Another update! I'm on a roll here people, believe it! xD I have so many reviews to respond to, and I'll try to do my utmost to reply to them all at some point. I'll probably be really late in doing so, but just hang in there everyone! I'd like to once again extend a general thank you to everyone for leaving their thoughts on the previous chapter, particularly the silent readers who kindly chipped in their feedback! I'd also like to welcome all the new reviewers on board; I hope you'll continue enjoying what's left of the story! To all the regular reviewers, you're all as fabulous as ever! : )

A special mention to the reviewer Unisawr, who I desperately want to contact but who enigmatically doesn't leave any details behind! I absolutely love reading your long reviews, so thank you! To the other readers who leave unsigned reviews too, please consider logging in if you have an account or leaving email addresses so I can get back to you to express my appreciation!

Now enough from me; it's time to set the SasuSaku ball spinning out of control. Mwahaha!

Chapter XI: Protection


Sakura was beginning to think that she'd surely trawled the entire expanse of Konohagakure when she finally located Naruto. Her teammate was perched on one of the towering wooden posts that overlooked the village, providing a vast overview of the surrounding area. She was tempted to knock him off his centre of balance, but as she shaded her eyes from the glare of the afternoon sun she caught sight of the focused, absorbed look on Naruto's tan face. He seemed to be looking out at something in the distance. Overcome with curiosity, Sakura charged chakra into her legs and ran fluidly up the shaft of a neighbouring pole, before hopping nimbly to the top. Naruto was so fixed on his point of interest that he nearly lost his footing when she called out to him.

"Naruto! Have you been hiding here all morning?" she demanded.

"Gah! S-Sakura-chan! I didn't hear you come up!"

"Staying up here isn't going to pay the money you owe Ichiraku's for last night's meal, you know!" Sakura censured.

Naruto rubbed the back of his head, grinning sheepishly. "Heh, I was kind of hoping they'd let that one slide-" he broke off at the threatening look Sakura threw his way, before hastily amending, "I-I mean, I'll go pay it right after this!"

This earned an exasperated sigh from the pink-haired kunoichi. "Geez, Naruto," she shook her head, before averting her gaze in the direction that he'd been staring. "What are you doing up here anyway?"

All remnants of amusement punctually vanished from the Kyuubi vessel's face and Sakura quietened at the uncharacteristically sullen expression that settled in its stead. "They're everywhere, Sakura-chan. The ANBU; I've seen at least ten of them stationed around his apartment." His hands tightened into angry fists. "It's not fair," he added heatedly. "Sasuke's not a threat anymore."

He was oblivious to the way Sakura stiffened at the mention of their newly reinstated team member. Sasuke had only been back in the village for three weeks, and although they were thrilled to have him amongst them again, neither Sakura nor Naruto had anticipated how awkward the readjustment period would prove to be for them all. Blinded by the sheer exhilaration at getting their old teammate back, they'd overlooked the fragility of Sasuke's situation and had foolishly believed that everything would fall smoothly into place and return to how it had been in the past.

The disheartening reality that'd rapidly presented itself to them after the initial jubilation had worn off had been a harsh wake-up call. Sasuke exhibited nothing but disinterest toward them; he completely ignored and dismissed Naruto's attempts to draw him into friendly banter and had scarcely spoken a word to Sakura since his arrival. He was constantly monitored by what seemed to Naruto to be an entire cell of elite ANBU ninja; not a single step the raven-haired shinobi took was lost on them. Sasuke hardly ventured out of his apartment anyway, and Naruto was growing increasingly frustrated at the lack of progress they were making with the stoic Uchiha. Sasuke was so close to them, and yet even more unreachable than ever before. He had done nothing except shut them out and shun them since his return.

When Sakura remained silent, Naruto glanced across at her. "Sakura-chan? Want to pay Sasuke a visit with me? I'm sure he'd be happy to see you too-"

"Yeah right, Naruto!" Sakura interjected, more snappily than she'd intended. In a mutter, she added, "He's made it clear he wants nothing to do with either of us."

A glint of determination flickered in Naruto's brilliant blue eyes. "And that's it? We finally get him back, and we just give up, just like that?"

Sakura stared guiltily at her little toes, peeking out from her nin-boots. She hadn't known what she'd been expecting when they'd escorted Sasuke back to the village along with Kakashi; however, she hadn't been prepared for the cold shoulder he'd given them all. "I'm out of ideas, Naruto. He needs time to recover from everything. I don't think he wants to see us right now." I know he doesn't want to see me, she silently added, feeling a terrible heaviness deep within her chest.

She missed the way the corners of Naruto's lips turned down sadly for a brief moment. He was still quite the knucklehead ninja, but even he had noticed the profound tension that existed between Sasuke and Sakura. At least Sasuke uttered a few sharp, condescending words his way; with Sakura it was just a deafening, maddening silence. Naruto had witnessed the way it affected his pastel-haired teammate, draining her of her natural optimism and leaving her downhearted; he wanted to do nothing more than punch Sasuke in the face for being even crueller than he'd ever been as a Genin. Yet he understood Sasuke's pain all too well; perhaps he was being too selfish. Perhaps Sakura was right, and Sasuke simply needed time away from them to mend. But Naruto wasn't the patient sort, especially when it came to his best friend, and he couldn't stand the thought of leaving Sasuke to his own devices for even the space of twenty four hours. He felt the need to do something to salvage some semblance of reconciliation.

"He needs our help, Sakura-chan," said Naruto. "I can't do it on my own!"

Sakura looked away. She knew this was hard for Naruto too, but a selfish part of her argued that he couldn't possible know just how punishing Sasuke's unresponsive behaviour had been on her own feelings in particular. He acted like she wasn't even there. It was a hail back to their early Genin days, only magnified a thousand times worse. She was convinced that he now hated her. What other explanation was there to account for his complete refusal to acknowledge her with his eyes? He always looked at Naruto; she didn't exist.

Without warning, Naruto hopped off his beam and landed perfectly on the dusty ground far below. Sakura, hesitant, remained stationary on her post. When Naruto picked up a small basket full of red items – apples or tomatoes – Sakura couldn't tell which at her distance – and waved it around emphatically, she released a heavy sigh. Naruto knew that she didn't truly have it in her heart to abandon Sasuke, and was exploiting the fact. She bitterly rued how ironic it all was; the energetic shinobi possessed the ability to be rather cunning when he felt like it; unfortunately for Sakura, though, he just chose to apply it at all the wrong moments.

She joined him on the ground. The basket was full of plump, juicy tomatoes, which they both knew were Sasuke's favourite fruit. Eying it warily, Sakura voiced her misgivings.

"He'll just refuse them like he has everything else you've taken to him."

She started at the small, devious smile that worked its way on her friend's good-looking face. "What?" she finally dared to ask, her insides suddenly wrought with great dread.

"I'm not taking them this time. You are, Sakura-chan." At the final word in this statement, Naruto tossed the basket at her and simultaneously flickered out of sight. Sakura caught it out of well-trained instinct, her jaw dropping in disbelief.

Why that- that sneaky, conniving little-

"Naruto!" she screeched furiously after him, earning a few startled glances from passing villagers. She knew better than to attempt to find him; he was faster than her, and was probably laughing over his cheeky actions with Kiba and Shikamaru at that very moment. Sakura had two choices; to take the tomatoes home to her surprised mother, or to drop them by Sasuke's place.

She recalled that her mother had been shopping for food supplies just earlier that morning. There wouldn't be room in their fridge for extra tomatoes. Releasing a groan of dismay, and promising to book a hospital bed with Naruto's name on it as soon as she was done, a grumbling Sakura began to make the short journey toward Sasuke's apartment.

By the time she reached it, her heart was hammering with fear and dread and uncertainty and all the other maddening emotions the last of the Uchiha was able to incite so effortlessly in her. She froze before his front door, gripped by a wave of anxiety. She couldn't get one of her hands to relinquish its tight hold on the basket handle, to raise it and knock to signal her presence. Then she reasoned that there was no need to wait around; she could just hand the basket over to one of the many ANBU guards whose gazes she could feel burning into her back, or equally as appealingly, set the basket down, knock, and then make a hasty run for it. She was just settling on the best course of action when the door abruptly swung open to reveal a devastatingly handsome, brooding Sasuke. Their eyes instantly connected for the first time in weeks, and Sakura felt like she'd been struck by a bolt of lightning.

His intense, obsidian depths were smouldering, ensnaring her in a heavy gaze that was darker than midnight. Sakura couldn't look away. Her lips had parted to form an 'O' of astonishment, but she couldn't form any coherent words. Her brain had whirred to a mind-numbing, humiliating stop.

The spell seemed to break the instant Sasuke's eyes slipped away from hers, as he examined the contents of her basket.

"U-umm, h-hello, Sasuke-kun," she finally managed. She was certain that her cheeks were blazing as red as the tomatoes on display. "These are f-for you."

As if it wasn't bad enough that she was blushing something fierce, Sasuke probably thought she'd become incompetent at speaking too. Why couldn't she compose herself? When Sasuke's penetrating eyes slid up to her face again and he remained callously silent, she wished a hole would appear in the ground to swallow her up.

"I-I'll just leave them here for you," Sakura bumbled, setting the basket down before him and stepping away from it as if it - and Sasuke - were bombs about to detonate. "I-uh-see you," she added hastily, before turning her back and rushing away. She could feel his heavy gaze piercing after her for a moment, but by the time she reached the corner of the street that would remove her from his probing eyes, she felt nothing other than the watching stares of the ANBU. Chancing a nervous glance back over her shoulder, she found that Sasuke's front door had closed once again.

Her heart fluttered when she saw that the tomato basket had vanished.


Twenty eight, twenty nine, thirty, thirty one, thirty two, thirty…thirty…

Reverting back to counting footsteps had initially seemed like a good idea, but Sakura had soon realised that it only served as a futile attempt at distracting herself from her troubled thoughts. She'd already mixed up and lost track of the numbers on more than one occasion.

Thirty five, thirty six…wait, is that even right…? Thirty-thirty three-no-thirty five… oh, I give up! She glared heatedly at Sasuke's back. Why had he thrown the damned flowers away? Sure, they'd been a shoddy and unquestionably deplorable little collection, but it wasn't like she was offered flowers, even lawn-picked ones, on a regular basis! For just a fraction of a moment, she'd felt flattered, and just a little bit special. What right, she inwardly fumed, as they rounded the corner of a bakery shop and into another side alleyway, did Sasuke have to take that away from her?

With his hands stuffed casually in his pockets and his shoulders set as squarely as ever, the young Uchiha painted the picture of natural confidence. How Sakura envied his ability to radiate effortless poise. The memories of Sasuke coming undone, of Sasuke losing his composure, seemed almost to belong to a dream sequence now. Yet it had been very real, and just over a year when she'd witnessed his fall from grace, his sanity compromised thanks to the poisonous, twisted truths Madara had fed him. How could she ever forget that distressing time? She'd almost lost her life in the midst of it.

So absorbed was Sakura in her thoughts that she was barely conscious of the fact that her feet were now near stomping on the ground, in open betrayal of her inner protesting at Sasuke's less than chivalrous behaviour. Of all the kunoichi in her year of entry, why had she had the utter misfortune of falling into the same team as the most arrogant, apathetic, infuriating and outrageously gorgeous young shinobi there had surely ever been in the history of Konoha? It was bad enough that he hailed from one of the most prestigious, feared clans there was; did Sasuke have to go around parading the matter and intimidating all those he deemed inferior because of it?

Sasuke-kun, you're- Sakura's mournful thought aborted when a sudden, forceful tug on her left leg prevented her from walking further.

"Eh?" she said, staring down at her motionless foot. She couldn't see anything apart from her own shadow on the ground. She shifted her right leg in an attempt to get her neighbouring limb to move, but even as she channelled a light stream of chakra through it, her foot remained immobile. Frowning in confusion, she looked up to find that Sasuke had almost reached the end of the alleyway. She placed her hands upon her thigh, trying to physically yank her leg free from its invisible shackle by force. When that didn't work, she called out helplessly to her raven-haired teammate.

"Sasuke-kun! I'm-I'm stuck!"

Sasuke tossed a glance back over his shoulder to find that Sakura had fallen quite a distance behind. What did she mean she was stuck? Wordlessly, he flickered out of sight and into swift existence before her, and Sakura was momentarily awestruck by the speed at which he'd moved. She'd hardly blinked in the time it had taken him to transport himself back to her side.

"I can't move my foot," she informed him, feeling extremely muddled and somewhat embarrassed under the scrutiny of his heavy gaze. Sasuke stared at her for a long moment, as if she'd just sprouted a pair of green tentacles, before shifting his attention to her stationary foot. "It's like it's super-glued…" Sakura attempted to explain.

Super-glued…? Sasuke wasn't sure what was going on, but before his intelligent mind could even begin to decipher it, he sensed a slight pressure beneath the soles of his own sandals. When he tried to lift his feet, he was astonished to find that they remained motionless at his command.

"What?" he uttered under his breath, glancing back at a bewildered Sakura. They stared blankly at each other for a few seconds, when Sasuke scowled, and conducted a steady flow of chakra to his eyes, engaging his Sharingan. Before the tomoes of his blood limit could fully materialise however, he was distracted by the consciousness of a sudden shadow falling over his and Sakura's still forms. Sasuke tilted his head up, and Sakura's fearfully followed. Two pairs of eyes, one apple-green, the other bottomless black, widened at the sight that met them. A mass of oversized rocks was falling out of the sky, straight toward them.

"Sasuke-kun!" Sakura screeched in alarm, reaching out automatically to him. But he wasn't standing close enough for her seeking fingers to grasp. What in the world was going on? Where had the rocks come from? She couldn't detect any other chakra signals nearby; it didn't help that Sasuke's potent energy seemed to encompass everything else.

"Damn!" Sasuke hissed, knowing he had to act fast if he wanted to save Sakura, and himself, from being crushed flat on the ground. Snapping swiftly out of his brief state of surprise, he channelled a stream of chakra into his right arm. The screech of blinding, blue-white lightning energy as it crackled to life in the form of his signature Chidori attack was deafening.

"Chidori Nagashi!" Angry tendrils of concentrated electricity snaked out, keeping carefully close to Sasuke's form and away from Sakura's. At his will the energy shot upward, expanding, and sliced through the falling rocks with the ease of a scorching knife through butter, reducing the dangerous masses into harmless pieces of debris, before ebbing out of existence. Sakura, who had shielded her head out of instinct, cracked an eye open and coughed to clear the dust her lungs had inhaled.

"What was that…?" she began, and caught her breath as she watched Sasuke's eyes bleed to crimson, his Sharingan now revealed in its entire glory. His gaze lowered to the ground to seek out the nature of the invisible force that had rendered both him and Sakura immobile, but he was once again caught off guard when Sakura suddenly stumbled forward, toward him. "I can move!" she informed him, and sure enough, Sasuke found, so could he.

What he saw on the ground was nothing unusual. Tilting his head up to regard the slanted roof of the building from which the rocks had seemingly appeared, Sasuke blurred out of sight and alighted silently atop the structure a moment later. His vigilant gaze trailed over the immediate expanse of his surroundings, seeking out anything suspicious. But he couldn't see anything. He couldn't detect any foreign chakra signals either. His eyes narrowed. Somebody, or something, had set those rocks loose upon them. They couldn't have appeared out of thin air.

"Sasuke-kun?" a soft voice called tentatively behind him. Sasuke's dark head turned to find that Sakura had joined him on the rooftop. He felt a twinge of anger as he noted the anxious expression that had manifested itself upon her features. The experience had clearly, and understandably, shaken her.

Angling his body toward his doe-eyed teammate, he uttered in a low tone, "Someone was here."

Behind the safe concealment of their hiding spot, Shikamaru's heart was pounding. Sasuke was even faster than he'd anticipated; the young Uchiha's reputation for sheer speed had certainly not been exaggerated. It was fortunate for the Nara mastermind that he'd anticipated Sasuke moving to the roof after releasing him and Sakura from his Shadow Imitation jutsu. The only reason he and Sai hadn't been detected was because they'd had a respectable head start after they'd let loose the last of the rocks, which his technique had enabled him to easily assemble.

The boulder throwing idea had been a collective one, but Shikamaru had been the one who'd insisted that immobilising the Team 7 members was vital to avoiding detection so early into their plan. He let out a silent sigh of relief. Sasuke, as he had expected, had been immediately suspicious, and had come perilously close to engaging his Sharingan, which would have allowed him to distinguish Shikamaru's chakra disguised within his and Sakura's shadows. Their fortune had held out, but how long would it last? As he cast a wary look toward a grinning Ino, he suddenly thought that he didn't want to know.

"You're amazing, Shika-kun!" his girlfriend gushed. Poor Sai's efforts went completed unacknowledged as the blonde kunoichi clapped her hands together excitedly. "They're playing right into our hands! Alright! Lee! Are you ready for Stage Two of Operation Love?"

Shikamaru's eyebrows twitched in annoyance. Did she have to keep referring to their mission by that silly name? She'd obviously brainwashed both Lee and Sai into sharing her enthusiasm, however, for the Green Beast of Konoha saluted eagerly.

"The power of youth is at your disposal, Ino-san!"

Following their unexpected ordeal, Sasuke had kept to the rooftops to allow for a wider scope of vision. Surely nothing else could catch them by surprise up here. Allowing Sakura to walk ahead of him out of precaution for her safety, his crimson eyes continuously scanned their surroundings, seeking out any clues as to who, or what, had been behind their unpleasant experience just minutes prior.

Sakura's body-language was openly strained. His gaze briefly travelled over the lines of her slight, slender shoulders, noting how edgy and tense they were, as if she expected something to jump out at them at any moment. Something bubbled deep within Sasuke's chest, a fierce, burning feeling that he couldn't immediately place. It soon hit him, however. Protectiveness. He hadn't felt it since his battle against Uchiha Madara, in one particular, horrible instance when Naruto had been in mortal danger and Sasuke had thought that an iron fist had closed around his heart, squeezing mercilessly. Sakura was afraid. He could see it all too clearly. The sudden, strange need to soothe her agitation filled him and he was calling to her before he could reconsider.


She jumped a little at his voice, before twisting her head to regard him with a strained little smile.

"Ah! Yes, Sasuke-kun?"

"Relax," he ordered, averting his eyes nonchalantly as he spoke.

"O-oh, yeah," Sakura stuttered, turning her attention back to the dull, burnt-orange hued tiles before her. As they reached a parting between two separate roofs, Sasuke stepped around the kunoichi to traverse the simple jump first. Landing fluidly atop the new building, he watched as Sakura followed easily after him.

Except it didn't quite work out that way; Sakura made the jump, and landed close to the edge of the roof. As she lifted her right foot to secure a firm foothold on the slanted surface, her left seemed to slip from beneath her and she was falling back before she could comprehend what had happened. She gasped, frantic mind seeking out ways to break her fall – when a firm grip on her flailing left wrist tugged her forward to safety. She looked up into Sasuke's rather incredulous face and blushed deeply in embarrassment. The jump had been little more than a hop; something even a regular civilian child could manage. But she was certain that she had felt something pulling at her left foot as she'd landed, and that something, whatever it had been, had compromised her balance. Would Sasuke believe her if she attempted to explain what she was certain she'd sensed for a brief, transitory moment? Or was she just being paranoid and jittery, and totally losing it? She then became aware of the coolness of Sasuke's fingers, still encircling her wrist, and felt her cheeks flush a deeper shade of red.

I'm blushing, she thought in dismay. He can see how red my face is, and must be thinking I'm a complete, incompetent idiot.

She didn't know that Sasuke was, in reality, far too busy contemplating the uncharacteristic slip on her part to pay her change in complexion much thought.

"I-I'm sorry, Sasuke-kun," Sakura stammered. "I don't know what happened-" she broke off in surprise as Sasuke reeled her in to him, and in a movement far too swift for the eye to follow, alighted both their forms back to the ground below. Sakura's heart was pounding as the tall Uchiha relinquished his grasp on her wrist and stepped back, placing a respectable distance between them again. His eyes narrowed into slits as she began to walk, and he made sure to remain a single footfall behind her. Something suspicious was going on, and Sasuke knew that he had to keep his wits about him if he wanted to get to the bottom of whatever it was that was happening.

Sakura mentally calculated that the route home to Sasuke's apartment would take them no more than a ten minute walk at most. She desperately hoped that nothing else unexpected occurred within the remaining timeframe; her heart and her senses were exhausted for the day, and she didn't think she could bear any further surprises. She was just beginning to mull over the day's events for the hundredth time when she heard a familiar voice calling out her name.


Sasuke's negative reaction was instantaneous. His hands balled into tight fists and his jaw visibly clenched as they turned to regard the rapidly approaching form of Konoha's self-proclaimed 'Green Beast'.

Why is he here again? Sasuke thought in annoyance as a perplexed Sakura politely greeted her friend.


"Sakura-san!" Lee flashed an exuberant smile her way. Sasuke was briefly overwhelmed by an incomprehensible desire to wipe it off his odd face. "I have located you at last!"

"What do you want?" Sasuke practically snapped at him, before catching himself. Inwardly startled by his uncharacteristic outburst, he looked pointedly at a surprised Sakura, and hastily amended, "I'm leaving." The remainder of his unspoken message was unmistakable; he'd wasted enough time tarrying about the streets and was heading back to his apartment, with or without Sakura in tow.

"But Sasuke-kun-" Sakura began, as Sasuke turned his back dismissively to Lee and took his first steps away.

"Sakura-san, you seemed upset when you left Ichiraku's," Lee lifted a fist as he recited the opener Ino had equipped him with, "Being a true gentleman, I followed you to discover the source of your discomfort…"

Sasuke had only taken three steps when Lee's words halted him. He turned his head, casting an incredulous glare Mr. Fuzzy Eyebrow's way.

This idiot, Sasuke thought angrily. What is he…?

"Sakura-san," Lee was continuing sincerely. "I have sworn to protect you to the death; not only from enemies on the battlefield, but from any other sources that might pain you. Please tell me what I can do to ease your sadness! For I am the Knight of Youth and you are the eternal flower which blossoms forever in my eyes…"

This-this moron…Sasuke gritted his teeth, now directing an open glare Lee's way. But the green-clad youth was oblivious, his attention fully focused on a visibly uncomfortable Sakura.

"Sakura-san!" Sasuke's face betrayed his utter astonishment as he watched Lee descend on one knee before the pink-haired kunoichi. "Let me be your youthful knight, and I promise you, you shall never feel sad again!"

Sasuke internally exploded, outraged by the travesty he was witnessing. What nerve Lee had to make such an awful, nausea-inducing pledge in his presence, as if he wasn't there at all, as if his presence didn't hold any weight. And besides, Sakura didn't need a knight; she wasn't as helpless as she had once been. And even if she did require a small measure of protection, she certainly didn't need it from Lee, not when Sasuke was around to keep an eye out for her. What a foolish, empty promise to make; as if Lee could shield Sakura from sadness, when sadness was unavoidable, interwoven into the very fabric of life, and even more prominently so in the lives of shinobi and kunoichi.

The heavy, burning feeling in his chest was now impossible to dismiss. What unsettled Sasuke more than anything, however, was the sudden dawning of realisation that struck him at that moment like a bolt of lightning. He had felt the unpleasant sensation before, first as a young child, growing up in the eternal shadow cast by Itachi's magnificent brilliance, then by all the time Shisui had robbed him from spending in his older brother's presence, and more recently as a Genin, when he'd witnessed Naruto's alarming pace of growth, and felt unworthy, inferior, not good enough.

Yes, jealousy was an emotion that Uchiha Sasuke knew all too well. What he could not comprehend was why he would feel such a deep sense of loathing toward Rock Lee. Lee didn't possess anything that Sasuke didn't, apart from a terrible dress sense and eyebrows that had the ability to scare even the hardiest of ninja. Lee was a strong shinobi in his own right, but he was not legendary like Sasuke. He didn't have anything Sasuke wanted.

The last of the Uchiha clan was at a loss to explain the intensity of his feelings. There was no logic or reason behind them or his desire to flash step between Sakura and the fool and strike him cleanly across the face. But he kept the urge at bay. He couldn't explain such an action to himself, let alone to Sakura. And so it was all he could do to silently fume as Sakura raised a flabbergasted hand to her mouth. She was blushing deeply, which only served to irk Sasuke further as he misread the nature of her change in complexion. One corner of his lips twitched in disgust; was she actually flattered by the sickening attention Lee was paying her?

"L-Lee-san, please get up-" she began, when a gasp suddenly escaped her lips and she promptly fainted. Sasuke's eyes widened in alarm, all his anger momentarily suppressed, and in an instant, before Lee could even blink, he'd blurred to Sakura's side, breaking her fall. Clutching onto her shoulders and supporting her weight against his body, Sasuke ignored Lee's presence as he gazed down at her face. Her eyelids were closed, but fluttering fitfully.

"S-Sakura…?" he uttered uncertainly. What had happened to her? It surely wasn't normal for a person to faint so abruptly. A loud, rude, invading voice snapped his attention back to the shinobi before him.


Sasuke shot a murderous glare that promised a long, painful death, at Lee.

"Leave!" he snarled.

But Lee had always been persistent; something that Sasuke had always found annoying to no end. He foolishly chose to disregard the instruction to make himself scarce, and rushed forward. "S-Sakura-san! Do not worry! I shall save you from this!"

He reached out, as if to touch the med-nin, but Sasuke shifted and struck his hand aside. His left arm wound around her slender midriff was the only thing keeping Sakura propped up against him. "I said-" he began threateningly.

"Sasuke-san, we must work together to assist her!" Lee interjected.

A moan escaped Sakura's lips, and distracted, Sasuke looked down to find her features contorted as if she were in pain. He felt as if the ground had vanished beneath his feet, as his heart plummeted into descent. He was gripped by a depth of panic that shook him to his very core. A bead of sweat was forming on her forehead, and she looked to be in genuine distress. What in the world was happening?

Sasuke was not accustomed to not being in control of situations. Gripping her shoulder again with his other hand, he slowly lowered her to rest on the ground and remained crouched beside her, an arm supporting her back. Even Lee did not miss the gentleness to the young Uchiha's actions. He was astounded that such dangerous hands, hands that had dealt so much pain and destruction in the past, hands that held the ability to maim and kill in the blink of an eye, could be so careful, almost hesitant, when handling Sakura.

Sasuke's concern for his teammate was plain for Lee to see. He was momentarily silent as a new, foreign thought struck him. What if Ino had been right? What if Sasuke did indeed secretly feel more than amity toward the pink-haired kunoichi? Not that Lee would blame him if he did; Sakura was the most beautiful girl in the world in Lee's eyes; but the notion of Sasuke feeling such things was so alien to Lee that he refused to acknowledge it and held onto the foolish hope that he still retained a semblance of a chance with the girl of his dreams.

"When a lady faints, there is only one thing that can restore her!" he informed Sasuke, who looked up at him with narrow eyes full of dubiousness and mistrust. Gesturing gallantly with his fist, Lee spoke the words that very nearly resulted in him being impaled by a well-aimed stream of Chidori.

"The Kiss of Youth!"

"…" Sasuke's thoughts whirred to an abrupt stop and for a terrible moment all was deadly silent, before utter chaos erupted in the young Uchiha's mind.

What! Sasuke's patience splintered cleanly in half. He had set Sakura down and was on his feet in an instant. Before Lee could comprehend what was happening, he felt a livid fist grab him by the collar as Sasuke jerked him roughly forward and thrust his face within inches of his. Lee stared in astonishment and mild alarm at the pure violence that swirled into existence behind Sasuke's eyes as his irises bled red and gave way to the glorious yet startling materialisation of an eternal Mangekyou Sharingan.

"If you touch her," Sasuke snarled in a low voice, fingers tightening in a choking hold around poor Lee's throat. "I'll-"

-kill you, had been the intended threat that had been all too ready to follow, but a firm grip on his shoulder drew him back to awareness. He twisted his head to find Shikamaru, staring at him with eyes that widened on meeting the piercing Mangekyou. Sasuke had been so caught up in his rage and malevolent feelings that he'd failed to pick up on the young Nara's steady, signature chakra approaching.

"Let him go, Sasuke." Shikamaru stated calmly.

Sasuke didn't want to let go. He wanted to tear Lee's head clean off for the shameless proposition he'd made about Sakura. Just the thought of Lee, or anybody else, touching Sakura like that, made him see red. He was far too furious to dwell on what that might mean, and with gritted teeth, turned his deadly gaze back to a spluttering Lee. Shikamaru's grip on his shoulder tightened in warning.

"I don't want to force you," he added quietly, when Sasuke did not immediately comply.

A contemptuous sneer manifested itself on Sasuke's lips and he counted five, slow seconds in his mind before finally cooperating, shoving Lee forcefully back away from him. Glancing back at Shikamaru, he allowed his Mangekyou to recede but retained the regular Sharingan form, channelling a small stream of chakra to cause the tomoes to spin pointedly, as he arrogantly countered, "Like you could."

Shikamaru held his gaze steadily for a moment, before turning his attention to Lee, who was rubbing his neck, coughing and wincing.

"Y-you didn't tell me that he- that he'd react so aggressively-" he wheezed, earning a cautioning look from Shikamaru. Sasuke's eyes immediately locked back onto him, and he stared a long, hard, probing stare, silently demanding elaboration.

"Ugh…" Three sets of heads turned to find Sakura sitting up dazedly, hand held to her temples. Glaring once more at Lee, Sasuke walked back and crouched down beside her.

"Sakura," he spoke quietly. She blinked foggily for a few seconds, before her vision seemed to focus and she reached out to him, grabbing hold of his arm and giving it a reassuring squeeze. "S-Sasuke-kun! I'm so sorry, I-" she broke off, features darkening as she adding ominously beneath her breath, too low for the former nukenin to catch, "That PIG…"

Sasuke stared at her for a long moment, internally startled by the depth of relief that had rushed through him at her abrupt awakening. He turned his head and was surprised to find that Shikamaru and Lee had already departed. Suspicion was running rampant in his mind but he couldn't prove his theory, not now that they'd vanished. Looking back to his teammate, he asked, "Can you stand?"

"Yes, I'm fine. Really," Sakura offered him a watery smile, a ghost of her true one. Sasuke got to his feet and offered her a hand. The shaky smile was replaced by a beam as she accepted it and allowed him to pull her up. When she was on her feet, she made to withdraw her hand but was astonished when her effort was met with mild resistance.

Her heart quickened within her when Sasuke didn't immediately let go.

"What happened?" he demanded. Sakura's eyes widened. If she told him what had really happened, if she relayed the truth, she knew he wouldn't take it well. She feared how he might react if he found out that every unfortunate thing that had happened to them hadn't been a coincidence. His razor-sharp mind had already picked up on the fact that someone was responsible; she hated to think how he'd respond if he discovered just who it was that had been trouble-making. Even though she was furious, she knew it was something that she would have to deal with privately.

"I just felt a little dizzy," she outright lied, praying that he would buy her excuse. "I'm probably a little dehydrated…"

But Sasuke had always had the unnerving ability to read her like an open book. His fingers tightened around her hand, as he pressed, "Sakura," conveying in that word alone that he did not believe her.

The kunoichi shook her head, smiling nervously. "R-really, Sasuke-kun, it's nothing! Let's just forget it, ok? I'm fine. Really I am. I'm sorry if I startled you."

He stared long and hard at her for a moment, before snorting dismissively.

"You didn't," he deadpanned, relinquishing his hold on her hand and stuffing his own casually back into his pockets. She found that she instantly missed the warmth and security she'd grown to associate with his touch again. They walked side by side in silence, both lost in their own thoughts, though Sakura's were decidedly more murderous than Sasuke's at that moment.

Just you wait until I get my hands on you, Ino-pig…

A groaning Ino sat up frowning, rubbing her throbbing head. Just as she had done at the Chuunin exams years earlier, Sakura had forcefully booted her out of her mind.

"That damned Forehead Girl," the blonde kunoichi muttered. She was going to have one hell of a headache after this. She just hoped Sakura was grateful, even though their mental conversation hadn't gone as smoothly as Ino had anticipated.

"You're awake," Sai stated, ever pointing out the obvious. Ino blinked, and turned her head to find her accomplices staring at her expectantly. But one of them didn't look so pleased; Ino blanched at the formidably stern expression on Nara Shikamaru's face.

"Maybe you'd like to know that thanks to your troublesome meddling, Lee almost lost his head today," he censured. He looked pointedly at a distraught Lee, who promptly proceeded to burst into floods of tears, because he knew that he had truly lost Sakura now. He'd seen it with his own eyes; Sasuke wouldn't let any other man near her, because surely he wanted to claim her for himself.

It was only a question of when it would happen, and no longer if.

"S-Sasuke-he-he and Sakura-san…oh Gai-sensei! I have failed!"

Sai regarded him thoughtfully. "I wonder," he mused, "Is Sasuke's behaviour typical of a man who feels threatened in some way? It seems a little extreme…"

Ino was on her feet in a flash. She tilted a little unsteadily as she was overwhelmed by a brief spell of vertigo, before grabbing excitedly at the front of her boyfriend's shirt.

"Then it worked!" she exclaimed triumphantly.

"If it was your intention to bring out the killer in Sasuke, then I suppose it did," Shikamaru replied. Sighing heavily, he added, "It's over, Ino. We can't push our luck any further; if Sasuke finds out that we were behind all of this, I don't think even Naruto and Sakura together could stop him from coming after us."

"Oh, you're being so dramatic!" Ino waved dismissively. She gasped as Shikamaru's hands clamped around her wrists and he regarded her with a look so serious that she felt a flutter of apprehension for the first time since she'd decided to embark on her haphazard plan.

"Listen to me, Ino. Sasuke is very protective of those closest to him. I don't know what it is about Sakura in particular that causes him to react so adversely-"

"He loves her!" Ino cried. "Why can't you see that he-?"

"I know," Shikamaru interjected, and Ino caught her breath at his frank acknowledgement. "After what I saw today, I don't doubt it. He just doesn't realise it, yet. You can't force that onto him, Ino; it takes time."

"But-" the kunoichi attempted to argue.

"No. That's enough. I don't know enough about Sasuke to predict how he'd react to the knowledge that you conjured this whole idea up." A hard look glinted in his eyes as he added, "But Sasuke isn't the only one who's protective of those close to him."

Ino's heart leapt upon hearing his words. She hardly saw this side to Shikamaru. Did he really care that deeply for her? He always seemed so exasperated around her that she often wondered if what he felt for her was as strong as the depth of the attachment she harboured for him.

"Shikamaru…" Overwhelmed by her emotions, she reached out and drew her boyfriend into a close embrace, clinging to him tightly. He released a quiet breath of relief, hoping that she'd chosen to heed his advice this time.

Sai averted his eyes and Lee wept more dramatically at the open display of affection between the pair. When Ino finally pulled away, she nodded in understanding.

"You're right. We can't force Sasuke. But Sakura already knows I was behind everything. She knew the moment I engaged Shintenshin no Jutsu."

Shikamary shook his head. He'd been thoroughly against Ino employing her clan's Mind Body Switch technique, but the blonde had insisted upon it. Of course Sakura knew. Dread trickled into him as he wondered whether she'd already told all to Sasuke.

"Sakura won't tell Sasuke," Ino said confidently, understanding the apprehensive look on the young Nara's face. "She can read him better than any of us; she knows he'll be furious. But there's just one last thing left that we can do. It isn't much, but it's something."

Shikamaru placed a palm against his forehead in frustration. "Ino…" he began.

"I promise I won't meddle after this. Please, guys. Just trust me! There won't be any more trouble!"

Sai and a sniffling Lee exchanged silent glances. Her boyfriend gave her a long, probing look.

"You won't provoke Sasuke?"



"I promise that we won't even talk to Sasuke."

Shikamaru turned his eyes up to the heavens and sighed deeply. Ino held her breath as he seemed to consider for a long moment. "Fine," he conceded at length, "No doubt you have something troublesome in mind, so we're all accompanying you this time."

Ino smiled a sugary smile. "Trust me; I guarantee you that Haruno Sakura will kiss Uchiha Sasuke this evening."

Shikamaru's jaw dropped as he frantically wondered just what he'd assented to doing. Sai looked bemused and Lee aghast. The three shinobi exchanged uneasy glances before Lee burst out into a fresh bout of tears.

Author's Note

Mwahaha! Hopefully this made up for the lack of SasuSaku in previous chapters? I hope you all enjoyed it. The next chapter will likely be the last one; that's not finalised but at the moment, the ideas I have in mind will only take one last chapter to fill. I bet you're wondering how I'm going to throw in a kiss without being OOC, well you'll just have to wait and see eh? Bwahaha! xD

I also realise that all of you lot are expecting an epic ending so shall do my utmost to deliver it. Oh the pressure is on! XD

Anyway, please leave your thoughts on this one and I'll try to get the next/last chapter up as soon as I can. I can't promise a quick update like the last two instalments though; my holiday period is coming to a rapid end and I won't have time to work on this again before it does. But I hope you've enjoyed reading three new chapters in the space of just a few weeks! I've really made an effort to put up as much as I can in a short time frame, so I hope you'll forgive me if it does take me a little longer to update again. It's never my intention to keep you all in suspense (well, no more than necessary lol), but I seriously do lead a majorly busy life and writing, as a hobby, unfortunately takes the back seat to other things.

On that note, I'd like to wish all of my readers a happy, prosperous New Year. Take care of yourselves and enjoy the celebrations! : D