tsunade herself came through a side door with the groom ready to preside on the wedding.

Shino to everyone's shoc, had actually removed his sunglasses. His yukata had almost no collar to speak of and for the first time since probably early childhood, Sakura could fully see his face.

He met eyes with each of them as he passed and for the moment his gaze met hers time just stopped. They smiled gently at each other, so happy it nearly broke her heart. For all their suffering, for all the things they had done and were yet to do, Shino had found his happiness. And no matter what her intentions were in the beginning of their friendship, she had never loved him more and would love him always past this.

The moment passed. Shino continued to walk by and when he took his position the harp stilled. Doors opened behind her and all heads turned as a new melody started. It was winter sun, summer rain, the thunder of spring, the loss of autumn. It was all wrapped up in an Aria of light, silvery and more delicate than filigree.

She could hear people gasping; it was an angel that swept into the room. Hinata's kimono was whiter than snow, sleeves long and skirts flowing to part just above her knees. The cloth cascaded down and behind her legs to reveal her bare feet. Every inch of her skin was as pale as alabaster.

Hinata glowed, ethereal and light on her feet, hair tied intricately as a crown and strewn with crystal and diamonds like the refinement of heaven. Each crystal caught a different ray of sun and sent dazzling shatters of light across the air. From one long, slender hairpin in the back cherry blossoms had been woven in and they trailed gently down the nape of her neck to touch the clasp of a necklace made of seemingly nothing more than silver and grace.

And Sakura, without any jealousy or resentment, admitted that Hinata was the most beautiful woman she had ever laid eyes on. No one would ever surpass her and Sakura hardly wanted to herself. Let beauty and grace and heaven belong to Hinata. Sakura would keep enough ugliness and fury and hell for the both of them.

After what felt like a lifetime Hinata reached the front. With one soft curve of her mouth, shy and dazzling, she set her hand in Shino's and together they turned to the Hokage.

And distantly, Sakura knew there would be no moment for her happier than this. When the tears fell she didn't regret them.

Main Garden, Aburame Compound

"To the bride and groom, may their union be long and their children strong!"

People cheered to the toast and downed the champagne or harder liquor as if they were taking shots. Somehow, even in the depths of the Aburame estate, hard booze had found it's way in and every person reveled in it.

Hinata blushed and the hand that wasn't holding Shino's pulled a sleeve up to cover her face. Shino gave a bland but pleased smile, and immediately had a glass shoved into his hand by one of his happy but slightly drunk cousins. He took the toast with grace and a shallow sip of his glass.

Sakura, farther back from the walkway they were standing on, raised her glass in salute to the couple. Shino raised his and they mentally toasted to one another. Moments later she lost sight of them as they began to circulate among their guests.

With a content sort of sigh she wandered her way through the crowd to find Naruto trying to drink Kiba under the table. Both were giving it their best and Sakura gave him a kiss on the cheek for luck but left him to get sloshed on his own.

The chatter in the gardens was light, and the glances she was getting were a mixture of either respect or recognition. She was pleasantly surprised to find herself being stopped so people could either thank her for someone she had saved as a medic or for a mission she had done recently. She was, in truth, the most famous ninja there part of an infamous but equally glamorous squad. They received the best missions and highest pay and were shrouded in utter secrecy on how much they actually left the village for Kage and country. In the world of ninja, she was pretty close to becoming something of a celebrity.

"Sakura, over here!"

She turned and delighted to see Chouji was waving at her over the crowd. He beckoned her and she readily wound her way to the group that had gathered under the bows of a latern strewn oak.

Ino was hanging on Chouji's arm, smiling brightly and looking better than she had for weeks. To their left was Shikamaru staring at the night sky, fingers twitching on his left hand in want of a cigarette. However his arm was wound around a striking blonde, and eveytime he made a move to grab one she slapped his hand with the slats of a wooden fan. When she wasn't reprimanding her boyfriend, Temari was making little breezes to set off the chimes in the trees and the sounds were near heavenly to listen too.

Then, almost from nowhere, Hinata and Shino slipped from their well-wishers to complete the circle. For a moment everyone stared at each other before smiling and breaking out into laughter.

"Adults." Sakura gave an amused sigh. "Who would have thought all of us would have made it this far?"

Ino rolled her eyes. "Considering the people that tried to snuff us along the way, it's a damn achievement."

Chouji smirked. "Definitely. I was worried for awhile that Shikamaru was going to do himself in with lung cancer."

"Hah hah." Shikamaru laughed dryly, "I'll have you know that while your deaths will be short and violent, I'll have the last laugh of a nice drawn out affair where I can make everyone pity me, buy me things, and then leave me the hell alone."

Temari none to gently elbowed him in the ribs. "You say such nice things, honey." Her sarcastic smile turned rueful. "At least you had that to look forward to; I'm still shocked I made it past my tenth birthday with Gaara lurking around threatening everything that moved that it would be fed to his sand."

"Ooooh." Sakura replied cheerfully. "How utterly traumatizing."

Temari just made a flippant gesture and they all laughed.

Sakura emptied the rest of her champagne glass in one go and deposited it on the empty tray of a passing waiter. She couldn't get drunk but it was the thought that counted tonight. Her eyes went across the faces arrayed before her and a light burned brightly in her chest. Humor bubbled up so warmly. "You know, out of all of us I hadn't expected Hinata or Shino to be the first married."

The groom arched one eyebrow. "Really?"

She nodded absently. Hinata glanced at her, clearly seeing the joke coming. "Who were you expecting?"

With a negligent gesture she pointed across the circle. "That guy."

Shikamaru choked on his champagne and began to cough. "What?"

The laughter was uproarious but in the crowd they were barely noticed. Sakura gave a mock pout but her lips quirked with joy. "I'm being serious here. Remember when we were kids? When we talked about our dreams Shikamaru would always say he would find a girl…"

Chouji grinned so widely his face was nearly split in two. "Not too ugly, not too pretty…"

Temari whacked her boyfriend upside the head, and Shikamaru for once looked sheepish. "I may have failed on that one; my girlfriend is far too pretty." The blonde next to him quirked her lips but then swiftly kissed him on the cheek.

Hinata continued, giggling as she did. "Then have kids, first a girl, then a boy."

Shino interjected smoothly."Retire after my daughter is married and my son finds a job…"

Ino had tears of laughter forming in the corner of her eyes. "Then spend the rest of my life playing shoji or go…"

Temari smiled up at her boyfriend, eyes touched by both amusement and naked affection. "And then die of old age before my wife." She'd heard it all before.

Sakura flicked her hand. "After you told us that we were just a bunch of immature brats while you had your life planned out two-hundred moves in advance. I'd always had the suspicion when we were kids that you were always sorting through every girl you met for a future bride."

Shikamaru groaned and shook his head in denial. "I hate you all."

This elicited a few more chuckles. Hinata half-smiled, soft with fondness. "Sorry Shikamaru. I'd love for this to go longer but we have to keep circulating a little while longer before leaving for the—"

Hinata couldn't finish the words honeymoon without blushing scarlet to the roots of her hair, and she looked so flustered that Shino swept his bride off to a nearby gazebo to let her regain her composure.

Ino watched them go and then glanced at those left. "I know for a fact that the Aburame have some really nice and really expensive fruit wine in the kitchens. Tastes so good you won't even realize that you're getting drunk."

Sakura regarded her friend in interest. "I'm intrigued. Good stuff? Not like these foul tasting delicacies they got circulating right now?"

Ino nodded, eyes bright and clear, and Sakura couldn't help grabbing the other girl's hand and squeezing tightly. The rest of the group began subtly surveying for the quickest and most concealed way to the kitchen.

Ino squeezed her hand back and Sakura gave her a sly smile. "Then lead the way."

Outer Perimeter, Aburame Compound

"This is Alpha; I have the target moving through the east quadrant. She's leaving my visual, heading towards Delta. Over." Static crackled from the radio in Gemma's ear. It prompted him to pull his binoculars up to survey the distant gardens for his target.

He flicked a switch on his communicator and responded. "This is Delta, I have a visual. Target is moving at a good speed and she's already outside my sector. Visual lost. Over."

A different voice burst back against his eardrums, "This is Beta, confirming…I've got her. She's coming to a stop. Target is looking for someone…damn it—she just stepped into one of my blind spots. Standby for reconfirmation."

The commanding voice of the ANBU captain of the surveillance squad broke over. "This is Gamma, can you adjust your angle on the target Beta?"

Despite the flattening effect of the radio, Beta responded with a whine in his tone. "I can't reconfirm visual, not from this distance. Five hundred feet is too much on this angle. I could move closer, breach the guard perimeter—"

"Beta!" The reprimand was sharp and Gemma winced from the volume. "Our orders have been given, only Aburame and wedding guests within five hundred feet. Hold your position." The captain then barked as an afterthought: "Over."

Beta sulked. "But I—" His voice suddenly dropped an octave to become professional once more "Target has moved into the open again. Has one other person with her, confirming…Nara Shikamaru."

Then, suddenly, a panicky voice burst over the channel from Alpha. "I have the target over here as well—shit, when did she get here? Goddamnit, I have two of the target here now. Hold…hold…" There was suddenly laughter. "False alarm. Looks like she sent two clones to get her drunk boyfriend home."

The captain snapped back. "Confirmed shadow clones? Alpha, did you confirm?"

There was a slight buzzing and then a short reply. "Chakra is minimal but bright, definitely shadows. I'll keep an eye on them. Standing by."

A slight hiss was spat from the communicator and the captain ordered. "Hold your positions. Beta, keep tabs on your current target."

Gemma listened for another minute to the dense chatter, noting that for the moment the target wasn't moving. He exhaled silently through the slits on his mask, the warmth of his breath meeting cold air and condensing on the edges. Annoyed, he made sure his communicator was off before cautiously removed his ANBU mask and wiping the sweat from his face. His hands were clammy, shaking even.

Tonight was the night that would change everything.

The radio in his ear buzzed and he clumsily pulled on his mask.

"Delta, target is moving towards your sector. I've lost visual, do you have her?"

Gemma swallowed and nearly wretched as his dry throat protested. He licked his lips furtively and watched the dark haired form of Sakura of the Kyuubi no Kitsune get closer to him. He flipped on his communicator. "Target and the Nara are heading towards the west gate. And target is…pausing to speak with him. They've stopped moving in the gateway. I need to move to a better vantage, hold on."

The lies felt like sandpaper scraping up his throat, and he watched mutely though his binoculars as Sakura waved the Nara goodbye and left him in the doorway smoking. She kept walking towards him, down a dark and deserted street away from the compound's walls and in the general direction of her apartment.

His captain responded. "Standby—standby—hold position. Inform us when she changes location." As far as his team were concerned she was still with the Nara.

At that exact moment in time Gemma was the only person who could see her and he carefully pulled out a second communication radio from his pocket and flipped it on."Yugao, you read me?"

A clipped, feminine voice answered. "Loud and clear Gemma. Do you need us to move in on the ANBU with you?"

He flinched. "No. She's slipped the net without them noticing. She's heading north-west on a service road, Avenue Ren. Cover is good on all sides. Wait for her to get farther out before attacking. Subject was seen drinking, but do not depend on her being drunk. Repeat, do not depend on her being drunk."

She replied curtly. "Good work. We'll handle it from here Gemma. This shouldn't take long."

The comm went dead and he felt his eyes being drawn helplessly downward as the woman he was helping to assassinate walked directly beneath the tree he was crouched in. Then, with a flicker of poisoned jade, her eyes looked straight at him. His heart stopped. There was no air, no light, no escaping. Just eyes and jade and slices of—

She looked away from him utterly disinterested. Her slender form that was wreathed in a kimono that shined like fire shimmered as she slipped away into the dark.

He clutched his chest and gasped in mouthfuls of air through his suddenly claustrophobic mask.

He grabbed at the communicator and then nervously touched the one still in his ear. He could call Yugao, say there had been a complication, call it off. He could contact his squad; the distance discrepancy was still manageable enough to explain how she'd gotten so far so fast. He could lie to everyone and keep botching it until the guard was removed and the woman was too strong to be taken down.

And then he thought of that terrible night over sixteen years ago. He'd still been in the academy then, pathetically useless and ready to piss himself when hell had breached the horizon. His body had gone slack just looking at the demon that had loomed in the sky like a strange and bloodied moon. He had stood there rooted as people died and others ran screaming and fire came down like rain.

It was fitting that tonight that woman wore a kimono woven as flame.

Because even after the sacrifices and the Yondaime himself dying, that monster had lived. The fires had never stopped burning, not for Gemma.

Hatred.

That demon had become a child both weak and powerless. But they had been denied their vengeance on her and she had grown fighting and vicious and had clawed her way up through the ninja ranks without any regard. He had watched her during the invasion that followed the Chunin Exam as she cast off her mask and took up her fiery crown.

She'd turned the tides of the ensuing battle back with summons and clones, with blood and fire from horizon to horizon. She grew older, assassins fell at her feet, Orochimaru was torn down by her hands, Akatsuki slain by her wrath, and she'd only grown stronger. Full of hate, and helplessness, Gemma was first bound by his honor to the Hokage's law to not lay a hand on her and then by his own inadequacy that he couldn't face her without dying.

Fear.

He paused, looking between the communicators, balancing his fear in one hand and his hatred in the other. He measured, so carefully, and then flipped one of the two devices on. The road to hell…

His voice was smooth. "Rodger that captain, holding until more movement is confirmed. Standing by."

Hatred won.


Edit: Sasuke and Sakura's first conversation was cleaned up and the dialogue was toned down from its original melodramatic-ness. The Hyuga compound plot was essentially the same with just basic work to get the dialogue flowing more naturally.

Sakura and Sasuke's second conversation in the apartment was considerably cooled down and there was no sign made of what seemed like reconciliation like last time. Secondly between both conversations there was more emphasis on possession and want and the complications of how Sakura views relationships and how it's severely fucked up Sasuke in the process. Also during the confrontation in the apartment there was more emphasis placed on the 'why' of the Uchiha massacre in that Sakura is a few circuits short and didn't know how to properly express devotion/sexual desire/violence to Itachi or herself without everything getting terribly muddled.

During the Naruto-and-Sakura looking at the seal part, it was explained better why the seal fading was an advantage to Sakura instead of just being randomly thrown out there. Also there was an aggression/anxiety/frustration undertone added into Sakura trying to get in her boyfriend's pants.

The scene with Hanabi and Sakura shopping was considerably toned down and Hanabi was incredibly more wary of the other girl. Konohamaru coming in was shortened up and the scene changes were shifted a bit. Telling the Hokage about the plot was ironed out including the politics of why they couldn't act being better explained. Also there was improved transition into the autopsy-Akatsuki thing.

The wedding and reception was generally a touchup here and there. And last the scene with the traitor ANBU was hopefully made a bit clearer on what exactly was happening in the how/why of the assassination.