When she woke up later that afternoon, Naruto was healed and Sasuke was gone.

She shook her remaining companion awake. Naruto blinked up at her through blond, murky eyelashes. "What's up, Sakura-chan?" he yawned. His morning breath was not the greatest.

"He's gone," Sakura said quickly, as though to rid herself of some great weight—to toss around the hot potato. "Sasuke, I mean. He's gone."

Naruto didn't seem to take it in for a few seconds. When he did, he responded by burying his face back into his arm moodily. "Asshole."

When he didn't make a move to do anything else, Sakura squatted back on her haunches, then rose awkwardly, shaking out the cramps around her knees.

He called out to her impulsively, "Don't go!"

"I'll be back," she reassured hastily, catching herself. Her tone of voice sounded like she was talking to a very small child. She coughed self consciously, and hoped the hoarseness would take the place of misplaced tenderness. "Don't worry. I'm just going to…get some water."

The sun was up. The sky was the purest blue it could get, with all the pollution. There was only a tint of orange. The sun was shining, the sky was clear, and the birds were singing through their bellies of flesh.

She doubled over and threw up. It would have been easier if it had been night—if she hadn't been able to see anything.

They'd have to sneak over the border at night, she told herself. For stealth.

So she wouldn't have to look at the broken bodies anymore.

She pulled two X-boards out of the dirt, hefted the canteens over her shoulder, and moved off to find Naruto. Who healed far too quickly—and she was going to find out about that. She had been through too much shit with them for there to be any secrets left.

Naruto was exactly where she had left him—face in the dirt, shirt off and blond hair weirdly limp. He looked about as awful as she felt.

"Here," she skittered down the steep slope to the bottom of their trench and threw the water bottle towards him. He let it bang into his shoulder, rather than catching it.

"Hey," she crouched down onto her knees beside him, touching the unbroken, tan skin carefully. There wasn't even a scar. "Naruto, why did you want to cross in the first place?"

Naruto rolled over, almost into her lap. "Because we were checking to see if there were any baby—"

"That isn't good enough," Sakura interrupted. She shook her head empathetically, "You know that wasn't the only reason. Sasuke's left us, hasn't he? He was just waiting for this." It took her a moment to get the next part out, "So if you guys are in this thing together—if you're going to turn around and stab me in the back too…then you should leave."

She set her jaw and tried to look fierce. Naruto's face had become oddly flat.

"I was coming because you guys were." he said at last, and rolled back away from her, "Because you were my friends." He started fiddling with the lid of the canteen, but didn't open it. He wouldn't meet her eyes, which didn't make any sense because if anything, she should be the one feeling ashamed—

She didn't, though. She felt numb and practical and cold. "Tell me," she ordered, but backed away from him, feeling that perhaps now was not the time for cuddling or friendship, "Tell me why you heal so fast. Tell me why Sasuke's leaving." Her hands were shaking. She sat on them, a weird recklessness settling in. She liked this new her; this new, reserved, hard Sakura, the one who didn't get caught up with silly boys or allowed herself to be stabbed in the back.

Naruto did look at her then, uncertainty bordering on fear flashing through his face. She was sure, from his expression, that he was going to object, but then seemed to reserve judgment. He breathed in carefully, "Okay, I'll tell you. But first—you need to tell me why you wanted to cross over."

"Because I was tired of being alone. Because you're all I've got. And—and I guess because of Sasuke. You too, but mostly him."

It felt weird to say it. It felt odd to bear her soul to this boy in such an offhand, uncaring way.

"You—" Naruto's eyes were wide, but not totally surprised, "You loved him?"

Sakura shrugged. There wasn't much point in lying. "I…kinda? I don't know. Yes."

"…You did?"

Sakura's face twisted. "He wasn't the person I thought he was."

Naruto was quiet for a second. He was still fiddling with his canteen. "What'll you do if we see him again?"

She stilled, running over the possibilities in her head, letting the loose earth slip through her fingers. She smiled brutally, eyes burning, "I don't know. I think I'll beat the shit out of him."

Naruto hacked something that was part-laugh, part snort, and then sat up carefully. "Yeah, me too…" he smiled up at the sky wearily, "We're sneaking over, aren't we?"

"Yeah." Sakura nodded firmly, "I am, at least."

"I'm coming with you." Naruto said immediately. She had to smile, a little warmth cracking through her smooth coldness.

"I know—thank you. Now tell me what you two have been hiding."

He had obviously been hoping that she would forget about their deal.

"Okay," he began shakily, "But—you have to promise you aren't going to hate me."

"I don't think I will," Sakura said uncertainly. Naruto sent her a pained smile, and began.

"I wasn't…born. Not like you and Sasuke—well, I guess Sasuke's a bad example too, but—" he cut off, digging furrows in the dirt with anxious, restless fingers. "I was…built."

"Built?" Sakura repeated, a little sick suspicion settling in, "By the military?"

"Yeah," Naruto nodded, "I was supposed to be a weapon. A new breed of soldier. I was one of nine."

He looked down at his hands, "Only me and one other kid survived. I've never met him—I think he was too crazy for them to let out." Naruto shivered a little, like he was trying to shake off a bad memory.

Sakura nodded slowly, trying to understand, "So…how were you 'built?'"

"I'm not all human," Naruto said quietly. "They took animal DNA and fused it with mine. Two different sets of DNA…doesn't mix well. That's why I heal so quickly." He reached over and took her hand, putting it flat on his chest. She could feel his heart beating under her fingertips—it was racing at least twice as quickly as her own.

"Everything inside of me speeds up," he explained, "Accelerated healing. Better vision, faster growing nails and teeth—" he opened his mouth to show her the long, pointed incisors. "My muscle memory is better. I can take more damage and hit harder—I don't think I'll ever run out of energy."

He smiled then, wanly, "Until my expiration date, I mean."

Sakura didn't know much about cross-species mixing, but she knew that no one could have a heart beating so quickly for so long. "Your body is going to give out, isn't it?"

"Yeah," Naruto sighed, "I'll probably die when I'm about forty. Which is, you know, convenient. That's when I'd have reached an age too old to be of any convenience anymore."

A few days ago, she might have cried or screamed for him. Now, she could only nod numbly.

"…It isn't fair," she said quietly, and took her hand back slowly, "I—I hate them."

And in that moment, her control slipped enough for her to feel how angry she should have felt—how badly she wanted to kill the person who had done such a thing to her friend.

"Sasuke, too," Naruto added, "He was…kind of like me. But not. He doesn't have any foreign DNA mixed in…they just fixed him. Surgery. He's got this weird eye thing, see? They're implants for combat and crap. Some kind of muscle-copy, monkey-see-monkey-do shit."

"Okay." Sakura checked the horizon, found the sun still high. It must have been about three in the afternoon. "That still doesn't explain—"

"Sasuke was a weapon," Naruto broke off, and he was suddenly speaking in a rush, as though he had been longing to tell her this from the beginning, "But he wasn't an experiment like me. His type of enhancements had been tested before. There were loads of them, hundreds of soldiers with the same physical features. They were the top soldiers—the Uchihas. There was this one kid, right? He was good. He was wicked good. He was even better than you on an X-board—and he can probably shoot better than Sasuke can." Naruto swallowed. A little tinge of foreboding began to creep into her mind. She knew this would end badly. She knew that—

"His name was Itachi. He was like Sasuke's older brother—they might have been, actually. It doesn't matter. He turned traitor." The whisker-scars on Naruto's face were growing wider, his teeth lengthening, his pupils narrowing. She watched, afraid and fascinated.

"He killed them all."

"…And now, Sasuke's trying to kill him," Sakura guessed quietly. Naruto nodded. She glanced down at her feet. Neither of them said anything for a minute.

"I don't hate you." she said softly, and felt like crying at his relieved sigh. "I don't think I hate him anymore either. But I still want to beat the shit out of him."

"He needs it," Naruto agreed. Sakura swallowed, and glanced up at him fiercely.

"So let's get him back."

Naruto grinned, and then froze.

He lunged at Sakura, snapping one of the guns out of her belt and, ignoring her yelps, levered himself out of the trench.

The figure limping in their direction stilled—and then threw themselves flat to the ground, scrabbling among the bodies for a weapon or a means of escape. Naruto fired once, missing by a good five feet, and shot towards her, distantly aware that Sakura was trailing him.

It was a girl, he could see now. Maybe a little older than them, about Sasuke's age. Her eyes were wide with fear, the uniform tucked into her combat boots showing off her status—a North. Her eyes crossed, staring down the barrel of Naruto's gun as he drew nearer.

She sprang upright, and nearly fell again as her leg gave out. It must have really been hurting her, but she made some shaky attempt at running anyways.

"Hey!" Sakura yelled, nearly alongside him now, "Stop!"

The girl didn't look like she was going to, but after a moment of consideration, turned around and crouched, making herself as small a target as she could while she fished around.

Naruto stopped and Sakura abruptly rammed into him, sending both of them to the ground. He dropped his gun in surprise—felt something impossibly sharp and slick slice cleanly through his cheek—

A knife. She had hidden a knife in her boot. Of course.

"Freaking—" Sakura rolled off him angrily and shot again, this time hitting the girl's injured leg. She was out of bullets, merely shooting off compact-air missiles—but the impact still had to have been killer.

The North soldier fell to the ground with a choked gasp—tried to get up again—

And found she found she couldn't, as Sakura tackled her, pinning her down. Naruto noticed her wince as she jarred her arm, and rushed over. He kept the gun pointed steadily between the girl-soldier's eyes, flicking the switch to acid.

Several heated seconds passed, before the girl started laughing. It was a wild, feral laugh, more than a little crazy and definitely hysterical. Sakura shifted, survival adrenalin fading from her system. She looked disturbed.

Finally, finally, she stopped. Her body relaxed, chocolate brown eyes opening. She smiled brilliantly, her split lip tearing further as she did so. She didn't seem to care.

"Nice to meet you. I'm Tenten."

The gun trembled in Naruto's hand. It was suddenly much harder to kill her, now that he had seen a display of such emotion and knew her name.

"And you aren't soldiers," she was still talking, ignoring him now to twist back for Sakura, "Are you?"

"Are you?" Sakura returned defensively. Tenten—if that was really her name—sniggered. It was so unnerving that Naruto actually found himself lowering his weapon.

"Hell, no. Well. Maybe," she smirked back up at them, "Just because you're in the army doesn't mean you're a soldier."

"You were press-ganged," Sakura guessed. Naruto watched this interaction silently, mind still on lock-down.

"Not a bad guess," Tenten allowed, and suddenly swore. Sakura had accidentally jostled her leg, "Watch it!"

Sakura ignored her, thinking quickly. If this girl was really an apathetic northerner, than they could probably use her…

"Hey," Sakura tightened her grip on Tenten's wrists to let her know that she meant business, "I've got a deal for you. If you can get us across the northern border, we won't put a hole through your head."

"Gotcha," Tenten nodded without a moment's hesitation, loyalty obviously more towards herself than her country, (which meant that she wasn't completely crazy,) "First thing you'll need to do is change your uniforms." She jerked her chin at a couple of dead northerners several feet from them. Two of them were roughly Naruto and Sakura's size. A snide note crept into Tenten's voice, "I won't look while you're changing."

If Sakura had any reservations about stripping a corpse, she didn't show them. When Naruto was sure his friend wasn't looking, he pressed his palms together—a gesture he had seen at a couple of religious ceremonies, and hoped that the gesture would mean something, even if he had no idea what it was for.

Tenten saw, even if Sakura didn't. It was this action that made her reconsider her plan to kill them—and actually contemplate keeping her word. They weren't really a threat—just a couple of kids who seemed to be looking for something. And it wasn't like anyone even cared who won the war anymore…

She pressed a cheap silver cross to her lips, then shoved it back beneath her uniform. They could discuss religion later. The sun was setting—it was probably dim enough for them to cross the border with minimum confrontation.

And besides, she had a couple of favors to call on.

With the two girls on either side of him, Naruto managed a fairly steady coarse. He was getting better at it; halfway through the journey he wasn't clinging to either of them and could tentatively fly on his own. Sakura kept an eye on him anyways—falling fifty feet would kill him, animal DNA or not.

"Hang on," Tenten swerved to a halt. Sakura did the same. Naruto sped past the two of them, floundering, and 'stopped' by intentionally jumping off his board, letting it catch him, and giving Sakura a heart attack in the process.

Sakura glanced around in frustration. They had to be over the border by now—really, this was just ridiculous. She opened her mouth irritably, "What's up?"

"Someone's coming," Naruto hissed, squinting at a dark speck that was rapidly growing. "We should hide!"

"Nah," Tenten smiled funnily, eyes a little predatory, "We don't need to. That's Neji."


"He owes me," Tenten said simply, and sat down on her board, legs dangling loosely, "And he's a sucker for younger girls." She sent Sakura a contemptuous smirk, "So, how about it? You up for a little North-style action?"

With a final, free laugh, Tenten began playing with her knife. Sakura and Naruto both decided that something was seriously wrong with her.

They weren't wrong.

Neji turned out to be a tall, harsh looking young man of about eighteen, with eyes the same shade of creepy as Hinata's.

Tenten had laid down flat on her board, legs, arms and head all dangling over the edge. Neji slowed down, fifty feet from them, and edged forwards slowly. He was a good head taller than her, Sakura guessed, black uniform hanging loose around his arms around his legs and arms, tight around her torso. Custom fit, obviously tailored for a wealthy person—

"You take care of it," Tenten yawned, "My leg hurts like a bitch."

Neji scowled at her, white eyes almost red in the dying sun, "You—"

"Get out!" Sakura yelled suddenly, and leapt for Naruto's board. She wouldn't have made it, if he hadn't grabbed her wrist at the last moment and hauled her upright, nearly dislocating her shoulder in the process. She was already shoving him to the side, stamping down on the motor furiously. Naruto wobbled, and seized her around the waist as they lurched into the air.

Below them, Tenten swore loudly, scrambling painfully back onto her board and powering up, just behind Neji.

Sakura bit her lip savagely, and the sky was bleeding dizzily into her mind as she rushed up and for just a second she forgot—stretched up a hand, and reached for the sky.

Naruto pushed them both over the edge, and they hurtled past Neji, a spray from his acid-gun burning her hair. Naruto's board was coded to his grippers, and caught him quickly—but there was a flash of silver when Tenten threw her knife, jamming the engine and then—

Falling was an interesting experience. It happened so quickly that she forget to be afraid—and for a second, for a second she was able to imagine what it would be like to die. How easy it would be to relinquish her life and fall like this—just like this—forever.

"Gotcha—" Tenten made a sharp, high noise as she caught the two of them awkwardly, arms wrapping around Naruto's middle, snapping them both to a standstill with a lurch. Sakura's jaw snapped down, and her mouth filled with iron as she nearly bit through her tongue. She spat, world spinning, and struggled furiously—breaking free of Tenten's grip and—

"Hey." Neji had his laser powered up and pointed straight between her eyes, barely an inch away. Her forehead burned, scorched by the acid, and she shut her eyes tightly.

"Naruto, run!"

Naruto jerked a little at the raw fear in Sakura's voice, and then fell still when Tenten pressed her knife blade-flat against his throat. He still wasn't sure what was going on—hadn't Tenten been their friend? Weren't they going to get across—

For a second, nobody moved.

"Ugh," he could feel Tenten's leg shudder, pressed up against the back of his knee. Neji didn't tear his eyes from Sakura's face, but Naruto had the impression he was watching them anyways.

"What's the damage?"

"Ripped some muscles," Tenten gritted out, "Got a chunk taken out by my knee—but I was planning on exercising that off, anyways—"

"Tenten," Neji interrupted darkly, obviously not amused. Tenten subtly leaned a little of her weight on Naruto's shoulder. His mind was oddly blank, on the lockdown. Tenten sighed gustily, ruffling the hairs at the nape of his neck.

"Right, right…got hit with comp-air, so there's going to be some bruising." She had shifted her weight noticeably by this point—even if her voice was steady, it must have really been hurting her.

Sakura was so close that he could've embraced her. She was locked in place, back to him; obviously still waiting for Neji's shot. Her fingers twisted slowly, into something like the alphabet, sign-language style.

Naruto squinted, trying not to be too obvious.

K…something…and another letter, twice.

"We'll get you a doctor, when we get back." Neji dismissed coldly, and reverted his attention to Sakura.

"South-side, right? Do they know anything?"

"They aren't even in the army." Tenten snorted. She didn't sound like the bubbly, carefree girl they had met on the battle field earlier. Her voice had shifted, becoming flat and almost inhumanly practical.

Slowly, Naruto began to work it out. Tenten hadn't ever meant to take them across the border—this whole thing had been a trap. She had been injured and outnumbered—the only logical option would be to buy herself some time, and wait for backup.

Well, we're screwed. Naruto thought, and tried to remember his sign language.

"So, can we kill them?" Neji called to Tenten. Sakura's eyes flew open, panicked. She hadn't considered that they'd outright shoot them—she thought they might have been taken as prisoners of war, or something—

"Eh," Tenten rolled her shoulders back, seeming more machine than human, "The girl's the leader. We'll take her in, see if she knows anything."

"Fine," Neji reached out, grabbed Sakura's arm, and flipped her around smoothly, pulling her onto his board as he did so, so that they were back-to-front. He kept the gun by her temple.

"Kill him."

"Did you tell him?" Hinata asked quietly. She had stayed awake, huddled inside her too-big clothes, face pale as her eyes. She looked a little like a ghost.

But Hinata always looked like that—like she had one foot in the other world. Ino turned away, the quiet elation already slipping away.

"Tell him what?" she bluffed, because lying was easier.

Her breath misted when she exhaled—it was hardly any warmer inside than it was out. Her head was spinning with the sickness of life, and nothing was perfect.

When Hinata breathed, the air around her kept from steaming.

"About the baby," she was curled on the chair Sasuke had stolen, dark hair hanging limp and lifeless. She looked like she was dying. "His baby."

"It might not be his." Ino snapped. She switched on the tap, cupping the rusty water in her hands, "You know? He wasn't exactly my one and only."

Hinata pressed nearly bloodless lips together, and fell silent. Ino ignored the twitch of guilt, and ran water-frozen hands back through her bangs, pulling her hair away in a sloppy bun.

"Are you afraid?" Hinata pressed uncharacteristically. Ino spun, catching sight of something hesitating and fierce in Hinata's expression, and though no color rose to the small girl's marble cheeks, she was undoubtedly angry.

"I-I'm not." Ino stammered. She blinked then, shocked at her own meekness, "What's your problem?"

"You are," Hinata's eyes widened, "You're scared he'll leave you."

"I am not," Ino didn't even have to lie then, but the anger was still there, roaring through her lungs and body, demanding she strike out. The room was suddenly too small, and suffocating so, with a carpet of sleeping bags and a crappy old chair as the only furniture. Hinata had shrunken when she raised her voice, but wasn't backing down.

"So why aren't you telling him?" she demanded, "Doesn't he have a right to know?"

"Just shut up!" Ino tore, "Why do you even care?! Stop acting like you're—" she cut herself off, forbidden words lodging in her throat. She turned away, backhanding angry tears from her eyes before they had the change to free fall.

"Like I'm what?" Hinata whispered after a pause. Her voice was trembling—and Ino knew that if she turned around, the other girl would be crying as well.

"I don't know." Ino rasped. She turned brusquely, kicking her way into the sleeping bags. "I'm going to sleep."

She turned on her side and shut her eyes firmly, curled around the life she carried.

Hinata remained the only one standing, hands knotted, expression hidden behind shadows as the night embraced its favorite child.

"Kill him."

Sakura had opened her mouth even before registering doing so—and she was talking now, saying things that she knew she shouldn't, but she couldn't think of anything else and time was like a shattered hourglass.

"Do you know Hinata?"

Shoulder blade to his chest, she could feel Neji's breathing hitch, and noticed the ugly thing that flickered across Tenten's face that even the perfect Hyuuga eyes missed.

Naruto's eyes were a shade of blue too perfect for her meet, and so she looked instead at the ground, a dizzying drop away.

Don't screw this up, Sakura thought frantically, and began talking.

"She has the same eyes as you. That's genetic engineering, isn't it? Why're you on different sides, then?"

"I wonder," Neji muttered quietly, sharp fingers digging into her shoulder, "She's on the South-side, then?"

Sakura bit her lip. Had she already given away too much?

"You're looking for her, aren't you?" she guessed. Tenten sighed quietly, too softly for Neji or Sakura to hear, but loud enough for Naruto. Carefully, he snuck a glance—

She looked…sad.

"If you kill Naruto," Sakura continued hurriedly, "I'll bite my tongue off. It's already bleeding, see? I'll bleed to death. Or I could just jump. And then you won't know where she is."

"Then we'll ask him," Neji snarled. She was close enough to feel the tension he was radiating, and bit down a smile. That was good.

"He doesn't know," she lied quickly. "Kill either one of us, and you'll never find her. Of course," she pushed her luck then, bluffing, "If you take us back and hand us over for torture, everyone will know. I'll tell them all. And they'll get to her before you do."

"Don't play games with me," Neji ordered her, flatly, but Sakura knew she had him.

"Neji…?" Tenten called quietly, "Let's take them back over."

After a moment, Neji took the gun from her temple. "Fine," he pushed Sakura to the edge of the board, "But if you're lying," he fixed Sakura with the emptiest glare she had ever seen, "Then we really will kill you."

"I didn't know you were a poet," Ino smiled. She ran her finger tips over the words, smudging the wet ink and blackening her hands. She grinned again at that, wryly, and straightened. Shikamaru tilted his head, studying her over his shoulder.

"I'm not." He said quietly, and rolled up the paper, crumpling it out of existence. Ino frowned, catching his wrist and uncurling his fingers.

"Don't do that, stupid. I liked it."

"It won't ever finish." Shikamaru shrugged, "Might as well get rid of it."

"I think that's romantic," Ino snapped haughtily, and wrenched the slightly torn paper away from him, "It never dies, does it?"

He just looked at her a second, all watching eyes and silent expression. She looked away, busying herself with flattening out the paper.

They had broken into an empty building, run up to the roof, and sat there now, with their legs dangling over the edge. The sky was a soft shade of grey, washing out the too-bright colors.

"Everything ends," Shikamaru said suddenly, and gave her that funny little smile, "It just does."

Ino sighed, "Don't be so melodramatic." She had the paper smoothed out over her thighs, and bent over it protectively when the wind made to snatch it away. It was quiet now, no one came out during the day in the red-light districts.

"You should talk," Shikamaru snorted, and lit a cigarette, just to watch it burn a tiny sun in the sky.

Ino just looked at him, and tried to commit it all to memory. Every imperfection—the monochrome skies, crumpled artwork, and cigarette suns. She wanted to sink with it, and shiver with it, inside.

"When were you going to tell me?" he asked softly, still looking towards the clouds, their misty light softening the gold from his face. Ino thought her heart might've stopped. He knew. He knew. Oh God—

"What?" she lied again without realizing it, scrabbling frantically for some remainder of calm.

The sun went out.

The house that Neji led them to was…actually a house. It confirmed Sakura's suspicions that Neji was either extremely wealthy, or part of a family that was extremely wealthy. Tenten had been left to guard them, injured leg and all, while Neji took a nap. The three sat in awkward silence, Tenten stretched out on the couch, Naruto and Sakura back-to-back on the floor.

"Sorry I stabbed you guys in the back," Tenten sighed, apparently having suddenly remembered this little tidbit of information. Naruto glared at her, while Sakura just shrugged.

"It's okay. I get it."

"Yeah," Tenten grimaced as she lowered herself to the floor, so that they were eye level. "Not anything personal. Well—maybe a little—you did shoot me in the leg, after all."

"Why does—" Sakura began awkwardly, "What does Neji want with Hinata?"

Tenten was suddenly suspicious, "I thought you said you knew her," she asked shrewdly. Sakura hastened to reassure her.

"We do. Just not very well." She swallowed, and tried not to feel too guilty for selling Hinata out. She looked an awful lot like Neji—so maybe his intentions were totally good? If worst came to worst, they would just have to wait for a chance to knock the two North-kids out, and run.

"Oh," Tenten's gaze flicked away, one corner of her mouth pulling to the side grimly, "I'll let Neji tell you."

"Why're you with a guy like that?" Naruto burst out, suddenly, "You—you're a lot nicer than he is."

Tenten froze, startled. "I'm..." she grinned, more than a little awkward, but didn't meet Naruto's eyes. "I'm not very nice. I just do what I'm told."

"So why don't you leave?" Naruto demanded, "You're better than that. You don't like killing people, do you?!"

"Who likes killing people?!" Tenten returned, "I'm just—I'm trying to keep him alive."

"Who, Neji?" Sakura burst, incredulous. Tenten sighed.

"He isn't that bad—"

"He's a complete asshole," Naruto pointed out, with such a blatant disregard for tact, that Sakura could have clobbered him. Tenten giggled.

"Yeah. He is." She met their eyes then, steadily, "But I will never let him die alone."

"Where is he?!" Sasuke yelled angrily, pale face bleached stark in his fury. The woman tensed, and looked towards him with reproachful, defensive eyes.

"How should I know?" Her cool, heavy lidded face was slightly flushed, perhaps in anger, "We weren't especially close."

Other tenants were poking their heads out, along the hallway, black stares all around. One of them, a man with shocking violet eyes and bloody wrists cursed viciously, and slammed the door shut again with enough force to shake the landing. The others stayed to watch.

"WHERE IS HE?!" Sasuke screamed, seeing her lies in the shift of her eyes, the fast twitch of her features.

"Hey," the woman snarled now, suddenly vicious, "Don't make me repeat myself, asshole. I already said he's gone."

"Konan," another man shouldered his way into Sasuke's vision, "What is it?"

"Just a kid," Konan muttered, "I can take care of him, alright?"

"What an idiot, yeah?" a blond man down the hall muttered, "Rip his face off."

The man in front of Sasuke was heavily pierced, and clad all in black. He shot the blond a silencing glance, and returned his attention to Sasuke.

"I don't care who you are," he said softly, "But you are going to die."

"Where's Itachi?" Sasuke insisted rudely. The other man narrowed his eyes, considering.

"I see. You're an Uchiha, aren't you?" his gaze lingered for a moment on Sasuke's crimson irises, "Itachi is of no concern to you. Unless you think that you are somehow strong enough to defeat us, eight to one."

Sasuke bared his teeth, gaze flicking from one face to the next as he tensed, hand flashing to the knife at his hip—

"Four," a mocking, cocky voice called, "It's eight to four."

"Just do what we tell you to," Neji instructed coldly. He had a tight grip on Sakura's left hand, and Tenten on Naruto's, "Don't try to get them on your side. You're safer with us."

They were at the terminal, about to be missile-launched across the border. It was the only method of safe transport between the two areas, reserved only for high-paying family visits.

Just ahead of them, a pregnant woman was being pushed into a stall, guards demanding a strip search. Her husband began screaming hysterically, louder even than the toddler he was carrying.

Sakura looked away, and thought that Neji's grip might have tightened around her hand, just briefly. A man jostled her arm briefly, and was pulling her away from Neji in a second. Her eyes caught on the scratched, titanium badge he had pinned to his chest pocket.

"Where are your papers?" he demanded, voice slightly accented. Sakura froze—the minute she opened her mouth, he'd pick up on her own, South-side accent and—

"They're here," Neji shoved the papers into the man's hand electric-fast, scowling, "I thought you checked us up ahead?"

The guard scowled, and handed the papers back to Sakura. She took them almost too fast, though he didn't seem to notice.

A dull panic was beginning to set in. There was no way. There was absolutely no way she and Naruto would be able to get out of here. They were going back to square one—and selling Hinata out in the process.

She glanced over her shoulder, half hoping for a familiar splotch of inky hair, and wanted to slap herself.

He isn't coming, Sakura bit her lip, He doesn't care. She looked over at Naruto and tried to smile. He pulled a face at Tenten, more for her benefit, and Sakura smiled painfully.


"Four," a mocking, cocky voice called, "It's eight to four."

A young man was leaning against the staircase banister, looking lazily elegant, his silver hair chopped roughly around his chin.

When he grinned, Sasuke saw how pointed his teeth were.

He almost sighed.

Heavy steps preceding him, a giant of a man came up the stairs, blinking owlishly in the dim, waxy yellow light. "Hullo, Sasuke,"

"Juugo, Suigetsu," Sasuke greeted flatly, "And where's Karin?"

There was a soft chink of a round of bullets being loaded into a chamber, "Ahead of all you bastards," the redhead sniffed. Sasuke whirled around to face her, as did everyone else. She had an arm hooked almost lovingly around Konan's shoulders, her small handgun resting just under her jaw.

Karin's smile could have killed, "Hey, Sasuke! You've gotten taller!"

"What are you doing," Pein asked softly, with enough venom laced through his voice to make Karin's smile drop, "To my partner?"

Her eyes widened slightly behind her glasses, before she threw the sneer back onto her face. "What's it look like?"

"So dirty," Suigetsu tutted, squinting his eyes through the bazooka's scope, "Taking hostages. Tch."

Karin glowered darkly, and opened her mouth to say something before the blond man started laughing.

"You're pretty cocky, yeah?" he smiled dangerously, pushing his hair out of his eyes in a smooth, practiced movement. His face was half-robot.

"Get out of here," Sasuke snapped angrily, whirling around to face Suigetsu, "This is my fight, I didn't ask you to but in—"

A small cannon ball shot within centimeters of his left ear, tearing a hole through the wall and showering Sasuke with bits of plaster.

"Stop telling me what to do, O fearless leader," Suigetsu snarled candidly, even as Karin screeched.

"Ex-leader. Really, Sasuke, deserting on us was so not cool." Karin sighed grumpily, her hair flip all sass.

"We left too," Juugo pointed out.

Sasuke opened his mouth furiously, and was cut off as Juugo threw him into a wall, knocking the breath from his lungs even as he felt the sheen of blades passing just through where he had been standing, and the snick of cut hair. The red head was scowling and snarling something nasty, finders dancing through the air, magnets at his fingertips shooting deadly knives through the air in some parody of grace.

Sasuke rolled out of the way, and there was a sharp bang from Karin's gun, the louder woosh from Suigetsu's bazooka until the other boy gave it up entirely, reaching for his partner and Juugo had his huge hands wrapped around some half-albino's throat as he slowly squeezed—

Sasuke's foot rolled over something, and her almost tripped down the stairs, catching hold of the blond man's ponytail and eliciting a shriek of anger that soon dissolved to laughter.

He turned.


Sakura didn't think. She shut off her brain and let years of hard survival guide her fingers into Neji's pockets before drawing them to the head of the line, pulling Naruto along with her and shoving him in front.

By the time Neji realized she had been the one to hand Naruto his papers, she was already having her own examined, grabbing her friend's hand and tugging him through the gate at a walk too fast, running in the slowest sense of the word, heart hammering in her ears.

She looked back just once.

Tenten was watching them silently, hands shoved into a grey hoodie as she tracked them, gaze predatory. I will find you.

Neji could be heard swearing, his handsome face contorting in anger even as a guard laid an arm on his chest and shoved him into the stall, the mass behind them spiraling into screams.

She dumped his and Tenten's passports in the nearest incinerator, but kept the fakes they had made for her and Naruto.

"Sakura—" Naruto drew in a fast gasp, his upper lip sweaty, "We gotta go. Before they can get out and call a lock down."

"Yeah," Sakura nodded shakily. Her hands were shuddering with adrenaline even as she tried to think—think like Sasuke would—

"Security. We'll use the security exits—" even as she said it her eyes flicked to the discreet doors, the glowing key card slots—

"Shit…" she spun, tilting her head around the corner and watching as the guards swarmed over the mass of hysterical civilians—bringing out the dogs—

She couldn't see Neji or Tenten. That didn't mean that they weren't there, though.

Sakura turned around, and pulled the fire alarm, grabbed Naruto's arm, and leapt back into the mass of screams, bells shrieking all around them.

She thought she might have seen Tenten, just for an instant. The older girl held her eyes for an infinite second, and then turned away.

Shikamaru spat his cigarette out.

She watched it fall several stories, until she lost it among all the rubbish choking the sidewalks.

"Just kidding," Shikamaru got to his feet lazily, offering her a hand. She took it numbly, still staring incredulously into his tired eyes. After a minute he offered her something that was almost a smile.

"It's not like it's my business what you do, or anything," he tilted his head to the side, searching.

She felt like she might have been choking on something, wanted desperately to crystallize him in that imperfect second that was so painful and so raw and so real.

She wanted to smile, but couldn't seem to feel the easy well of deception and make-believe that was always so near her. She wanted to slap him and kiss him and cry into him, until all her tears were shed and she was left cleanly empty.

He dropped her hand, and started to walk away.

She mouthed the word twice before it finally came to life, "Wait…"

He slowed down, just slightly, and looked back, "Do you want me to walk you home? We aren't far from the bakery."

She actually laughed then, horribly, tears leaking from the corners of her eyes and staining her perfect façade.

"I never worked at a bakery shop." She whispered, but so softly that she fooled herself into believing he hadn't heard.

Shikamaru was quiet, and through the rattling force in the cavity of her chest, the one that bent and broke her, she heard him sigh. "What do you want me to do, Ino?" he asked, resignation pulling his features into exhaustion.

She swayed, dizzy with indecision, and wondered what it'd feel like to jump.

"I want you to listen." She hiccupped, and rubbed the palms of her hands up against her wet eyes, "Just listen."

"Neji," Tenten gave her hair a sharp twist, water seeping through her fingers, "Let's go home. They're gone."

Neji hissed sharply, his shoulder blades cutting into his shirt they stuck out so sharply. With a snap that was almost animal, he slammed his foot into the fence post, again and again, rubber grippers sliding off.

Tenten waited quietly until he was done, hands in pockets and eyes trained onto the ground for grubby pennies.

"She's over there," Neji said finally, "I know she is."

Slowly, Tenten nodded. "Probably. But—she's never coming back, Neji. Just let it go." After a minute without response, Tenten looked up.

Neji's hands were coiled at his sides, his back to her. He was the kind of still found in crouching tigers and silent storms. Tenten bit her lip, and looked back down, fingering her knife absently.

"Look," she said at last, "It's your decision. I'll back you on this. But—can we just report her dead and—"

"No." Neji snapped, and stalked past her, bumping into her shoulder as he passed, colorless as an old movie.

"We're crossing over."

She waited a beat to breath, and then ran after him. "I think I know how."

"Bang." Deidara whispered.

Sasuke rammed his elbow into the window and curled inwards, hurtling through the glass and plummeting. He caught himself on the third floor's balcony, slipped off and fell again.

The top floor exploded.

The thing he had slipped on had been a grenade—a grenade. He didn't know those were even made anymore.

Sasuke lay on the ground and didn't move until he was sure that nothing hurt too badly. He sat up slowly, brushing some of the rubble off of him and getting unsteadily to his feet.

There where whispers coming from the other houses, and people sticking their heads out of alleys to peer curiously, frightfully, at the ruins.

Sasuke bent double and coughed thickly, smearing the blood pooled in the crevices of his lips, before staggering into a run, bangs falling messily across his face.

His left arm was numb, he noticed, and shook it a little, mind racing. Everything had gotten screwed up—and if the mercenaries—they were mercenaries now? God, but they loved to fight—had somehow managed to survive, he wouldn't be able to find them. The Akatsuki would have moved out to hide again, assuming they survived—meaning his source of information was down—

He skidded to a halt halfway down an alley, an empty building on either side. He leaned back against the wall, breathing shakily, still trying to shove some life into his numb arm.

Naruto and Sakura should be back on the south side by now.

He shook the thought away almost as quickly as it had come, and started running again, back three streets to where he had hidden his X-board. He'd wait for night, and then make his way towards the high city. Akatsuki wasn't the only gang Itachi could be with.

Hinata hugged her knees to her chest, curled in her armchair, and listed all the things she should be doing right now. She should be stealing food or stealing money or making money or—

She bent forward, and sang almost silently to herself.

She wondered if Ino was ever coming back.

She wondered if she could sit here, waiting and wasting away, until she died. Her toes curled, and she pressed herself back more tightly into the chair.

She hated being alone. It made the shadows come alive.

Hinata curled more tightly around herself and waited for Ino to come back, brittle eyelids closing over painfully dry eyes. She wondered, just as she was drifting off into slumber, if this time, she really would disappear.

She woke up when the bombs started dropping.

Hinata jolted upright and tripped clumsily to the window, her breath coming in fast, panicked whimpers. Two blocks over, the ramen stand Sakura worked at became a mushroom cloud—

The ground shook under her feet, building swaying.

Hinata looked around frantically, every instinct screaming at her to run, while all she wanted to do was crawl into her sleeping bag and sleep. If she left—if the building was destroyed, how would she find Ino? How would she—

She had to leave, she told herself firmly, she'd come back and wait afterwards. But—

Hinata raced to the kitchen, shoving all of the money Sakura, Sasuke and Naruto had stored into her pockets, grabbing the stun gun and a butcher's knife, wrapping them hurridly into her sleeping bag with her extra clothes and shoving them into a backpack, heart hammering and eyes dilated, her hands steady as when she had killed—

She ran out of the front door so quickly, she hit the hallway's wall and grasped at it, before racing for the stairs. She fell twice, slide down to the landing, was pushed aside by the other people cramming through the exit, screaming raw and wet and she was pinned up against the wall, a small, teenage girl and she couldn't move—

Hinata took three short, sharp breaths, and stepped outside her body.

She got through telling him that she was a prostitute, and she got through telling him where she had been, and how much she had missed him. She got through telling him that she used to be a rich girl in a nice neighborhood with a family that sold flowers. She got through all of that.

And now came the hard part.

"I'm sorry I lied to you." she said quietly, when he failed to say anything. After a minute, Shikamaru shrugged.

"Why didn't you tell me? I would have lent you some money." He wouldn't look her in the face, but sounded bone achingly sad. Ino flicked a pebble off the rooftop.

"That wasn't really…the problem. I didn't want you to know. I didn't want you to hate me."

He nodded slowly, "Do you have a disease?"

She shook her head violently, "No. No, I always made them use a condom. And I was—lucky. I guess. I don't know."

She dreamed of cigarette sunlight and soothing smoke and sloppy tangos. Walking barefoot over glass and melting like a date rape drug into swirls of fruity alcohol. She dreamed of days when the sun would come out and the sky would stretch blue forever, and of running with him on the stairways to heaven.

She dreamed of having a family again.

"There's something else."

"What—" Shikamaru broke off abruptly, head cocked to the side and eyes narrowed. Ino blinked.

"What's wrong?" She listened too, straining for—

She could hear a motor humming.

"Airship—let's go," Shikamaru was pulling her to her feet roughly in the next second, dragging her towards the stairs before she had even stood fully. She stumbled, then broke free and ran after him, mind racing as her feet thudded down the steps.

"There's a bomb shelter. In the—the whore house. We can get in there—I think—"

"Okay," Shikamaru paused to kick in the bottom door, and she shot past him, leading the way.

There was a whistle, and the first bomb hit on the other side of the city. She could feel it only faintly, the soft tremors, before the second hit much, much nearer. Two fleets, then, one of them—

Her heart lurched, one of them was by Hinata. She hoped the other girl would remember how to run. The streets were still empty when they were two blocks away, but grew heavier after a minute had passed. People came scrambling out of gutters, alleys, hotels, drainpipes, all of them with possessions slung hastily over one shoulder, pulling their families along behind them.

Ino kicked off her high heels and ran barefoot, Shikamaru just a step behind her, skidding through red lights and clambering frantically over fences.

He wasted ten seconds lifting a five year old over—handing her to Ino before scrambling up himself. The little girl was crying, short black hair sticking to her wet cheeks. Ino set her down on the ground, gave him a hand, and then started running again—

A bomb hit the road thirty feet in front of them, sending a torn slab of cement straight at the little girls head—

Ino didn't realize she'd moved to shield her until she was sledge hammered in the stomach—smashed her backwards onto the ground, the child behind her.

Shikamaru shoved the rubble off her, and pulled her upright again, throwing her arm over his shoulder and running, child following, as her head swam, nausea making her throw up twice before they reached the shelter and scurried inside.

She barely noticed that the whore house had been hit—barely thought of the people who had been sleeping inside. She curled up on the ground as soon as Shikamaru dropped her, shuddering around her crushed insides.

The world abruptly stopped moving, and she knew it was over. Nobody moved for another hour, just in case, until Ino finally sat up and whispered, "Let's go."

Shikamaru opened the door, and the silent child streaked out, running furiously back to wherever she had come from. After a minute, Ino stood—

Her thighs felt slick. For a second, she thought she might have wet herself but—

She was bleeding.

"Oh God—" she whispered, and started shaking again, "Oh…no…"

"Ino?" Shikamaru had left the door half open, just turned, "What up?"

She fainted.

"We should get help," Tenten said suddenly, her eyes fixed ahead of her wearily. Neji muttered something, his face still pressed into her shoulder as he napped, draped across her shoulders on an X-board. It was technically illegal. But then, Neji was technically one of the highest ranking militia officers around.

If they ever found out he was a genii, both he and Tenten would be executed.

Tenten shook her shoulder, jostling him, "Neji, wake up. I want you to meet my boyfriend."

Neji woke up, "Relationships are strictly prohibited for the good of the mission—" he began to launch into one of his infamous rants—Neji was good for those. Drama queen.

"We should find Gai," Tenten said firmly, interrupting him. Neji's arms tensed around her waist. She braked, and set them both down to the ground, deeming it safer.

"Tenten," Neji said in a voice that he obviously meant to be patronizing. Tenten rolled her eyes and made a grand show of not paying attention—which was exactly how NOT to handle Neji.

He plowed on regardless, "The man's a maniac."

She had nothing to counter that with.

"And—and Lee…"

"Lee's our friend," Tenten said stiffly, and drew herself upright, "Don't underestimate him, Neji. You know he's strong. They both are."

"They're crazy," Neji corrected viciously, "They're losers."

Tenten raised her eyebrows, "And so you're a what, a winner?" she tilted her head to the side, "What exactly have you won, Neji?"

He glared at her, black disease spreading from his hateful gaze. "We aren't going to them for help."

It took Hinata two days to find them, or rather, for her to find Shikamaru.

It was a rubble heap, this place. The cities resplendence had dared too high, waxy wings melting into a mess of a mechanical graveyard. She had survived the bombing, of course, though it hurt to think about her own selfishness.

It would have been kinder, to die.

He looked a mess, sweating furiously with dried blood caked under his fingernails and smeared across his cloths. He didn't recognize Hinata—had never met her, had only stepped outside for a smoke 'cause he hadn't slept in days and God, God he was so tired but she wouldn't stop bleeding—

But she could see.

She tapped him quietly on the shoulder and said in a voice that was as soft as the dust coating over her being, "Where's Ino?"

Shikamaru's face stilled quite suddenly, and he sent her a long, appraising look. She could see the way his mouth twitch down and his eyes flicked down—he was going to lie to her.

"Please tell me," Hinata repeated again. Shikamaru fidgeted slightly, and she took a moment to study him. She could see why Ino had liked him—there was a quiet reassurance he seemed to give off, a certain atmosphere that relaxed.

He didn't look very relaxed right now. "What do you want with her?" he asked at last, eyes very brown and very tired, sort of like—

—someone she had known, once.

She could see the ghost of a girl holding his hand and following in step, and wished that she could have that. he'll never know how lucky he is, to have a little bit of soul watching out for him.

She swallows down her disappointment and envy, "She's hurt, isn't she?" she asked softly, and locked eyes with the golden ghost just beyond his shoulder. Ino blinked at her, and smiled in a way that dazzled and defied the laws of light and color, eyes wider than Hinata had ever seen them.

"She's dying," Shikamaru said finally, with his face cast shamefully to the side, and then sunk down into himself, though he remained standing. He didn't cry, or at least, not physically, but the spirit stepped forward and brushed away the invisible tears lovingly, smiling sadly.

Hinata couldn't stand to look at such an intimate scene, couldn't help but hate her eyes.

Shikamaru looked towards her searchingly, and then began unsteadily, "She's…she was…I think she was pregnant."

Something ached within her, but Hinata nods, "I know."

Something hurt flickered across his features, before he wipes it clean again, "Was she going to keep it?"

Hinata nodded, because she didn't know what else to say.

Shikamaru swore quietly, "That moron…" but it's the broken kind of anger, not the fiery kind, and Hinata knew that he was all soul. That he cared more than he knew.

"I'll help her," she said finally, and followed behind him meekly, planning.

"Hey," Naruto shook Sakura awake, "Hey, Sakura, we gotta go."

Sakura cracked an eye open, stretching stiffly. She had slept sitting up, leaning back against a wall while Naruto watched. He was poking a head up over the roofs, grinning almost savagely.

"Naruto, we can't. I told you, we aren't moving until sunrise." She said grumpily, and sat on her hands to warm them up. Naruto barely spared her a glance.

"No, we gotta go now. It's Sasuke."

She could suddenly hear every individual drop of dew splashing down from the sweating weeds that grew thick as grass in the concrete's cracks. She got to her feet awkwardly, tripping forward and grabbing the offered hand. Naruto pulled her up onto the low roof with him, the long, desolate city flat and straight before them.

"I can smell him," Naruto said eagerly, face suddenly too-intent, almost bestial. "He's close. He's bleeding."

Sakura scanned the rooftops carefully, "You sure? Where is he?"

Naruto cocked his head to the side, inhaling very slowly and very deeply as he turned in a smooth circle—before pointing.

"There," he took off running suddenly at a full sprint—she had to race to just keep up with him, and was exhausted after seconds.

"Naruto—wait—wait, what if he's with someone?" she stopped, just managing to grab the sleeve of his jacket and pull him to a standstill. "Can you please think this through? We should watch him, make sure he's on our side—"

"Of course he's on our side," Naruto snapped impatiently, "He's Sasuke." He looked angry, "Don't you get it?!"

"I do!" Sakura stammered, still fighting for breath, "But I—I'm not stupid—I don't…God, Naruto, I don't just trust people like that, okay? I trust you a hell of a lot more than him!"

Naruto set his jaw squarely, looking stubborn. "He's just Sasuke," he said finally, and sprang to the next roof.

Temari smoothed down her shirt, and made sure her hair was pulled back neat and tight against her skull, before knocking twice on the old-school-movie door. She kept her face closed and eyes steady. This was who she was. She was not a woman. She was not pretending to be a man, either—that was just stupid.

She was a soldier.

The door was opened by a lower rank officer, one who made a hasty bow when he caught sight of her. She tucked her chin down so slightly it was almost rude before breezing inside.

He always surprised her—that sardonic, cruel face with its twin yellow eyes and a gruesome gash of a mouth.

"Temari," he inclined his head politely towards a chair. She sat tensely, her hands wanting to fidget. She mentally ordered them limp, and kept her face straight.

"Yes sir," she bowed, "I was sent here by the commanding general, to report and request finances."

"Excellent," Orochimaru's smile widened in a way that hinted at some sort of malicious joke—one she was not privy to. Temari bit her tongue and bowed again.

"Sir, we gained two miles of land in the last week, and our troops continue to advance. Casualties in last Sunday's battle were unusually high—the South side has started sending out more untrained troops.

"How delightful," Orochimaru chuckled, "Tell me, have you found anymore genii's?"

Temari worked at her bottom lip, choosing her words carefully, "Possibly, sir. Several soldiers reported seeing one of the Uchiha's during combat—probably Sasuke. He was reportedly seen with two others—one of whom also appears to be a genii."

Orochimaru's lips spread further, "Well now, that is good news…my Sasuke, hm? I suppose he's here for his brother."

"I wouldn't know, sir," Temari said when he paused. Orochimaru tapped two pale fingers against his chin.

"You have brothers as well, do you not, Temari?"

Temari could feel the sudden desire to crush, tear, rip into this man spin through her, spiraling through her chest and throbbing just behind her eyes.

She kept her lips locked together and nodded.

Orochimaru made a soft, smooth noise of amusement. "Ah, yes. I remember now. The younger one is in captivity, isn't he?"

She bowed her head, hating herself for it and hating Gaara even more, a kind of hatred that is born from childish terror. Slowly, she began to form the words.

"He is, sir," she said at long last, "The commanding general requests another twenty thousand for covering rations, with all due respect to yourself."

Orochimaru waved a hand, "Yes, yes. Of course."

She waited to see if there was anything more he was going to say, before turning curtly on her heel and walking out as quickly as she could.

She didn't miss his last call, even as the door surged shut, "We should chat again, sometime."

Tenten crept up towards the dojo, and rapped smartly on the door. She checked her knife twice, and then stepped out of the way.

There was the sound of running feet, and then someone kicked the door a good ten feet out into the air, "A CHALLENGER!" someone yelled enthusiastically, and skidded into the space Tenten had been standing previously.

She gave a little cough, "Hi, Lee."

Lee stared at her just long enough to make her feel awkward, before bursting into tears. "Tenten!" Lee wailed, and crushed her into the heartiest bear hug she had ever experienced. Lee sobbed into her shoulder, while Tenten made high pitched wails.

"Lee—I—down!" she squeaked, and seriously thought that her spleen, whatever it was, had probably left the world of the living.


Her old sensei kicked down what remained of the door frame, and the entire joke of a building collapsed.

Well, Tenten thought, resigned, There goes mission espionage.

From the corner of her eye, she could see a vaguely Neji-ish figure stomping grumpily up the hill, glaring at her for all his worth. She diverted her eyes hastily, even as Lee set her back on the ground, whereupon she nearly fell over.

"TENTEN, MY HEART BURSTS TO SEE YOU AGAIN! NOTHING COULD MAKE ME HAPPIER THAN—NEJI TOO?!" Lee looked like he was about to die from excitement.

She tried to thank him, but ended up just moaning.

"Can…Can I come in?" she massaged her ribs, and cast another furtive glance behind her shoulder towards Neji, who was now blatantly running up the hill's path towards her, making angry little gestures.

Her old sensei began to nod, and then gasped loudly, horrified. He clocked Lee over the head, "LEE, YOUR YOUTH HAS GOTTEN THE BETTER OF YOU! WE HAVE LOST OUR DOJO!"

Lee looked like the world had just ended, and he would gladly have let Gai offer him as a sacrifice to the Gods in that instant, "I APOLOGIZE WITH THE SORROW OF A THOUSAND WEEPING FLOWERS—"

"Look, it's fine," Tenten squirmed in between them, "Just hide me."

She was dubious that standing behind two spandex clad man would provide her with adequate protection, but was determined to remain optimistic. "Tell Neji I'm not here," she whispered, and peered around Lee's knee. Lee looked shocked.

"I could never deceive my rival!" he stage-whispered, scandalized—just as Neji finally reached the mountain's summit and, panting, staggered towards them.

He stopped a safe distance away from Gai and Lee, suddenly realizing the trap he had walked into. He had been so set on catching Tenten, that he had forgotten his original objective had been to avoid their former teammates in the first place.

Neji began backing away slowly, and sent Tenten a look that promised several thousand years of pain.

She waved back.

Sasuke slipped off the board and fell on his numb arm. A couple of bricks crumbled down from the edge he had fallen on—he rolled away hastily, swearing thickly, and suddenly felt very tired.

His board clattered down several streets down—he did his best to memorize its position, and hoped no one would take it. Doubtful.

He glared hatefully at the wavering full moon, curled over his crooked arm, tongue pressed up against his teeth.

"Hey, bastard," there were footsteps. Much too close—almost on top of him now, and Sasuke looked up jerkily, surprised but not shocked.

Naruto had his hands curled into fists, like he was waiting for a fight. Sasuke shifted. Naruto twitched.

For a moment, the two of them just looked at one another. Naruto broke it to glance back over his shoulder and, apparently deciding it safe enough, bent down to Sasuke's ear.

"If you leave again, I'll break your legs and make you walk back on them," Naruto threatened with a snarl. Sasuke made a dismissive, cocky noise, which was all he could do in such a state.

"I'm not your boyfriend, moron," he said coolly.

Naruto kicked him in the stomach—hard—and then Sasuke had his thumbs up in the other boy's eyes, like an assassin, one knee grinding into Naruto's spine even as Naruto grabbed him by the hair and flung Sasuke away, ripping at his scalp.

Panting, his eyes stinging from the pain, Sasuke shook his arm into life and lunged again…

Sakura smacked the back of Naruto's head, "You idiot," she hissed angrily, her breathing fast and erratic, tinged with a hysteria she couldn't write off as muscle fatigue. She spun around, eyes green and sharper than he had remembered, flashing in a way that made Sasuke want to press his fingers to them, and see if they'd bleed.

"You're a—" Sakura trailed off, and ran a fast hand over the backs of her eyes with a sniff. Naruto set a hand on her shoulder, only to have it shrugged off. Sakura sniffed. "You're a—your arm's broken."

Sasuke frowned at her, and shook it experimentally. The metal wires laced through his bones meant it could still move, though he understood the numbness to be a built in anesthetic now. It was good to know, at least—made slightly more sense.

Now Sakura faced the great decision of healing him or helping Naruto break his other arm.

She did neither. Instead, she turned around and walked away. When she was sure her voice would be steady, she called, "Naruto, keep an eye on him. And don't fight. I'll be back in a second."

The two boys watched her scramble back down the roof, before turning back to one another. Sasuke looked disinterested. Naruto took several breaths of night, and willed himself to be half so cool—it didn't work.

He sat down by Sasuke roughly, and fiddled with his shoes. Sasuke was looking interestedly at his obviously broken limb.

Naruto chewed on his tongue. It was weird, not knowing what to say. "You're still our friend, ri—?" he began to blurt out, but was interrupted by Sasuke's flat look.

"Set my arm, Naruto. Hurry up so that I can get rid of you two on the South-side."

Naruto jumped to his feet, his whole body vibrating, "Why are you running away?!"

"I'm not," Sasuke snapped curtly, "I don't have anything to run from."

For a second Naruto really did consider breaking his other arm. He set the left one instead, wishing bitterly that Sasuke weren't so doped up, maybe would have screamed a little.

"We aren't leaving you until you come back with us," Naruto said finally, stubbornly, and Sasuke closed his eyes.

"You'll slow me down." He said at length, since he couldn't think of anything else. Naruto let out a bark of laughter.

"This coming from the guy with the broken arm?"

"Fine, Sakura can stay. You can just die."

"As if I'd leave you two unsupervised."

"Please tell me you ditched us so that we wouldn't get caught in the crossfire while you were on your little campaign against evil." Sakura ripped open the package with her teeth, swinging her feet out over the overhang. Naruto snorted, balancing on the edge of the roof flippantly and walking with the confidence of a person who has never been afraid of missteps.

Sasuke raised his eyebrows, decided she didn't deserve a response.

"So," Naruto hopped over towards Sakura and peered over her shoulder exuberantly. She hissed him away, crushing the dried noodles in her palms. He pouted, "What's our next move?"

Sasuke looked over at the two of them irritably, "I already told you, get lost."

"Not a chance," Naruto snapped back. Sakura bent her head lower, smashing the noodles with the sort of aggravation that suggested each had done her some great personal offence. Naruto crossed his arms, "I thought we agreed, we're work together so you don't die, and then we're going home."

Sasuke looked away moodily, gritting his teeth. Sakura sprinkled seasoning over their purchase, and said rather abruptly, "We're friends, aren't we?"

"Of course!" Naruto yelled brightly, and plopped down next to her. Sasuke remained silent. He didn't really know what to say anyways. When he noticed Sakura looking at him, he pretended to be absorbed in deep thought.

"We'll hit the mafia houses," he said finally, "Itachi was in a gang—and it's not like the Akatsuki was the only one on north side. We'll start looking when it's dark again—sleep until then."

Sakura raised her eyebrows, "You think we're that dumb? You'll just run away again, soon as we shut our eyes."

"So stay up," Sasuke snarled, and slouched back onto his elbows. He caught a flash of hurt on her face, and felt a sort of twinge of regret, before he rolled onto his side and faked slumber.

Naruto rolled his eyes, eating his dry ramen-powder. "Damn kids."

They found the nightclub easy enough. Naruto loved it. His whole body jittered and swayed with the dark, heavy music, thrumming with the energy. Sasuke shrunk in contrast, finding the darkest corner he could and slinking into it, blending with the grime. Sakura grimaced, her fingers twitchily refusing the drinks pushed at her.

God, this place was such as screw house. The biggest screw house, actually, famous for black marketing and pimps. Now all they had to do was find the right one.

"Naruto," she scolded, "C'mon, pay attention. Look like you want to higher a hit man."

"What? Oh. Oh yeah, right." Naruto's face contorted, until he looked more constipated then tough, and he swaggered over to the bar, slapping his hand down drunkenly and leering at the thickset bartender.

"Where's the back room?" he slurred half-convincingly. The bartender glared at him.

"How'd you get past the bouncers, punk?" he jerked his chin at two mean looking women in the corner—and they closed in on the blond, gripping the back of his neck warningly. Naruto laughed weakly around the chokehold.


Sasuke rushed past her, eyes dark, and jumped one of the women from behind. She went down with a snarl, and suddenly there were three—five more—

Sakura swore. Trust them to totally ignore the meaning of discreet.

She studiously avoided eye contact when the two of them were dragged out, and sat at the bar wearily. Great. Either there wasn't a backroom, or it was so heavily guarded, there'd be no chance of them getting back there.

"You want anything?" the bartender asked. She shrugged.

"Yeah, I'll have a soda."

He stared at her for a moment, cleaning out the glass slowly, before he nodded.

"Sure, go on back and get yourself one," he said lightly, "I think you'll find it in the last stall, men's room."

Sakura almost choked on her oxygen. Was this for serious? That was the password?

She staggered off to the hallway, head spinning. Well, she supposed, What kind of a person orders soda at a bar?

Sasuke and Naruto were waiting for her when she came back out, wide eyed and still stunned. Sasuke kicked at the pavement moodily, his broken arm dislocated again from the fight, lip split and swollen. "What took you so long?"

Sakura blinked, "Business arrangement," she said weakly, and then turned her face towards him, "I've got a meeting for us. With the Akatsuki—I know where they'll be next Saturday. Where they're planning on setting up base."

Sasuke's hand's tightened into hard fists, and Naruto grinned fiercely, "Is it far?"

"Kind of," she shrugged, "Day's walk, maybe an hour or two on X-boards. At least, I think so. Prisoner's Square is back by the river, yeah?"

"Yeah," Sasuke nodded, "Yeah, I know where it is. They'll be in that old arena, won't they?" he smiled a little savagely, "That's in two days. We should check it out tomorrow."

She and Naruto exchanged worried looks, "Okay," Sakura said finally, "Maybe we should get some weapons or something?"

"Yeah, fine," Sasuke said impatiently, and started off down the street, "Let's go."

There was nothing as horrible as landing her plane, admitting farewell to her sky and returning to the tarnished ground. She took off the helmet mechanically, and swung out of the pit, landing heavily. One of the cadets rushed to park her plane. She tossed the keys to them absently, and stalked towards the base.

She had been summoned by Orochimaru. Her next mission was all lined up, nice and orderly, and she couldn't help but drag her steps.

A different officer opened the door for her this time. She tried not to think about that too much.

"Temari," Orochimaru greeted smoothly with a smirk. She kept her face empty as she bowed.

"I am to understand that you have a mission for me, sir," she spoke quickly, hands balled at her side. Orochimaru raised his eyebrows as though surprised.

"Oh, yes. I had almost forgot," he stood from his desk, and turned to face the window pensively.

I could kill him right now, Temari realized. Her hands twitched at the auto-shot strapped to her hip, but made no move to draw.

When Orochimaru turned back, he was smiling almost cruelly, as though he had guessed her intentions. The thought was enough to make her sick.

"You remember the talk we had concerning Sasuke Uchiha, correct?" he toyed with one of his large, sharp earrings.

"Yes, sir," Temari said slowly. A little worm of suspicion nagged at her. Orochimaru regarded her like she was a particularly interesting tool.

"I'd like you to capture him," he said bluntly, "Tell him that I want him back. If he refuses, kill him."

He walked back to the desk and slid a file across to her, "Here is a record of his physical statistics, as far as we know. These are from two years ago, of course—when he was fifteen."

She opened the folder slowly, scanned the contents with a sinking stomach. Of course. Of course he would have to be an Uchiha.

"Do you have any questions?" Orochimaru prompted. She shut the file and tucked it under her arm.

"Yes," she said, suddenly bold, "Why are you sending me on this mission, sir? I'd have to check my own ratings, but he has the advantage over me in nearly every—"

"If you succeed," Orochimaru interrupted her, "I will release you and your brothers from the army with a considerable sum of money. You'll be free to live the rest of your life as you see fit."

Temari swallowed—such an offer was certainly worth dying for. She resisted the urge to check his stats again—instead asking, lowly, "Where was he last sighted?"

"South western border sector, though there are reports of him dismantling the Akatsuki's base in Sector 9."

"And Itachi?" Temari questioned. Orochimaru's eyes glinted approvingly. She had the impression she'd asked the right question.

"He has been confirmed alive."

"I see," Temari said, and walked out without bowing. Her heart was racing from fear and excitement, and beneath that was the steady, burning determination to win.

Ino woke up with a wet gasp. Her whole body burned faintly, stomach throbbing weakly—but it wasn't as bad as she thought it'd be.

"She's up," Hinata said quietly. Shikamaru's head jerked up with a snap—it looked like he'd fallen asleep leaning back against the wall. He crawled stiffly over to her side.

"Hey," Ino smiled, and then at Hinata, "You made it out okay?"

Hinata shrugged, her pale eyes clouded with trouble, "Yeah."

Ino nodded, and lay quietly, staring at the shadowy ceiling and the cold, white light coming from the open window. She didn't think about what had happened. She didn't want to.

She turned her face to the wall that was never black enough, and laid her hand gently over her empty womb, mind curiously blank. She shut her eyes and prayed.

I'm sorry I couldn't protect you.

She let one tear fall, and then sat up awkwardly, "Hey, Shikamaru. We need to check something."

"Um." Shikamaru stared at her like she was crazy, "Could you please lie down?"

She felt pathetically weak, and dizzy too. "I—ugh, okay, but…but this is important, so…when I'm better, we gotta go check it, okay?"

"Yeah, okay, fine. Whatever," he mumbled, already pushing her back to the nest of blankets.

She nodded firmly, and shut her eyes, focused on her breathing, and not the thing she had lost.

Tomorrow, she thought firmly, Tomorrow, I'm going to find that little girl who isn't supposed to exist.

When she woke up in the morning, Hinata was gone.

"We don't have to do this Neji," Tenten said quietly. She knew he was still awake. Neji was never really asleep.

Just beside her, Lee and Gai snored enthusiastically, sprawled out and hogging all of the fire's warmth. She didn't really mind. It was enough that they were there.

Neji stared blankly into the fire, perfect light eyes reflecting the flames. He scowled slightly.

"Tenten," he said softly, "You three can go back. There's no point in you coming."

She set her teeth, "Don't be stupid. Of course I'm going. I just…it just doesn't seem fair."

Neji got to his feet, and stared critically down at Lee and Gai.

"I'm not going to take them over," he said finally, "You know they'd get us caught. They're bad at this."

Tenten looked down at her toes, and then out across the wide, exposed stretch of borderlands, "Yeah, I know. I'm sorry."

Neji shrugged, "I'm leaving now. Before they wake up." He tilted his head to the side considering, expression smooth. "You can stay here, with them."

She shook her head without hesitation. "I'm coming." She held out her hand to him, "I made my decision a long time ago."

Neji took her hand, but didn't pull her to her feet. "You know I won't come back," he said quietly. His hand was slack and cool around hers. Her vision blurred.

It took a lot of courage to say, "I want to be there until the end."

Neji's hand tightened, and he pulled her to her feet. He held her gaze for a long moment, then turned to the west.

"Let's go."

Lee waited until the whine of the X-board's motor died away before he stopped pretending to snore. Beside him, Gai did the same. Cautiously, the two of them sat up.

Tears ran unchecked and unashamed from Lee's eyes, "She never wanted to take us over, did she?"

"No," Gai said softly, and clasped his student's shoulder, "She just wanted to say goodbye."

Lee sobbed, and looked brokenly at the ground, "I don't understand, sensei." He wiped shakily at his tears, "Why is this happening to them?"

Gai's face looked strained and careworn, "Because, Lee. In the springtime of love, there are those doomed to storms."

Lee thought about that carefully, tears still falling. "She's very brave, isn't she?"

Gai nodded slowly, "I don't think there is any type of courage stronger than hers."

And the sun began to rise.

Temari checked to make sure her gloves were secure, before taking off at a dead run. She had cut the fence's wires earlier that day, and a hard kick was enough to bust through. She struggled through the barb wire quickly, adrenaline rushing through her blood, registering the yells coming from the compound.

Martin's Genetic Research Center—the most heavily guarded building in the world. And she was breaking and entering.

She had checked the stats—confirmed what she had already suspected to be true. At fifteen, Sasuke had been physically superior to her in every way, and she could only assume he'd improved in the two years since. Temari wasn't stupid—she wasn't the type of soldier who rushed in on missions, thinking that the element of surprise and blind determination would be enough to buoy them to success.

She needed classified information—stuff she wouldn't be able to get for a good ten years, if she did it legally. And she wasn't going to wait that long.

Three guards at the front door, one radioing for help while the other two rushed her, lasers powered, yelling for her to put her hands on her head.

Like hell.

She had three grenades, and she wasn't wasting one of them on these morons.

Temari pulled her auto-shot, lowered her voice and yelled, "Where the hell is she? I was running her straight at you guys!"

The guards slowed when they saw her uniform, confused, and she ran straight at one, until she was just a foot away—

She shot him, point blank, used his body as a shield when his partner fired, and took out other without breaking stride. One left, four founds in her auto, and another twenty would be arriving in a moment.

The soldier was still pulling his weapon when she blasted his temple, and shoved him at the scanners. The key pad picked up his key cark, and the door slid wide. She sprinted in, caught sight of reinforcements skidding around the corner, just as the doors slid closed behind her. She aimed, fried the control panel, and kept going. She had ten floors of this, after all.

The cameras whirled, following her as she sprinted down the dark hallway. There were only researchers here, but she wasn't going to get the actually muscle men to come down unless she did a little terrorizing—

All they had to do was keep her from getting in, after all. Stay in place and decimate her as soon as she showed up on the top.

Unless she got them to break position.

She hit the elevators first, calling both of them down and throwing them to an emergency stop. Alarms sounded—someone yelled something about a fire drill.

She let the cameras roll as she started mowing through the scientists, hard teal eyes squinted and mouth a sharp, grim line. She would not show mercy. She would show those bastards what they were dealing with.

Gaara would be kept three floors up, she thought vaguely, and pulled the trigger.

There were at least four of the world's most brilliant minds sprawled out on the floor around her—she coughed the smell of carnage from her lungs and turned back down the hallway.

She took the stairs to the second floor, turned very deliberately towards the first camera she saw, and shot it out. They could draw their own conclusions, she wasn't killing anyone else.

Temari laser-ed the scientists in their offices, and headed to the stairs. Once they figured out the elevators were down, they'd use them.

Six flights above her, she could hear the soldiers coming. She slipped through the door, and raced up two flights before they got too close, and she dodged out onto the fourth floor.

She melted the door shut behind her, and headed to the circuit breaker, cut the power. She'd like to see them run down the stairs in the dark.

Clicking on her flash light, she sprinted towards the elevator and wasted precious seconds melting through the doors.

Now for the hard part.

Don't look down, she steeled herself, and leapt, caught hold of the cable—and began to climb, flashlight gripped in her teeth.

She knew she was strong, but still wasn't sure if she was capable of making a climb like this—six floors meant about sixty feet, slowly, and she wasn't exactly a body builder.

So it was a good thing she didn't plan on climbing.

She took out her laser, slowly, and started melting through the cable, bracing herself. She nearly dropped her laser when she made it, and the cable snapped upwards, the pullies dragging her up at a blurring speed—she leapt off, just before hitting the tenth floor—

Don't look down don't look down—

She caught the edge of the ninth floors elevator door and hung there, shaking, before dragging herself up and burning through that too.

Her teeth had left dents in the flashlight's plastic handle, and her knees were shaking faintly. Temari took a deep breath, and headed towards the stairs.

She could hear the soldiers still frantically trying to break through the door to the second level. She repressed a dark snicker and clicked off her flashlight, hiking up the rest of the way in the dark, waiting for the landing.

When she hit it, she felt around for the door, and very, very slowly, turned the handle. She heard the soldiers break through down below, and then the emergency power flickered back on.

She frowned. Damn. Well now she had to work fast.

She opened the door and threw the grenade.

Bullets peppered the door before she even slammed it shut again, and the grenade's explosion had the metal buckling, burning white light streaming from the cracks.

Down below, the soldiers were yelling, running back up the steps awkwardly. Temari tore open the door and shot inside, past the two rooms of fallen soldiers, before she found the last door, guarded only by a DNA scanner, coded for subject specification.

Temari spat into the scanner, and prayed. Please, please let her DNA be a close enough match to Gaara's for—

The door slid aside with a quiet hiss, and she almost sobbed with relief as she ran inside.

Done. She had made it.

"Computer," she said to the empty room, and made sure to lock the door behind her, "Access Sasuke Uchiha's records."

Miles of file cabinets stretched before her, with an entire transparent wall over looking the city. The wall flickered, computer screens blinking to life with Sasuke's data. Breathless, she scanned it, running through statistics and past life, towards exact DNA model replications and—

Expiration Date: July 23, 2057

Temari blinked. That was…roughly six years from now. On his twenty fourth birthday.

She scrolled, eyes widening as she read.

Oh, God…

Sakura was very aware of one important fact right now—her feet hurt. And they hurt a lot.

She sat down rather pointedly and leaned back against the building, unlacing her army boots sluggishly. Naruto and Sasuke looked back.

"Hey, what's up?" Naruto hopped over to her side peering down curiously. Sakura grimaced at him.

"My feet hurt. I'm taking my shoes off."

Sasuke glowered at her, "Take them off later, we shouldn't be out in the open like this."

Sakura huffed, "It's gonna take like five minutes, so unless you want to carry me, just wait."

"You've walked this far, you can—"

"Sasuke, shut up." Naruto interrupted nastily. The two boys glared at one another, electricity and all. Sakura didn't care enough to intervene.

Sasuke leaned against the wall stonily in relent, and then stalked off a second later, moodily kicking at whatever crossed his path. Naruto snorted, his arms crossed snootily, nose in the air.

"Prick." He muttered, and scanned the square. It was mostly empty, with a few people scurrying past, and a couple others selling their wares on the streets. His round blue eyes settled on a pale, black haired boy, auto-shots and lasers lined out by his feet. Weapons—perfect.

"Hey, Sakura," he nudged her hip with his foot, waited until she had looked up quizzically, and then pointed, "Figure we can get some from him?"

Sakura narrowed her eyes, then shrugged, digging through her pockets.

"Guess so. Here's some money, come back if it's not enough. Get three autos, two lasers. I think Sasuke's still got his. Oh, and ask about an X-board."

Naruto pocket the money and jogged off with a grin and a jaunty wave, "Got it!"

He slowed as he reached the boy, a little creeped by his pasty white complexion, but shrugged it off.

Something nagged, though.

"How much are these?" he asked, pointing towards the lasers. The boy tilted his head.

"How much do you have?"

"Three hundred," Naruto lied. The boy shrugged.

"I think fifty will be enough," he smiled expressionlessly. Unnerved, Naruto began peeling out the money when the boy spoke again, "What's your name?"

"Naruto," he said slowly, the nag growing full out suspicion. Something was wrong here and—

"Do you know how many genii's buy weapons, Naruto-kun?" the boy pointed an auto-shot at Naruto's chest casually, dialing in on a radio. "About seventy five percent of them." He turned to speak into the radio, but kept his eyes on Naruto, "Sai in, target captured, I got a genii."

Slowly, Naruto put his hands on top of his head. A second later and his arms were gripped by two of the pedestrians who had been wandering the area. He cursed, softly, and dragged his feet as he was led away, awaiting a rescue that never came.

Sakura leapt to her blistered feet when she saw the pale boy reaching into his jacket, the two suited men rising. She started forwards, opening her mouth to scream a warning, when someone's hand smacked over her mouth and jerked her back into the alley, another hand pining her arms to her sides.

"Be quiet, it's me," Sasuke hissed into her ear. She stopped struggling, and then started again when she remembered what was about to happen to Naruto.

"Let go!" she hissed, "He's in trouble—"

Sasuke's expression twisted, "You think I don't know that?" he snarled, "What do you want me to do, Sakura? They'll have a van of guys parked half a block from here, and all of them have weapons. We have a laser that's half juiced, optimistically."

She wrenched one arm free and shoved at his chest—he didn't let go. "He's our friend! We have to help him!" She pried at his fingers fruitlessly, almost crying in frustration. "Let me go!"

"So what, you can die?" Sasuke snarled, "You can't help anyone if you're dead, Sakura."

She took a deep, shuddering gasp, and glared up at him, "You coward," she whispered quietly, "If that were you, he'd try to save you."

Something flashed across Sasuke's face so quickly that it disappeared before she had time to fully understand it. He dropped her wrist. She didn't try to run.

"You're right," Sasuke said blankly, "He would."

There was a sound of a van driving away. Sakura's head drooped to rest on his shoulder, frustrated tears still caught in her eyes. They were too late.

"We'll get him out," Sasuke said flatly, "We just need to plan."

"I know," Sakura muttered, and pushed away from him—froze.

"Sasuke—that person has eyes like you."

A demon stirred as the darkness rushed in, and stood, almost disbelieving.

Silently, it drifted towards its prison door, and flicked the switch.

No electricity meant—

The door slipped open, auto-lock disengaged.

Very slowly, Gaara smiled.

Walking wasn't as bad as Ino had expected it to be. She'd been in bed for nearly a week, though, and the bleeding had stopped a few days ago. She'd be okay. Even if she never really healed.

"So," Shikamaru still wasn't buying into their story, "You're saying that your friends probably crossed north to check for girl babies? Because you guys think there haven't been any born?"

"Yeah," Ino panted. She stopped a second to lean on him, her hand pressed against her aching abdomen. "Except that we just saw one when we were running from the air raid. So—so we should check it out."

"Huh," Shikamaru said dubiously. "Right, so, we're just going to walk in and be all, 'Hello ma'am, would you be willing to confirm your daughter's gender?'"

Ino frowned, "Uh. We'll wing it."

"Right," Shikamaru rolled his eyes. The two of them scanned the run down playground carefully. Ino sucked on her upper lip, brow furrowed.

"So if we just sit here, she should come by eventually."

"Right," Shikamaru steered her over to the nearest bench, and she sat gratefully, eyes half lidded as she watched the neighborhood children play. What if's began nagging at her mind, presenting visions of her own child, who'd swing higher than the others—

Ino shook her head. She wasn't going to think about that.

Little boys. All of them. Sandy or black haired, shirts every color of the rainbow, scuffed smiles and grubby hands—

There was a flash of a braid.

Ino jostled him, "Hey, I see her."

Shikamaru looked up, squinted through the fray until he caught sight. He sighed, "Right, should I offer her candy and get her in a car?"

He stood anyways, and picked his way towards her, kneeling down and talking quietly. He was too far for her to hear, but Ino watched the girl recognize him, and reply to his questions with harshly honest eyes.

Shikamaru came back, expression clouded. "You were right," he said softly, "There is something weird about her."

He sat down next to her again, the violent green buds of early summer leaves casting gold to his features. She waited impatiently for him to explain. "Well? What is it then?"

Shikamaru blew out a breath and tucked his hands behind his head. "She's been engineered. Built. She's a clone of a woman who died nearly fifty years ago."

Ino blinked over at the little girl, who was patting mud pies, in shock, "Are you serious? Who did that to her?"

"Her name's Tsunade," Shikamaru replied, "Wanna look into it? She's down by the docks, apparently."

Ino nodded, stood. "Yeah, let's do it. We should bring Chouji too, you know. He misses you."

Shikamaru set a gentle, bracing hand on her waist and began steering her away. "Of course. I'll bring the food."

Naruto sat quietly in the dark car, his mind racing. He just had to play it smart; that was all. He'd been captured before, and if he broke out once, he could do it again. Sasuke would be busy with Itachi, after all.

The van slowed, and the back doors were thrown open, the outer light blinding him and men grabbing him before he even had a chance to struggle. So there went plan A. They led him into a tall research facility, checked him in at the front. He was sorted into creature division genii—he tried not to feel too offended.

The hallways sped past him, until he was up the elevator and shoved into a cell, its other two inmates stirring when he came in.

The guards left, and the electro-lock snapped into place.

The two inmates, both of them male and about his age, looked at him curiously.

"What're you then?" one of them asked, his canines unnaturally long and sharp, face pointed wolfishly. A small dog yipped from atop his head. Naruto regarded the wolf-guy suspiciously. He hoped he didn't have rabies.

"Fox." He said shortly, and leaned back against the wall, "What about you?"

"Dog," the boy replied cheerfully. His hair was brown and stuck up in the back, clawed hands scratching thoughtfully at his pet's fur. He jerked his head at his companion, "And he's got bugs."

"I'm Naruto," Naruto offered. The other boy, the one who hadn't spoken yet, straightened slightly, his sunglasses glinting.

"I am Shino," he said gravely, and held out his hand for Naruto to shake. Bemused, Naruto accepted. The dog yipped, and wolf-boy laughed.

"I'm Kiba, and this here's Akamaru." He studied Naruto warily, "The guard's patrol by here every ten minutes, but we've always got cameras on us, and that means audio."

"How long have you been here?" Naruto asked. Judging by their clean-smell, not long.

"Couple of hours. They had a break out yesterday, so they're going crazy to get test subjects." Kiba shifted closer to Naruto and growled.

The thing was, he understood it. Foxes were part of the dog family, and all that.

Got an escape plan?

Shino never moved, but Naruto had the impression that he was watching them intently. Naruto smiled.

"Yeah," he said. Kiba stood casually, and waltzed in front of the camera's view. Naruto checked to make sure the guards weren't coming, and stuck his fingers down his throat.

He hadn't eaten much for a while, which meant he had a belly full of stomach acid. Acid which could, given his hybrid state, eat through metal in a mater of hours.

Naruto settled back comfortably, and prepared to take a nap.

Sasuke turned immediately at her words, gaze flickering through faces before locking onto his target, and taking the plunge. Sakura had never seen any one move that quickly, could only sprint as she did her best to keep him in sight, swearing under her breath, shaking hands gripping the laser Sasuke had given her, white knuckled and trembling. If this man was really as dangerous as Sasuke had led her to believe, she doubted it'd do much good.

Itachi's shadow led them deeper into the twist of buildings, until she began to feel like a lab rat, racing the clock towards the exit. Sasuke was putting distance between them, he was running so fast, and Sakura could only sprint so long. Panting, she skidded to a halt, hands on her knees and swallowing the copper blossoms at the back of her throat.

She clambered up onto the nearest roof with some difficulty, and fine wired her boots to call her X-board. She only had to wait thirty seconds, perhaps, before it zipped to her side and she leapt on, climbing high to squint for an elusive dark head—

She couldn't see him. Panic began to unravel within her. Naruto was gone. And now, it seemed Sasuke was too. How the hell was she supposed to—


She caught sight of him, almost merged with the shadows, and sped towards him, engines moving faster than muscle. Sasuke looked up when she was almost directly above him and reached for her. She knelt and helped him on, hitting the booster and then they were off, speeding after his brother—gaining—and—

Sasuke jumped off the board while they were still nearly fifteen feet off the ground, landing cat-like, and just in front of Itachi. Sakura stopped quickly, waited until she had floated down another ten feet before jumping off as well.

The two stood opposite one another, staring coldly into each other's eyes. Nervously, holding her board like a shield, Sakura scooted to Sasuke's side and pressed the laser quickly into his hand.

His fingers curled around it, voice low when he ordered, "Get in the air. If he kills me, get out of here and wait for Naruto to find you. Got it?"

Hinata knew he was coming. Could feel the air compress and compact, mold around their advancing spirits, his grey with determined duty, and hers a blue that bordered on black, drowning in sorrow.

They touched down just behind her, and she turned slowly, white eyes seeing everything and nothing.

She was so tired of running, merely stepped towards them, street characteristically empty.

"Hello, Neji." Hinata said quietly.

Itachi didn't look concerned for a cornered man. If anything, he looked condescending…and doomed. There was some sort of lingering weariness to his features that suggested he had been racing his shadow, and now, that was all to end.

"Why'd you do it?" Sasuke asked quietly. The muscles in his arms were stretched taught, an angry sneer pulling his face, "I don't care what they told me. I'm not stupid, and you aren't a psycho. There was a reason, wasn't there?"

Itachi blinked very deliberately, lazily, as if he had all the time in the world.

"You're better off not knowing," he said calmly, hands limp at his side. He glanced down at the laser Sasuke was holding.

"Well? If you're going to kill me, do so." he stared at Sasuke, long and hard and merciless, "Remember what I taught you. Don't make the mistake of getting too close, or I'll burst on you."

Sasuke was still tensed, glaring furiously, "Don't screw with me," he hissed softly, "I want you dead. But you had better tell me why, or I swear to God, I'll take off your fingers one at a time."

He took a step forward. Sakura stood frozen, a little noise of protest rising in her throat at Sasuke's move.

Sasuke didn't turn to look at her, "Sakura, get out of here."

She didn't move.

Sasuke hissed, "Sakura, go."

Very slowly, she got on the board. "Fine. But don't think you'll be able to run again, 'cause I'll be watching."

Itachi watched her shoot up silently, crimson irises marking her progress.

He looked down abruptly, "Sasuke, I need you to listen very carefully to what I'm about to tell you."

Sasuke laughed bitterly, was surprised at how much it hurt, "Listen to you?! Don't make it sound like you're innocent, you bastard. I just want to know what pissed you off enough to kill everyone. Or was that your plan from the start? Did you really hate me that much?"

He shot forwards, grabbing Itachi's collar and dragging the laser to pulse just under the other man's throat. "Because I don't think you could have screwed me over any worse than letting me live."

"Sasuke," Itachi said evenly, "I'm going to explode in two and half minutes—I suggest you step back."

Sasuke froze, before his chokehold tightened, "Do you really think I'd fall for that—?"

"Today's my twenty fourth birthday." Itachi's voice was soft, but still commanded instant attention. He had always been like that. "We're designed to be like that. All of us. We die from an internal explosion when we turn twenty four, unless something else gets to us first."

He pried Sasuke's hands from his neck carelessly, "I was under orders that night to assassinate the Uchiha unit. All of them except you and I were made from the same stock—left alive, their combined detonations would have resulted in a supernova large enough to wipe out the entire militial base."

"You're lying," Sasuke said quietly, mentally calculating how long he had to live. "That's insane. That's—why would they do something like that? We're the perfect soldiers, why would they try to kill us off?"

"I don't know. But I think the answers are somewhere in Martin's Genetic Research Center," Itachi replied calmly, "But I do know that I've got less than a minute before I go off too—and that's assuming my watch is right."

Sasuke wavered, before his grip once again tightened. "Fine," he said softly, "Fine. We'll just have to see what happens then, right? If you're lying, I kill you. If you're telling the truth then—then you're still dead." He smiled tightly. "That's all I care abo—"

Itachi kicked him so hard and so quickly in the stomach, he was on the ground and retching before he realized what had happened, was already yelling at Sakura to come back down to get him, an angry heartbeat banging against his skull, demanding he movekillcrush

Sakura zoomed down and helped him on, pulling them up and away and—in the wrong direction.

"What're you doing?!" Sasuke yelled furiously, and shoved her roughly, fighting to kick her feet off the controls, "You stupid id—"

"He's going to blow up, Sasuke!" Sakura yelled back at him, "God, don't be such a moron! Would it kill you to trust someone for once in your life!? How far can he get in less than a minute, anyway!?"

"Shut up!" Sasuke snarled, and finally managed to grapple her into the middle, "Don't you ever tell me to trust—"

The shockwave was enough to slip Sakura right off the board, sending her screaming towards the ground. The board suddenly fell away under Sasuke as it hurried towards it's owner—and it was all he could do to stay on.

The fast bite of wind stripped tears from his eyes, drying them out and bleeding the awful, awful truth in.

He hadn't been lying.

With condemned hands, Sasuke grabbed her wrist, numbly pulling her up alongside him.

Itachi's bomb had been enough to flatten the block or so of empty buildings around him, red mushroom clouds of gas ballooning straight up toward heaven as the pipes burst.

Dead, Sasuke let her steer them to the ground.


Naruto snuffled, forced heavy eyelids open blearily. Sai, or whatever his name was, was kneeling curiously at his prison cell. Naruto glanced around, Kiba and Shino were asleep too—or faking it. He raised his eyebrows.

"I don't suppose you'd sell me any weapons?"

Sai smiled humorlessly. "I wanted to ask you something. You had this on you," he reached into his pocket, pulled out a cheap Polaroid photograph. Sakura and Sasuke were looking towards it, Sakura surprised and Sasuke scowling. Naruto felt something jolt in his chest.

"Yeah, so?" he asked casually. Sai frowned down at the photo.

"Who are these people?"

Naruto laughed, "I confess. Once I break out of here, I'm planning on eating them for lunch."

"They don't look very filling," Sai replied. Naruto snorted, until he realized Sai wasn't kidding. Slowly, he raised his hands in surrender.

"Dude, joke. They're my friends, alright?"

Sai blinked, looked back down, "Ah. I don't suppose you'll tell me their names?"

Naruto considered, "Well, you can go after the guy. He needs some excitement in his life anyways. His name's Sasuke. Good luck catching him, seriously."

Sai frowned, "What do you mean by that?"

Naruto scoffed, "He's a military-genii. By the time you guys pull a gun on him, he'll probably be…like, on the ceiling, or something."

"Ah." Sai straightened, and began to walk away, scribbling the name 'Sasuke' into his notebook. Naruto sat straighter impulsively.

"Yo, wait. Can I have that?"

Sai turned, eyebrows raised, "This photo? Shouldn't you be asking for a nail file or something? Judging by the vomit on your cell bars, I'd have guessed you were trying to break out of here."

Naruto hoped he didn't look as aghast as he felt. "I don't like you very much, smiley-boy. Give me my picture back, I need it."

Sai looked at him weirdly, "I thought animal-genii's were supposed to have difficulty with human relations?"

Kiba's growl was so low, Naruto was sure anybody without enhanced ears wouldn't have been able to hear it. Sai didn't.

"Right, whatever, I'm irregular data. Give it back."

Sai was studying him in fascination, before he slowly handed back the photograph.

"They're important to you, then?"

Naruto tucked the picture back into his pocket, feeling oddly protective. "I'd die for them," he said honestly, hoping the threat was clear.

The two of them continued to stare at one another in silence. Sai's face stayed blank—but Naruto had the impression some great internal conflict was being conducted.

Sai reached into his pocket, and pulled out a set of keys. "You had better run fast."

Tenten didn't like this. She didn't like the way Hinata's face crushed, how utter defeat seemed to smother her like a blanket. She didn't like the razor-sharp angles in Neji's back—and she didn't like what was about to happen.

This was as far as she could go. This was—no, she didn't have to say goodbye just yet. He would hold on for a minute. He owed her that much.

"I'll stand over there," she said quietly, and walked, heavy stepped, from a tragedy in the making.

Hinata watched Tenten leave, something like pity nestling in her heart, along with her own self loathing. She had accomplished nothing by her short, brutal flight. Had dirtied her wings to survive, fallen in love with the wrong person, someone already soul-tied to another.

And here was Neji. Just as he had always promised. Here was her constant doom.

"Hinata," Neji said flatly, "It is time to rest."

Her eyes stung, head bowed to the ground and her arms shakily wrapped around herself. God, God she had been so—so selfish, to throw away their lives like this…

Tenten was climbing a tree as they faced one another, her feet bare and raw from wear. Hinata watched silently as the girl climbed, stopping on a branch that was recklessly high, smooth shoulders slumped and face turned towards the burning orange sunset.

Hinata looked, seeing the sorrow her soul had tinted, and began to cry for the things she had determined stillborn.

"Hinata…" Neji began awkwardly at her tears. Hinata shook her head, her own hands not enough to keep it in.

"I'm—I'm so sorry, Neji. So sorry. I know I shouldn't have run but I…" she hiccupped, stuttered her next breath, "I wanted to…live. Something more than just a…a piece of livestock to breed until my expiration date. I'm really—I wished you didn't have to do this."

Neji's face was very blank, "Main house Hyuuga's are the only ones who are able to bear children," he said softly, and then more viciously, "Did you even think about what this would mean for Hanabi?!"

Another rush of guilt swept through her, and Hinata's head bowed, biting her lip so fiercely it bled, "I just—I didn't think. I—I just ran."

Neji's jaw tightened to the point of snapping, "The one time you do something selfish, Hinata. The one time—and it had to be the worst."

Hinata clenched her hands, rose her eyes to Neji's face. "You don't have to do this," she whispered, "I can kill myself. You can…can stay here, on the South side. No one will ever know."

Neji laughed, "You know it won't work like that. Your soul will just be recycled again—no," he took a great, steeling breath, and slid into the stance, "This is my duty. This is justice."

After a moment, Hinata moved into place as well, her head still bowed.

And Tenten stayed turned towards the last speck of light in her darkening world, facing away just so Neji wouldn't be able to see her cry.

Ino jutted out her lip, refusing the arms both Chouji and Shikamaru offered her.

She'd been knocking for nearly five minutes, and no one had answered. She ground her teeth together angrily.

"Maybe no one's home?" Chouji whispered to Shikamaru. Shikamaru looked at him flatly, and pointed out the lights—as well as what sounded like a humming microwave.

"Well," Ino shouted angrily, "Looks like no one's here! Alright guys, let's get the rockets!"

She stomped her feet rapidly, like someone running down the steps. Shikamaru and Chouji both looked at her like she was crazy—and then the door swung open.

"You think I'd fall for that old trick?" A voluptuous, blonde woman leaned almost arrogantly against the door frame, "Please."

"You opened the door, didn't you?" Shikamaru pointed out shrewdly. The woman, Tsunade, sent him a black look.

Ino saw no point in beating around the bush, and let her self in. Her nose wrinkled, "Blech, when was the last time you cleaned this place?"

Something that looked like a scalpel very nearly took off her left ear. Tsunade was nearly spitting at her, "D'you have something I want, or should I drown you in the river?"

"You built a little girl," Shikamaru said very firmly, his arms crossed, "Which means you must know something about the population inequality. Maybe even more than we do." His eyes narrowed as Tsunade flinched guiltily.

"Why the hell should I know anything?" she defended angrily, "I don't even know what you're talking about. I'm just a doctor—I'm not a scientist, I don't know how to clone—"

"We said built," Chouji interrupted, "Not clone."

"You know something," Ino guessed, and then as a shot in the dark, "You know why the sky looks like it's falling apart sometimes, don't you?"

Again, the guilty flinch, and Shikamaru blurted, "Why aren't there any genii's older than about thirty? What's happening?"

After a moment Tsunade met their accusing gaze. "None of that is real," she said softly. Ino and Chouji looked incredulous, Shikamaru just suspicious.

"It seems pretty real to me. I've seen them. And all the genii's I've talked to are—"

"What you're talking to," Tsunade spat, "Is data," her teeth gritted as she flopped back onto her bed, sudden fragility wearing stress into the corners of her figure, "That's all it is. It's just a program."

Ino swallowed, glanced at Shikamaru, "She's crazy. Or she's lying."

Shikamaru was still frowning, and studying Tsunade very intently, "So…you're saying we're all part of a computer program?"

Chouji snorted. Tsunade glanced back up angrily, "Don't be stupid. I didn't say that. I said that the genii's were data. This world is…it's like a hologram. Or some of it, anyway and—"

She broke off, rubbing her temples wearily. "If I tell you, will you promise me that you'll shut it down?"

Shikamaru opened his mouth to object—Ino interrupted him. "Of course," she said immediately, "Just tell us."

Her fingers were crossed behind her back.

They had made it out of the facility, when another kind of disaster appeared.

Naruto skidded to a halt just after Kiba, eyeing the hybrid warily. Kiba stood very still, head cocked and breathing in very deeply.

His brazen attitude abruptly vanished, and he shot a look towards Shino. "We aren't going that way."

Shino frowned, but Naruto was the one who protested, "Are you crazy? There's no other way out! If we stick to side streets, we'll either be lost, or caught."

Sai straightened slightly, "Naruto is right; there is no other way out except for this road."

Kiba twitched, shook his head and stared at Naruto almost desperately, "Can't you smell it? We should not go down there."

Naruto checked behind his shoulder. He could still hear the alarms blaring back at the facility—the scientists would be after them soon, probably with tranquilizers and—

"Fine, stay here," Naruto yelled, and took off running. Kiba growled and shot after him.

Shino and Sai exchanged bemused looks, before trotting after them.

As he ran, Naruto began picking up on the scent Kiba had mentioned—and understood now, why the other boy didn't want to go near it. It almost reeked of death. Unwillingly, his mad charge slowed—until Kiba grabbed his shoulder and started dragging, "Oh no," the dog-boy snarled, "You are not chickening out now!"

Naruto bristled, "Who was the one who didn't want to come?!"

Behind the bickering pair, Shino turned his head to regard Sai thoughtfully. "There is something big just ahead of us," he guessed. Sai blinked, nodded.

"Yes, I suppose. There's an extended facility at the corner of this street, but it's heavily guarded. It's where the researchers sleep. You'd have to be a monster to break in there."

Shino hunched into his hood thoughtfully, recalling the expression on Kiba's face.

"That might be what we're dealing with."

When they drew level with the facility, you didn't need an enhanced nose to pick up the stench. Sai knelt down by the slashed barbwire curiously. "Someone tore through here," he noted, picking at the blood dried to the metal. "Someone who either didn't care if they got hurt, or was angry enough not to notice."

There was the sound of an almost silent footstep, one too quiet for any normal human to make.

His eyes were ringed in darkness, burning with a sick kind of mania, hair as red as the blood rolling down his cheeks. He barely even looked at any of them, except for Sai. The moment he saw Sai in his suit, his hands tensed into gory claws.

He looked less like a human and more like a monster. He darted forwards flicker-fast, faster even than Sasuke, grabbing Sai by the front of his jacket and slamming him back into the ground, his other hand grabbing around the other boy's throat. Naruto dived at him, yelling, "Get off! What's your problem, you psycho?!"

He took an elbow to the stomach, got the wind knocked out of him when his back slammed into the ground, had to clamp down fast and hard on the monster rising inside him, fangs bared and quick for the fight.

"He isn't with the company anymore," Shino said clearly and calmly, "If you'd stop, he can lead you back into the facility. You'll be free to do whatever you want to our captors."

For a second Naruto had thought the other boy hadn't heard him, his hands were still locked around Sai's throat. Slowly, his head turned, glaring under Shino's hood.

His voice rasped when he spoke, and it was awkward, like he didn't quite have the hang of it yet.

"He should die," the boy hissed, and turned his attention back to Sai, who was now spluttering weakly, bloating and swelling in all the wrong ways and—

Naruto only lost control for a second.

But that was all the time the monster inside of him needed to move, unnaturally fast, the kind of speed Naruto never could have done normally, and he was just better like this, fasterstrongersmarterslicker—

"I said stop," he snarled into Gaara's face, before he shoved the demon back and away, staggering upright and bowing his head so that his bangs would shadow his crimson eyes.

Gaara was staring up at him mutinously, disbelievingly, "You're like me," he said softly.

Naruto walked off jerkily, "I am nothing like you."

After a moment he heard them fall into step behind him—and another pair of feet had joined the pack. Gaara was watching Naruto curiously, but with a certain amount of respect as well. Something animal inside of him recognized Naruto as alpha male.

For once, Naruto was glad Sasuke and Sakura weren't there. He didn't ever want them to see him like that.

Temari revved the engines, heart spinning with the needles, curses snatched from her lips by the driving wind.

She wasn't going to be able to kill Sasuke on the ground. But here he was—in the air and on an X board, battered and exhausted, one arm slung loosely around a small girl's waist.

Her eyes narrowed, and she hit the guns to full power. Because it was now or never, and like hell was she going to let a slip of a teenager stand between her and freedom.

She set her teeth, and kind of wondered what she was becoming.

Her first round of machine gun fire actually clipped the board—lucky shot on her part, she was more of a trick and evasion pilot than a shooter, but—

Sasuke's head snapped around, face torn somewhere between fear and rage, and there was nothing but a shitty, half charged laser in his sweaty, dirt-caked hand.

The girl was already speeding them to the ground, flying recklessly fast, dodging between buildings with reflexes Temari suspected had been enhanced. Either that, or she was unnaturally good.

"Come on," she whispered, "Come and get me."

The girl was still playing pilot, but here it came, this was when Sasuke pushed her to the side and in the center, standing between her and Temari's guns.

She fired off a few rounds, wondering if she'd be lucky enough to hit him.

Sasuke made a turn, hard and sharp and fast until the two were standing nearly horizontal, speed keeping them upright until—

The girl crumpled to the ground with a yelp, landing in a tangled heap of limbs and swearing—but she'd only fallen perhaps three feet, no real injury but did she look pissed, and Temari almost laughed when Sasuke started flying up to meet her.

Stupid men.

She rolled, dodging Sasuke and flying upside down until she was nearly on top of the wide eyed, pink haired girl—

She snapped her seat belt and fell.

This was going to hurt like a bitch, she reckoned with a grimace, twisting to have her feet under her—and landed less than a foot from where Sakura stood.

She was briefly aware of her ankle shattering, but pushed that away, focus girl, focus, got the gun pressed nice and snug against Sakura's temple and yelled—

Sasuke was already landing. He had his face careful-blank. Temari grinned. She knew that look, had it on herself, sometimes. It was the kind of face you got when you were absolutely shit scared.

"So," Temari called harshly, "You interested in chatting it up with Orochimaru?"

Sasuke twitched like something had snapped, "You're working for him? Tell him his other little project went kamikaze."

"He doesn't care about Itachi," Temari snapped coldly. The girl's chest was rising and falling very fast under her arm, her pink hair sticking to the sweat on the back of her neck. She tried not to feel guilty. "So I'm guessing you aren't going to talk to him?"

Please say yes. Please say yes.

Sasuke's eyes darted towards the girl, skittered back towards Temari. She could almost see the fight begin to fall away from him, eyes dulling and muscles slackening.

"…Let her go." Sasuke said quietly. He dropped the X-board to the ground. "I'll—"

"He's not going," the girl said suddenly, and jammed the laser into Temari's chest.

She could have pulled the trigger.

She didn't.

And even as her heart liquefied, grip slackening and knees folding she could only sigh, soft and surprised and utterly defeated.

He gave her the laser, she realized vaguely, blinking into white, and could have laughed.

She was never soft. She was never prepared to die for anyone but herself, laughed at love stories and rolled her eyes at—at stupid things like…

She was dead before her first tear had fully formed.

The clouds wouldn't let her see the sky.

"So, you're sure this will work?" Ino examined the sewer pipe dubiously. Shikamaru squinted down it, glanced over his shoulder fretfully towards where Chouji was standing watch.

"I think so. But it's miles of crawling—in the dark. And the filth and it—" he sighed gustily, swinging out his arms, "This is going to be such a pain."

"You don't have to go," Ino said calmly, and scrambled inside. "See you on the North-side."

Shikamaru rolled his eyes, but clambered in after her, waving at Chouji to follow.

"Is this even the right thing?" he muttered to himself. Ino blinked back at him—barely visible in the darkness. She looked away.

"You know what will happen if we let this go on," she said softly. Shikamaru sighed, eyes closed and embracing the dark.

"Yeah, I know."

"Hurry up!" Chouji hissed. He blinked furiously, "I hate the dark…"

They crawled for what felt like hours, until knees and hands bled and blistered, the sever pipe suffocating with its deadly hot, stuffy air.

And then came the rats.

The first one crawled over Ino's hand. She gasped softly, and prayed—begged the gods that…

Vicious, dangerously needle teeth prickled at her skin, and then there was the thundering as the rats came—waves and waves of them, all invisible in the total darkness, leaping and screeching at her face, clawing ripping—she threw up her hands, screaming, heard Shikamaru yelling behind her, Chouji yelling louder than both of them, the taste of terror almost suffocating her—

"Move!" Shikamaru yelled—and she did, ignoring the sting and scrambling, little bodies snapping under her hands, skeletons of their dead crunching and wave after wave came and chewed, until she felt like nothing more than a destroyed, failed thing, ripped meat—

And then she saw the white.

The end.

The rats were gone, suddenly, and she surged forwards, panting, gasping in the beautiful, crystalline air with heavy dry sobs, back aching with the weight of confined blackness—

She rolled out into the open, bleeding and shredded, swallowing down the weak grey sunshine—laughing out loud when Shikamaru joined her, looking even worse than she felt, flopping down on the dirt beside her.

And then—and then she realized that someone wasn't coming.

A sick wash of horror flooded through her, and Shikamaru seemed to have realized the same thing, because he was already scrambling back to the pipe, calling and calling with only echoes as a reply.

We left him behind.

Tenten knew about the expiration dates. She knew that someday, she would have lost Neji.

She just didn't want for it to be today.

The Hyuuga were a military breed, infertile save a select few, the main house members. She couldn't decide which fate would be worse—to be Hinata, doomed to forever live indoors, existing only to reproduce frantically until her short lifespan ran out. Or to be Neji, forced to kill his own family by erasing himself from the world as well.

They could see souls, the Hyuuga. Their eyes were special like that—they could see anything, really—anything.

She wondered if Neji had ever looked at her like she was a girl, had ever allowed himself to see.

She supposed it would have mattered to him. She wouldn't have been recycled, like he would have been, had Hinata not chosen to flee. Both of them would have had their souls moved into the bodies of their children, eternally youthful.

But now that wouldn't happen.

Neji closed his eyes, and stepped out of his body. Across from him, Hinata did the same.

"Hinata," Neji bowed low, "I have one thing to ask you."

Hinata looked towards the budding stars, wishing for nothing. She glanced over at Tenten, still shuddering blue-black sadness, wondered at the bright tints of autumn, slowly stuttering out.

"Anything," she agreed quietly. Neji nodded.

"Please…kill me in such a way that it takes me time to die."

Hinata nodded. "I understand."

She would not fail him a second time, would not break the traditions set in place, the code of honor that demanded her death she would now respect—she owed him that much.

Hinata closed her eyes, and began.

Tenten turned at the stillness, watched the still-standing figures face one another.

Their eyes were blank and unseeing. She knew what was happening. She knew what to do now.

By the time she was halfway down the tree, Hinata's knees had already buckled, eyes clouding over and closing.

Tenten watched her fall, watched the soft, bitter smile touch her face, and tried not to hate.

She ran quietly to Neji's side, even as he collapsed as well.

"Hi, Neji." She said softly, and reached to his hand, wonder why her mind buzzed with static, loosing feeling with something that had always been there before.

"Tenten," Neji mumbled, slow and thick. He was perfectly uninjured, but somehow dying in a way more horrible than she could have imagined.

She would not spoil her last second with him crying.

"I don't want you to go," she said quietly, felt her center shaking, but kept her hands steady. "I want to stand by you. Always."

"I know…" Neji rasped. He seemed to have trouble focusing. "Tenten, I never—told you this. But you have…you have the…" he seemed to struggle with something more than death, "…I like your smile."

Tenten snorted, choked up on tears. "Thanks, Neji."

He might have smiled—and seemed to gather himself for one last thing, and reached—

He died, hand millimeters from her own, fingers still stretched. Tenten breathed, staring at their hands, a closeness that was infinity apart.

She touched his cold skin brokenly, felt her spirit rattle against her body, screaming for freedom.

"You were so close, Neji," she said hollowly, "So…so close."

She set her head down on his chest and tried to imagine it still breathing, wondered if she could breathe him to life even as she felt herself dying.

When she shut her eyes, she could see his hand, reaching out for her own.

Tenten never hesitated. Spirit stretching, she filled the gaps between her fingers.

And she followed.

Tsunade tapped her fingers against her desk, drunk on the dial tone.

He picked up just when she hung up. She had to call again, overloaded on memories when she heard his voice "Hello?"

"Jiraya," she began, "It's time."

She hadn't said a word to him in nearly seven hours. He could relate. It wasn't so much that Chouji was dead—it was more that he'd had to die like that. In one of the most foul, ugly and terrifying ways Shikamaru could ever imagine.

And they had left him.

Not intentionally, of course, but still. But still. He hadn't been thinking of anyone then, not Ino or her almost baby or Chouji, his best—best friend, screaming behind him. He'd just thought of the dark and the pain and the sickening fear, the overpowering desire to run and not being able to.

Self disgust rose up in his throat, thick and heavy and vile. He checked to the side, let Ino sprint ahead of him when she finally caught a glimpse of Sakura's infamous pink hair.

He stayed put where he was and watched them blankly, wondered—dreaded what was soon to come.

He wondered if Chouji was still alive. Still slowly being eaten.

He shuddered.

"Ino?!" Sakura stared unseeingly at her best friend, met the tear-shot eyes numbly.

She forced her muscles into a tense. She hadn't done anything wrong. It was self defense! It was—

She didn't want to think about it.

Ino crouched down beside her, sent Sasuke shambling off with one of her nastier looks, "Sakura," she said softly, and threw her into a tired hug, didn't pull away. "You skank. What the hell's with taking off without even telling me?"

"Sorry," Sakura muttered sullenly into her hair. She didn't sound it. Ino cleared her throat, began whispering.

"I know what's happening," she whispered quietly, "And how to fix it. How we can make it so that there'll be girls born again. How—"

She broke off rather abruptly as Sasuke wandered too close. His eyes lingered on her face for a second too long—she had the wild, impossible idea that he'd heard her.

She lowered her voice even further, "There's this woman. Back on the South-side. Her name's Tsunade—it's all her fault."

"What?!" Sakura twitched from within her embrace, voice several times louder than Ino's, "Are you high!? She's just a doctor! A poor doctor! She bandaged me up once—"

"Yeah, well," Ino tilted her head to the side, "How old d'you reckon she is?"

"I don't know," Sakura hissed darkly, "Maybe thirty? Unless she's had surgery, which I guess she has, so maybe about fifty? What's that have to do with anything?!"

"She's not," Ino mumbled darkly, "She's quite a bit older then that. About a hundred years older."

Sakura laughed derisively, "That's ridiculous. No matter how good your surgeon is, you can't move like that when you're a hundred and fifty. It just isn't possible. There's bone and muscle rot, all this shit—"

Ino pulled back finally to flick the tip of her nose, eyebrows furrowed, "Save me the rant. I won't get it, anyways. Don't you get it Sakura? She's not real."

Sakura looked at her as if she was slightly crazy, "What?"

"She's just data," Ino hissed excitedly, "Her and these other two guys? They built this—this giant city thing. It's totally blocked off from the rest of the world. Have you ever wondered why we can't get out of here? Isn't it a bit strange that no one travels to other countries?!"

"But that's—" Sakura stuttered, frowned, "That's crazy. And that doesn't explain how a woman who's a hundred and fifty is able to run around like a twenty year old!"

"The three I mentioned? About fifteen years ago, their bodies were about to give out. They were some kind of nobility, see, had the best doctors in the world—all this stuff. That's who got sucked into this with them. All of us—their servants. They didn't want to die, were going to anyways. So they built this…this program. So they could live on as data."

Sakura turned that over carefully, "So…you're saying that the Tsunade I saw, who I could feel and hear and all that stuff—she was just data?"

"She said something about sensory input." Ino muttered, "Some of the bullets, even, they aren't real. But people think they are—their brains copy the pain. The program has its flaws, though. That's why we keep seeing the ash falling from the sky, why there are only baby boys, why…why all the genii's die. Why they have expiration dates."

Sakura mulled this over, her eyes lighting up suddenly, "So all we have to do is shut it down, and there'll be girls born again? We'll be able to see the rest of the world? Sasuke won't die?"

Ino stared back into her friend's fever bright eyes, felt her tongue choke up, sudden flickers of pity and guilt stretching at her conscience. She glance over at Sasuke, watched his chest rise and fall.

Faker, she thought savagely, and wanted to lie.

"No," she said softly, "No. Sasuke will still…die."

Sakura's breath caught, and she stared at Ino with huge, wounded eyes, "But—but you said—"

"The genii's," Ino said carefully, "They aren't…real. They're just part of the program. When we turn it off, all of them will disappear with it."

Sakura stared at her wordlessly, knees touching the ground and smeared with dirt, her combat boots too big, jumpsuit painfully skin-tight.

"I'm not doing it," she said suddenly, and lurched to her feet. "We—we aren't doing it."

"Sakura—" Ino frowned, rose to her feet along with the other girl, "Sakura listen to me—"

"No!" Sakura slapped her hands away, to a step in Sasuke's direction, "He is not data! He's real!"

Sasuke glanced at her and Ino from under his bangs, face blank. He had heard everything.

He glanced at his hands, flexed them slowly, taking in the dirt-encrusted creases, the smarting pink, raw patches, the dry scabs dotting his knuckles.

He felt real.

"There was this war!" Ino yelled at Sakura, apparently determined to penetrate the hands Sakura had clapped over her ears, "World War III. Or something, whatever—it wiped out everyone. No, seriously, everyone. We're all that's left of the entire human race, and if we don't shut this thing down, there won't be any left on the entire planet!"

"Don't lie to me!" Sakura snarled, and spun to face Sasuke, "Sasuke, let's—"

He moved so quickly, there was only the wince of pinched nerves before…before…

Sasuke caught Sakura's slumped form, and laid her out on the ground, carefully.

"Where's the generator?" he asked her quietly. Ino stared at him, her eyes huge and shocked.

"Are you serious? You're shutting it down?" she could only say dumbly. Sasuke raised his eyebrows.


"Hey," Naruto popped his head over Sasuke's shoulder, "Thanks for watching my back, asshole."

Sasuke flinched—damn Naruto could move quietly when he wanted to—and heard Ino's soft gasp of surprise.

And then he saw the others.

"Naruto," Sasuke twitched his chin at Gaara, "Who's he?"

Naruto grimaced, "I don't think you want to know—why is Sakura lying on the ground?" He had caught sight of her quite suddenly, voice climbing in alarm. Sasuke glanced back down at her.

"I didn't want her to see."

Ino tripped back towards where Shikamaru was waiting, dragging Sakura with her, and stood with him, watching as the six boys converged.

"Are they going?" Shikamaru asked once he saw her. Ino nodded, rubbing absently at her thigh.

"Yeah." She coughed, and then again, had to gasp for air as she forced out, "I told them where the generator was."

Shikamaru raised his eyebrows, Ino went back to coughing. "And they're all willing to disappear?"

Ino choked herself off, "I think they just want to take out as many of the bastard scientists as they can. 'Cept Naruto and Sasuke—they actually want to shut the thing down. And who knows what that Sai guy is thinking."

Shikamaru frowned as Ino began coughing still, pushed away his apathetic coma long enough to lay a hand on her back, "Hey, you alright?"

Ino rattled under his fingertips, "I'm—" she crouched, hugging herself into a ball and suffocated her coughs with her knees. Alarmed, he sank beside her, just happened to glimpse a flash of pale thigh when her skirt hiked up—

He could taste nothing but ash, suddenly. "Ino," he mumbled, shook her shoulder, "Ino, what's with the rash?"

It took her perhaps thirty seconds to answer him, before she turned down and checked it.

He could see the hard lines her body pulled into, something akin to shock or horror, before she abruptly, forcefully stood upright again and smoothed the fabric into place.

"It's nothing," she said steadily, bold face daring him to argue. "Nothing."

"Right." Shikamaru nodded slowly, "Nothing."

Naruto stuck his hands behind his head as he ambled back down the road, privately thinking that if he'd known this would have happened, he'd have spared himself the trouble of running away.

"You don't have to do this," he said for what felt like the fiftieth time, talking more to Kiba and Shino than Gaara. Shino turned towards him gravely.

"This is for the benefit of the human race. It is best we do so now." he intoned calmly. Naruto tried to stifle the chills creeping along his spine. Even if Shino was his ally—he was still pretty creepy. Not to be outdone, Kiba stuck his nose in the air and laughed, daredevil to hell.

"What, you think I'm scared?" he snorted coolly, "If you're trying to get out of this by having me say something first, you can forget it."

Naruto scowled, "No one asked for your opinion, you bimbo."

Kiba snarled at him, which felt good. It felt safer than what he was about to do.

He hoped Sakura remembered him. Hoped her memories wouldn't be erased with his body. Hoped even more that there was some sort of glitch—that the hag had been lying, that Sasuke had it all wrong and he'd be fine.

He hadn't even gotten to say goodbye. Sasuke'd never have let him wake her up, and even then, he probably couldn't have.

It wasn't fair, Naruto reflected as they marched in silent unison towards the building. It wasn't fair that he felt so scared, and even that wasn't real.

He tried to picture her reaction, what she'd do when she realized they were gone. A part of him hoped she'd cry. A bigger part desperately wished she wouldn't. She'd be angry, he knew that, probably kill him if he wasn't already dead, so he'd have to make sure Sasuke was there too, so she could throttle him instead.


He'd do that.

Naruto grinned.

Just beside him, Gaara grinned too, teeth sharper, glint meaner, chewing eagerly on the air, desperate to kill the sorry bastards who thought they could keep him. Change him. Thought they were so much better, thought that being on the other side of the bars somehow put them a cut above.

He laughed so low it was more like a growl. He would see them die. He would taste it, bathe in it, laugh as they bled for him and then—and then they would know his love.

Before him, forbidden life flickered.

He broke forwards, ignoring Naruto's yells, felt the animal inside of him snarling to life, full of madness and bloodlust and then he was killing, and killing, and killing—

It felt like redemption, felt like something sweet, like justice and oh yes, he was God's avenging angel, just here, just him, and he would punish these sinners, could hear the lesser demons coming back behind him, without any of the justice but aiding him nonetheless, wolf and spider and demon, demon, demon.

Gaara laughed terribly, felt the blood stitch and splatter warm life across his face, seeping through his skin. His nails were sharp and his muscles splintering from strain, but he ripped and tore and gurgled in joy as the pain blossomed through his shoulder, his leg, metal pellets lodging and halting his rule, felling him on the battlefield, and he toppled to the ground, smelled the gore in the mud, stayed face down in the dirt, panting in the dirt.

The wolf and the spider hung on behind him, picking off the ones he hadn't reached like the scavengers they were, little sparks to his blaze of flame.

Death rushed up to meet him and Gaara ran screaming towards it, crazed with his own elation, was almost able to forget her betrayal.


do you love me now?

Sai led Sasuke and Naruto down the hall, systematically smashing the cameras as they went past, cold eyes sweeping through clinic-clean.

The building was mostly empty, anyways. Whoever had remained was either dead outside, or hiding. Sai glanced around the corner, motioning for them to stop, before he jerked his hand, indicating they move. Naruto and Sasuke rushed past him, sprinting into the room and—

Stopped dead, cross-eyed as they stared at the guns pointed just between their eyes.

A very old man smiled slightly, more than half his head covered in bandages, lone eye staring ruthlessly at Sasuke. "Good work, Sai," he muttered. Sasuke could hear the door snap shut behind them, listened to Sai's quiet footsteps as he approached them.

Naruto turned his head very slowly, blue eyes full of rage, "You sold us out."

"No, Naruto," Sai said very calmly, "This was my intention from the beginning. You had a picture of the last Uchiha genii on you—I was instructed to follow you, and see if you'd lead me to him."

Sasuke's mouth quirked down at the corners, hating the hurt, betrayed look splashed across Naruto's face.

His look-alike smiled very slightly, "Thank you. With the bounty, I won't have to do a thing for the rest of my life."

"Indeed," Danzo said lightly.

He jerked the gun away from Naruto's face. There was a flash of white and awful twin cracks, and then—red carnations bloomed in Danzo's wreckage of an eye, and the old man's grip slackened around his gun, sliding, and then falling to the floor.

Naruto spun just in time to see Sai curve back, his spine a graceful arch, calculating black eyes wide with surprise before he crashed to the floor with a cough, gun still gripped in his now lax hand, red staining and spreading across his shirt.

His mind blanked.

Sasuke snorted in something akin to black amusement, "Killed each other for the money, huh?"

He strode back out of the room, kicking Sai's arm out of his way with a kind of cold disgust written plain across his face.

Naruto was still standing, stunned, at Sai's seeping life, realizing suddenly how much he and Sasuke looked alike.

He could hear Sasuke's fast, determined strides clipping down the hall, and knew it was time. The betrayal rang a worn chord into the echoes of his being, but he stooped, and carefully shut the surprised, accusing black eyes, before following Sasuke to the elevator.

Five hundred feet below the Earth, Naruto decided, was really too far. The elevator wouldn't take them, denied access.

Which left cable sliding.

His hands burned from the friction, skin electrified from the cold rush of air, adrenaline scurrying through his system, very aware of the danger.

He felt alive.

He waited impatiently while Sasuke pried the elevator doors open, blowing on his smarting palms, feet tapping. And then they were in.

It wasn't as impressive as he'd thought it would me. There was big switch, at least, but no frantic beeping or pits of glowing light.

It just looked like a weird computer, one with bullet proof glass encasing it, humming quietly. His nerves jittered, and he felt ultra pixilated, the closer he got to it.

Sasuke was silent at his side.

"So," Naruto babbled nervously, "I mean, I've always known that you were part robot, but this is a bit much."

Sasuke leveled him with an ugly look. Naruto took that to mean it wasn't as funny a joke as he had originally thought. He laughed weakly, still terrified, still staring.

They stepped forwards as one, Sasuke's burnout of a laser eating through the barrier easily. It felt worse, somehow, knowing that there was nothing to stop them now.

After a second Sasuke reached his hands towards the switch, so Naruto did too, slapping his hand on top of Sasuke's.

Neither of them pulled it. Naruto swallowed.

"Hey, Sasuke." He nudged Sasuke with his elbow. Sasuke turned his head marginally.


"We're real, right?" Naruto pushed the words out in a rush, "Because—because we can think, right? And we can feel and—and we weren't programmed to be friends, and we weren't programmed to…to…" he trailed off uncertainly, biting his lip. Sasuke glanced at him, considering.

"I don't know," he shrugged, smirked, "She's going to be so pissed."

He didn't have to ask who he was talking about. Naruto laughed. "Oh. Oh man, yeah."

He could feel the head Sasuke was giving off, could hear his friend breath.

"So, since we're about to disappear and all," his voice wasn't as light as he had intended. He didn't really care, "You might was well admit you had the hots for her."

Sasuke definitely glared, "I 'had the hots for her?!'"

Naruto pretended to gape, "You admitted it!"

Sasuke snorted, rolled his eyes but only said, "Who says that?!"

"You just did," Naruto pointed out, and actually laughed. He thought Sasuke might have smiled. Eventually, though, his cackles left them with silence, and they were back to staring at their fate. It was, quite literally, in their hands.

"I want—" Sasuke said suddenly, broke off, sighed, "She'll be okay, right?"

Naruto grinned, "I knew it. I knew you liked her." He continued before Sasuke could kill him, "She's got Ino. She'll be fine."

"Huh." Sasuke sighed, dropping his head to the ground.

They had dragged this out too long, were starting to loose resolve. Naruto flexed his fingers. "Hey, Sasuke. You were the best friend I ever had."

"Tch," Sasuke snorted.

They pulled the switch and—fading into

light was

sorry sakura



hand by mine

left you behind

fading faster

doesn't hurt but—

i'll miss you

i'm real

love you

Sasuke was only aware of being, of clinging onto thoughts and distant memories desperately, drowning in his own oblivion, insubstantial nothings just keeping his head from dropping under.


He was nothing.

He turned them over, admired the jewel-bright, glittering eyes and smiles as sweet as lullabies. Pricked his fingers on the diamond shards of bitterness and longing, crystallized poison swirling through his nothingness.

If he'd had the lips to do it, he'd have screamed.

Where are you…?

The black, dark place he had been drifting in abruptly flash-flooded to white, light so painfully brilliant that it stung, pushing spikes of pain and tears to the surface.

Sakura made him feel like that, sometimes. Sentimental and stupid and so vulnerable, so easily broken, if he wasn't already.

He imagined she'd cried for him. Hoped she had. Hoped that the beginnings of petty crime and banter and tentative smiles, weird, to stretch his mouth like that.

Naruto. Naruto must be like him, now, or—or maybe better. Brighter, shining, still aware of himself instead of being just a bundle of distorted soul and blueprints of lifeline. He couldn't believe that Naruto would have just disappeared, couldn't believe that anything could extinguish a spark so brilliant.

He could remember how small her hands were. How careful he had to be—how his eyes always seemed to be black, when she was around, blood irises spinning out.

That was stupid. Sasuke slipped, almost fell back into the quiet whirlwind of zeroes and ones, dragged himself out at the last moment, jittering back into place, still unfocused and off guard by the damnable light.

He was nothing.

There was nothing.

She would be far away and growing up and meeting someone who could treat her right, make her happy enough to always sparkle. And that was what he'd wanted, right? That was…that was all he had wanted.

With that thought spinning through him, Sasuke shrugged himself from the bright, and began to slide smoothly, gratefully, into the comfortingly dark spin of numbers.

Just data. He was just—



He kept going, relieved at the sweetness of oblivion—


No. No, I didn't want to stop, just let me disappear—


Sasuke squinted—eyes?!—and turned back towards the light, hands coming up against the glare, relishing the dark silhouette.

Come back with me.

Sakura? He shifted, stepped forwards disbelievingly. But you're supposed to be gone—

Her hand was very small, stretched towards him desperately. Sasuke regarded it almost quizzically.

But I have no where to go back to. I don't exist. I'm just a mash of compressed computer chips, I'm—

Come on.

Sasuke wavered on the razor's edge between the dark, blissful nothing and the blinding white temptation. He wanted that, desperately wanted for his chance to de-exist, to forget the feel of a gun, the rip of skin, the tear of pain, Itachi's explosion, demon containing boys—

He had liked the way she got angry at him. Liked the way she stomped and screamed and looked so electrifying alive, her eyes bitingly green and snapping sparks, brilliant, hot rushes of life and—

He had liked the way her face softened when she smiled, liked the ridiculous ache of grumpy gentleness he'd feel, liked—

He reached out from the darkness and took her hand.


"Will she be okay, you think?" Ino asked for maybe the thousandth time. Shikamaru shrugged.

"Probably. I mean, she's never going to have a little girl, and she'll have to deal with a flakey sky, but…yeah, she'll probably be fine." He shifted, helped her stand carefully. Ino kept one of her hands pressed against her stomach, grimacing at the pain. Her infection was spreading—but at least now, with the war over, she stood a chance of getting in to see a doctor.

And at least Shikamaru wasn't sick. So maybe she hadn't had the virus when she'd slept with him. She hoped that was the case.

Ino blew out a long breath, toying with the end of her hair. "I can't believe she never got over them. She's throwing away her whole life, for some stupid boys. For imaginary, stupid boys."

She walked to the window and squinted out. Far below her, cradled between the wide-set mountains, her country was falling to ruin. No body had wanted to stay, when the generator shut down. Sakura was the only person who was left within the decrepit walls.

"She's scheduled to turn it back on, in a minute," Shikamaru checked his watch, and then joined her at the window. Behind them, refugees stretched out, eating or chatting in the enormous, roughly built dining hall. They were a part of colony three hundred seventy six, and the one closest to the old country.

Before their eyes, a hazy green force field wavered into place, and sat glowing glumly in the twilight.

"She really did it," Ino sighed. A slight, almost bitter smile pulled at her features. "Crazy girl—living off her dreams."

Shikamaru leaned against the glass heavily, "They can be so sweet."

Before her eyes, Sasuke began appearing, wearing the same jumpsuit he had the day he disappeared. She had promised herself she wouldn't cry. Found she was anyways.

Naruto had been easier to find than Sasuke, but she'd expected that. Been relieved at how easily he followed her—and so, so scared when she hadn't been able to find Sasuke. It was almost like losing him all over again.

She didn't think there was anything worse then that.

He was still holding her hand, when he finally appeared, looking groggy and confused and grimacing, holding on much too tight.

He was here.

Sakura let out a shout, throwing her arms around his neck and laughing when he lost his balance, falling to the floor with a groan. She was laughing and crying and hugging him hard, harder even than Naruto, who was watching them both with a bemused sort of eye roll that she loved and—

Sasuke put her arms around her carefully, didn't push or pull, just left them there, lukewarm, and it was so much more than enough.

Because they were real.

They were back.

but this is a temporary forever