Summary- In the natural scheme of things, the dead stay dead. But in the world of ninjas, nothing's for certain anymore. Sasu/Saku.

&consider the [standard disclaimer] officially APPLIED!

Pale, dim light from the moon barely penetrated the black veil covering the six figures within. Flickers of moonlight were sparse, casting a sinister glow on the hidden face's black hood. The four walls encased the closed-in room with only a single window in one top corner, filtering out the weak rays of light from hitting the polished wood floors. The soft footfalls echoed loudly in contrast to the stillness. A piercing shaft hit a glossy surface on the face of the visitor, momentarily lighting up a portion of his covered face before disappearing from view once again.

A small part in his lips and his voice spoke through the darkness, its sound stabbing the silence through like a knife. His head cocked to the side in knowing arrogance, his tone teasing, manipulating, controlling. The shine of the film on his eyes glinted maliciously, taunting the watchers with the knowledge of their unknown acquaintance's identity.

"Do we have a deal, then?" His voice, like his demeanor, was a duplicate of the whistle of the wind, deceivingly soft as it whirred into their raised ears.

His words were expected, but the daze of their minds hindered them from answering like they should. Two or three felt their hearts rise to their throats, knowing the danger and risk they were voluntarily placing themselves in. One hardened his face in determination and uncaring selfishness. His head rose in confidence and his voice held steady and firm.

"Yes, you have our full cooperation. We will give you the girl."

There was a shuffling of feet. A few turned and looked at each other with underlying dread and anxiety showing on their faces as waves of light passed over the skin of their hesitant countenances. The cloaked figure lowered his head once more, disregarding the dwindling hum of motion, and his voice turned to ice, splintering and holding an untold threat.

"A word of caution- if you speak to anyone of this…arrangement, coming back would be well worth my time to kill every one of you, should you break your end of the deal." He stood still and gauged their reactions, his head still lowered so the hood hung low, creating shadows dripping down from the edge of the dark fabric.

The speaker's blood ran cold; he remained silent, refusing to be broken down by unfounded threats. He knew the conditions of both parties and as long as they had something the other needed, he knew any attempt at installing fear wouldn't work. They still needed them and right now, he was the one that was safe. But apparently one of the others was shook up and after mustering up the resolve, let out a shaky answer: "But you will hold up yours?"

His pointless question was in vain; he didn't receive an answer. The cloaked figure had spun around silently, the shadows of his cloak pooling over the door as he jumped into the woods, as black as night itself.


R. E. F. U. G. E.




September 21

Location- Sand

In the sunny streets of the busting village of the Sand Country, a particular pinkette marched her way through the crowd, headed straight towards the Kazekage Tower. The chatter of the villagers filled her finely tuned ears, sorting themselves within the confines of her memory as she nimbly sifted through the packed crowd, maneuvering expertly around stalls and stands of the local parade.

Salesmen shouted out at every corner and the village hadn't ever looked so alive. Children scampered throughout the streets and alleyways, searching for every carnival attraction muddled into the vast expanse of the fair. Sand was loosed up everywhere, caught in between buildings, tents, and structures from the happenings of the past two days.

Gliding past the plum cloth of the fortune teller's tent, Sakura gently tugged her straw hat lower across her forehead, shielding herself from the debris thrown up as a group of children darted between the fair goers. Said eighteen year old girl finally found herself in front of the doors to the Kazekage's Office after "breaching" the large wall the crowd had made. She knocked twice prior to hearing a familiar voice on the other side of the doors, saying, "You may come in, Sakura."

She held in the snicker that nearly burst out at such an official tone and gingerly laid her hand down on the door handle before giving a firm push. Her personal entertainment running low, she passed through the doorway and bowed grandly upon entering. "The lowly servant imploringly requests the attention of her mighty king."

There was only a very short pause as she held her position, hands folded behind her and her head down to cover the smile mischievously growing on her sun-tanned face, before his stately voice protruded again.

"I prefer you without the mock respect, Sakura."

A stifled giggle erupted from the girl in front of him as she looked up with eyes full of mirth. She stood up straight and leaned back with one foot behind the other, laying her hands out beseechingly with a grin remaining.

"Oh, I couldn't help it; you sounded so formal and stately, I couldn't help myself," she ended, sounding fully satisfied with her excuse and completely confident he'd accept it.

The white-robed, red haired Kazekage set his pale green eyes on her. "I've been Kazekage for years. You should be used to it by now, and ANBU captains should have unlimited reserves of self-restraint, Sakura," he professionally noted, meaningfully stressing his statement to tease her.

She sharply huffed and waved his comment off with her hand; with a drawl in her voice, she retorted, "I'll have you know I have untold quantities of self-restraint, thank you. And I know, but maybe if you had spent your childhood saying that becoming Kazekage was your dream, I might have easily seen you as one."

"And since when has Naruto been my life's role model?" his voice was light and playful as he leaned forward on his dark, cherry wood desk, cleared off with neatly organized piles of approved and junk folders already done for the day.(Wow, wonder if Tsunade's seen this, Sakura thought.)

He caught her grin before laying his hands on the desktop and pushing himself up. Turning around to look out the windows of his office, his sea green eyes scanned the lively village below, the image reflecting off the glassiness of his eyes. "Regardless, you have come to give your mission report before heading back to Konoha?"

She studied his back and easily spotted the tenseness of his muscles and the very miniscule change in his breathing pattern. What's got him preoccupied? But she didn't voice her thought and instead assumed her more serious tone, complying with his question. "Yes, my month-long medical arts teaching assignment has been completed. Many of the students show a lot of promise as medical ninjas." She paused a moment and laughed before adding thoughtfully, "Well, except these past few days with all the fair and everything, of course. But I think at least fifteen will be able to pass the medical ninja exam if they keep up their studies."

He turned around and crossed his arms. "No doubt, do to your expertise."

Sakura angled her head to look him in the eye and found herself unused to the straightforward, laid-back compliment. Pensively, she remarked, "You flatter my medical skills, Gaara."

"And you undermine them."

His swift comeback threw her off-guard and he cast a borderline smug look her way before continuing, "I'm surprised Konoha could spare you for so long as a month."

Briefly glancing down at the reflective layer of wax on the hardwood floor, she furrowed her eyebrows together and answered somewhat tensely, "There are other high-ranking medical ninjas in Konoha." Even though someone else has always been sent on these types of missions, it's not weird that I was sent for such an extended period of time, right?

"None as good as you," Gaara reminded her. He cast a careful glance at her face, seemingly reading her mind before shrewdly changing the subject. "And you were busy with ANBU missions before?"

Her eyebrows rose out of habit at his choice of conversation. "I have. Lady Tsunade has been accepting more missions recently, trying to build up capital and reduce the money's inflation."

"Yes, and I've heard about your incident in the ANBU meeting." So that's what he was getting to. He had intentionally turned his eyes to the window in the left corner, but he watched her carefully out of the corner of his eye.

Sighing, Sakura brought her hand up and pinched the bridge of her nose. Pursing her lips into a tight line, she dropped her hand. "Honestly, how many times do I have to hear about that? Just because they didn't want to hear it, Gaara, does not mean it isn't true. And I know, self-restraint; I get it."

"And I know you know, Sakura, but telling the Council that they're squandering Konoha's money isn't necessarily the best way to go about it." He turned around and searched her eyes pleadingly.

Feeling irritation swell up in her chest at the memory, Sakura quickly looked away before meeting his gaze again, "They should be using the money to better the village, not on themselves." Her hands found their way to her hips as she stood slanted, challenging him to find a way to disagree with that.

He held up his hands at her reaction. "Hey, you're right. I, more than most people, can relate, but as far as the Council goes, tact is a good thing to keep in mind."

She glimpsed at his figure from her eye's corner and reluctantly gave in. Her forest green eyes settled on him and she couldn't keep herself from thinking how different Gaara had become.

"I'll… keep that in mind, Kazekage-sama," she answered in a teasing tone, added with a low bow. She knew he only wanted to help and had even postponed bringing it up for the entire time she stayed, but she still didn't like people taking up for that pathetic, money-grubbing mob of overgrown prunes.

Gaara rolled his eyes at her and waved a hand at her, laughing lightly. "Oh, go back to Konoha already. You know you're dying to get back."

She smiled a little to herself and stood upright. Looking past him, out his window, she paused, wondering if she should continue. "I am… I've had a bad feeling ever since yesterday. Like something's going to jump out at me every time I turn around a corner."

"Have you felt like you've been followed, Sakura?" He looked so serious, she felt uncomfortable. Then again, he was always serious.

She looked away on instinct, eyes downcast. Saying she felt anxious, nervous even, wasn't her idea of a pleasant conversation, nor was it something she was used to admitting. She opened her mouth and uncertainly started speaking. "Maybe a couple of times I thought I had sensed something, but I could've imagined it. I have been jumpy these past few days."

Not nearly convinced, Gaara eyed her warily. "You never would have brought it up unless you took it seriously. So are you sure, Sakura?"

Mentally shaking out all her thoughts, Sakura set her steely eyes on him. "I'm sure, Gaara. It was probably my imagination."

He stared a few seconds longer, deciding whether or not he thought she was lying. His fingers started to drum on the thick wood in habit and he studied her face. "You're positive?"


She seemed so certain that he wouldn't be able to press anything else out of her. "Alright, go ahead and start traveling home. You have completed your mission successfully." He unwillingly dropped the subject, but checked himself to remember to ask Tsunade a day from now if she made it back on time.

"Thank you. Goodbye, Gaara." And with a nod, she treaded quietly towards the double doors. Grimacing, Sakura wondered if she should've just said something. He wouldn't have minded sending someone with her.

Grimly, Gaara watched her retreating form and the reflection of her on the glossy floor. Her hands shook and he called out, "Sakura, just be careful, alright? Lady Tsunade would practically declare war on me if I let anything happen to you."

She spun around and replied with a microscopic smile on her face, his worried expression more than enough to guilt her into reassuring him. "I'll be careful," she said firmly.

You better be, he thought.

Sakura stepped out into the cool, morning air with her bag packed, eager to get back to Konoha. With the navy blue of her bag swinging against her back, the clatter of the axe and its case strapped around her shoulders, she sprung off the steps of the apartment Gaara had lent her.

She weaved her way between the people still crowding the streets while she followed the path to the village gates that lead outside the village. Her eyes downcast, she stared impatiently at the passing pebbles and never ending sand. She looked up as the crowd disappeared; now she was in a more deserted area of the country, almost out of town.

Sakura deliberately slowed her pace when the gates came into view. Staring at the broad gates attached to the wall surrounding the village, she thought how similar they were to Konoha's. She shifted her eyes away to the forest abruptly. Was that-? Dismissing her thought quickly, she sped up towards the gates. Wariness pricked at her thoughts. She knew she had sensed a chakra signature following her a few days back. She had felt it when she left Konoha, too.

She sighed shortly and checked her surroundings, full of paranoia. Cautiously, Sakura ran her gaze over the trees, not missing even a branch, running a thorough check over the woods. The trees whistled normally, the wind not catching on anything unusual, no inhales or exhales or any soft footfalls.

The chakra signature she had felt before hadn't seemed threatening, but what could it have wanted?

Continuing her hunt for any ninja, Sakura felt the axe on her back grow heavier; every weapon within a foot of her hands she became thoroughly aware of. Her fingers twitched in readiness, her ANBU senses on high alert for any single suspicious movement she could find. She calculated to herself the distance home and ran some figures through her head, guessing the time it'd take to get there.

As she was reaching into her bag's back compartment to pull out a soldier pill, she sensed two enormous chakra signatures. Her hair stood on end -wide and reeking of blood lust, they were close.

Sakura'd barely even registered the chakra signatures before she flung a hand back onto the handle of her weapon, instantly, reflexively fusing chakra into the core of its metal. Only pulling the axe out nearly two inches, she felt a hand clamp over her mouth, sticky with a pungent liquid filling up the inside her already burning nostrils.

Sakura positioned both hands on top of the attacker's gloved ones; they were covered with a cotton cloth and she started to sort out the possible poison invading her system while channeling a tiny amount of chakra into her hands, flipping him over her shoulder into the neighboring trees.

Satisfied with the definite series of cracks she heard, she judged by the sound that he took a blow to the head.One down. She took a step back to check for the other ninja, at the same time finding her entire vision blur and all her senses go flat. Feeling an odd burning run through her veins, Sakura glanced down and saw the veins in her arms start coloring a brownish-gray.

"It's a rare poison. You should feel special to have ever come across it." The voice interrupted her thoughts and confused her senses. It sounded familiar, but through the sluggishness of her hearing, she couldn't tell.

Damn it! she screamed in her mind as fear found its way to her thoughts. She gripped the sides of her legs, looking for the hundreds of senbon hidden by her shorts, but couldn't even feel the fabric of her black shorts against her calloused fingertips.

The voice again was blurred and morphed as it reached her insensitive ears. Who is this? "They call it 'Ice Blood' because your body and all its senses numb like there's ice in your veins."

Through her unfocused eyes, the tan and blue colors of the sand and sky all streaked together and Sakura could barely make out a figure coming towards her.

"It's very nice to meet you, Sakura; I've waited for such a long time, but we'll have plenty of time to get to know each other, won't we?"

Squinting at the form, as a last resort she tried funneling the chakra she could still feel into her eyes to use a genjutsu. And just as she had the jutsu name on her lips, she felt a dull pain at the base of her neck and her eyes closed to darkness.

"Do you think we made the right choice?"

"This is no time for doubts. Konoha is already lost and without hope; we are merely saving ourselves from its destruction."



welcome to refuge, reader. :D i hope you enjoyed and feel free to review!

revised 11.15.08. (well, I, for one, think it's loads better. next target: chapter 2)