Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto

Chapter Eleven

Sasuke stared down at the bodies strewn about him. Despite his impassive expression, he wfas unsettled. If the Uchiha had to wagerf a guess he would say he was looking at almost fifty Sound shinobi, and it was clear who had taken them out. But what was actually bothering him was why the hell was Sound in Waterfall, and what were the chances that this large of a group of Sound-nin – a small army really – happened upon the Akatsuki?

It was obvious that this was no coincidence. Sound was going after the Akatsuki....for what reason? Sasuke had no idea, and was becoming increasingly troubled. He did not like being left in the dark. He liked to be in control of every situation, and he usually was, which made the recent series of inexplicable events all the more unnerving for the powerful shinobi.

He turned to his team, who were scanning the remains of the battle looking just as lost as he felt. It hadn't taken Karin's extraordinary chakra sensing abilities for them to detect the numerous chakra signatures only about a half an hour ago, all making a beeline toward where they were standing now.

Sasuke had followed on a hunch that proved correct. Wherever his brother went he seemed to leave a wake of destruction behind him. It was easy to see the signature of Itachi and his companions everywhere; shredded limbs severed by the jagged blade of Samehada, flesh oozing off bone like melted plastic likely caused by one of Sasori's poisons, and a scattering of charred body parts that was no doubt caused by the blond explosives expert.

Why the hell were they fighting?


Karin turn and hurried over instantly.

"Yes, Sasuke-kun?" She cooed.

Sasuke continued to stare straight ahead, not bothering to turn to address the redhead. "Can you tell which way Itachi went?"

Karin squinted her eyes shut in concentration, but opened them a moment later looking disgruntled. "I can't, there's too many chakra signatures scattered around here, it's interfering with my senses."

"Hmm...Well that explains why we were able to sneak up on you so easily," came a lazy drawl from behind them.

Sasuke's eyes narrowed and he turned casually, while the rest of Team Hebi whipped around, to find three dark figures standing in the trees gazing down at them.

Sasuke had only detected the three nin a split second before they had made themselves known. The events of the past few days had been nagging at him so much that he had not been paying as much attention to his surroundings as he should have been. He was never caught off guard.

Inwardly he shook himself, and turned his full attention from his self-deprecating thoughts to the men above him, his face expressionless, reflecting none of his surprise.

Jugo and Suigetsu were instantly flanking him and Karin. Suigetsu sneered up at the strangers with an excited gleam in his eyes, while Jugo looked almost wary; now that they were aware of the new arrivals they could feel the power of their chakra even though most of it was cloaked. The Large man could tell that all three of them were a force to be reckoned with.

A moment later the three figures leaped from the trees and onto the ground. Sasuke's eyes flashed in recognition as soon as they stepped into the moonlight. It only took him but a second to workout why these three were there. They're trailing the Akatsuki to rescue the Konoha shinobi.

"I should have known that following the trail of one Uchiha traitor would have lead us to the other," came the derisive remark from the pearl-eyed man.

Sasuke's indifferent facade almost slipped when his former rival stepped forward, eying him disdainfully. Willing himself to ignore the Hyuga he focused on the figure standing to his right. Sasuke had never paid much attention to Nara Shikamaru when he was a genin, but he was aware of how intelligent he had been.

Both the younger Konoha shinobi had changed immensely since he had last seen them, over five years ago. Though neither of their hair styles had changed much they looked older, more muscular, and their features were sharper. They were tall; Sasuke could tell if he were to walk right up to either of them he'd probably be exactly eye level with both of them.

The third shinobi stepped forward, in front of his companions. Like the Nara, his hands were shoved casually into his pockets, and he was chewing absently on a senbon, with, oddly enough, a small frog casually propped on his shoulder. Despite his almost bored posture Sasuke could tell that the older shinobi was in no way relaxed. The younger nin could tell that his keen eyes were taking in the slightest of movements from Sasuke and his companions. It took a moment for Sasuke to recognized this man as the proctor from his chuunin exams, but he could not put a name to the face.

Genma gazed idly across the body-strewn field. He had been more than a little surprised to find that he and his teammates had been able to sneak up on the younger Uchiha and his companions. Konoha was well aware that he and his team – Hebi was it? - had been constantly searching for Itachi since a year ago, ever since Sasuke had defected from Orochimaru.

There were standing orders to bring in the young Uchiha, preferably alive. But as Genma observed the traitor and his companions in front of him, and watched his own teammates out of the corner of his eyes, he knew that today was not the day to drag him home; Neji and Shikamaru were not making any indication that they wanted to fight beyond the contemptuous looks they were throwing at the sharingan wielder. He could tell they were already itching to leave and continue their search for their kidnapped teammate.

But it was obvious that Sasuke and his teammates were readying themselves for a confrontation. Before the situation could escalate into and unnecessary fight, Genma decided to break the heavy silence that had descended upon the two groups.

"Now, now kids,"Genma chided, raising his hands in a placating manner. "Don't get your undies all in a twist. We're not going to waste our time attempting to drag your traitorous butt back to Konoha...," he paused and smirked, to give emphasis on the disparaging remark. "We've got more important things to do."

Sasuke's eyes flickered in annoyance briefly, but that was the only indication he had heard the older shinobi. Karin on the other hand stomped her foot and emitted a high pitched shriek.

"Don't call Sasuke-kun a traitor! He can kick your ass!"

The Konoha shinobi raised their eyebrows at the ranting female, but otherwise ignored her, and turned their eyes back to Hebi's leader. Shikamaru stepped forward gaining everyone's attention, except the fuming red-head.

"Maybe you can be helpful and tell us if you know which way the Akatsuki went."

Sasuke continued to stare blandly at them, without speaking a word.

"Figures," Neji said, eyes narrowing. He abruptly turned his back to Sasuke and headed back toward the trees. "We're wasting time. Let's go."

Shikamaru sighed heavily and slouched after the Hyuga. Genma took a moment to give Sasuke one last assessing look, and then followed after his companions.


The Konoha-nin ceased their exit upon hearing the almost hesitant command. They each slowly turned and eyed Sasuke questioningly.

"You did not look at all surprised to see Sound shinobi bodies laying here," Sasuke said, his usual monotone almost accusing. "You know why Sound if after Akatsuki."

There was a pause and then Shikamaru spoke up, his usually lazy drawl now laced with resentment. "They're after the same thing we are."

The three shinobi then turned their backs on Sasuke again, impatient to be on their way.

"And what, or should I say who, are you after?" Sasuke's low voice traveled across bloodied forest floor.

They stopped again, but neither of them turned around. Sasuke could see all three men go rigid. Neji turned his head to his right so that the moonlight illuminated half his face.

Then Neji said a name Sasuke had not heard in years.

"Haruno Sakura." It was spoken almost tenderly.

Without another word Neji, Shikamaru, and Genma, flickered out of sight and into the inky blackness of the forest.

Sasuke blinked.




"Hey Sasuke? You okay man?"

Suigetsu suddenly felt a slight breeze and then Sasuke was gone.

Haruno Sakura.

In a fraction of a second that name had brought back a rush of memories and emotions, all of which Sasuke had forcefully repressed ever since he was twelve. Sakura the weakest. The one who always needed saving. Annoying. It all came flooding back to him.

After his brain took a moment to process the information, it was not annoyance that washed over him, but fear. Something he had not felt in many years. It had been his responsibility all those times to protect Team Sevens only kunoichi. It had not been a roll that he cared for as a genin, but he had been dedicated to it none the less, and for some inexplicable reason he suddenly felt like he had failed.

He hadn't realized he was moving until he felt the wind in his face. He had no plan of action. He just knew he needed to catch up to the Konoha-nin. He had to understand. He needed an explanation.

Why? What would the Akatsuki want with a weak kunoichi? What would Orochimaru want with her? Sasuke had just assumed Sakura had gone into teaching or taken some desk job. He hadn't seen any improvements in her fighting two years ago when they fought at Orochimaru's base - he hadn't seen her fight at all. Why would she have gained so much attention?

Sasuke could feel the Konoha shinobi just up ahead, and he was positive they could feel him also, but they were not slowing down. Inwardly growling with irritation Sasuke picked up his speed, and was able to spot them a few minutes later.

When he came within a few meters they finally slowed to stop and turned on their individual branches to stare at him expectantly.

"What is it kid?" Genma asked, sounding impatient after Sasuke only continued to stare back at them, with an unreadable expression.

Sasuke turned his eyes to the senbon wielder and finally asked, "what does Sound and the Akatsuki want with Haruno Sakura?"

Genma's eyes widened briefly, slightly surprised by the Uchiha's question. Why would he even care? But he decided to humor the younger shinobi and answered his question. "We think they want her for her medical abilities."

Sasuke's brow furrowed in confusion. "She's a medic?"

He turned his eyes to the other shinobi and caught the incredulous expressions on Neji's and Shikamaru's faces.

"Are you serious?" Neji asked skeptically. "You didn't know that Sakura was a medic?"

It was Sasuke's turn to look incredulous. "How would I know of her being a medic? I haven't been in Konoha in years."

"Because," Shikamaru sighed, exasperated. "On top of her being one of the more powerful shinobi in Konoha, she is also renowned as the worlds best medic."

Sasuke was floored, again. Sakura? Haruno Sakura? But as he thought it over he had heard of a very strong and young kunoichi surpassing even the Sannin Hokage's abilities. He had just figured it was some other girl – maybe the Hyuga or the blond loudmouth.

It didn't take Sasuke long to process the information, however. Sakura did have the best chakra control when they were genin; a fact, he recalled, that had irritated him when she'd repeatedly beat him at the basics. But he had never imagined she would make anything of herself.

Sasuke felt the three chakra signatures of his companions moving toward him, but ignored them. His thoughts were filled with images of a helpless Sakura in the hands of his brother and the other Akatsuki.

He didn't know what came over him. He hadn't even really thought of his genin teammate in years, but the same feeling of responsibility for her became overwhelming. In his mind he could not see her as a strong kunoichi who was be able to fend for herself, but the twelve year old helpless genin who spent more time trying to catch his attention than honing her shinobi skills.

"It would be mutually beneficial if I assist you." Sasuke was as surprised by his own words as the shinobi in front of him.

"No," Neji said firmly, after recovering from Sasuke's unexpected statement. "I will not work with a traitor. We will get Sakura back on our own."

"You three will fight against four Akatsuki alone?" Sasuke deadpanned, raising a skeptical eyebrow.

There was a slight pause while Neji glared threatening at Sasuke, and then Shikamaru spoke up. "Why do you care whether we get Sakura back or not?" His tone was suspicious and accusing at the same time.

Sasuke's eyes narrowed, but he did not respond. To be honest he didn't know himself.

"Your revenge will take precedence over saving Sakura," Neji continued. "We cannot risk her getting injured by being in your way.

"I will make sure that Sakura is safe before I engage Itachi." Sasuke allowed an angry edge leak out into his voice, while his eyes bore into Neji's gaze. In the back of his head he questioned why he was getting so defensive, let alone why he even cared.

Genma sighed loudly and stepped in between the two prodigies. "Calm down you three," he said, raising his hands, palms out. "We're wasting time."

He turned around to regard his teammates. "Sasuke makes a valid point. We cannot defeat the Akatsuki on our own. We could use additional help. If Sasuke and his team assist we won't have to wait for Jiraiya to catch up."

"Troublesome," Shikamaru sighed, but nodded his head in agreement, while Neji, still looking annoyed, nodded curtly as well.

"Good," Genma said, satisfied, and crouched down and pulled Jiraiya's frog from his shoulder and placed him on the branch in front of him. " Tell Jiraiya everything you've seen. We'll head east to search for any sign of the Akatsuki. We'll leave enough of a trail for Akamaru and Kiba to follow us."

After he was finished the amphibian stared blinking up at him for a moment or two, and then emitted a reverberating croak and disappeared in a puff of smoke. Almost immediately after the rest of Team Hebi came barreling through the trees.

"Sasuke-kun! Are you okay?" Karin asked breathlessly, as she eyed the Konoha shinobi warily.

Sasuke ignored her question, and turned to his teammates. "Change of plans. We'll be traveling together until we find Itachi."

Karin and Suigetsu gaped openly at Sasuke's abrupt and unexpected statement, while Jugo glanced nervously over at the three Konoha-nin.

"But, Sasuke-kun...why-"

"There will be a pink-haired kunoichi with the Akatsuki," Sasuke interrupted the red-head's question. "She is to be removed from harms way at all cost."

Sasuke's steely tone made the hairs on the back of his companions necks stand up, encouraging them, despite their many questions, to keep their mouths shut.

Once the three Hebi members nodded their understanding to their team leader, the Konoha shinobi turned, without a word, and continued their sprint through the darkened forest, and Sasuke and his companions immediately followed.

Sakura gasped when her body smacked painfully into the surface of the churning water as earth and rock fell around her. A split second later her breath caught in her throat and her muscles spasmed as her body was propelled deep into the darkened depths of the freezing river by the momentum of her fall. She was momentarily consumed by pain as the feeling of millions of little knives assailed her skin, turning it raw.

Her body became numb a moment later, and she was able to think again. Sakura began to desperately kick her legs, trying to force her fatigued and cramping legs to work with her. After a few desperate seconds she broke the surface, gasping for breath, but ended up inhaling a lung-full of water as the rapid moving river washed over her, forcefully dragged her down river.

Just as Sakura was able to get her head above the water a second time, she was rammed painfully into a large jagged rock. With her hands still tied together she was only barely able to hold on by clamping her knees around the curved edge of the slick rock.

With her shaky and numb fingers, she reached into the waistband of her pants and inwardly sighed in relief when her fingers touched the edge of her hidden kunai. After a moment of fumbling with the weapon she was able to infuse the kunai with a small amount of chakra from her fingertips and hacked away the bindings.

Once finished Sakura wrapped her arms around the rock and collapsed exhausted against it. After taking a moment to catch her breath she lifted a shaky hand to pull back the thick, drenched curtain of her hair that was obstructing her vision, and began to search for her assailant.

The moon's light reflected off the dark flowing waters, which provided barely enough light to see, but it didn't take Sakura long to spot the distinctively blond hair of her Akatsuki captor.

Deidara was completely submerged, and only the tips of his hair and the ends of his cloak were visible. He wasn't providing any resistance to the pull of the river. In fact, Sakura could see no movement from him at all as he was carried passed her and the rock she clung to.

The kunoichi bit her lower lip to keep her teeth from chattering as she turned her head to gage the distance of the shore from where her weakening body clung to the rock. But her eyes unwillingly turned back to Deidara, who continued to be pulled further and further from her.

The initial shock of the freezing water had snapped Sakura out of her rampaging emotions, and she was now able to think calmly. Despite her status as ANBU, she was not a willing killer when it wasn't necessary. The site of seeing the unconscious nukenin defenseless against the raging waters – despite the fact that she should probably despise him more than anyone alive for killing her boys – pulled at her medic heart.

Taking one more longing look at the shore, Sakura sighed heavily, inwardly chiding herself for her overly compassionate ways, and released her hold on the slick rock. The river swept her up again, but this time, instead of fighting it, she swam with it.

She made her way toward him, gasping for air as wave after wave rushed over her head. It took only a moment before she was able to reach out and grab a hold of his cloak. With her dwindling strength she pulled him toward her and leaned his head over her shoulder to keep his face above the water.

Even in the dim moonlight she was able to see the gushing wound on his forehead, most likely from the debris that had fallen from the cliff with them. She hoisted him further up against her, with one arm wrapped across his chest, and then began swimming toward the shore, desperately fighting the rivers pull.

The battle to reach the dry land was exhausting, and when Sakura was finally able to pull them onto the rocky shore she could only collapse next to the Akatsuki, gasping. A moment later she heard gurgling, and still trying to catch her breath she turned to the man next to her.

She had laid Deidara on his side facing her, and when she turned back to him he was coughing up a lung-full of water. Sakura continued to watch him warily as she pulled herself into a sitting position.

After hacking up the last of the water through his raw throat, Deidara opened his eyes and focused on the girl next to him. As he took in her battered appearance, it didn't take him long to realize what had probably happened. To say that he was surprised that the girl had saved him would have been an understatement. His eyes narrowed as he continued to watch the kunoichi suspiciously.

His fingers touched the sharpened edge of one of the many kunai he had hidden within his cloak. Even though for some unknown reason the kunoichi had pulled him from the river, he was still wary of her. This would be the best chance she'd ever get to take her revenge, and she may have only saved him so she could killed him herself.

He caught the kunoichi eye, and they stared at each other for a long moment. Deidara could see Sakura's warring thoughts reflected in her ever express eyes. He could tell she was debating on whether to finish him off or not.

Suddenly she moved, and Deidara reflexively gripped his kunai, but instead of lunging for him she surprised him yet again by slowly standing on shaky knees and turning away from him. She took one staggering step forward and had to steady herself on her bent knees.

Once gaining her bearings, she look back at him one last time. Deidara blink and then she was gone.

The blond collapsed back onto the rocky shore, trying to wrap his mind around exactly what just happened, as he gingerly prodded his head wound. It only took him a second longer to realize he'd just lost his captive.

"Oh crap!"

After making quick work of the Sound-nin, the remaining Akatsuki were following the signal from Deidara's ring. Though they had plowed through the majority of the Sound's small army, there was still a few groups scattered around, which they were easily able to avoid.

They had been traveling for a few hours when Itachi came to a stop. It only took a moment for the other two to sense the weak and erratic chakra signature moving passed them a few miles to the north, headed in the direction they had come.

Though the signature was almost impossible to track, as it was so weak, the Akatsuki were easily able to locate it, as well as identify it as their petite captive. Suspiciously enough, Deidara's ring's signal indicated that he was nowhere near the fleeing kunoichi.

The kunoichi's chakra was obviously too low for her to be able to detect any other shinobi. That was like being blind to a ninja, and currently the Leaf nin was running blindly into a group of Sound-nin.

"Crap," Kisame growled, and the three Akatsuki took off after their fleeing captive.

After Team Hebi and the Konoha-nin had gotten a good distance from the the battleground, Kerin had been able to catch the Akatsuki's chakra. They were now speeding through the trees at a breakneck speed.

The strange group had been traveling quietly for about an hour. The conversation was limited to only necessary observations of their surroundings and any possible obstacles in their path. Neither member of the two teams felt the need or the inclination to lighten the almost suffocatingly heavy atmosphere.

Despite this, Sasuke's three teammates were brimming with questions.

In the year Suigetsu had known and traveled with Sasuke, the Uchiha had never once diverged from his path to kill his brother. But now, when they were so close, he was putting this "pink-haired" girl's safety before his revenge. It didn't make sense to the Mist-nin. Especially considering that fact that Sasuke had never mentioned or led any of them to believe he harbored any attachment to anyone (still alive) from his home village.

In all honesty, Suigetsu really could have cared less about saving someone he had no connection to. He wasn't a hero, and didn't go out of his way to help others when it didn't benefit him. And even those he did have a connection to – being friendless and having no living family, any connections he could claim would be limited to the three teammates traveling beside him – he could honestly say he only respected two of them enough to risk his life for them (he had long ago concluded that his life would be quieter and just plain better off without the loan female of his team). Due to this respect he held for his team leader, he would do as was asked of him.

If nothing else, he was curious to find out what kinda of girl could hold such sway over the stoic Uchiha and, from what he could see, the three Konoha shinobi.

Jugo's thoughts had taken a similar direction, but his were decidedly more compassionate than those of his teammate's. The large man's kindhearted demeanor, combined with his loyalty toward Sasuke, made it impossible for him not to be genuinely concerned for the unknown kunoichi.

Karin, on the other hand, had no desire to save the Konoha nin, and was barely holding back the temper tantrum that was threatening to boil over. It was obvious to the kunoichi that Sasuke had some sort of connection with this "pink-haired" girl, and it was not at all settling well with her.

Sasuke never showed concern for others. True, he did what was necessary to keep his team alive and well, but he'd never go beyond that. Though his face did no reflect it, Karin could tell that Sasuke was worried, if only slightly, over this twit. But it was more of a reaction than she had ever received.

Karin had already decided that this Sakura was going on the top of her people to rid from the face of the earth list. There was no way she was going to allow some little girl from Sasuke's past get in the way of her pursuit of the handsome Uchiha.

Karin's train of thought was suddenly interrupted by an almost imperceptible tinkle of chakra a distance north from their current location. But the kunoichi's skills easily allowed her to identify the signature.

"I can sense the girl's chakra," Karin called to Sasuke suddenly, not even attempting to hide her disappointment."She's alone."

As soon as Karin had spoken, the three Konoha shinobi and Sasuke came to an abrupt stop, and turned urgently to the tracker as soon as she landed on a branch next to Sasuke.

"Which direction?" Neji demanded.

Karin's hackles raised by the Hyuga's pushy tone. She was about to make a scathing remark but she felt Sasuke shift impatiently next to her. Hesitantly eyeing Sasuke out of the corner of her eye, the kunoichi caught Sasuke's eyes narrow in annoyance.

Gulping, Karin quickly stuttered out, "t-to the northeast, about five miles."

The four men were gone before Karin had finished her sentence, and in a blink of an eye, Suigetsu and Jugo followed suit.

Growling, Karin stomped her foot petulantly and took off after the men.

Her thoughts reverted back to her quickly increasing hatred for the Konoha kunoichi. But only a moment later her scowl slowly curled up into a malicious grin. She had conveniently forgotten to mention that the girl's weakened chakra signature was heading straight for a group of strong jounin level chakra signatures. Karin knew there was no way her companions would reach the girl before she reached this other unknown group of shinobi.

The redhead could barely suppress a squeal of vengeful glee. She was positive this would not bode well for the girl.

Sakura was dead on her feat. The fear of being caught, again, was the only thing keeping her moving.

The moisture from the last rain shower still clung to the air, stinging the kunoichi's raw lungs every time she breathed in a ragged breath of cold air.

The bark of the trees were slick, making travel even more tedious on her weak and shaky legs. Yet Sakura could not risk taking to the ground. It would give any pursuing nin the advantage of higher ground, for they would surely be traveling through the trees themselves, and she would be easier to spot.

So Sakura continued forward, having to occasionally brace herself against the trunk of a tree whenever one of her sandaled feet slipped on the dew and moss covered branches.

Though Sakura's mind was predominantly swirly with panic-filled thoughts of escape, a part of her couldn't keep from thinking about the information Deidara had provided her.

The exact circumstances of her boys' deaths had never been divulged to her. When Sakura was around Shizune, whether be it a the hospital, in Tsunade's office, or at the bar having drinks together, the older kunoichi would sometimes stare at her when she thought Sakura wasn't looking. The expression on her face in those occasions was filled with guild and pity. Sakura could tell, in those moments, that Shizune was barely holding herself back from spilling all that she knew.

Sakura had entertained the thought of taking advantage Shizune's weaker moments, and ask for the details that she so longed for. But her respect for her long time friend, and the guilt she saw pooling in her brown eyes kept her from pushing the subject.

Tsunade had told Sakura that the facts of boys' mission were classified. And though it tore her up not to know, Sakura respected her shishou's request and stopped asking for further detail.

But now...

She had hoped that knowing would have lightened her hearts load, and in a way it did, but with the knowledge came more questions. Questions that Sakura was sure she wouldn't like the answers to. This didn't keep her wondering and hoping that...that it had been quick, and painless.

The thought of Naruto, Kakashi, Sai, and Yamato weak, helpless, and in pain, without her there to comfort them, and help them, made the tears that Sakura had learned to hold back break through and began to stream down her cheeks. She wanted so desperately to hold them all in that moment. Like they were children in need of the comfort of their mother.

She would do anything just to have been there for them. To hold their hands in their last moments. To tell them all the things she had felt she had not expressed enough in their time together.

To tell them that she loved them each more deeply than she could ever express in a lifetime. And to tell them that she would have devoted her life doing just that.

It was at that moment – where Sakura was just a second from breaking – when she heard the familiar whoosh of a kunai cutting through the air.

She dodged to the left, and the kunai grazed across her right outer thigh.

Ignoring the pain, Sakura pulled out her one and only kunai, and twirled it around her index finger, as she backed up against the trunk of a tree.

She inwardly scolded herself for getting too caught up with morose thoughts of her boys. Forcing herself to concentrate, Sakura began searching for her attacker.

Even with her dwindling chakra, it only took her a moment to find what she was looking for. There were eight of them, all around jounin level strength, and...

She was surrounded.

Sakura took another moment to berate herself for her stupidity. She was ANBU, and she had just made a genin mistake! Inner Sakura popped up briefly to add her two cents (aka belittling remarks).

Sakura quickly went over her odds. She was almost completely out of chakra – she'd probably kill herself if she went much lower. She was exhausted physically, and mentally. She only had one weapon. And finally, she was more than a little outnumbered.

Well at least they're not Akatsuki, the kunoichi thought optimistically, and then sighed deeply because she knew she was screwed either way.

"We were told to take you in alive kunoichi," a male voice call through the trees, causing Sakura to coil further into her crouch. "So if you come willingly we won't hurt you."

Too badly, Sakura thought knowingly, finishing the last of the hidden man's sentence that hung in the air.

Konoha ANBU never went "willingly". And since Sakura was no longer wearing her ankle weights, even in her exhausted state, she was still faster than most.

There was a shift in the air, and the Sound-nin that had spoken, crouched on a branch two trees behind Sakura, suddenly felt his face painfully meet the black pants-covered knee of the pink-haired kunoichi.

Sakura growled in annoyance when the Sound shinobi, barely visible in the moonlight streaking through the trees, caught himself on a branch, and stood up while shaking his head to regain his bearings. If Sakura wasn't afraid to use even a fraction of her chakra, that hit would have killed him instantly.

Before the nin could recover fully from the blow, Sakura let loose her kunai, and it caught the man right in the forehead. As soon as it made contact Sakura jerked her wrist and the kunai came flying back to her, aided by thinnest of chakra strings – the only chakra she could afford to use.

As the blood spurted from the large wound, the man's body, still standing, swayed for the briefest of seconds and then slumped forward, lifeless, and fell head first, as if in slow motion, toward the ground below.

There was an enraged screech from somewhere above her...

Then all hell broke loose.

Sakura was suddenly dodging kicks, punches, projectiles, and jutsus coming from all directions.

I think you made them angry, Inner Sakura added knowingly, casually ignoring the fact that if Sakura slipped up once she'd most likely meet a very gruesome ending.

Ya think!

Sakura put up a good fight...for about thirty-seven seconds.

Though the rage from the easy defeat of their captain by the petite kunoichi helped fuel the seven Sound-nins attacks, it also made them sloppy, and Sakura was able to knock off two of them before the remaining five could take her down.

Sakura bit back a moan of pain when a knee pushed painfully into the small of her back, while two of the Sound shinobi fought to hold her down while they tied her up.

The forest was quiet for a moment, except for the scuffling shinobi on the forest floor, and the occasional un-lady-like swear word from the kunoichi (compliments of Genma's teaching).

"Finally!" barked one of the shinobi holding Sakura down, when he finally got the hands of the squirming female securely tied together.

"Yo! The others will be here soon!" called another shinobi, supposedly now the leader, who had been relaying their position to the other Sound teams.

When he didn't receive a response, he and the two shinobi sitting on top of the girl looked up questioning at their two companions who were supposed to be keeping watch. They had their gray-clad backs facing their teammates, and were both staring, unmoving, up into the trees.

Still fuming, Sakura turned her head to see what was going on.

Her heart began to pound heavily and her eyes widened ever so slightly when she processed the scene in front of her.

After a year of living, working, and fighting, with Shikamaru, Sakura was easily able to spot the Nara shadow jutsu from the rest of the shadows scattered across the ground. But even though she knew what she was seeing she was still having a hard time believing it.

One of the Sound-nin walked up to his companions, who were, unbeknownst to him, still caught under the shadow jutsu, and poked one of them in the shoulder.

"Hey? You alright man?"

No response.

"Shit!" barked the leader, knowing instantly something was wrong. Turning around he made to lunge for his captive, but found that he was too late.

Sakura suddenly felt a pair of strong arms wrap around her waist, and lift her off the ground. She didn't call out in alarm because she knew instantly whom they belonged to.

Sakura looked up into the relieved pearl eyes of her rescuer, and suddenly felt like crying. She'd honestly never been so happy to see anyone in her whole life.

"Neji!" she choked out, burying her face into her friend's shoulder, as relief and a million other emotions washed over her.

Neji protectively pulled her closer to his chest as he sped away from the clashing sound of kunai as he companions fought off the Sound-nin. He took a shuttering breath as the fear that had consumed him for the past day and a half suddenly lifted from his chest.

He only lightened his hold on Sakura when he landed on a high branch looking out over the moon-lit clearing, where Genma and Team Hebi were easily finishing off the last two members of the Sound team. He crouched down, and Sakura lifted her tear streaked face from his shoulder to find Shikamaru's face staring down at her.

To her surprise, the relief and joy on his face was just as intense as Neji's. The kunoichi would have never of thought that the normally lazy genius was even capable of looking intense.

Sakura began to weep openly when he leaned forward, kissed her forehead, and then pulled her toward him in a tight embrace, burying his face into her hair.

For a second time, Sakura desperately wished that her hands weren't tied so she could wrapped her arms around the two men. But she was too busy crying her eyes out and basking in the embrace of her two best friends to bring it up.

But their happy reunion was suddenly cut short when Sakura heard an unfamiliar female voice from behind them shriek, "there's more coming!"

Neji and Shikamaru leaped to their feet, with Sakura still in Shikamaru's arms.

It only took them a moment longer to feel the shinobi heading toward them. There was eighteen of them, and they were moving quickly.

"Here," Karin said, walking up toward the three friends, with her arms extended toward Sakura. "I'll take the girl".

When Neji and Shikamaru only glared at her distrustfully, Karin sighed and rolled her eyes.

"Listen," she said with exasperation. "I don't want to die, and I'm no good in a fight, so our odds would be better if I hold the girl" - she refused to address Sakura by name or even look at her - "while you get rid of all the...bad guys." Karin smirked at the last part.

Neji and Shikamaru still looked hesitant, while Sakura continued to stare at the redhead, confused.

Who's she?

Sakura didn't have time to ask before her battered body was being dropped gently into the strange girls arms.

Shikamaru's instincts were screaming at him not to let Sakura go, but he knew the girl was right. They needed to get rid of Sound shinobi and get the hell out of there before the Akatsuki showed up, and the best way to do that was if he and Neji were able to move freely.

"Stay behind us," Neji ordered stepping forward. He looked down at Sakura and his eyes softened as he cupped her cheek in his hand. He allowed his eyes to linger for a moment, and then he looked back up at the redhead, and his eyes narrowed distrustfully as she adjusted the smaller kunoichi's weight in her arms.

"I'll be keeping an eye on you," he promised, and Karin understood the warning. He then activated his byakugan, and stepped aside to allow Shikamaru to squeeze Sakura's shoulder reassuringly. Then both shinobi spread out into the trees to make a barrier between the two kunoichi and the Sound nin.

Once the Konoha shinobi backs were turned, Karin turned her eyes to glower down at the petite kunoichi in her arms. She was more than a little irritated that they had caught up in time, and now that she was getting a good look at the girl they were all here to save, she became even more annoyed.

It didn't take a genius to see the girl's appeal. The older kunoichi could tell, even with her body littered with bloody cuts, bruises, and dirt, that she was beautiful. Her pale skin was flawless, her long dark eyelashes framed her large bright eyes, and her lips were pink and full. She even had a button nose for crying out loud! With her arms wrapped around the girl, Karin could easily tell that, like most kunoichi, her body was lean, but unlike most kunoichi she had curves in all the right spots.

She was perfect, and Karin hated her all the more for it. She was barely restraining herself from releasing her hold on the girl, and letting her drop to the ground below. Only the thought of Sasuke's disapointment kept her from doing it.

Besides, with my luck, someone would probably catch her before she hit the ground, Karin thought bitterly.

Feeling eyes boring into the side of her head, Sakura slowly turned her head to look up at the woman holding her. As her gazed up at the stranger, she caught the dark scowl on the kunoichi's face just before the redhead looked away with a huff.

What's her problem? Sakura wondered. More importantly, who is she?

Sakura took in the womans appearance. She was positive she had never seen her before, so she was sure she wasn't a Konoha shinobi. Plus, Sakura couldn't see a Konoha headband anywhere on her.

Her observations only proved to increase her confusion, and from the expression on the redhead's face as she pointedly looked away from Sakura, the younger kunoichi could tell that right out and asking probably wouldn't go over too well. So instead, she turned her attention back to her two teammates, simultaneously praying that nothing happens to her two precious people and wishing she wasn't so pathetic and weak so she could be of some use.

Shikamaru looked down to see that Genma and the male members of Team Hebi were preparing themselves on the ground below. But his eyes lingered on the Uchiha, who was staring up at Karin and Sakura with narrowed eyes.

But Shikamaru didn't have time to read into the Uchiha's expression, because he was suddenly forced to repel a barrage of shuriken when a number of Sound shinobi appeared in the trees in front of him.

Sasuke eyed Karin suspiciously for a moment. He hadn't gotten a very good look at Sakura before Neji had grabbed her, but what he could see had surprised him. Even through the dark night air he could tell that the awkward twelve year old girl he had once known had developed into a woman. He was also painfully aware of Karin's overly jealous personality, and wouldn't put it past her to attempt something with his former teammate.

Sasuke sighed to himself as he watched the Sound-nin appear in the trees above him. He didn't have time to babysit his moronic teammate. He just hoped Karin would be too wary of him to go against his command.

Karin watched as the two men in front of her, and the four men on the ground below, fought off the waves of Sound-nin.

She adjusted the girl's weight in her arms impatiently. Karin wasn't very strong, and even though the petite girl was light she was having an increasingly hard time holding onto her.

It had been nearly five minutes since the Sound group first attacked before Karin's patience was finally rewarded.

A large wind jutsu had come tearing through the trees toward Shikamaru. The shinobi only had time to dodged the powerful shredding wind as it blew passed him. He turned apprehensively to watch as it flew toward the two kunoichi.

Karin should have had plenty of time to dodge the jutsu, but she happened to conveniently be watching Jugo's battle below to notice until it was almost too late.

She looked up abruptly when Shikamaru called out a warning, and feigned surprise at seeing the powerful jutsu headed toward her. Karin leaped out of the way, but her shoulder caught the edge of the jutsu, and she cried out in pain as she reached for the nearest branch.

Karin released the bottom half of Sakura's body so she could grab a hold of the branch. As she dangled with one hand, her grip around Sakura's shoulders slipped. Suppressing a smile, Karin made a show of desperately drabbing for the pink-haired girl, and yelled out in surprise.

The rest of the group turned to watch as Sakura began falling toward the ground. Neji and Shikamaru made to leap for her, but both were beaten to the punch by a fast Sound shinobi, who had been waiting in the shadows for an opportunity to get at the kunoichi.

"No!" Neji, Shikamaru, and Genma yelled simultaneously.

The agile shinobi landed soundlessly on the ground, with three other Sound-nin flanking him. Sakura struggled violently in his grip, but it did not phase the gray-clad man.

He quickly crouched down, and laid Sakura onto the damp ground. Once his hands were free he began a quick series of hand signs.

Sakura's eyes widened. She recognized the series of hand signs instantly. And apparently she wasn't the only one.


Sakura looked up to see who had spoken, and then froze. A man was sprinting across the forest floor toward her, with his Kusanagi held straight out, and his intense eyes trained on the man crouched over her.

"Sasuke?" she whispered, as if in slow motion, a split second before she felt the pull in her gut as the teleportation jutsu took effect.

Sasuke came to a skidding stop, just a foot from the patch of earth Sakura and the three Sound shinobi had occupied only a moment before. He continued to stare down at the ground where Sakura had been just a second ago.

"Sakura," he whispered through clenched teeth. He grip tightened around his Kusanagi, turning his knuckles white.

The Sound shinobi fell back immediately, and the rest of the temporary team turned toward the Uchiha, all with varying degrees of anguish and frustration written across their faces.

Sasuke turned abruptly, ingoring their gazes, and began to retreive his shuriken from the fallen Sound shinobi, as if he was not at all affected by what had just happened. But his thoughts were filled with the memory of Sakura's surprised wide eyes. If he had been more aware of his surroundings, he would have heard the soft swish of thick fabric in the trees above him.

Itachi gazed down at his younger brother. His head was cocked to the side as he mulled over the scene he had happened upon a moment ago. He wasn't positive, but he had a hunch that Sasuke cared about his former genin teammate, if only a little. And by the younger Uchiha's dismissive reaction, he was trying to suppress any feelings he had for the kunoichi.

Silly little brother.

I was dying to finish that sentence with "tricks are for kids!" but I figured it would be really out of character for Itachi. ;-D

My excuse for the delay in submitting this chapter:

You see, I got lost on the road of life...

Okay, I have no excuse other than my other hobbies (NOT reading porn), and my favorite holiday getting in the way. I am a Halloween freak! I seriously dragged my friends to the cemetery every night of October do to a seance after killing a black cat with a cross.

...Okay, that was really sadistic and not at all true (it doesn't mean I didn't try).

Well anyway, I hope you can forgive little ol' me and I hope you review!

In answer to a few questions...

-No, Sakura wasn't trying to kill herself when she knocked herself and Deidara off the cliff, She was just upset and not thinking straight.

-I haven't decided what other Akatsuki members will make an appearance later in the story. I am, however, leaning toward have Hidan, because I can't help but love the guy. ;-D

-And the question of pairings, mm...I still have yet to decide who Sakura will end up with (if any). Heck, maybe she'll end up with a harem. Honestly, who wouldn't like that? lol

If your name is listed below, I love you! :-D


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Vesper chan

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Please review, I would love to know what you think.