Author's Notes: Hi, I'm back. Sorry for the uber-long delay. I was bent on giving up on this fic, honestly, because I was just uninspired. But I decided to give Learning to Breathe one last go. The plot bunnies started a-hopping again, and I found myself a fic revived. lol. Anyway, I hope you guys like this update, late though it may be. Err.. and I wasn't able to edit this or have this beta-ed, so sorry if there are any mistakes. And wth is wrong with this site's horizontal line thingy?

Anyway, please tell me what you think and drop a review. Thanks.

Disclaimer: Not mine.

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Learning to Breathe

Chapter 10

--

"Juugo, why is he late?"

Juugo shrugged, not really wanting to reply to a question he didn't know the answer to. He was worried too. Sasuke was never late.

As far as he knew, Sasuke was up against a member of the Akatsuki, he wasn't sure which one. But knowing Akatsuki, the target was probably strong. Even Orochimaru had been a member once.

"It's been three days. Do you think he—"

"He's probably not coming back."

Suigetsu spoke up abruptly, answering Sakura's unspoken question. The three of them got along fine over the first day, and even on the second day, but as the third day rolled by, and there was still no sign of Sasuke, things started going awry and it was starting to get on his nerves.

Sakura visibly stiffened and Juugo tried hard not to feel sorry for her. But Suigetsu was probably right. Sasuke was never late.

And he was up against the Akatsuki.

"Come on, Sakura, I'm taking you back to Konoha," Juugo said as he stood up, holding his hand out to her, only to retract it when she made no move to take it.

Sakura neither moved nor spoke, the tension in the room only thickened as the minutes ticked by.

It was only when Karin entered the room that it dissipated. Suigetsu left the room, and Juugo was left with the two girls.

"What's with the gloomy atmosphere?"

"I'm taking Sakura-san back to Kono—"

"No. I'm staying here."

It was Sakura who spoke up, her eyes holding unshed tears but also a determination that wouldn't be budged.

Karin turned to look at the pink-haired girl, her mouth contorted in a sneer.

"Are you stupid? Once they confirm Sasuke's death, you won't be able to leave Oto… ever. You'll probably even be killed. The orders of a dead man are hardly honored here in Oto."

"He's not dead. I'm staying here", Sakura said determinedly, her voice barely above a whisper from trying to suppress her tears.

"Sure, whatever you say. Denial is the first step of the grieving process, you know, so get over yourself before it's too late" Karin said, shrugging as she left the room, "let her be, Juugo, if she wants to be stupid, then that's her choice."

Juugo lay his hand on Sakura's shoulder for a while, but turned to follow Karin out of the room.

Once she was alone, Sakura hugged her knees and succumbed to her tears.

--

There was a large cut on his forehead, and Sasuke could only stare at his captor through a veil of blood.

"Won't you cooperate, Sasuke? I'm telling you the truth."

Sasuke merely spat at his captor's feet, his saliva tinged with a bit of blood, and glared fiercely at Sasori, who was holding a knife gingerly between his fingers. The rebellious action earned him another cut to his cheek.

"Orochimaru never meant for you to meet your goal.", the red-haired man's voice echoed nonchalantly throughout the room, "He only wanted you as his lackey. You weren't even supposed to go on this mission, or any mission remotely connected with the Akatsuki's main group, for that matter, if Kabuto hadn't switched the envelopes. You probably would've gone on another inconsequential mission, and you probably would've returned to Oto, no closer to your goal than you were when you first went to that city."

Sasuke didn't speak, dizzy with anger and fatigue.

"You see," Sasori continued, "your brother was innocent, and Orochimaru knew this. He was still a member of Konoha's triumvirate when Itachi was framed for the murder of his own family, the Uchiha Clan. They were planning a coup, and the government got wind of this. But the Uchiha were prominent in the society, and they held the police department in the palm of their hand. They needed to be silenced, but it had to be done discretely."

Sasori gazed at his captive to gauge his reaction, and upon seeing the clenched teeth and the fisted hands, he knew he was getting through to the boy.

"The whole thing was Danzou's idea, but he needed one of the Triumvirate's decision in order to follow through with it. Orochimaru was the one acquiesced. Of course, it wasn't until he was found out by the other two members that Orochimaru was sent away, but by then, he had already gathered a number of followers. You, ironically, being one of them."

"Now, I'll ask you again, will you or will you not work with the Akatsuki?"

Again, the boy didn't speak. But that was much better than the rebellious outbursts he had gotten during his previous attempts.

Seeing that Sasuke was too weak from torture and from being starved to do any real resistance, Sasori called out to Kabuto.

"Untie him, Kabuto, we're going to the infirmary."

It was time to take out his trump card.

--

Shikamaru relayed his plan to his companions as he tried to figure out the tiny scribbles on the map. Information about the terrain surrounding Oto was scarce, as the country itself was shady and abhorred any foreign presence. The whole place mostly kept to itself, even more now that Orochimaru was the country's leader.

"We can't take the same route that Sasuke did. We'll be entering Oto through the South—"

"But that'll take us another two days! Sakura-chan might be—"

Thoroughly annoyed, Neji cut Naruto off.

"Look, Naruto, Sasuke won't kill her, okay?" At this, Shikamaru rolled his eyes, more annoyed at Neji's know-it-all attitude (and really, wasn't Neji the one who blotched that opportunity to captor the Uchiha at the hospital?) than Naruto's concern, so he spoke up.

"Konoha has an alliance with the rebels who are holding the Southern front. We have a better chance of rescuing Sakura if we use their base as our jumping point. It'll also be safer, for us and for her. If they find out that Konoha sent a team to rescue her, they might just place her under tighter security, maybe even kill her. We don't know if Sasuke is powerful enough in Oto to fight against an order given by his superiors."

"But—"

"Naruto," Shikamaru said, his tone serious, "don't be troublesome. I know you can see the sense in what I'm saying. We can't just storm Orochimaru's stronghold, you know that. We might even need to stay at the base for a few days to gather information. If you're just going to impede our progress with your brashness, then I suggest you leave the team right now, for Sakura's sake."

Naruto reluctantly gave in and just slumped in his seat. It was going to be a long wait, and his anxiety was rising to a feverish pitch, but there really wasn't anything he could do but wait.

--

Sasuke stood over the immobile body of his brother, holding a knife that would be the culmination of his revenge. He only had to bring it down, plunge it right smack into the bastard's heart. He only had to—

"If you don't believe me, Sasuke, if you really believe that your brother is guilty, then kill Itachi-san now."

Sasuke's heart pounded in his chest, the beating becoming so loud that he could hear it pumping in his ears, and God, his brother was smiling at him, through the bandages, through the heady smell of medicine, through the steady bleeping of the heart monitor, God, God, he was smiling… Sasuke raised the knife, holding it well above him, his breath hitching in his throat as he braced all his strength, and plunged…

Blood – there was blood.

"Otouto…"

Itachi's hand shot out, holding the knife's blade, keeping it from going any further.

"Don't do it…"

Sasuke's grip on the knife's handle loosened, his knees shaking as he breathed in his second chance at life.

His brother had saved him.

Sasori moved in, taking the knife that was poised just in front of Sasuke's heart.

"Aniki…", he croaked out, voice hoarse and trembling, "I'm sorry… I'm sorry…"


TBC.