She stared blankly at the ceiling, listening to the faint sound of a clock ticking somewhere in the kitchen. She lay on her back, the still-made blankets of her simple bed wrinkling slightly around her unmoving form. Green eyes examined the ceiling without truly seeing it, watching instead her mind's eye:

His face, fair, handsome, coldly indifferent. The face that made her pulse rush and her stomach feel giddy.

His smile, more of a smirk, really. Pale lips twisted up ever so slightly at the corners. A mask that almost never showed true emotion.

His eyes, so dark and deep, she knew she would drown if she kept his gaze too long.

His hair, silken ebony.

His voice, rich and resonant, with an ever-present arrogance lacing the usually bored tones.

He had been her god, her object of worship, the trophy she had one day aspired to win. He had been her dream, her aspiration, her dearest fantasy.

Haruno Sakura closed her eyes, feeling the sting of unshed tears biting at her eyelids. Her hand tightened on the frame of the photograph she held to her chest.

He had been everything to her. And he had taken everything when he left.

Sakura… Thank you.

His last words echoed in her mind, bittersweet, painful. He had known. As he left her behind, he had known he took her heart with him.

Sakura sat up slowly, jade eyes determined, gleaming with resolve. Placing the old photograph back on the nightstand, she stood as the morning sun broke the horizon after yet another sleepless night. Slipping silently into her clothing, tucking weapons into their places, she made sure everything was precise, perfect. She was a kunoichi, a shinobi, she reminded herself as she tightened the hitai-ate, tucking back loose strands of pale pink hair.

Haruno Sakura examined her reflection in the mirror absently, her thoughts flitting back, as they too-often did, to that night nearly three years ago.

She was taller now. Her eyes had a harder look in them. Something about her smile seemed a little more worn; her hands were a little more calloused.

But her heart was set, as always. Her thoughts as she grabbed her black leather gloves off her dresser and shut the door gently behind her were the same as they had been for the last two and a half years. Perhaps today…

True, she had stopped idolizing him. He was no longer that most-popular boy in school, the cool kid on the block. True, he had betrayed her, the village, everyone. Yet, as always, he was her teammate, her friend, her first puppy love.

And his voice in her ear, his warm breath in her hair, the words so soft yet firm, determined yet sad. Thank you…

And then, in the ringing silence, she had known. He had made his choice and did not want to endanger those dear to him.

Even as the blackness had swallowed her vision, she knew. She could almost see the sadness in his onyx eyes as he caught her.

Despite his tough façade, despite his harsh words, she knew. She dimly remembered the cold stone against her back as she lost consciousness, the warmth of his fingertips brushing her cheek, trembling almost imperceptibly before he pulled away forever.

He had made his choice. He knew what was to come.

And Sakura knew that he would never admit it, but she had seen it in his eyes back then. Amidst the fear, the sorrow, the hidden pain, there had been…


Regret. It was not a word Uchiha Sasuke thought of fondly. It was not a word he liked to associate in any way with himself. It was not a word he liked to think of at all.

Yet the undeniable truth ate at him despite his best attempts. He ignored it, for the most part, but night after night it invaded his dreams. For even he, Uchiha Sasuke, was defenseless in sleep.

Obsidian eyes stared into the darkness. How bleak this room was, how empty. The furniture--just the bare necessities. The walls--no paint, no decoration, no windows. The floor--stark stone. It was like a cell. Emotions were not needed here. They were not welcome here. Only the icy silence and the harsh geometric lines.

He knew that somewhere above, where the entrance to the real word was, the dawn was breaking. Yet another time the sun was rising, unseen from this underground hellhole. And yet another time it rose without regard to the fact that Uchiha Sasuke had not slept a wink.

The fingers of his right hand tightened on the flesh of his left shoulder, at the spot where it connected to the neck, fingernails biting into the mark he knew was there. The mark of his past, his sin, his dire intentions. The mark that defined his present life, here in these cold stone walls. The mark of power that gave him unimaginable strength.

The mark that had led him to this place, that had ultimately pushed him to make his final choice.

Sasuke let out a shuddering breath, shattering the silence.

It made him sick. Every time he looked at himself in the mirror, every time he touched it, it filled him with disgust. This is what he had become. What he had chosen to become. For power. For revenge. For his pride and for his slaughtered family.

The means didn't matter, he told himself over and over again. All means to the same end. They didn't matter, as long as he achieved his goal.

If he had to turn to the very embodiment of evil, so be it. If he had to stay awake, staring blindly into the darkness and listening to the ceaseless screams of prisoners and experiments from below, so be it. If he had to endure those cold golden snake eyes leering covetously at him for years to come, so be it.

He had already left behind all that he could have ever found dear. He had already sacrificed his heart, his life, his home, his very humanity. He had already made his choice.

Yet still, that irritating emotion would persist. Whenever he was alone, whenever he let his guard slip for even a second, whenever he tried to sleep… it was there. Like a heavy weight around his heart, it chained him, would not leave him be. It brought back memories of laughter. It brought back names and faces he had forsaken long ago. It insisted on reminding him of all he had left behind.

Regret.

Sasuke's face twisted in a snarl. What a vile word. It did not pertain to him. Uchiha Sasuke felt no remorse, he felt no sadness, he felt nothing. Nothing! An avenger needed but one emotion. Anger was enough. Bitterness was all he needed to achieve his goal. He had locked away everything else, for it only represented weakness. All he needed now was that silent, seething anger he kept stoked, always burning fiercely just beneath his icy façade. Vengeance. Murder. Kill or be killed. It was the only way.

The only way.

A suffocating heaviness slipped into his chest as he closed his eyes despite himself.

Exhausted after another long and sleepless night, his mind--despite his best efforts to reign it in--wandered. To that night. To that place he had once called home. To the girl who had once stared at him with wide, admiring eyes.

Sakura… Thank you.

His words, back then, seemed so innocent, so sincere. He remembered how his heart had been pounding, how his hands had been shaking, how he could barely keep the uncertainty from showing on his face.

Even then, he had known what the future would hold. Even then he had known that to choose the life of an avenger was to choose a life of solitude. All that awaited him was bloodshed. The horizon was soaked in red. He could not possibly attempt to share such a life with others. He could not possibly ask for such sacrifices from the only people he had ever considered close to him.

Sasuke bit his lip sharply, squeezing his eyes shut tighter, unable to rid himself of the sight of her tear-streaked face, large green eyes begging him to stay, pleading with him. He had known then that she would do anything for him and such a thought frightened him terribly. He could not possibly allow her to taint her soft, fair hands. He could not allow her to experience such misery and carnage as he knew he would have to endure. It was the path he had chosen for himself and he could not allow those precious to him to suffer on it. He was an avenger. He was a solitary being. He needed no one, not even her.

Sasuke stood finally, sensing somehow that morning had come. Though no light came in this far underground, he had gotten used to it, his body following an instinctive inner timepiece.

He slipped on his loose white kimono, as usual not bothering to close it properly. Without even taking the trouble to turn on a light, he deftly wrapped a thick violet rope around his hips, tying his katana securely to his back. Then, without glancing back--for his room was always dark and empty-- he slipped into the dimly-lit hallway, the torchlight burning glaringly into his sensitive eyes.

He made his way by memory, without paying much attention, heading toward the upward levels, pausing once to briefly glance at his reflection in one of the very few windows. His eyes lingered on the faint image of his own cold, pale, emotionless face for just a second before pulling away, vaguely satisfied, yet somehow repulsed by the cool mask he saw.
He knew, of course, she would never approve. But then again she could never understand. He sighed softly, almost inaudibly, remembering her soft jade eyes, the shock and betrayal they had shown on that night. He remembered distantly the warmth of her slim body in his arms, the softness of her flesh as his lips brushed her forehead, his fingers stroked her cheek. It was the first time he had ever been so close. And he intended it to be the last.

An avenger lived alone.

Tightening his strange obi around his sword, Sasuke stepped into the sunlight, shielding his eyes from the sudden brightness. The sun had just emerged atop the horizon, bathing the eastern skies in a rosy, pastel glow.

Regret. The sudden twinge in his heart made the thought rise up unbidden. Sasuke grimaced slightly, shifting his gaze away from the horizon.

The sunrise was the color of her hair.