Disclaimer: Naruto. Is not. Owned. By Jaded Delirium.

Ughhhhhh. I slogged through this chapter and didn't really want to finish it. I want to skip this chapter and go right on to chapter 9. The chapter after this one is probably going to be the most dramatic one so far. But I have to go through this chapter, because except for a few times out of pure novelty, this is the last time Sakura's singing talent and Ino's fire-dancing skills are going to show up in the fic. If to you this chapter is awful, I'll apologize beforehand. I'm sorry!

And I'm sorry for not updating sooner either. If you've read my profile, I have a knack for updating sporadically and unpredictably. I guess I'll add 'update more often' to my belated birthday resolutions. Reasons why I didn't update sooner: 1) MapleStory (if you want to see my characters, ask me. I'm happy to make new friends.) 2) Laziness. 3) Just because I CAN not update for monthes on end. Ha. XD


"So," Temari said, "what do you guys have?"

That night, all the girls' dannas (refer to chapter five if you don't remember what 'danna' means in this fic) were away, which meant the rebels had a free evening. Of course, they took the opportunity to sneak out for a meeting in the hideout. Whenever all five girls were available, they would pile together their collected data about the Akatsuki members.

"Hidan spilled a lot this time," Tenten began. "I forgot exactly what I said. Something about Hidan being horny because he needs a virgin's blood for his sacrifices or whatever, but he denied that he wasn't horny, just religious, and that his partner Kakuzu is the pornographic one. He said Kakuzu has these threads in his body that allow him to detach his limbs, and he can also reattach other peoples' limbs, which does sound kind of horny if you think about it. I asked Hidan if he was scared Kakuzu might kill him, and he said no. Hidan is immortal."

"So besides being a full-blown sex fiend, he's also immortal," Ino summarized bluntly. There was a pause.

"Ok…" Her affirmative had just been a sound to lighten the lagging silence. "Hidan… immortal… Kakuzu… detaching and reattaching threads…" Sakura wrote down. Sometimes, she couldn't see why on earth the Akatsuki were so chased after with desperate longing. Since when did 'evil, psychotic villains' become a synonym for 'desirable sex gods'?

"And don't forget that stupid shiny scythe," Tenten added. "He over-polishes it; it nearly blinded me today."

"Bet you five that he checks himself out with it when you're not looking," Temari smirked. "Combs his hair and crap like that."

"Ano…gomen. My danna does not talk about himself nor his partner very much," Hinata apologized softly.

"That's ok, Hina-Hina," Ino grinned at the black haired girl. Whoever Hinata's guy was, he probably lived by the principle of 'shut up and make out'.

Temari closed her eyes. "Sasori has a bunch of puppets. He stays inside his favourite, this bulky hunchbacked thing. I think he uses poison a lot, because I accidentally brushed against his stupid leg and a ton of needles automatically came out. He stopped them from turning me into a porcupine, but he told me not to touch him. Something about the needles being coated with poison, and I shouldn't touch the other puppets either because they're also touch-and-die. A risky but very informative way of gaining info."

"And Sasuke-kun said that he has this sharingan thing that he can hypnotize temporarily and read movements with. Apparently his brother also uses it, but he has this more powerful version. It's called a Mangekyo Sharingan or something. It can hypnotize and send the victim into this sort of hallucination world- ah, it's hard to explain.

"Uchiha-induced LSD?" Ino offered.

"He can also torture a person psychologically and mentally. The other thing it can do is give the user the ability to use this black flame ability. He was kind of vague about it, I guess it's hard for him talking about his brother," Sakura concluded.

"You sure found that interesting, ne, Saks? 'Cause it was about your sweet bunny Sasuke-kun," Ino teased.

"So what if I do. And what's with the sweet bunny Sasuke thing? You make him sound like a dessert."

"How about you, Ino-chan?" Hinata asked. Ino pretended to look blank.

"I got nothing. Zip. Nada."

"Really. You seemed to have a lot to talk about last time I checked," Sakura accused. Ino laughed.

"Let's see… Kisame has this giant sword called a Samehada which shaves like shark skin. He has a lot of that energy that the Akatsuki uses to do all that stuff, apparently he has the most. The guy also uses a lot of techniques which include water. Tobi- he's a subordinate. He was Deidara's partner at one time when they thought Sasori died, but after they found out he was alive, Tobi became a subordinate again. Attacks can go through him so nothing will happen to him, but nothing else is known. Zetsu is cannibalistic and can transport from place to place. And there's the Akatsuki leader's girlfriend. She turns her body into paper sheets, origami stuff. Not quite sure what else she does."

They all looked at Ino in surprise. Sakura put down her charcoal stick. How had Ino gained so much information? Even Sasuke didn't give out so much. Maybe she bribed Deidara and Tobi? With what, though? For a moment, Sakura wondered if Ino had done something drastic and boinked them for background info, but even that was over the line. She shoved the thought in the back of her mind.

"Unexpected, but appreciated. How did you do it?" Temari asked. Ino smiled.

"Believe it or not, I used you, Saks. Indirectly, of course."

"What?"

"I just say something that involved you, so then we were on the subject of friends and such. Then it wouldn't be weird if I asked something about his friends, because I was on the topic of my friends. Then I pretended to be casual and inquire about them. Like when he said 'I think Kisame no danna is part shark or something', I said 'Really? How?' and he said 'He has blue skin. And he has this sentient sword called Samehada which shaves, you know, like shark skin?' See?"

Temari raised her eyebrows. "You're a better actress than I thought. Good job." She took the paper from Sakura, shook off the residue, and folded it in eighths. "We should get this to Kiba. Or Akamaru. Sometimes I wonder why you and Inuzuka didn't get together, Hinata. He's nice and pretty clever. Kiba found a way to sneak messages by hiding them in Akamaru's collar. Maybe you should give him a chance to prove himself."

Hinata flushed. A corner of Temari's mouth raised. She turned to Sakura and Ino.

"You two are leaving tomorrow for some fancy dinner thing, right?"

Ino shrugged. "Some meeting of representatives from Akatsuki and Wind Country. Since these guys are the new rulers and all. They want me and Saks to perform. Hope we don't screw it up and have war between the two countries."

"We'll be back by the next morning, hopefully," added Sakura.

Tenten pretended to clink glasses with Hinata in a toast to the two girls. "Good luck!"

Entwined. By. Memories.

Sakura and Ino's relationship was never consistent. The level of mutual affection was always high, but the two girls were always changing. Sometimes, Sakura thought Ino didn't know her role. Ino could act like a best friend one moment, a mother the next, and occasionally even a boyfriend. The boyfriend moments always left Sakura a little unnerved, though oddly enough, she appreciated those times. One moment in particular shook Sakura's very foundation and left her with questions that she wasn't sure she could answer.

"Yamanaka, do I look alright?" Sakura asked. She whipped around. "Should I put on lip gloss or something? Am I too pale? Is my face too oily? Holy crap, do I need to diet?"

Ino waved her hands around like fluttering mothes. "Slow down, Saks." She strolled over to the vanity. The washroom was empty except for them, all the other concubines were working in the fields. Ino poked a small bag next to the pink haired girl. A reddish glittery lip gloss rolled out. The fire dancer twirled it with her fingers for a moment.

"Why are you putting this stuff on?"

Sakura spun around on the stool and pointed a Q-tip at Ino. "Ask yourself. You used to be a girly girl."

"When I was like, twelve." Ino pulled out another tube from the bag and began juggling the make up around like they were balls and she was a clown. Sakura watched her for a few moments.

"Can I have that back?" The tubes were tossed to her. With careful fingers, she unscrewed the cap from the lip gloss and moved the shimmering red liquid on her lips. Ino watched her the whole time.

"Do you think Sasuke-kun will like this?"

"I think he would like it more if you didn't use it at all. Think about it. He likes you because you're honest, not fake and playing games like the other concubines. Not like that desperate redheaded slut." Sakura looked at her face in the mirror. Ino turned to look too. They stared at Sakura's face for a few moments. Then the pink head grabbed a handkerchief and started to wipe the make up away. Ino caught her hand.

"That dries out your lips, Saks. Here." Taking a Q-tip, Ino dipped it in an open container of Vaseline. She turned and wiped away the lip gloss from Sakura's mouth.

The close contact, Ino's eyes on her, made Sakura feel odd. Not bad, but odd. A little bit shy, almost. That was ridiculous. She had known Ino since she was six. Their families got together practically every other week. They'd shared secrets and marshmallows forever. Their emotions slipped to one another as easily as a pencil changed hands. When Ino or Sakura had a cookie, they always split it and gave the other half to her. It was a declaration of friendship, you are my other half, I wouldn't know what to do without you. And yet, this movement of a Q-tip made her feel exactly as she did with Sasuke. A little shy, a whole lot self-conscious, but thoroughly enjoying it.

The cotton swab caused little piles of thick, gooey makeup to gather on the sides as Ino's hand made the small stick absorb the rouge. She examined Sakura's mouth for a moment. Adeptly flipping the little rod over, she touched the other, clean side to the side of Sakura's lips. The slowness of the process was agonizing. Sakura was torn between a desire for Ino to get it over with and the wanting of her best friend to keep those aqua, bottomless eyes focused on her. The Q-tip slipped across her upper lip. Ino tossed the now soiled cleaning tool into a nearby trash can.

It was over already? Sakura was oddly disappointed.

Ino took Sakura's shoulders and faced her toward the mirror again.

"See? You're much prettier without that stuff. Guys like girls who are natural, not fake and trashy." Ino chuckled. "And I don't think Sasuke likes girls who have slimy lips. It wouldn't help in kissing at all. Don't spoil that, 'kay?" She picked up a satchel and slung it over your shoulder. Turning, she caught Sakura still watching her.

"You coming?"

Snapping out of it, Sakura shoved the makeup into the dark recesses of her bag. Her mouth still tingled with the sensation of Ino's fingers on her chin as she tilted Sakura's face upwards to get a better angle.

Ino had called her gorgeous. Most guys stuck with the traditional 'cute' and 'hot'. Once, Sakura had heard that the boy who calls you 'beautiful' is the one who truly means it and is the one you should keep. What applied to girls, then?

Entwined. By. Memories.

Her black hair slipped through blades of grass as she bent over. Hinata stood up, her back straight, and her neck received a sudden tumbling warmth as night-black locks dropped from her ponytail. Her ribbon had fallen off. As she turned to look for it, a familiar white dog bounded toward her, white strip of satin in its mouth.

"Akamaru?"

"Oi, Hinata!" Something in the girl leaped, and she ran toward him.

"Oh, Kiba-kun, I'm so glad to see you!" The lean boy grabbed her in a bear hug and spun them both around a few times. When he finally released her from his grip, she staggered for a couple of moments.

"Temari said you had a message for me?"

Hinata tugged the paper from her sleeve. Pretending to stroke Akamaru, she hid the crucial slip inside his collar.

"How are you, Kiba-kun?"

"Good. You?"

"I'm fine, thank you." There was an odd silence. "Did you want to ask me something, Kiba-kun?"

"Yeah." He bent forward, crouched on his ankles. "How's he treating you?"

Hinata caught on immediately. "He's very kind to me. He has never been violent toward me, or condescending at all." The intent focus of his eyes made her flush, and she spun a strand of hair to try to keep her emotional balance. "He- they're not a bit like the murderers we're fighting, Kiba-kun. I know he's a murderer, but he doesn't act like it at all, and then I sometimes forget that he is one, and I'm deceiving him, but sometimes I feel guilty about it, and-"

Kiba watched Hinata's words stumble over themselves with an amused tweak of his mouth. He reached forward and brushed her hair lightly from her forehead. His fingers, though dirty and slightly moist, were gentle. "Be careful, Hinata-chan."

"I will."

"So how are Temari and Tenten? Sakura and Ino still getting picked on?"

Hinata's brow furrowed. "Temari-san and Tenten are always listening for information. It's difficult, because when we pry information out of others, we must act casual and not seem too curious. Sakura-chan and Ino, after Ino-chan announced that Karin was… promiscuous? they're receiving a lot of antagonism from the other girls. I don't know why."

"Hmm. Well, not much we can do." Kiba patted Akamaru's head. The dog bent down slightly for Kiba to mount him. He looked back over his shoulder at Hinata.

"See you 'round, Hinata-chan." He flashed her his famous brash grin, and galloped off with Akamaru. As Hinata watched them leave, a raw gap of loss picked at her. Oddly enough, she couldn't explain why she felt as though, as he walked away, Kiba had taken a part of her with him.

Entwined. By. Memories.

Guard Huang fiddled with his gold embellished scroll. Eyes fixed on the road, he wiped his damp palms several times on his scarlet breaches. He was not used to greeting important persons, especially ones from Akatsuki.

Untouchable by mortal limits, the group had sprung up out of nowhere. Poised, stoic, and merciless, they had hurled into the great hierarchies and verbal spats of the world and changed the rules mid-round. Some thought they were gods. Depending on where you came from, they could be demons, vampires, or witches. Monks believed they were Kami's angels from heaven, disguised as devils; perhaps some enigmatic test for them. It had even been surmised that they were fairies.

The coterie looked at him with the mild interest of watching an insect scurry on the sidewalk. And like a gust of wind, Akatsuki came, scattered the dusty fragments of the world, and left.

.O.

Wind country was providing the girls with costumes, which were laid out in an array in the storage room. They didn't know where Sasuke and Deidara were, but that was fine. Sakura picked up a yellow blouse and red skirt.

"What do you think, Yamanaka?" Ino scrutinized the outfit.

"Tacky." Sakura huffed and turned away.

"Hey Saks, is this alright?" Ino pointed at a black spandex dress. It was low-cut with short sleeves that would just cover Ino's shoulders. Lace embellished the edges of the sleeves, the low front, and the bottom of the dress. She picked a pair of black fish nets for her arms and knees. After putting it on, they discovered that the dress only stretched to about five inches below her butt.

"Aren't you going to overheat in all that black? And won't your underwear be seen?" Sakura asked, partly in retaliation. Ino picked up a tiny black pair of shorts and shrugged.

"This can go under it." Half an hour later, Sakura still hadn't found anything. She was about to give up when she heard a shout from the other side of the room.

"Hey, Saks! What about this?"

Sakura gasped.

"Crap, is it too indecent? Do I look fat in it? Will it be too cold to wear it?" Ino stopped Sakura's flailing with a firm hand. She looked the pink-haired girl straight in the eyes.

"Saks, wear it. If you don't, I'm going naked."

They heard a laugh outside.

"Oh yeah, that'll turn you on, won't it, Deidara?" Ino yelled in the direction of the door. Sakura heard a chuckle in reply.

"Oh dear kami, my Sakura's all grown up!" Ino sniffled.

"Shut up!" Sakura shoved her playfully, and, laughing, Ino shoved her back and hopped away backwards.

"I can't believe it! Sasuke is going to freak once he sees y- ow!" Her back crashed right into something, and a tanned hand set on her blonde head.

"Watch where you're going, Yamanaka, hmm."

"Doesn't she look good, DeiDei-kins?" Ino reached up, grabbed a strand of Deidara's hair, and yanked him in Sakura's direction. "See? Doesn't she?"

He pulled out of her grasp. "And now you've switched to DeiDei-kins, hmm? Don't I ever get any say in this?"

"Screw you." Then Ino caught sight of Sasuke watching them indifferently. "Sasuke! What do you think of Saku-Saku here?"

Sasuke turned, and looked straight at Sakura. There was no emotion, as usual, in that gaze. She felt herself shrinking, withering away. It was like being a shrub out in the sun. She was receiving the attention, the light which she needed, but the blazing rays of judgment were beginning to overpower her. The water and confidence from Ino's gushy support was seeping out of her, evaporating into nothing. Sakura seemed to grow more insignificant.

And then it shifted. The ridges of this mouth flexed upward. It was a tiny smile, but that didn't matter to her. The jewel of a smile was directed at her, for only her. It didn't matter that she might receive jealousy and distaste from the other girls. What was important to her was that she liked it, Sasuke liked it, and her best friend liked it. Sakura, in her rippling long skirt and confidence flowing like moonlight was at that moment beautiful.

She smiled and walked toward the assembly grounds. The party was to be held in a large field outdoors. As she made her way to it, viridian skirts stirring lightly in the breeze, Sasuke fell into step beside her. Ino's face broke out into a smile as she watched the pair.

In the spot behind the stage, right before the performance, however, Sakura's jeweled confidence fell.

"Ahhhh, I'm scared, Yamanaka!" she moaned as she paced around and around. Ino groaned.

"Don't say that. I'm the one everyone will be gawking at."

"Well, what else can I do?" snapped Sakura.

"Don't be such a pussy. We've done this already."

"But not in front of so many people! And this thing's important!" Sakura wailed.

"Yeah. Screw up and your asses are grass, un." Deidara played with his clay on the canvas floor. Sasuke, arms crossed, ignored all the conversation. Sakura wished she could be like him sometimes. Completely unaffected by the teeth-grinding pace of the world and all its inanities.

"We don't care. Kiss our asses."

.O.

Sakura took a deep breath. Turned to look down from the outdoor dais to look at Ino. The black-clad girl glanced over her shoulder, smiled quickly. Sakura peered into the cup which Sasuke said he'd put chakra, that strange power only Akatsuki had, into to magnify sound. Breathing softly, she sang into it.

"The light of the bamboo forest; the desert of an island country
The country of seven colors continue to flow in the winds
There's a type of mystery, the grey swirl
Swirled me into the mysterious fog
The hands that can not be clearly seen, a flower being passed over
The softness which whom has passed?

The pain across one thousand years is only for an ending
The shape that you left is pointing me, so that I'm no longer lonely in the darkness
The sadness across one thousand years, it's you who's waiting for me at the end
The most beautiful sensation will worth me to use my whole life to protect it
."

Inserting Stuff From Jaded Delirium here: These lyrics are Thousand Year's Love (or A Thousand Years of Love) by F.I.R. . My friend (thanks, frienz4ever) said the lyrics are supposed to be different. I barely know the mandarin language so I may have gotten the wrong lyrics. Everyone, the song really is better than these lyrics make it sound.

Below, she could see Ino whirling on the dance platform. Light played across her features. Feathery tendrils flowing from her fire fans made her look like some sort of fiery angel. The sight was spectacularly lovely.

Pause for the music, then repeat again. As the final lines swept out of her mouth, she waited for the last chimes to signal the end of the song. Part of her wanted the melody to keep flowing, the song to keep going, but she knew their one-time performance had left more than an impression on the stiff nobles and their ladies.

As the applause drifted over them like white-capped waves, the girls felt the warm satisfaction that greets a true ending.

.O.

"Where have you learned to sing that way?" Sasuke questioned.

Still giddy on triumph, Sakura skipped along the path beside him. Ino was somewhere back at the party behind them, but Sakura wasn't concerned with her right now.

"It's natural," she replied. Twisting her head, Sakura caught Sasuke raising his eyebrows. "What, you don't think I was born with these genius talents? Not everyone has mediocre singing ability, huh, Sasuke-kun?"

"Are you implying that my vocal talents are terrible?"

"Maybe."

"Hn."

They settled near a cluster of bathtub-sized rocks. Sakura settled in the nook of one. Tipping herself backwards, she trailed her fingertips through her hair, letting the pink strands spill over the stone's snags and peaks. Beside her, Sasuke's eyes fixed intently on her face. She grinned.

"What?"

Chuckling slightly, he shook his head. Sakura shrugged and pulled herself to an upright perch.

"Don't I get something for all my hard work?"

Sasuke did that cool one-eyebrow-raised thing. She admired his talent for that. "Since when?"

"Come on. Like, a present of some sort," Sakura said. Tingling nerves crept into her fingers. She wriggled them to get rid of the feeling.

"What type of present do you have in mind?"

"Don't know, but it better be a good one, Sasuke-kun."

He did something that was a sort of cross between a snort and a snicker, like a sharp exhale, but a very short one. "Give me an example."

Sakura felt a wicked grin spread across her face. Sidling over to him, she cupped his shoulders, the firm muscles flexing in a startled reaction under her palms. Her fingers coiled, and she realized her heart rate was pulsing a banging riot.

"Like this, Sasuke-kun."

With a direct purpose, she drew her face toward his. She felt his hair brush lightly against her face. One of her hands drifted upwards to stroke the sharp shadow of the corner of his eye. She heard his breathing, frenetic. Her own exhales, just as ragged.

As gently as two feathers drifting into each other on the wind, the boy and the girl moved together and stole each other's first kisses.

.O.

"Yamanaka?" Sakura asked. Under the moon's hazy glow and the shifting angles thrown across the floor, she saw Ino open her eyes. Thinking it was too late to fly back, they'd boarded a train. The gentle vibrations of train movement had carried everyone but Sakura and Ino to sleep.

"Yeah?"

"You were right."

"What about?"

"I can't remember. Something about Sasuke-" she paused to relish the way the words curled off her tongue, "Sasuke not liking to kiss girls with slimy lips."

As realization shone in Ino's exhaustion-fuddled mind, her eyes brightened. They sparkled like fine ripples on a river.

"Seriously?" Her voice was a soft breath now. Another secret shared between friends.

"Yeah."

Ino reached for Sakura's hand, and, clasping it, gave it a firm squeeze. A light laugh rose from the blonde girl's throat.

Sakura slept the ride away, her head on Sasuke's shoulder and her hand in Ino's.