Hooded Lies

The Impact

The second the achingly familiar voice of the one person she cared for most in the world reached her ears, Sakura felt her very being still, the blood instantly draining from her shrouded, yet chill bitten face. In that single moment, her world narrowed, blanked out, and all that was left was the painful blow of shocked disbelief, even as she whipped around with wide, wild eyes, seeking the night's stifling blanket of darkness for a terrifying sight she so desperately hoped was not there. No. God, please, no. It couldn't be...It just couldn't...There was no way.

Her prayers, however, were left unanswered, for right there, in the dirty snow, her frantic gaze found purchase in a small figure silhouetted by the silver beams of moonlight, large, innocent eyes reflecting the dim golden glow of the rusty lantern, excited and joyful, filled with admiration; a wide, toothy grin spread across eager features—her very nightmare come true.

Konohamaru! Her blood ran cold in her veins. The very air she breathed flew out of her lungs in a painful rush. And, suddenly, all she knew was fear. A terrifying iced marble she was suddenly encased in, trapped, unable to break free, frozen for that one infinitesimal moment.

But in that momentary lapse of action—a mere split second of distraction, of recognition—was her downfall. It was all it took for her captive to gain the leverage to retaliate, and before she even realized what was happening, before she could even react properly, the rapier that was steadily poised at her prisoner's neck was promptly knocked from her sure grasp. And all at once she was seized at the wrist by large, cool hands. A surprised gasp escaped her pale lips, completely caught off guard. Alarmed, she struggled to remain astride her horse, kicking and punching at the formidable foe trying to bodily pull her off, even as she became distantly aware of the scuffle that had almost immediately broken out between her friends and the other despondent lordship. The two wastrels working in perfect tandem to disable their infamous robbers

No, no, no! This was not happening. This was not happening!

What was going on? Her mind scrambled to understand, trying to catch her confused, racing thoughts. What was Konohamaru doing here? Why was he even here? Why wasn't he at home, safe, with Grandma Chiyo? Oh dear Lord, she had to get him out of here—fast! He could get caught in the crossfire. He could get hurt. He could...he could...and if something ever happened to him...

A sense of frightened urgency welled up within her at the thought, and something akin to panic threatened to overwhelm her.

If something happened to him...

"Let go of me!" She emitted a frustrated cry, still fighting off the persistent man's hold, to no avail, her heart leaping to her throat with the first stirrings of terror at the direction her thoughts.

If something happened to him...

"Don't worry, Mister Night Phantom! We'll help you!" came a childish cry of support from somewhere behind her, followed by the muffled drumming of small feet charging across the ice-speckled road.

She panicked. No! Konohamaru!

If something happened to him, she would never be able to live it down.

She began her struggles anew, every fiber of her being screaming at her to race to her brother's side and get him as far away from the situation as possible. She couldn't allow him to get hurt. She couldn't allow anything to happen to him. She couldn't risk Konohamaru.

And so, with that frenzied thought in mind and the adrenaline pumping through her veins, the Night Phantom kicked her assailant with a furious, wordless roar, hitting him in the chest with such force, it was enough to make him stumble back a few steps with a muffled curse. Finally free of her attacker, her thoughts still running away with her, she immediately twisted around, her eyes catching sight of the children, three of them—Konohamaru and two of his friends from the village—bravely jogging towards her from a few yards away, charging to her aid.

I have to get them away from here! Tightening her grip on the leather reins with sure gauntleted hands, she glanced around for her companions to see how they were doing, the intention of calling them back already on her lips.

It didn't take her long to spot Shino crouched to the frosty ground on a man's back, holding the coachman who was screaming every crude obscenity there was, down. A quick flick of her eyes a little ways away found Kiba grappling with the other captive for a pistol. And Chouji...Her surveying green eyes searched for the last member of their ragtag band, and saw him just stepping down from the expensively gleaming landau a second later, holding onto a large coin-laden sack, shock plastered across his masked features, surprise, confusion and indecision mingled with his apprehensive expression.

Sakura made the decision for him. "Chouji! The children!"

Snapping at attention, her soft-hearted grizzly did as he was told, tucking the large sack under a massive arm. He lumbered towards the eager minors, stopping them halfway and herding them back to relative safety. Awe-inspired gasps followed by distant groaning of childish protests met her ears, but Chouji was enormous enough, to half carry, half drag the youngsters back to the engulfing gloom of the dead woods.

Marginally reassured of her brother's safety, Sakura turned back to her other companions, ready to call the order of retreat—something that had never actually happened before, a track record that was quickly becoming a necessary sacrifice to make. It was a bitter pill to swallow, the proud bandit in her railing at the concept, but even in her panicked state, she knew that things were starting to get out of hand. Obviously his lordships were no incompetent dandies, unable to defend themselves. Far from it, by the looks of it. And as much as she, the Night Phantom, hated to admit it, to back down from anyone—least of all from any of the haughty members of nobility—with the untimely arrival of the children, casualties could happen, unnecessary ones that could put them all at risk.

A risk she was not willing to take.

It was time to wrap things up and get a move on.

So immersed in her thoughts of retreat was she, however, that she was unprepared for another assault from the man she'd just kicked, her relief short-lived. In an impressive display of agility, he was upon her once again, leaping masterfully towards her without a word, without a sound, startling her docile mare into rearing onto its hind legs, a terrified whinny echoing from its thick equine lips.

Its sudden jerky movement left the young lady-bandit scrambling for purchase, clinging to the reins in a white-knuckled grip with a soft curse, fighting valiantly for precious balance. But even as she tried to regain control of her faithful stead, her precarious position had left her vulnerable, unable as she was, to pay attention to her determined enemy; one who saw the sly chance to overpower her with his sheer physical strength by snatching her around the waist, effectively pulling her down and out of her worn saddle, the skittish mare finally dancing away from the threatening built of its shadowed aggressor.

Roughly, without much preamble, her captor swiftly hauled her down and around, a disorienting rush of vertigo briefly washing over her, accompanying the hallow descent of her heart to the snow bitten soil. When she regained her scattered bearings, Sakura snarled and snapped at her dogged opponent with a wordless cry of fury. Her rising panic and fear for her brother coalesced into an uncontrollable form of hysteria and she struggled against his unmerciful hold with feral abandon, his capable hands like bands of unforgiving steel on her upper arms, biting into her flesh hard enough that she knew they were sure to leave unsightly bruises.

The man—formerly her captive, ironically enough—towered over her, a fearsome being cloaked in darkness. She looked up at him with wide pools of jade, frantic defiance swirling within them, suddenly struck in momentary awe—and not a small dose of dread—by the realization of how much taller he was now that she was on level ground. Power poured from every inch of him; the tense set of his shoulders a threat, the flinty glint of his soulless eyes piercing weapons that paralyzed her heart. This close, she could almost see every fine detail the shadows lovingly caressing his regal features would allow, from the way his dark hair framed his marbled visage, to the way he looked down his aristocratic nose with narrowed dark orbs filled with arrogant disdain.

He looked every bit as dangerous as she'd first thought he was.

A beautiful barbarian in elegant clothing.

And Sakura was captivated.

Just then, a niggling thought brushed her mesmerized senses, a formless recollection she could not quite grasp. Something about him was familiar, was telling her she recognized him from somewhere she couldn't somehow place—

And then he spoke, his voice low, clipped. A smooth, dangerous timbre. "You're caught, bandit."

—and the spell was broken, the phantom thought forgotten, swept away by the clouding tide of panic.

Her struggles renewed; the single-minded thought of escape once again foremost in her mind. "Let me go, you bastard!" she demanded, even as she fought him with all her strength, his unbroken hold never faltering. "I said let me go! Let me—" she let out a frustrated howl, trying to kick at him but, with their close proximity, failed miserably. "Unhand me!"

"Struggling is futile. Yield," the magnificent barbarian intoned, the stillness in his tone a contradiction to the derisive scowl marring his otherwise smooth, shadowed brow.

One steely hand jerked her arm painfully to one side so forcefully she couldn't help but let out a short cry of pain. "Ow! Damn you!" And impulsively, defiantly, she hauled back, her abrupt movement giving her right arm just enough leverage to free itself from his steel-braced hold. Almost instinctively, she drew it back, her dainty hand immediately balling into a tiny yet capable fist, and landed a solid punch across the sculpted plains of his imperious face.

A vindictive sense of triumph rose within her chest at her brash actions. One that, unfortunately, lasted only but a fleeting second, before both of her forearms were snatched in a punishing grip, the darkened expression of her antagonist snarling in her face, his potent rage evident in the way his silky tone turned several degrees chillier. "I'll kill you."

"Let go!" She fought him, afraid but undeterred.

He gave her a jarring shake in retaliation, his grip ever tightening. "Give up."

"Go to hell!"

The wrath that stormed across his handsome countenance, however, was momentarily stayed by a curious faint rumbling from the distance that steadily grew louder, thunderous, echoing eerily in the gloomy winter night, a dull roar that was almost like a warning. Like thunder...Like...

Like horse hooves.

Distracted and distantly bemused, Sasuke cast a quick, cursory glance down the wide, frost-laden country road behind him, in the direction whence they came, and scowled when he saw a familiar sight. A sight in the distance that was both natural yet out of place in a lonely countryside well past midnight—the sight of the hulking form of a sturdy hackney coach barrelling down the barren rural path, tearing through with a purpose at breakneck speed, its carriage lights a blurring streak.

Odd, he thought, sharing a brief cautious look with the earl, who was still fighting off the burlier henchman, both of them at some sort of stalemate.

While it was not at all strange for the proud denizens of Leaf to go out for a nightly jaunt at the wee hours of the morning, to do so, so far out of the capital in the middle of winter was uncommon, although it was, admittedly, not entirely unheard of, seeing as he and Shikamaru were there, out in the cold. Scuffling with a band of foolish misfits. The prince had to inwardly sigh at the thought. And, an irritated one at that. The rotten miscreants.

Still, the fact that someone in the city found it urgent enough to brave uneven grounds in the dead of the night, slippery with snow, and therefore made more perilous, was suspicious. He knew the charging carriage couldn't be a stagecoach. Public transports usually stop at nearby inns early in the night to accommodate weary travellers, and certainly none of the cosseted nobility—though many of them were eccentric enough to try—would dare choose to trek a cold night, when an endless string of winter and pre-spring soirees were there for them to attend. And even though Sasuke had also had his fair share of reckless races, he also knew that winter was not at all the most ideal time to engage in a sport that was already hazardous on the best of days, no matter how much of a daredevil the young buck may be.

Something was amiss. He just knew it. Sensed it. Felt it.

At the corner of his eye, he watched the team of horses draw the coach closer, and something in Sasuke grew on edge, a foreboding feeling he couldn't shake, even as he imprisoned the impudent thief—the little bastard—in his crushing hold. The already stifling tension in the icy air around them thickened, melding into something that was almost substantial—a living being all on its own.

Something was not right.

"Hold still," he growled, sliding his hands up the skinny lad's wrists with the intention of holding them prison in one steely hand, half his attention on the encroaching carriage. Surprisingly, the spirited boy did as he was told, freezing in the prince's resilient clasp. Scowling, both in concentration and in bewilderment, Sasuke looked down at his prisoner just in time to bear witness to the way the kid drew in a sharp, stunned breath, his eyes fixated on something on his clenched grip.

"You...!"

Comprehension dawned, and Sasuke didn't need to follow the urchin's astounded gaze to know the thieving rascal was staring at the royal signet ring, the proof of his birthright, his privilege. His responsibility.

His curse.

Not anymore, he reminded himself grimly.

Even so, the satisfaction he felt at the Night Phantom's hoarse croak was enough to make him smirk mockingly down at the notorious thief, revelling in the way the defiance in his shrouded face morphed into horror. But even the pleasure he took at the boy's realization was short-lived, for in the next instant the deafening roar of pounding horse hooves drawing closer drowned out the night, the fierce whistle and crack of a whip rent the air, a cacophonous jangling, and then, shockingly, unexpectedly—

"Sasuke!" Shikamaru cried out a warning—in alarm—his opponent grunting in pain from the quick boxing combo the Earl of Shadow swiftly dealt him, a move that effectively sent the unrelenting bandit back.

—a deafening blow of gunshot.

The prince whipped around swiftly, just as a burning sort of pain exploded across his side.

They shot him.

Sakura abruptly stumbled back on wobbling legs, unbalanced by the crashing momentum of her captor suddenly letting her go and sending her gracelessly to the ground with a squelching thump, her face now drained of any color, and the explosive sound of gunfire ringing in her hears. With wide, stupefied eyes, she stared at the hunched and grunting bulk before her, her heart and mind racing each other a mile a minute in a marathon competition.

Okay, what in blazes was going on here? Just what the hell was happening? What—who—what the hell is going on? She thought frenetically from where she just sat, frozen in shock, and a creeping sense of trepidation now clutching firmly at her gut. Her brain went on overdrive, and suddenly, Sakura felt like she was going to be sick.

This was too much. Too much. It was all happening so fast, so unexpectedly and without so much as a warning, it was all so hard for her to keep up. All she knew was that, one minute she was fighting off an arrogant yet utterly fearsome coxcomb, a split second before realizing how she had just made the biggest mistake in her entire sticky-fingered career—no, her entire life, because, well shit, she'd just ambushed the prince! The prince! If that didn't spell out a death sentence for treason, she didn't know what did. She was going to hang, and then she was going to die! Oh, God, she was going to die. Die for unwittingly committing treason! Shit, shit, shit—and the next...

The next...

They shot him. Her frantic mind, numbed from panic, supplied again.

Stunned emerald orbs swung to the encroaching coach, so close now, it was actually starting to slow down, catching a chilling silhouetted sight of a man with a smoking pistol gleaming under the erratic beams of silver hanging from his seasoned hand, sitting beside the reckless hackney driver urging the team of heaving geldings forward. Her dazed befuddlement doubled, her nerves stilling for a dreadful moment, before skyrocketing into new heights.

Oh, God.

A pained grunt and a rustle of movement caught her attention, causing her gaze to swing back to the injured man attempting to stand unsteadily on his feet before her.

Oh, God, they shot him!

And then...

They shot the prince!

All hell broke loose.

A barrage of bullets flew through the air, raining all around them, causing clumps of mud and snow to erupt erratically from the ground.

Snapping out of her confounded state and bursting into action, Sakura leaped to her feet, words of retreat unconsciously flying from her dry mouth, years-honed survival instincts finally taking over. "Fall back!" She shouted at her friends over the blasting din of the deadly projectiles, ducking, as she did, away from flying bullets.

"Sakura—" she heard Kiba start hoarsely from where he stood near the opulent carriage, a cringe on his shadowed features.

Sakura glanced at him over her shoulder in response to his call, and roared, "Come on!" before she turned back to the black woods they knew so well, stepping forward in the snow sluiced ground to begin her hasty flight, Kiba and Shino following suit. She didn't know what was happening, or even why this was happening at all, but she'd be damned before any of them were caught in the crossfire of a fight that was obviously not hers.

Getting hurt was one thing...getting killed, on the other hand...well, that was never a part of the plan. Never had been.

Sure there were risks; all of them knew that. They weren't naive enough to think otherwise after having chosen the life of a highway bandit like they did. Their choice was not without its own dangers, but they had been risks they'd all been willing to take. Consequences they were willing to face. But even so, when Sakura had begun her little stint as the Night Phantom, fully aware of those risks, she had never allowed anyone to get hurt. Not any of her friends, or her victims. They stole, but they never took a life. When scuffles had broken out, she'd made sure it ended quickly.

Indeed, it had almost been like a game, one that got easier the more they played. They robbed, the nobility cowered. They leave the scene with hefty loot, and the highborn victims go back to their lavish mansions with a new dramatic clump of gossip to chew on and share to the rest of their peers, the sympathetic reputation of a martyr on their sleeves. The highborn aristocrats of Fire hardly even put up a fight, for all their bluff and bluster. The idea being "abused" by the famous night brigand was too much of a novelty for the bored Ton, and the King's Road Bandits could do naught else but oblige.

After all, everybody won, didn't they?

But this...this was another thing entirely.

Half way to their woods of sanctuary, Sakura stole a guarded glance over her shoulder at the violent scene she intended to flee, her ears, still ringing from the deafening shots that had not long ago ceased, pounding with the rapid pumping of her blood. The storming carriage had now stopped entirely, its pair of reined horses snorting from their heavy exertions. And then—from the recesses of the hackney's lacquered structure, looking sinister despite its ordinary look, half a dozen men dismounted from the hulking mobile, their profiles cast sharply against the dim glow of their carriage lights, a threatening testament to their malicious intent. Morbidly transfixed, she watched as those same shadows advanced forward like a pack of starving wolves, stomping steadily and crudely through the dusty snow towards the two fallen young lords who had apparently found refuge from the unanticipated blitz of bullets behind their expensive landau. Watched as they trapped the polished duo against the gig in a threatening semi-circle, large gleaming knives swinging from their brawny hands. Watched as they moved in to attack.

Watched as they tried to murder innocent men.

Watched, watched, wa—

"Sakura!"

Unsteady bottle green eyes, glassy and faintly glazed from her horrific train of thought, darted towards the treeline. Found her friends' already there, astride their mounts and ready to getaway.

"What are you doing? Get over here!" hissed an urgent Kiba.

Found that she'd stopped halfway.

Innocent men. She swallowed against the uncomfortable lump that had risen in her throat.

"Sakura! What are you waiting for?"

That was a good question. What was she waiting for?

"Hurry!"

She glanced back at the malevolent scene behind her, then back to the dark abyss that held the promise of safety. Of home. Family.

She didn't know, really. She didn't know.

Logic told her that she should flee the scene as fast as possible. Anything that happened here could incriminate her and her friends further, could endanger them all. Could get them all killed. She should go now. Right now. She should take her brother and his friends home where it was safe, and away from this chaos. This was not her problem. This was not her fight. She had problems of her own to deal with—Inari, the drought, her family's survival...

Excuses.

She should go; she knew she should.

They're all excuses.

But her feet just wouldn't budge.

Indecision tugged at her heart, her conscience.

They're innocent men.

Because for all her righteous fight for justice, could she really allow soothing like this to happen? Could she really allow people to be murdered in cold blood? Could she really just walk away? Could she?

Could she?

...

Sakura liked to think so. Liked to think that she was hardened enough. Practical. Calculating.

It wasn't her business.

Maybe.

A soft equine snort trickled to her ears, like a soft call amidst her chaotic thoughts, followed by the soft padding of horse hooves. She glanced to her left, and found an allaying sight.

Possibly.

Katsuyu.

Yes.

With a deep fortifying breath, she resumed her wobbly stride, towards the cold, leafless trees that provided them refuge.

But...

She knew her answer.

And she also knew it was one she was going to regret.

-XxxxX-

"You okay?" Shikamaru's query was not more than a quiet murmur, his dark eyes, ever watchful, never straying from the threat slowly bearing down upon them. His calm, unruffled demeanor belying the unease he felt at this new—although not entirely surprising—turn of events in the way his lank body tensed, alert now and ready to take any and all the necessary actions to ensure his royal friend's safety, lean muscles subtly coiled under his rich garb, already anticipating the inevitable violence up ahead.

There were about half a dozen of them, all dressed in apparent rags befitting sadistic bandits, hungry for scrap. Bandits.

Shikamaru frowned, looking a little closer with observant eyes that uncannily saw beyond most facades, inwardly grateful for the dim glow their hackney provided, a small pool of light that was enough for him to see what he needed. No. Piercing eyes bore into the roughened visages cast harshly against the warm flames' glow. Not bandits. They seemed too experienced, more deadly and less desperate. Their movements practiced, done with deadly eager ease. Their strange weapons—sharp curving blades as long as an arm—glinted wickedly in the combined stray beams of the cool silver moonlight and the golden lantern shine, handled it with expert finesse, their quick waylaying style familiar, outdated, cliché even, but infinitely more efficient.

"Mercenaries." Sasuke grunted in lieu of answering his question, coming to the obvious conclusion the earl had, for it didn't really take a genius to realize what was happening. These men were mercenaries. Assassins, hired murderers.

Trained killers.

This was the ambush they'd been waiting for.

How troublesome. The young Earl of Shadow spared his boyhood mate a sparingly critical glance beside him, taking in every minute detail in barely a second, from the way the prince's normally proud shoulders hunched slightly to the way his right hand tried to staunch the hot blood steadily staining his silken coat to his pained grimace, jaw clenched and lips a stark, thin line, before latching his eyes back to their stalking assassins once again. It was obvious the wayward prince of Fire was in pain—a lot of it. But while Shika didn't know the extent of its severity yet, he was relieved to know that the imperial scion was able to withstand it thus far. Of course, knowing that Sasuke had a high tolerance for what could possibly be grave injuries did not really lessen the practical urgency to get him treated as soon as possible.

He needed to get Sasuke to a healer. Fast.

But first...He had deal with these taxing maniacs.

His lordship heaved a torpid sigh at the thought and the precious amount of effort he had to waste on the annoying buggers. He toyed with the smooth metal of the pistol he'd grappled that other troublesome bandit for in his loose grip. And to think he could be in his warm, comfortable bed right now, enjoying a good night's sleep. He couldn't help but heave another exasperated sigh. Sometimes, he really hated being dragged around like this. In the middle of bloody winter too. It was all just so...

So troublesome.

"Shikamaru." A deep voice laced in ice broke through the tension wrapped atmosphere, stilted, like a fragile glass about to break into a million chaotic pieces.

Calculating orbs at half-mast, said earl merely slanted his unconcerned gaze to the sovereign born beside him, just in time to see the man straighten to his full formidable height, confident shoulders rolling back and fathomless Uchiha orbs, soulless in its intensity, glittering with unholy rancor. One look at Fire's heir and Shadow knew it was no longer the scandalously beloved prince of the realm standing at the ready by his side, with well defined trained muscles cording in anticipation, but the vengeful avenger living within, lurking. Hungry. Eager.

Bloodthirsty.

One look at the man, and Shikamaru knew.

No one was going to survive this night.

No. Calmly, methodically, he brought the ivory-kissed revolver in his hand, cocked it and aimed with cool proficiency, alert half-mast orbs watching as their hired enemies launched their attack. He knew better.

No one was going to survive.

All but one.

-XxxxX-

It was a gruesome scene. Primal. Magnificent. Flawless.

And it had all happened so fast.

So fast that...it even ended just as quickly.

Indeed, Sakura had barely even had the time to swing herself effortlessly onto her dust-crusted mare, reeling her around to charge back to the very fray they had so quickly bolted from, before the deadly scrimmage broke and peaked into a deadly dance of gunfire, masterful parries, graceful movements and lightning reflexes. She witnessed it all with wide eyes, enthralled by skilled display, her skin had sizzling as she whistled through the chilled air, her nerves strung taut and her ears deaf to the perplexed cries of her men even as Katsuyu's long sturdy limbs took her ever closer to where her aid was clearly needed.

Or so she'd thought.

As it was, the poor blokes never had a chance.

And by the time she'd reared her steed back and dismounted, the last of the malicious attackers had already fallen, their hateful features unknown to her, yet forever etched in the recognizable contortion of agony, vermillion stains seeping into the mud-soiled snow at their feet in thick rivulets. Frozen. Lifeless.

Dead.

They're dead.

Dear Lord...

"All but one."

Staggered, shaken emeralds flew towards the shadowed man with the refined and curt pronouncement, his lank person looming over a massive incapacitated mass of unconscious groaning man splayed ingloriously on the muddy ground, his head held at sure gunpoint. The man hardly even spared a glance her way, his entire focus on the bandit brought low; though she didn't doubt for one second that he'd be on her should she pose as any kind of threat—not that she was aware enough to be one, or even care or take offense. As it was, she had become so out of touch with herself at that moment, so dazed and astonished, that she hadn't even realized she'd spoken her thoughts out loud; an evidence to just how jumbled her head had become in so short a time. She could do little else but gape at the unsettling sight, really. She didn't even know whether to feel relieved, sickened or distressed by what she was seeing.

Bodies. Corpses.

Blood, everywhere. Rivers of it.

They killed them.

They killed those men. Just like that. Her mind had trouble wrapping around it. In all her widely sung adventures, not once had she ever thought of taking a life. Not even when the situation had bordered on violent. Looking over to the man standing so unruffled before here, his stance casua with barely a hair out of his perfect queue, his richly garbed profile bathed in warm pools of gold, it was all Sakura could do not to gawk at his projected nonchalance.

This was a man of the illustrious Ton, a nobleman of the upper echelon no doubt, one of the really, and apparently very few, skilled ones, possibly with military training and...and therefore, above and beyond the law.

Weren't they always? A small voice inside her head jeered. One she studiously ignored, even as something inside her scoffed at her weak-hearted thoughts.

Really, what had she intended to do when she'd come charging along like some sanctimonious pillock? She sure as hell hadn't had death in mind. Those men had obviously been out to kill them. They had no choice. The prince's safety was at—

A curt grunt cut through the ensuing silence, a soft, barely audible sound that was enough to break through the frailty of the aftermath calm that had come in the immediately heels of the shocking pandemonium that had just transpired.

The prince! The single pressing thought brought her out of her internal conflict, shoved to the back of her mind for the moment, as pools of bottle green searched out the chaotic scene left over for the regal figure of her erstwhile, and apparently royal, captive.

And there he stood, his proud shoulders stooped, his tall form doubled over, a hand glued to his wounded side, the other still clutching tightly at an oddly shaped saber. Quite suddenly, he staggered to his knees with another pained grunt, using the unusual lance he had to purchase for lost balance and embedding it securely to the mud sloshed ground as he fell.

Sakura was by his side in instant, trained jade orbs already surveying the damage brought upon him.

"Sasuke," Shikamaru called out, his attention drawn to his fallen friend, concern finally marring his smooth brow. He took a step forward, a type of apprehensive urgency building inside him, even as deeply ingrained training overtook his senses. He needed to get Sasuke to safety.

An Uchiha's need must be catered to above all others.

But then, a curious sight gave his progress pause. His intuitive eyes, though wary, taking in the Night Phantom's light tread, quick and graceful, and suddenly, he was there; the pauper crouched beside royalty.

Curious, indeed.

Standing slightly off to the side, far enough to watch the bizarre scene unfold, yet near enough for him to spring into action should the urchin decide to try and commit treason against the Crown, the chosen lord sworn to the protection of his prince watched as the man born to rule his motherland tensed, the boy at his side gingerly trying to peel the steely hand glued to his bleeding abrasion. Watched as the adored Night Phantom tried to bravely coax a, for all a lack of better comparison, wounded animal, his low, strident juvenile voice carrying over the frigid wind like a soothing balm.

"Please, sir," Shika heard him say. "Let me see your wound; I might be able to help." His friend's answering murmur was too low for him to hear, but judging by the rigid way he held himself, as still as death itself, the Nara earl could only infer the successor's terse refusal to the ragtag adolescent's plea.

For all intents and purposes, the Nara scion should be following his liege's example, knew he shouldn't even be allowing the wanted lad near the royal heir, not after he had attempted to rob them like they did. The young man had certainly proven himself to be a crafty one, seemingly harmless as he was; Shika highly doubted the infantile brigand had gotten to where he was now if he wasn't. In actuality, what he should be doing was engaging the notorious highwayman in a duel, ending it quickly, capturing the hunted riffraff and taking him to jail, where he would finally await his long standing trial. It was only logical. Part of his duty, really. After all, there were a number of vicious patrons in the Ton who would just love to have the lad's head on a platter.

But then, that was neither here nor there, he supposed. He himself had nothing against the buck, having never been robbed by his merry band of thieves, nor had he been a subject to his immature, and yet rather creative antics. Personally, he thought it far too troublesome to hold a useless grudge; most of the lords and ladies of Leaf were just overreacting anyway. He'd be better off wasting his time sleeping, like he should be now, than mustering up the needless fury to be so vindictive. Nevertheless, despite the Ton's obvious dislike—when one put it mildly, of course—of the mischievous outlaw, seeing him now in action, something about him tugged at his instincts. Instincts that Shikamaru rarely ignored. One that told him the Night Phantom was no foe at all, but an ally of sorts. His presence there alone was already proof enough of his intention, for the robbing youth had obviously come back to help them, however misguided it might have been. And judging by the way he was moving now, with an ease that told his lordship he's seen his fair share of battle wounds, Shikamaru rather thought the reckless offer of aid still stood.

It was only a matter of whether to accept it or not.

Just then, a slight movement caught his eye, the rhythmic pounding of footsteps in his ears, and then suddenly—

"Night!"

—cacophonous yelling.

Tensing, the trio whipped their heads around, just in time to see a sturdy profile of a tall man swiftly running towards them, snow and mud sloshing in his untidy wake.

"Ki—Rouge! Over here!" The Night Phantom's answering call flew out immediately, a wave of relief that washing over her at seeing her best friend's approach. Seeing him safe—and she could only assume the others were too—was alleviating to her frazzled nerves, his deep voice bellowing through a comfort, especially since her hand was now currently soaked in blood. Royal blood. Blood that, she knew, if un-staunched, would be hell to pay.

The prince needed proper help.

Opening her mouth to mention this pressing matter to her jogging friend, already feeling the need to the rush to get the wounded to a safer place, when he'd slowed to a stop before her, Sakura looked up into furious beads of brown eyes, glittering behind his leather mask, became steely flints in the soft shine of the moonbeams. The sever frown that pulled his hard mouth down was the only indication she had of his rage before he completely blew his top. Really, he didn't even pause for a short breath. "Just what the hell did you think you were doing?"

She sighed inwardly at his temperamental reaction. They did not need this right now. His Kiba moments could wait until later. Right now, they had a person to save. So, instead, she ignored his outburst and asked a more sensible question of her own. "Where's the wagon?"

"Out back at the—" He answered impulsively, paused, then bristled. "Hey. I asked you a question. You do know that you could have gotten yourself killed? What the hell is wrong with you?"

"Rogue. We do not have time for—"

But Kiba wasn't listening. He was on a roll, and everything else be damned, because, "We do not need another body to bury, okay? Why'd you have to go charging in like some—"

"Rogue!"

"I mean, all you had to do was run! Why didn't you just run? Sometimes I wonder about that 'good sense' you keep bragging about. Seriously. Why couldn—"

"Rogue."

"What, dammit?"

"Where. Is. The wagon." Twin flashes of jade bore into him heatedly from beneath the dark recesses the wide-hood, making her look faceless. A phantom of the night.

Nonplussed, Rogue hedged cautiously. "Why?"

"Because," Sakura stressed, giving him a pointed stare before letting her critical gaze fall to the coiled being she was crouched next to. His hand was still glued to his wounded side, her own gloved ones on top of his, adding more pressure to the gushing wound. His head was bowed, his hair falling onto most of his face and all she could see was a marbled profile. It was enough, however, for her know that his regal face was scrunched in a grimace of pain, his jaw clenched tight. "The prince is hurt."

"...Prince?" Kiba's shrill exclaim trilled through the tranquil night.

She nodded. "I don't know how serious it is," she looked over to the man standing behind the prince, a still guardian waiting for any signs of threat. She met his bored eyes, twin orbs shining with what she recognized as deceptive intelligence. "But he's losing a lot of blood."

"I'm fine," came a clipped grunt, smooth, even while encased in pain, the figure before her stirring.

Sakura ignored him, as well as Kiba's incredulous exclamations—"Prince? Prince?"—keeping her hands pressed to the man's injury even when he tried to move away, keeping her eyes trained on the aristocrat standing steadily, almost listlessly, on his feet. Somehow, she knew she would have better luck convincing him than the injured noble, because even if the prince's injury wasn't life-threatening, should they choose to turn back to Leaf now and get the royal doctor, at the rate his blood was flowing, he'd be half dead. "He needs immediate attention." So she willed him; willed him to understand the gravity of the situation. To look past her masquerade, past the Night Phantom, past the prejudice, the line that separated the rich and the poor. "I know someone who can help."

At those solemn words, they stared at each other for a long second, the prince tensing beneath her pushing hands.

Finally, deliberately, he nodded his assent.

The Night Phantom exhaled a relieved breath. "Rouge, bring the wagon over."

Kiba wasn't listening, however. "The Prince?"

"Yes, the prince." She allowed with a weary sigh.

"As in the prince of Fire?"

"Yes."

"Our prince?" His eyes grew wide.

"Yes!"

"As in the—"

"Rogue. The wagon?"

"But—"

"Go!" she glared at him.

"O...kay..." Kiba looked at a loss. He was gobsmacked. Dumbfounded. Completely bowled over. Because if that was the, honest to God, Prince Sasuke Uchiha, then...that would mean... "But...why?"

They'd just robbed royalty.

"Because." Sakura in toned gravely. "We're taking him with us."

Shit.

"What?"

-XxxxX-

A/n: There you have it! A post to celebrate the upcoming, long awaited SasuSaku Month (We do have a little less than two days left)! I actually didn't join the event as I've been so busy with stuff here and there, but I figured I should get into the spirit of SasuSaku love, so yeah. Here's chapter 8! xD

Anyway, to tell you honestly, I'm not exactly sure how I'm supposed to feel about this chapter. This took a long time to write. You have no idea how many times I had to rewrite this. Now that it's done, I actually feel like I've run a whole triathlon. So, while I'm...relived that I've finally gotten this over and done with, I also feel like it's all over the place. Chaotic chapter is chaotic. I tried my best to clean it up a bit and make it less...chaotic, but I don't know. I can't decide whether the reason for it is because the chapter really is supposed to be chaotic, or if it's because I had to write a few action scenes. If it's the latter, then I might have to work on that.

Not only that, but the characters certainly took me along for the ride. They grew so stubborn along the way and just ran off on their own that absolutely nothing I'd planned followed through. This may cause me to re-evaluate all the planning I did, damn.

What do you think? :/

Oh! And one more thing! I have a new fan fiction website up. It will host all of my fan fiction, past, present and future. It will also contain some works that won't be posted here in FFN, so if you're interested, just go to my profile to read all about it. :)