Instant Message
By Keelah


"The stairs look steep."

"That's why I'm making you go first, moron."

I glared at him. "So that I can be the test run in case it collapses?"

"No, so I can catch you if you slip."


Chapter FIFTY-THREE
Sirens

The sound of crunching dry leaves beneath heavy but furtive soles reached my ears.

I whipped around, heart pounding and eyes scanning about the commonplace backyard. Through narrowed slits, I strained to see through copious shades of black and grey. In one corner, I made out a rotting set of a porch table and chairs, pushed up against the wooden fencing where other abandoned furniture was dumped. The lawn was slightly unkempt but acceptable, and other than the seemingly unused grill situated on the right wall and the folded cardboard boxes on the left, the place was bare and lifeless.

Yet my eyeshot could only reach so far, unaccommodatingly limited to areas where the emaciated glow of moonlight touched the ground. A dimly illumined arc formed as if encircling us, offering a sufficient amount of light that Sasuke needed to pick the lock successfully and get us inside. But beyond the reaches of light, past the peripheries of safety that the wooden fence offered, was an indiscernible army of shadows that loomed and watched. Suddenly, the five feet hedge no longer made me feel secure, but rather trapped.

From somewhere behind that black coverlet, the slightest sound of a footfall emanated.

"Did you hear that?"

His jet black globes, now even darker—if that were possible—as a result of their exposure beneath the beams of the evening sun, were narrowed with excessive single-mindedness and concentration on the doorknob between his hands. His brows were furrowed, head ducked down, but there was something about the way his gaze saw past the golden handle that told me he wasn't actually concentrating on getting the lock unbolted. He'd been strangely quiet for a while now.

I looked back over my shoulder and saw the same, darkened picture, unmoved and unchanged. There was something about its stillness that irked me, something about its unusual silence that drained away my prior thrill and replaced the adrenaline with a fretting, wildly-aware kind of drug.

"Hurry up, already," I commanded Sasuke, exasperated. "What's taking so long?"

Unlike before, I was not spazzed at and told to shut up; instead, the boy remained silent, never lifting his attention off the task. With a bowed head and windswept wisps of ebony hair concealing his equally black eyes, Sasuke twisted the wire and the lock emitted a soft, barely audible tick from within. When he extracted the now-crooked paperclips and twisted the knob, the door budged from its position.

I stared at the unlit slit and peeked into an equally unlit back room, lacking the grace of light from outside. From where I was, all I could really make out was a vague silhouette of a couch and the heavy white draperies that wholly swathed a window on the far wall.

It was uninhabited but not quite empty, silent but not tranquil.

I gulped as my former sense of adventure waned from my body, the adrenaline rush now dispersing, replaced by a bone-chilling, inside-turning emotion that I couldn't identify.

Lingering aimlessly in front of the doorstep, I expected for him to crawl inside first. However it seemed Sasuke was doing the very same thing, waiting for me to make the initial move. He leaned against the porch's metal railings, as distanced from me as the space would allow, his eyes wandering in the vacant air around my profile, hopping from site to site without ever landing on the very girl that was right in front of him. Sasuke wouldn't look at me for some reason, and hadn't for some time now. I stared at him in wonder, knowing my gaze irked him even further, but soon decided to set aside the matter as simply another unreadable antic of the Uchiha.

Turning back towards the doorway, I gulped. "Sasuke?"

"Hn?" Now he was staring at the ground, eyes fastened on the grimy panels of wood laid beneath entwined feet.

"I... it's... you go first."

A heavy, exhausted sigh escaped through the small partition of his lips. Grudgingly, he pushed himself off the rusted metal bars and uttered decidedly, "Fine. Stay here."

"I don't mean leave me alone!" I huffed, brushing past him, offended at his degrading tone of voice. Ignoring the butterflies, or rather the foreboding, skittering moths that made my stomach suddenly uneasy, I laid a hand on the wooden door and pushed.

The panel swung with ease, accompanied by the squeaking of rust and metal from the oxidized hinges, evidently in desperate need of oil. The sound echoed down the hallway, which opened before us like a void of pure emptiness, sucking into its black jaws everything in its path. Tearing my eyes from the ominous corridor, I stepped past the threshold, taking comfort in the feel of Sasuke's presence close behind me, which for now was enough to restrain the shudders. As both the back door and the screen swung shut behind us, at once we were enveloped by utter darkness, devoid of any light source save of the pale rays that managed to seep through the curtains.

Despite my state of sightlessness, I could make out the slightest silhouettes of mundane furniture, the square shape of a furnace and the rims of a dining set arbitrarily situated beside a mini kitchen. From the looks of it, it was a basement suite with a ground floor entrance at the back, as the hill's slope scoped a part of the house, leaving half of the first floor underground. This apartment, however, seemed to have been untouched for years. There were no plates on the sink, no adornments whatsoever on the walls, no sign of residency. The man probably lived mostly upstairs on the main ground level.

Blindly moving across the space, I felt my way towards the far side of the room, where the wall opened up to the only corridor that presented an exit from the deserted apartment suite. I glided my feet across the floor as silently as possible regardless of the fact that no one seemed to be home at the moment, and that there would be no ears to hear our noise even if we were to make any. There was, however, something about the abode's gloom that required caution, and as I padded forward I couldn't help but feel like a clueless mouse headed right for a trap.

I was about midway, only a few feet from the opening black mouth that was the hallway's entrance, when I realized the only motions I perceived were my own. Sasuke hadn't followed after me.

Befuddled, I turned back to find him still glued on the same spot, the outline of his body visibly rigid and the shadow of his head whipping carefully, watchfully, in all directions. Through the obscurity of light and darkness I made out a thoughtful frown into which his features were contorted, not in a distracted manner like earlier, but in a wondering kind of way, as though he were assessing something. His searching eyes grazed the doorsill from top to bottom, inspecting the corners of the room and the ceilings and floors, hunting for an unknown entity.

"What is it?"

Finally, he stepped forward, heading towards where I stood in the middle of the room. "Don't you notice anything unusual?" he asked in a hushed voice.

"Like what?" The two of us, with Sasuke hanging slightly behind, sauntered down the cramped passage. The ceiling hung low and the walls seemed to close in on us on either side.

"Like there's no alarm."

I shrugged, honestly unconcerned about the lack of security system—it worked out for the better, did it not? It was one less obstacle. "Maybe he's not a cautious guy," was my offhand suggestion.

The further we went into the cavern, the more shadows seemed to close in on us from all sides: the ceiling hung low over our heads, just about touching the top of Sasuke's spikes, and on either side the walls drew closer and closer. As we neared the end of the hall, a plain, undecorated wall emerged a few feet before us, denoting a dead end. I halted and stared at the wall, wondering if we were wrong to come in from the back, if there was no passage from this floor to the one above, when suddenly a set of fingers clutched around my elbow.

I jumped.

"What?" I hissed at Sasuke, heart pounding at the unexpected touch. "Don't scare me like that!"

"Sorry," he muttered, then jerked his head to the side. Following his gesture, I spotted his hand gripping a round doorknob that jutted out from the wall without reason, and it took a while for the entire picture to make sense in my head. Painted on the pastel wall was the slightest trace of a door's outline, its auburn painting scraped and stained. Effortlessly, Sasuke twisted the knob and the panel swung outwards, revealing a narrow flight of stairs that shot upwards on a treacherously steep angle. At the top of the landing, another ill-omened door awaited to be opened.

I felt a slight pressure on my back that urged me forward, closer to the staircase. "Go," I heard Sasuke say, though my limbs disobeyed his command.

"The stairs look steep," I reasoned, although that was the least of my worries at the moment.

"That's why I'm making you go first, moron."

I glared at him, only hoping that the daggers from my eyes sliced through the shadows. "So that I can be the test run in case it collapses?"

"No, so I can catch you if you slip. Hurry up."

But despite the reassurance, I couldn't seem to move. At that moment, every part of me regretted ever suggesting such a risky idea—what if the man came home early? What if he was waiting right on the other side of that door? What if he truly was linked to the Rogue? What if his intents were just as menacing in every way?

A shiver gripped my spine and clawed its way down my backbone at the thought of a face staring down at me upon reaching the top of that landing.

Behind me, Sasuke sighed. "Look," he snapped with a voice no louder than a murmur. "You wanted to check out the guy's house, right? You said he seemed suspicious the last time, and if he's associated with the Rogue, you wanted to investigate a little more. Why are you backing out now?"

The truth in his words resonated in my skull—it was my idea. I'd made up my mind that I would put an end to this, that I would find the Rogue and... and I wasn't exactly sure what I would do once I did, but I would find him, and then I would quit this game once and for all. To do that, I needed to follow all leads.

So why was I so afraid again?

Scowling at myself, I reached out, gripped the bitingly cold banister and hauled myself up one step and then another. Each board was unusually narrow, barely wide enough to support my entire foot, and it seemed to wobble beneath us, threatening to collapse under the mine and Sasuke's combined weight. About three steps up, the fragile wood creaked a little too loudly, protesting under our weight by threatening to crash into splinters. There didn't seem to be much holding us up at the moment. I gripped the banister harder.

"Sasuke—"

"I'm here."

I felt a hand on the small of my back, his thumb grazing my skin back and forth through the thin fabric of my shirt.

"I got you, Sak. Just keep going."

I trod softly, careful not to place too much force on the staircase, afraid the old wood might cave in any second now.

I sighed with relief upon reaching the strong, steady landing, but the pleasant feeling of security quickly evaporated like a droplet on a sizzling, sun-baked asphalt, dissolving into nothingness the instant I came face to face with the lacklustre door that lead to the main house. In my eyes, it seemed to be surrounded by a miasma of bad omen, a last ditch warning of some kind, as though beyond this point there would be no turning back.

Something inside me, an inner voice that knew more logic than I did, told me not to go on, but another part had a feeling that this would be a step closer to the Rogue if I went on with it. I dreaded what waited on the other side of the door, dreaded what was about to unfold in next few days. There was a peculiar, unsettling intuition in my guts that made me desire to turn around and head home, but at the same time the tingling, hair-raising sensation rooted me in place.

"Sakura? Either you do it or you don't," Sasuke whispered sharply behind me. "We don't have time."

"What if... what if we find dead bodies?" He rolled his eyes. I shook my head, frustrated that he took my dead-serious inklings lightly. "I'm not kidding, Sasuke. I have this bad feeling..."

"I've had a bad feeling about this since you suggested it. Now go."

"I'm terrified," I admitted.

"Why?" Sasuke asked, incredulity soaking the singular word, as though he genuinely couldn't comprehend a reason. "I'm right here, aren't I?"

I blew out a breath, eyes focused on the doorknob, letting his words echo soothingly in the depths of my subconscious mind. Get it over with, I thought to myself. You're here for all those people who've suffered because of you, because of the Rogue. You're doing this for them. You're ending it.

However, just before I could lay a hand on the knob, Sasuke beat me to it. He stepped around me and wrapped his fingers around the silver handle, opening the door ajar just enough for him to see through. I watched with a wary and worried expression as he peered through the slit. Without thinking, I clutched a fistful of his sleeve for the feeling of certainty that remained safely within my reach, as though I was afraid something from the dark void might suddenly take him away. In a manner equally as unconscious, Sasuke reached behind him and laid a hand on mine. His grip tightened momentarily before fully swinging the door out of its threshold.

Another hallway, more spacious this time, came into view, a lengthy passage that stretched from our left to right, dotted with open gaps of doorways and otherwise closed doors. The house seemed empty from the looks of it, and I was slightly relieved: no dead bodies were in sight, just the regular embellishments of a suburban residence—vases, frames, side tables, though nothing too extravagant. No pictures. No arbitrary toys. No indication of a lady's touch. Quickly, it occurred to me that the man was without a family. He really did live and was alone.

"Where to?" Sasuke prompted.

"I saw some kind of study room last time, or like a library," I told him, manoeuvring around fittings and peeking through every doorway of the hall. Suddenly, the haste of the need to get closer to the Rogue's identity rapt me and surged me onwards, and soon I was barging through every closed door. "He has a computer in it."

Finally, the last door to the left swung open and even before the lights were switched on, I already knew—from the vague contours of a cluttered table to the right and the tall, sturdy shapes of bookshelves that lined the opposite wall, I recognized the room instantly.

Light flooded the room, its painfully bright rays piercing with brilliance even through my closed lids. "Oww," I muttered, blinking to get rid of the illusory blue and red circles that formed before my vision, while I mentally cursed Sasuke for having turned on the switch without any warning whatsoever.

"Take a look at this," I squinted, finding Sasuke already positioned in front of the same computer I'd sighted a few days before. Strutting over to the desk, I realized the clutter that had once encumbered the tabletop was now gone. Only a pen holder, a manila folder and a small, black camera remained. As Sasuke surfed through the files, I picked up the photographic device and pressed the power button. Almost immediately the screen came to life, though just as instantly I was left disappointed when white, notifying letters appeared onto the display:

Insert Mem. Card

"It's right here," Sasuke waved to and fro a tiny blue card poised delicately between his thumb and index finger, having read my mind and already one step ahead.

"What's on it?"

"The memory card itself is wiped out," Sasuke informed, "but he's saved it on the computer, I'm sure. I'll find it."

"I wonder why he felt the need to erase all the pictures..." I murmured.

"I doubt it's for more memory space," Sasuke remarked, knowing my thoughts without my having to utter them aloud. Though it was left unsaid, we both knew the camera had caught our attention first because of the Rogue's fondness of snapshots, both of the living and dead, the latter especially with extravagant detail. Also, the Rogue had taken pictures of me without my knowing, images that Shikamaru claimed was probably taken by a digital camera, therefore a soft copy must somehow still be in existence. Sasuke and I were on the same page.

As he perused through our present target's files, I turned away and meant to wander about the room; instead however, my feet were drawn directly to the impressively overflowing ledges across the scope, rows and rows of sophisticatedly crammed textbooks and collection hardbacks, all on the topic of medicine and human behaviour and psychology. Many of the titles fascinated me, and as my eyes scanned every row and column I found myself fighting the urge to grab a book and start reading right there and then. If not for the grave circumstances and the feeling of fretfulness poking at me, anxieties keeping my nerves on edge of utter awareness, I would have certainly done so, having loved the medicinal and psychiatric side of science since childhood.

The headings that graced every leather bound spine were hard to pronounce and numerously lettered, and I understood them all. Unable to resist, I picked one off the shelf and flipped through the pages. I told myself I was looking for anything suspicious, any loose leaf paper stuck between the pages that might reveal some deep, dark secret that would lead us to expel the Rogue's anonymity, but in truth I was curious. It wasn't long before I was returning the first book and picking up another one, then another and another. I felt like a child brought to the library for the first time and only now was I experiencing the world of knowledge and words and literature.

After placing back a hardcover text about detrimental therapeutic medications of the past, I selected another tome on the end of the ledge. It was sandwiched and wouldn't budge, cramped with a thick file folder on one side of it and a whole line of dozens more of the same make on the other. Firmly, I clamped my fingers on the book and pulled with all my might—wrong move.

In doing so, the file folder and a couple of neighbouring texts feel out of place and scattered messily across the floor, creating a series of thumps that was only amplified by the silence of the empty abode. Similarly, my heart exploded in shock and I froze, expecting to hear the echo of hurried footfalls across the floor and the banging open of the door... however, the only sound that actually reached my ears was the soft, deriding mutter:

"Idiot."

I scowled at Sasuke before dropping my pointed gaze upon the mess of documents at my foot. Still quite fearful that someone would suddenly appear to bust us out, I knelt down guardedly and began to collect the dispersion of manuscripts and papers. The books were the easiest; the contents of the file folder, however, were another story. I hurried to gather them in my arms and simply planned to shove them into the yellow portfolio out of which they had fallen, but when I picked up a sheet that was closest to me I realized they were no ordinary documents.

The strange, coded characters made absolutely no sense to me. Scanning the rest of the papers, I only then noticed they were all of the same kind, its contents vastly different from file to file though retaining a similar nonsensical format.

Page 7 of 7

31/10 | 08:00—11:00 | V5S4K6

01/11 | 08:00—11:00 | V5S4K1

07/11 | 08:00—10:00 | V5S4J7

08/11 | 08:00—11:00 | V4T2A1

14/11 | 08:00—11:00 | V5T0L1

15/11 | 07:30—10:30 | V3R8T4

21/11 | 08:00—10:00 | V3K8L8

"Hey, check this out..." I slapped the creased and flimsy piece of paper onto the countertop where his hand steered the computer mouse. "It's... I don't exactly know; it's just a bunch of dates, times and places. What do you think it's for?"

He glanced at the pallid sheet, frowned for a moment and, without another thought, redirected his gaze back on the screen. Apathetically he remarked, "There's a whole shelf of books and you couldn't find anything more useful?"

I shot him a glare. "Sasuke, come on. I found it in an unnamed folder with other similar print outs, and they're all crinkled and folded and everything like they've been used. Isn't that suspicious enough?"

Sasuke forced a sigh, noisily so as to get his frustration across. "Maybe they're meetings," he offered resignedly, "Or a to-do list of some sort, or..." A wrinkle formed between his brows as they furrowed together silently and suddenly, black-indigo eyes narrowing to focus on a certain something on the LCD. "Well, that's strange."

"What?" Following his unexplainably absorbed gaze, I spotted a miniscule clipart over which a small, white arrow hovered. With a click of the mouse, the image was instantaneously magnified in a separate window. Despite its enlargement however, its details were no clearer than they were in the smaller dimension. Expanded pixels and blurry shapes made up the low quality picture of... of an abstract that I could not correctly identify. "Is that supposed to be a picture of something?"

"Forget what it is, look at that." A strong, pianist finger pointed towards a smaller window directly below the image, a section which flaunted a brief summary of the image's details and properties.


Type: N/A

Location: C: /Users/Documents/Photos/Nov9982263322/zip

Size: 156MB (163,660,077 bytes)

Dimensions: 40X50

Created: N/A

Modified: N/A

Attributes: read-only, inaccessible


"Am I supposed to find anything significant, here?" I said finally after several moments of futile staring that only bore fruitless results.

"Look closely. It takes up a pretty large memory space for such a crappy picture, don't you think?" As ordered, I examined the alleged data and spotted the irregular numbers Sasuke had pointed out. Exactly what they indicated, however, or the significance behind the strange technological miscalculation, failed to occur to me no matter how long I inspected the statistics.

I nodded in a slow and clueless manner, prompting him to continue. "Meaning?"

"Meaning..." Sasuke whispered, as he expanded the photo with every click of the mouse, larger and larger until the image monopolized the entire screen, a vague, unclear collection of pixels that formed no specific representation; "...there's more to it than meets the eye."

Clear black slates drilled into the computer screen, staring unwaveringly at the senseless photo as if dissecting the file, taking it apart and analyzing it.

Suddenly, something flashed in the corner of my vision.

Whirling around, my eyes landed instinctively upon the long, drapery-covered casement embedded on the far wall, the very window I'd peered through the first time I was here. At once I noted the strange-coloured lights that bled through the pallid, threadlike curtain, blinking at a rate so fast I began to wonder whether the hues were merely created by my paranoid imagination.

However, Sasuke too had noticed it.

Slowly, circumspectly, he got to his feet and crept towards the window.

"Sasuke?"

He shushed me, gesticulating with a finger held up to his lips. "Turn off the lights," he whispered. As I did what I was told, my eyes followed Sasuke's every judicious move. Upon reaching the windowsill, he propped himself at its edge and, gripping the fabric of the curtain, swathed it aside only slightly enough to peer out the window.

"Oh shit."

From where I presently stood, whatever he saw was out of my range of vision, but the soft flashing of blue and red that reflected against his face and the sudden widening of his eyes told me it wasn't good.

As if burnt, Sasuke dropped the shade in an instant and swore again.

I blinked at him, a dreadful feeling beginning to knot and tighten the insides of my stomach. Agitatedly I questioned, "What?" Disregarding the inquiry, as though he had not heard me at all, Sasuke sprinted back to the computer desk and, pulling out a small, rectangular device from deep inside his front pocket, jammed the USB into its respective portal. "Sasuke, what's going on?"

"It's the cops."

I froze. Sasuke's words stuck to my brain though they did not fully sink in, as though the four-worded sentence was far too complex for my brain to comprehend at the moment. Shaking my head, I exclaimed, "How—why would—"

"Silent alarm." He cursed again under his breath. "It must've gone off the moment I unlocked the back door."

His fingers tapped impatiently on the wooden counter of the desk, attention utterly pasted on the glowing display, which portrayed floating squares of files that flew from one cartoon of a folder to another.

"We've got to get out of here," he declared. There was a peculiar, distracted undertone, barely indiscernible but undoubtedly present, lying beneath the assertiveness of his voice, making him sound almost frantic, desperate. "Now."

I looked back at the disorderly mess I'd left around the bookshelf's vicinity. "But what about the—"

"Leave it."

Suddenly, ear-piercing shrieks of rubber and cement vibrated through the walls from the outside, engines roaring to a screeching halt, followed by the sound of slamming car doors and the tapping of hurried footfalls ever nearing. Aggressively, Sasuke tore the USB from its input connection and bellowed, "Go!"

I bolted for the door just as loud, violent rapping boomed from down the hallway. Gasping, I spun for a glimpse at the front door, which shook and banged loudly from the force exerted on the other side.

A strong, accompanying voice hollered through the wooden panel, "POLICE!"

A hand wrapped fully wrapped around my wrist and forcefully tugged me the other way. "Move," he hissed, aggravated and harried and terrified all at the same time, as we tore down the unlit corridor. The stomping of our feet pounded in accordance to the same heavy and hurried thumping of my erratic heart, thrashing with an overload of adrenaline that compelled me forward, providing vigour for running regardless of the weakening sensation that wrapped around my limbs and made them feel no stronger than goo.

Dragging myself along, I followed closely after Sasuke as we ran back to the door that lead downstairs. With force he twisted the knob and let the door swing raucously to the side. In one fluid motion, the grip on my hand hauled me into the cramped staircase and the door shut behind us. At once, a veil of darkness came and conquered the same, tight space, and though it was silent from where we stood at the top of the landing, on the other side of the partition the front door banged and numerous rubber soles thumped across the floorboard.

"Shit," Sasuke cursed again in my ear. Alarmed at the audible closeness of the police, I bounded down the stairway two steps at a time, driven forth by the adrenal fluids that surged through my veins, heightening my senses and accelerating the pulsating heartbeat I felt at the bottom of my throat. My mind was no longer distorted by shock and terror; instead, I was focused solely on getting out of there, my only destination the decrepit back door through which we had entered several minutes before.

I nearly forgot about Sasuke's presence at my tail as I jumped off the last flight of stairs and landed on the dusty linoleum floor with a thud. Pain shot up from the barely healing sprain of my left leg. A muffled shriek escaped my lips.

"Sakura," Sasuke gasped suddenly at my side, one arm shooting around my waist to hold me up and another hand gripping the side of my face. "Sakura. You okay?"

"Fine," I gritted, picking myself up off my knees as we staggered down the hallway. The uninhabited basement suite seemed different all of a sudden, darker, more ominous, more suppressing. The instant I burst out the back door, the faint beams of flashlights caught my eye. White-yellow shafts moved to and fro from around the corner of the house as voices drew closer. I gasped. A cold hand clasped onto my arm and hauled me aside.

"This way," whispered Sasuke as he pulled me behind the forsaken fixtures and old, broken couches, and into the black security of the forest that lined the backyard. A thick, smothering air of black enclosed around us, and right as I was about to sag with relief, thinking we were safe, my arm was jerked further into the shadows. I stumbled after Sasuke.

Though the racket caused by the policemen's arrival still echoed prominently, undoubtedly awakening the entire neighbourhood, I could hear nothing but the soft, hurried crunching of dried leaves and breaking twigs beneath our shoes, the amplified bass beat coming from within my chest and the merging pants and gasps of our struggled breathlessness. Except for the back of Sasuke's black jacket dimly lit by a faded spill of moonlight, I could see nothing, and except for the steadfast envelope of Sasuke's hand and the occasional branches that caught my clothing and scratched my face, I perceived nothing.

Ahead of us, a break of light and the comforting sight of a road appeared. At the end of the unkempt forest trail, I could see the large, vague outline of an isolated vehicle parked beside the sidewalk, and off to the right an archetypal lamp post was situated, creating a diffuse circle of light in its immediate setting. I ran, right at Sasuke's heels, feeling as though someone had pressed the slow-motion button in spite of the fact that I was sprinting as fast as I could. It was never fast enough.

Finally, Sasuke and I broke out of the shadows and the lining of trees. Where we were, I did not know—perhaps a few meters down the street from the house, perhaps even father, a block or two away. It seemed as though we've ran miles, though I knew we were only in the woods for no more than a minute.

Drained of energy and unnerved from the closest chase—the only chase—in my life, I physically wilted, slumping my whole weight against the hood of the parked car, and found myself laughing. Of the sentiments that coursed through my body, the only one I could clearly identify was relief.

I looked up at Sasuke, to smile at him, when out of the blue—a blinding brilliance blinded my eyes.

Lights flashed.

Sirens blared.

A demanding voice reverberated from a megaphone, "STOP WHERE YOU ARE!"

My body went rigid.

Though I looked around, I couldn't tell where the lights were coming from, or from which direction the sounds were emitting; as though an uncovering spotlight had come upon our location, Sasuke and I were left with no place to hide—

I flew sideways.

My right elbow hit the ground first, then unexpected smack of my entire body against the dry, grimy forest soil, lastly followed by the maladroit flailing of my legs. The force of impact took my breath away and I gasped, my lungs suddenly squeezed beneath my heaviness, unable to suck in sufficient oxygen just as much as I was unable to comprehend what had just happened.

"Get on your knees!"

The loud, amplified voice rang unpleasantly in my eardrums, high and shrill and demanding.

"On the ground! Now!"

I whipped my head back just in time to see Sasuke lower to the pavement, his entire figure radiant from the lights that were singly focused on him. I, on the other hand, lay on the dirty floor of the forest, concealed in the bushes. Suddenly, it occurred to me just what he had done, how he had meant to push me out of sight.

"Sasuke!" I hissed desperately at him.

A small, black entity suddenly came at my direction and struck my forehead. Blinkingly, I looked down at my lap where the thrown object had fallen—the USB. "Give it to Nara," Sasuke muttered.

"Hands behind your head!"

"But... I can't just..." I whispered.

Slowly, dejectedly, Sasuke's opened palms rose and disappeared behind the unruly barbs of his ebony hair. He stared ahead of him, no doubt at the line of officers that decorated the street on the other end. He uttered only one word, but the single syllable was clear and precise, aimed solely at me:

"Go."

The dreadful knot in my guts tightened. When I didn't move, he turned at my direction, forcing me to meet his gaze. The ice was back in his eyes, a frozen glare bullying me as before—intimidating, commanding... pleading.

Gripping the memory card, its edges cutting deeply and painfully into my skin, I heaved away the bubbling of emotions inside me, turned, and ran.

Of the evening's events, leaving Sasuke was the hardest.


Uchiha Sasuke

Damn it.

This was not supposed to happen.

An audible click emitted from behind him as the handcuff fell in place around his wrists. The cold, metal rims scored into his flesh, rubbing the tissue raw and tender and even more so when the officer pulled him up by the chain and roughly shoved him to the fore. Grunting, he shook off the cop's irritating grasp, rotated and glared without a word.

The officer appeared bored and wore on his expression a certain dullness that clearly put across his belittling attitude towards the Uchiha. "Try that again," the middle-aged man drawled, "and I'll add a charge of assault on a police officer on top of the intrusion and theft you're already arrested for."

Scowling, Sasuke turned again, fighting the urge to jerk backward and head-butt the bastard for a bloody nose—however that, he knew from past experiences, would only get him in deeper shit.

As the Miranda warning and his right to silence was recited robotically at him, like they have been too many times before that Sasuke had every word memorized, the gravity of the situation began to weigh on his shoulders. The Outreach program funded by prestigious HLA and the his present group home—a governmental residence he was dumped in when the last foster home, one of the many, had finally given up—both were his Last Chance Texaco.

This is it, he remembered Kakashi's words, as clear as the day the old man uttered them on the first week of his probation. You screw up and you're gone.

He should have thought of the silent alarm sooner, such degree of home protection were only effective on amateurs, and having weaved around much complicated and stealthier detection systems, he shouldn't have fallen for such a rookie trap—goes to show how long it had been since his last B&E.

He fucked up.

Bad.

And now he would pay the price. He'd broken probation. Lied to his parole officer about doing some errands when he was really coming out here with Sakura. Was out after hours. And had broken into a private property, for god's sake. Kakashi would flip.

He could only imagine what sentence lay impending for him at the station.

He waited for the regret to wash over him—how he shouldn't have gone, how he was stupid to follow through with this recklessly planned out endeavor. But the whole time he stood against the police car, his arms strained behind his back and his wrists chaffed against cold metal, all he could find himself regretting was being too stupid to forget about the silent alarm.

Other than that, nothing.

He wasn't sorry for coming here, because indeed there was no way he could have let her go alone.

"Uchiha Sasuke, huh?"

The cop was talking to him, now, a tall, bulky man who has obviously on a power trip, high on the superiority complex he'd gotten along with his badge and gun. His narrow, judging eyes regarded him with already decided opinions, no doubt derived from whatever he'd read up on that file of his. Sasuke had met more than his fair share of policemen. A small minority considered Sasuke with caution, like a troubled, broken grenade ready to explode. The rest saw him as an already wrecked explosion, too shattered to fix and necessary to contain. This cop definitely belonged to that latter category.

The cop clicked his tongue. "Says here you're on probation. You know what that means, don't you, kid?"

Of course he knew what it meant.

Of course he knew was utterly, completely, undeniably screwed.

It meant leaving school, saying goodbye to college applications, fucking up his chances at the OUTREACH Program, losing the Manor.

It meant jail. Because unlike before, he was too old for juvie now.

"If I were you, I'd have a hell of a lot of things to be worried about."

—But, for some reason, it wasn't those things that filled his mind and veins with dread and worry.

As he was pulled off the cop car and roughly dragged to the door, as a heavy hand pushed him into the backseat of the police vehicle and shut the door to his freedom, his future, his life—

...He found himself, instead, wondering about her ankle.

He saw the thick, black metal bars that separated him from the cop in the driver's seat. He could feel the cold metal cuffs cutting into his wrists. He could hear the whirring sirens of the police, the red and blue streams of light.

But none of these fully ever registered.

Instead, in his mind, he remembered how she'd landed heavily on her bad leg, how her face whitened with cold pain even in the darkness of that basement, how his heart thudded more at the sound her fragile gasp that it did the moment they saw the police coming.

"You fucked up big time, lad," the cop was saying. "Says on your file that Outreach was your last stop."

He didn't agonize over the program. He wasn't agonizing over the possible charges, or that this time, for sure, he'd lose the rights to the Uchiha compound.

Instead he hoped, desperately, that she got home safe and unharmed and alive.


The climax starts... now. =) Yes, you guessed right, it all goes downhill from here.

So. My eyes are blurry from writing 40 pages of IM chapters (I don't even know how long it took. I stopped counting after the 10th hour). Leave a 10-second review to motivate me to write the ending that I've been struggling with for the last few weeks? Please? :D
- Keelah


Fun Facts!
DID YOU KNOW THAT...

Naruto was supposed to have a bigger role. Then it's like he fell off the face of my fictional earth. It's not like maybe it would take away from Sakura/Sasuke's relationship, or Sakura/Ino's relationship, or its better to focus on a few characters and really develop them.

Nope. I just kinda forgot about him. I forgot Naruto.

Even if the freaking anime & manga is called "Naruto." So he's not here. End of story. lol