Announcement: Hey everybody! This is YKajitaka, here to tell you something very special! Over the (much too long) years that it's taken me to write this, I've gotten a lot of positive feedback on the story. I've been so fortunate to be able to share this story with you, and I'm so happy that ya'll have stuck with me to the end.

Because I've had such great support, I'm going to illustrate some of my favorite scenes and post Clay Penance as an eBook on deviantArt! This may take me a little while again, but if you love CP and want to support the story or myself as an author, I hope you'll watch my deviantArt account, YKajitaka, and keep an eye out for all my art and eBooks as I post them!

I've been really blessed to have all your support these years, so please enjoy this last chapter!

Chapter 15—The Reason

Sakura met the eyes of the man she was risking her life for. Their personal acquaintance was so short—a mere few months. Still, from the day he saved her she had laid her head on a block, her neck out to tempt Fate's executioner. Then she'd gone and done the unthinkable; she might as well have insulted Destiny's mother, because it was doing its damndest to kill her right now.

Like the fearless idiot Naruto taught her to be, she was walking right into it.

She could list a hundred reasons for him to be executed all on her own; she'd read his file, and fought against him, and killed his partner who nearly killed her also. If someone brought a list of charges against him, she'd have to throw up her hands and say, "Yeah, he's guilty. No use denying it." Instead she was standing in the middle of a room of people ready to condemn her, fighting for that something inside of him that apparently only she could see. She was fighting for all those stupid reasons he gave her by sticking around her apartment, cooking her meals and cleaning her house, and bitching over nothing in a way that made her laugh. He gave her reasons to do all the stupid things she'd done in the past three months, and she didn't care that they'd landed her here in a roomful of danger with about ten minutes to explain herself before the fur started flying.

Sakura could think on all of it, and she didn't regret even one thing that happened.

"When I worked that autopsy with Tsunade-sama a month ago, I saw a shard of metal in the brain matter. I don't know if it was an illusion planted just for me or if there really was a shard there, but regardless I touched it and found myself in a genjutsu that replayed my past from the day I first met my team for training.

"Everything was exactly as I remembered it; from Naruto's brainless antics to Sasuke's pointless arrogance, and even my inner raging at their mutual moments of stupidity, it was all exactly the same. I was essentially trapped in my own memories, and the only reasons I ever noticed anything wrong were brief moments when the genjutsu seemed to overlap with my current memories of the last several months. Especially Naruto, who constantly seemed to overlap with Deidara… who, at the time, I hadn't met, and therefore didn't recognize."

Sakura paused to take in the room. This was the back-story; anyone who had ever been caught under a genjutsu would know that this was certainly a staple of the trade. The masked faces didn't give away what her audience was thinking, but the tense postures told her they were listening. They were waiting for evidence. She threw another log on the fire, meeting Deidara's eyes for a moment again before she turned back to her teacher.

"However, the illusion was so intricate that the least bit of discrepancy was all the more obvious," she continued. "In the second part of the Chuunin Exams, Sasuke and I were attacked by Orochimaru. We were overwhelmed by his bloodlust, to the point of it showing us illusions of our deaths. As genin, you can guess how badly shaken we were; even Ibiki-san's test on our mental capacities hadn't touched the fear we experienced then. Thanks to Sasuke's quick thinking, he was able to get both of us out of there.

"This was where things started to unravel, however unintentionally," she breathed, taking care to relate exactly what happened. This was her evidence; this was the real thing, right here. "Sasuke and I were badly shaken by the encounter, and true to my memories he was terrified when facing Orochimaru when he came after us… but every hesitance and scream was exaggerated. It wasn't by much, but just the tiniest bit; you would've have known the difference if you hadn't been through it personally. Naruto was exactly the same; his timing, his strength, and the way he nettled Sasuke were all exactly the same, but Sasuke himself was off.

"From then, it was like a fog had lifted off my mind. I felt more objective, more certain, less afraid," she said, and her words became a little more subdued. Even now it created a sense of wonder inside her, because for a short while, she had been absolutely sure of her future. She'd known that they wouldn't die, and that Naruto would save them, and that they wouldn't be attacked in their sleep. She was absolutely certain that everything… everything but that… would be okay. "Sasuke became more irrational as the fight went on, and was eventually taken by the curse seal. I was left alone with the two of them, just as in the past… but the vision still continued. I felt sure everything would be alright while that 'fog' was gone from my mind. I believe that was the jutsu losing some effect, though I'm not sure why it weakened. Just the same, morning came and I was attacked by Orochimaru's pawns, the Sound genin Dosu, Zaku and Kin. My memories didn't change again until Sasuke awoke from the curse seal, and even then, at first, he seemed the same as in my memories. It didn't last long before he overreacted again."

She passed her eyes over the crowd, meeting the many pairs of eyes as she glanced across their faces. Sasuke and Naruto looked at her in anticipation; Naruto didn't know much of this story, but the man who was playing her bad guy was standing in the same room, listening to her less-than-glorified memories of him. Deidara was riveted on her, staring so intently that he was barely breathing. This was another part of her he didn't know. This was another reason why.

"Itachi, like an actor, took the guise of his younger brother inside his genjutsu. He was there from the beginning, acting out the part. The nuances began to falter as the illusion continued; no doubt his stamina was flagging after keeping me under for a month. It was beginning to break, and he had no choice but to take action. The moment I realized something was wrong, he moved not my mind, but my whole body… to attack Sasuke in my hospital room, just as I was attacking him in my dream."

"Sasuke only had two tomoe on the Sharingan when we participated in the Chuunin Exams. Within that vision, he had three—he had three tomoe, right up until the real Sasuke entered the genjutsu and pulled me away from him. At the last moment, Itachi intended on using the Mangekyou Sharingan to kill me at the same time I killed Sasuke in real life."

She supposed even Sasuke hadn't realized how close both of them had been to dying. The stricken look on his face was the same one she had to hide when coming back to reality. Sakura couldn't even begin to imagine what he was thinking when she attacked him; if she were honest… she didn't want to know. It'd been nearly three years since he came home, but out of all of them Sasuke was the one who thought the hardest about it. When she wrapped her hands around his throat, she supposed it wouldn't be surprising if he thought 'he deserved it.' Naruto looked absolutely aghast, which she expected. That stubbornly innocent mind of his didn't want to think anything could take his team away from him; she was thankful for that in these cases, because it often times made things easier—fights, apologies, accepting and forgiving all seemed easier because of him. The weight of the situation—the mortality of it—seemed as if it were about to collapse the ceiling in on their heads, their eyes wide and filled with the emotions that followed each possible scenario their minds merrily and morbidly threw in their faces. In the midst of her team, Deidara went deathly white. She could make out the capillaries on his face, even from a distance. He looked really ragged, now that she took the chance to observe him; his clothes were dusty and somewhat dirty, and she could see injuries left over from some over-zealous interrogators. She would have to fix those later. The weight from her shoulders, at least, was a little lighter now that she'd finally found the answers they were all looking for. Tsunade was about to ask her a question, Sakura's attention remained on the accused.

He was one of 'her boys' now, too.

"Deidara-san, what's with that look on your face? You're white as a sheet, y'know," she teased, smiling softly. There was no need for pretenses now, in front of this room full of skeptics and plaintiffs. At a loss for words, he tried to tell her exactly what he was thinking and couldn't; he hung his head and gritted his teeth, and for a moment she could've sworn he was about to cry or scream or read her the riot act for all he was worth; even if he did, she would gladly listen to every word. He didn't say anything though, and she felt her heart swell with affection in a way it hadn't in a very long time. "Come on, now. What's wrong?"

Sakura walked over to him, but before she could get very far he strode to meet her; the whole room tensed as he moved, but she didn't. With the shackles on his hands attached to his waist, he couldn't embrace her… but Deidara buried his nose in her neck and stood as close to her as he could possibly manage, and silently willed himself not to say anything. He couldn't hold his emotions in that well; if he tried to speak in this overwhelming moment—attempted to tell her how just the thought of her death made him feel like dying for real—he was sure he would have a breakdown right then and there. So instead of saying anything, he simply breathed her in, and waited for her to speak so he could really, really listen to her voice. Her normally soft hair was a bit rough from lack of care; her clothes smelled like antiseptic, and her skin felt cold. She wasn't back to full health yet, and probably wouldn't be for a while. After being in a coma for a month she was probably relying on her medical jutsu and acting skills to make up for atrophied muscles, but the pallor of his skin was still terrible. She laughed softly, wrapping her arms around his shoulders in a solid embrace.

"Did you miss me?"

It went without words that he had. Deidara still couldn't muster the strength to speak, but conversation wasn't really a necessity at the moment. They weren't lovers. They might not exactly be friends, either. 'Comrades' was too simple to describe the depth of it, and 'kindred spirits' only addressed a fraction of it. In that moment though, they came to the conclusion that not knowing was fine; it was okay to go with the flow, just as they were already doing. Sleeping side-by-side, taking care of each other, sacrificing for each other's sakes… those sorts of things were already natural for them. If it progressed, that was fine; if it didn't, that was fine too.

The current relationship was already so overwhelming that neither knew if 'more' was really necessary.

Tsunade sighed, and decided that the two of them would remain oblivious to the crowd no matter what happened, so she moved on with the next order of business.

"Kakashi, Yamato, Sasuke and Naruto; get an Inuzuka and find the bastard's trail before he recovers from that damned genjutsu. Hana and Kiba have been on-scene before, so one of them should have a clue to offer. Unit 10, organize scouts to seal the borders; if he and his partner attempt to cross, do not engage. Mark their heading from a distance and report back. All available units are to join with Team Kakashi at the last marked point and overtake them from there."

The apartment was musty as hell. Dust had settled on every surface, even on the dishes that Deidara had washed and set next to the sink to dry. It was all exactly as they left it though; every CD in its place, the same DVD cases left open and scattered on the coffee table, the candles still halfway burned down in their class stands.

Despite all that needed doing, Sakura and Deidara dropped to the couch and ignored the cloud of dust that mushroomed up around them. She lit the candles on the table, and turned on the TV to see what movie had gotten left in the DVD player. It didn't really matter which one it was; it was noise. It would make this abandoned room feel lived in again, because at the moment neither of them felt like a cleaning spree.

There were a hundred things they should talk about. There were many, many reasons they shouldn't be sitting here vegging in front of some mafia thriller that neither of them cared very much about watching. They should be discussing his suspended sentence, the team going after Itachi and their chances, all the things they needed to do tomorrow because after a month of not working, Sakura's bank account was looking rather bleak. They could even have a very necessary talk about their ambiguous relationship that neither of them was very intent on changing, but instead they sat on her ratty old couch that needed replacing and watched her old DVDs that had scratches on them and said nothing out of the many things that needed saying… and both of them were okay with that. They were absolutely content to sit there with their fingers woven together, minds nowhere at all but in that moment, attuned to their companion, listening to each other's breathing and thankful that they were both alive. Thankful that they could sit here in her dirty apartment, in the middle of a village full of trained assassins, extortionists, and battle-hardened warriors with chips on their shoulders, and listen to crappy movies that were decades old and had sucky effects and just simply be content in the knowledge that, at least tonight, they were absolutely safe and no one would be after them. The whole world was going to leave them alone, at least for tonight, and even though usually they would enjoy it to the fullest by pulling stupid teenager stunts… this time, they just couldn't.

The silence was so comfortable that breaking it with anything else seemed like a waste.

After a while, they ended up closer together; instead of being apart by a foot of space and only linked by their hands, the space diminished as they both moved in. Sakura tucked her feet up next to her, and her head settled on Deidara's shoulder as his cheek pressed against her forehead. It didn't matter if they looked like more than friends; fact was, they probably were. They were each other's saviors; normally if you saved someone's life in return you should consider yourselves even… but the feelings of 'I owe you too much' wouldn't disappear. They were closer than lovers; more important to each other than lovers. They each seemed to come to the conclusion that, even if they were to part was, get married and have kids some day, and lead completely separate lives… they would be the most important person to one another, because the depth of gratitude simply couldn't be explained away or erased or overwritten.

They were each other's reason for moving forward in a situation that was equally debilitating, equally detrimental. They had each spurred a change in the other that not only those around them, but they themselves hadn't understood. They were equal parts good and bad for each other, and in the end the balance was so perfect, even to their great desire to repay the other, that even at this moment…

Even right then, when things could've become more, could've fallen into less… they were absolutely happy as they were. Just like that, they fell into a deep sleep that they wouldn't wake from for a long, long while.

~9 Months Later~

"Beat Yukimura-san to the shower again? You're getting good."

"It kinda helped that you almost backhanded me in your sleep, but thank you."

Deidara smirked at Sakura through the mirror as he adjusted his headband. After six months it looked a little worse for wear, but the leaf symbol was still clearly etched in the metal. She yawned and scratched her head, ruffling her hopelessly tangled hair without much thought. In the shoebox-sized bathroom, he turned around and wrapped his arms around her waist, giving her a devilish smile.

"So what are you up to today?" he asked, but the glint in his blue eyes said he already knew exactly what she was doing. Sakura met his gaze fondly, leaning up to press a light kiss on his lips.

"I am off today, as you damn well know, and I will not be moved from this apartment for the next 24 hours so long as you promise to do the same," she muttered sleepily.

Their early mornings were more out of habit than anything else. Evening to midnight generally had the largest influx of patients, but Sakura was generally glued to her desk with a pile of paperwork for eight long hours before she came home at a reasonable time of the night, only called in to surgery if something evil reared its ugly head. Deidara refused to take the ANBU exams, but he was perfectly happy as a Jounin instructor to a group of bratty 13-year-olds. His first team was showing a bit of promise, but they were all beginning to mimic his brazen attitude… a trait that, according to Naruto, wasn't bad for a ninja. Tsunade wanted to disagree with him, but as the newest Hokage there wasn't much point. His methodology was completely different from hers, and that was fine.

"I swear that I'll ignore all three of my brats for one day, and not leave the house."

He didn't hesitate to lean in and press his lips to hers, warm and insistent and a little arrogant as he always was. She also had no qualms about opening up to him, accepting all the affection he gave her as his lips wandered from hers to her chin, the underside of her jaw, the sweep of her throat as she leaned her head back for him. Deidara let his affectionate kisses wander, unhurried and comfortable, with little desire to make more of it than exactly what they were doing in that moment. Sakura's hands stroked up the backs of his arms, callused hands gliding roughly over the lean, unscarred muscle there before gripping at his shoulders as he tipped her back to nip playfully at the edge of her sleeping shirt.

"It's too early in the morning for this," she breathed, but she certainly wasn't stopping him.

"I don't see you complaining though, yeah~."

"Well, this counts as relaxing too."

"I see," he quipped, nipping quickly at the shell of her ear. Deidara let her go, hands sliding teasingly over her waist before he left with a wink. "Do what little thing you do and I'll get breakfast ready, yeah."

"Hey, I do more now! I actually bother with all the skincare shit, don't I?"

The exclamation followed him down the hall, covering the snickers he couldn't stifle on his way to the kitchen.

Deidara glanced at the calendar as he passed it, and it felt a little ticklish to know that they were just about to hit their first anniversary. The apartment that was once hers was now theirs, and it still felt ticklish to see his things mixing in with hers in other places; books on pyrotechnics and genjutsu and good teaching methods were intermingled with her medical texts and the harlequin romances that would've long-since gathered dust if he didn't always clean them. His sci-fi suspense movies were mixed in with her romantic comedies and B-rated zombie flicks, and the new couch (absolutely do not ask what happened to the old one) was his style in decorating, even if it was in her colors of bright red and khaki and muted green. The kitchen tile (which was previously some heinous linoleum crap) had since been one of his 'projects,' and it was now bright and clean; it made for a comfortable cold against his feet as he passed over the red and white ceramic checks. The island he built in his free time was now his favorite place to prepare whatever they were eating, and like a pro he took down the pots and pans needed to make something scrumptious with a flip or two of his wrist.

Pancakes, sausage, bacon, eggs and biscuits. Sakura liked a traditional meal for breakfast, but he just never had gotten the taste for miso in the morning. That was fine, though; Sakura would never reject his cooking. She would enjoy whatever he made, because at the very least she didn't have to cook it. By the time his lovely housemate made it to the kitchen, he was already pulling the biscuits out of the oven and getting ready to put them on a plate.

"Whip cream or no?"

"… Nah. I'll pass. Extra preserves instead."

"Got it, yeah. Pick a movie out and I'll be there in a sec."

Leaving it up to her on a day like this could hand him a highly questionable pick, but he let her go anyway. It could be something sappy, or something really old like a 30s-style detective movie, or even the occasional old wrestling match or recording of an exceptional Chuunin or Jounin exam. With the dishes plated and fixed just the way they both liked it, he headed for the couch.

True to his expectations, she was popping in a disc from an old boxing anime.

"Saturday morning cartoons?"

"Well it's Thursday morning, but yeah."

He grinned, and despite her matter-of-fact façade he knew she was grinning on the inside, too. She skipped over the commercials and went straight to the main menu, cranking the volume up to a low roar as she be-bopped back to the couch to the outdated rock tune. Deidara loved watching her eat, because when it was his cooking (not from a restaurant, not even that fancy Italian place she loved) she ate with such gusto and made such cute noises that she was more entertaining than whatever dumb movie she'd chosen. He ate his food at a much more sedated pace, but with Sakura yelling comments at the TV as often as she did, they still finished at about the same time. He sat back, sipping on a glass of iced tea, enjoying the peacefulness of their time together.

The TV was loud, and Sakura was being even louder, and because of her heat-loving southern blood the temperature was just a little too warm for his liking (and she was half-wrapped in a lap blanket), and the food in the kitchen needed putting away and she certainly wouldn't do it… but it was so peaceful that he didn't care. Just a year ago, he was on his way to destroy a village where a festival was in full swing. He'd been living out of roach motels, under the thumb of an evil organization, lonely and guilty as hell and buried in a darkness he thought had snuffed out all the light in the world. Looking around him now, in a small but well-furnished apartment where the sun was pouring in and the sounds were joyful and the scents were relaxing, he was clean and accepted in the presence of others. He held a position of leadership; he was trusted to a surprising extent, though there were still the occasional doubters. He had friends, students and… and above all, he had Sakura.

Whatever the hell they were, they were each other's.

He glanced toward her at his side, just intending to observe her like he did so often, but something caught his eye. A little dab of red sauce was lingering suggestively at the corner of her lips. Apparently she hadn't noticed… which was rather strange, since she was usually very conscious of that sort of thing. A smirk crept up his lips, a teasing thought fluttering into his mind. There was no reason to deny himself, so without a second more to consider his actions, he leaned over and licked the spot away, tongue lingering suggestively on her skin.

He didn't realize it until she upended him onto the couch arm that the little dab of strawberry preserves was there because she meant for it to be there, and he was now thoroughly caught in her trap. She smirked, bracing her hands on his biceps and planted herself in a highly inconvenient (and suggestive) position between his knees. Sweetly taunting kisses rained down on his lips, his cheeks, his eyes, his brow, and he could feel her hands threatening to move and smooth over his pliant body. Sakura reveled in having the upper hand, and the mischievous twinkle in her eye told him she had something very, very good in mind now that he was where she wanted him.

"Saturday morning cartoons, yeah?"

"Why do you think I turned up the volume so loud?"

'I see.' Deidara's smirk was all the voice he needed as he let her have her wicked way, teasing him a little but really just not enough. Her touches began to tingle with a tiny bit of chakra, sending delicious little crackles over his skin as she wandered, her hands staying put despite his mental promise that, as long as she kept going, he wouldn't budge a damn inch. Sakura wasn't taking any chances of it, but she could do miraculous little things even if her hands weren't playing an active role. She loomed over him, bracing a leg on his upper thigh; her tongue swiped over the tip of his nose, a torturous kiss placed on his brow between his eyes, promising so much more than she was giving. She arched her back to lean down and whisper in his ear.

"Y'know, it took you long enough to notice. Another minute or two and I was going to attack you anyway."

She abandoned her torture, roughly sliding her hands up his arms and across his chest, her lips met by his possessively, without a single pretense between them. There wasn't a need to play around; no reason to be shy or unsure. It wasn't as though they always did this, but their natural state was to be close. Whether that was mentally as compatriots or physically like this, it didn't matter—as if they'd always been this way, it was absolutely necessary for them to connect. Their lives, given for one another, had become a maddening bond that turned them into a mess. It screwed with their heads, turned everything into a physical or mental compulsion, made them crazy to be even in the same room. Separation hadn't been necessary just yet, what with Deidara still being somewhat observed; but like cabin fever, it was an uncontrollable urge without a defined outlet.

One touch, and it was a heat like a wildfire, running crazy free through their veins.

Her hands pulled at his hair, creating the space she wanted to nip roughly at his throat, just as he'd done to her earlier. She was merciless, and rather than accidentally, she left marks with all intention in visible places. He was hers. He was hers, just as much as she was his; there wasn't a single person in the world that could come between them. Even if in the beginning it was only a bond of friendship, a bond created by her taking him so graciously under her wing… without them noticing, it had turned into a deranged possession that didn't necessarily have anything to do with love, but everything to do with their equally disastrous desires to please and keep the other. She had to restrain herself from the intense need to gnaw on his collarbone; instead, she only pulled his hair harder, and nearly let her control snap as he groped her backside, hands leaving deep, colorful bruises beneath her clothes. It felt good exactly where he was, but as much as Sakura wanted to leave marks in visible places all over him, she wanted Deidara to do the same in return. The fact that he was careful and never did drove her crazy, even more possessive; the hook of madness that pulled her in to a deep lake of chaos refused to let her go so long as he didn't show the same insane possession for her that she lavished on him.

She wanted to be marked in his colors. She wanted to leave her colors on him, turn his blank sheet of relationships into a colorful masterpiece that was all in her shade, in her make and intention.

Her threadbare cotton pajamas were soon lost in the fray, her simple silk underwear inching down her thighs as Deidara's rough hands touched her, petted her, turned her into a catastrophically wanton mess as his lips wandered down her chest to the center of her bare breasts, his affections much more intentional than hers; his intentions were calculated, centered on her, only for her pleasure, all for the sake of bringing her a heartbreakingly high euphoria. Her nails were raking down his abs, leaving deep, bloody trails in his trembling skin. A broken moan escaped his lips, barely louder than a sigh. She wanted to swallow it up…

"Sakura-sama! Sakura-sama, Team Kakashi has returned! Uchiha Itachi has finally been captured!"

The banging on the door that accompanied the incredibly loud, incredibly untimely interruption, snapped the both of them out of their moment, bringing them down to earth again in their half-dressed, very aroused (and somewhat damaged) states. Sakura's blood was now boiling for entirely different reasons.

"Is his head on a pike?" she shouted back, glaring at the door over her shoulder. She heard the messenger, once overjoyed with his news, fumble in shock.

"Pro—proverbially, yes ma'am!"

"Goody. He'll still be there later, and the after-party I'm sure won't be until tonight. It's my day off, so if you don't beat the hell out of here right now I might just kill you."

His chakra disappeared from her doorstep that very instant, well aware of the fury boiling on the other side of the door. Sakura, now irritated with the interruption, turned a dark smile on her willing victim. Deidara had no doubts that he probably wouldn't get away with just a few hickeys and scratches this time, and he smirked at her in return.

"Now, where were we~?"

AN: After just shy of six years, here it is: THE END. I'm sorry. I hope it was satisfactory. TT_TT I really wanted to convey that it wasn't the end of their adventure in life, but a beginning of a different sort of adventure. XD; I hope all of ya'll enjoyed it, and keep an eye out for future stories!