Here's the direct continuation of part 1. Thanks to everybody who left a review, the feedback was awesome : ) I hope to get around to replying to some of them at some point. Hope you all enjoy the conclusion. SasuSaku aspects to watch out for amongst others are Sasuke's involuntary possessiveness of Sakura and feelings of resentment toward Sai (aka his replacement)! Bwaha. Such fun ahead XD

"You won't need that anymore."

The words echoed in her mind, taunting her for her carelessness. Sakura didn't realise that she was holding her breath until she slowly exhaled.

Looking at him now, remembering what he was and seeing what he had become caused a stab of pain to radiate from her heart. How could she treat him as an enemy when his face was so familiar to her?

Sasuke had always been beautiful as a child. The years had honed and developed his features, but his was a face that would continue to perfect over time. For one not even at the prime age of youth, the raven-haired, brooding enigma standing before her was a startling and striking sight to behold. His tall, fine form, coupled with his pale skin and contrasting dark eyes, expressionless countenance and the cold, distant air he carried about him commanded instant attention.

Sakura grimly realised that it was becoming increasingly difficult to concentrate on the other two Akatsuki members now that her childhood team-mate had arrived on the scene. She couldn't remember ever having his gaze on her for this long. Sasuke stared at her intently, as if he did not want to look elsewhere - or as if he was awaiting a reaction.

She resolutely decided to give him nothing. If he was expecting tears, or for her to demand explanations of him, he was sorely mistaken. She had changed too and had long since given up on the foolishly romantic, childish notion that she could save him alone.

Words could no longer reach the stoic Uchiha – and although her heart burned to know the truth and the reasons behind the choices he had made, she made sure to bite the questions back. Outnumbered by him and two of his team-mates, an older and wiser Sakura knew that now was certainly not the time for sentimentality.

Behind her, Suigetsu impatiently shifted his weight.

"So, are we just gonna stand here and have a boring stare-off, or do I get to play a little?"

Karin glared daggers at him, placing her hands angrily on voluptuous hips.

"You're disgusting!" She snarled. Suigetsu merely flashed a malicious grin in response.

Sasuke's eyes remained locked on Sakura. Body tense, she waited to see what he would say or do next. The coal black depths finally flickered away from her and onto the silver-haired youth who stood behind her.

"Suigetsu." He spoke curtly. "Retrieve Juugo. Karin. Go with him."

"What?!" They both demanded in unison. Suigetsu shot Sasuke a frown. Karin looked utterly dismayed, both from the command she had been given and the idea of leaving the object of her infatuation alone with another female.

"But...but Sasuke-kun!" The red-head protested, "Shouldn't we just get rid of her and keep moving?"

Sasuke's head shifted to his left, not quite looking back over his shoulder at the bespectacled young woman.

"Go." He quipped, the tone in his voice leaving absolutely no room for negotiation over the matter.

"Asshole. How come you get to have all the fun?" Suigetsu sulked, genuinely feeling as though he had been handed the short end of the stick. "You're sticking me with the bitch and keeping this all to yourself?"

Something dark flashed in Sasuke's eyes – a warning. Suigetsu swore beneath his breath. It seemed that he really had little choice in the matter. Sasuke obviously shared some sort of obscure history with the green-eyed girl and wanted to talk to her in private. The silver-haired shinobi reluctantly walked around the pink-haired kunoichi and headed toward Karin, taking another swig out of his water bottle.

"If you say anything, I'll cut your head off." He snarled as he passed her. Karin spluttered, glancing at Sasuke, then back at Suigetsu, then back to Sasuke once again. Cursing colourfully in her mind, she turned away angrily and stomped after her team-mate.

Once he was sure that the two were out of earshot, Sasuke addressed Sakura again.

"You've changed."

Caught completely off-guard by his unexpected statement, her heart skipped a beat. Had he finally recognised that she had gotten stronger? Her younger self had yearned for this acknowledgement, had been prepared to do anything to obtain it.

But now that she had it, Sakura found that it didn't bring her the degree of satisfaction that she had always imagined it would.

Perhaps it was the way that he had uttered the words; so impassively, with neither admiration nor appreciation evident in his voice. He was asserting it as a given fact, rather than a reflection of his own personal opinion.

She realised with a choking sense of sadness that as far as Sasuke was concerned, things were no longer personal between them and had not been for years.

She was merely someone who belonged to a past he had discarded. And here she was, pathetic and small, having worked so hard, changed because of him and for him, still clinging onto a flicker of foolish, blind hope.

The medical kunoichi was horrified to feel her lower lip beginning to tremble. She couldn't crumble here. Not now, not when she was alone with him. So much remained unsaid, so many feelings of uncertainty that had haunted her throughout the previous four years; did he really feel nothing? Had he truly forgotten all that he had shared with her, with Naruto, with Kakashi, with Team 7? Had he forgotten about all of the missions - both the challenging and the pointless; the hardships, the bickering, the exhilarated feelings of team unity and friendship? Had he become numb to the memory of the countless hours of each day that they had spent in each other's company?

It seemed impossible. To her mind and most of all her heart, it seemed improbable. If he truly didn't care, why then had he ordered the others to leave them so that he could talk to her alone? Why was he still with her?

The Sasuke she remembered wasn't the type to engage in idle chatter, even if it was with former team-mates. She found the prospect of him doing so hard to digest.

Forcing herself to remain calm, she finally responded to his words. Her voice was soft and she was pleased to find that she could keep it level and composed.

"We all have."

He seemed to consider her answer. Silently, he found himself wondering just how much she had changed. How different was she now from the spoilt, loud girl he had known during his childhood? In their previous meetings, Naruto had hogged the spotlight, drawing attention away from everybody else with his loud, melodramatic antics. This was verily the first time in four years that Sasuke was really, truly seeing and attempting to read Haruno Sakura.

After a pointed pause, he slowly replied, "Time changes everything."

One corner of her soft, pink lips twitched; a ghost of a small, bitter smile.

"Not quite everything, Sasuke-kun," She said quietly, eyes downcast. Then she lifted them and met his, being careful to keep her countenance guarded. "Some things stay the same."

"..." Silence greeted her assertion. His face was blank, an unreadable slate. She had no way of knowing what he was thinking. For a long moment, they simply stared at each other, each waiting for the other to break the standoff. When it became clear that Sakura was not going to speak any further, Sasuke abruptly switched the subject.

"Kakashi knows." It was an indirect question disguised as a statement. Anger flared within her. So he had stayed under the misguided belief that he could extract information from her? She would not be used. If he thought that she would freely tell him all, he was mistaken. She was no longer the love-sick little girl who was prepared to do anything and give up everything just to please him.

She lifted her chin resolutely. He read the clear meaning behind her unspoken response. Her body-language told him all that he needed to know – she would not speak.

His eyes slipped away from her, briefly lowering as he silently acknowledged that she had definitely become smarter too. The urge to release a small, rueful half-smirk was overwhelming, but he fought it off. He could not afford to show any reaction, especially not before Sakura. She only needed to detect the smallest window of weakness in order to wage an emotional war on his uncompromising mind.

In that infinitesimal moment where he looked away, Sakura's features softened, eyebrows drawing together as a deep aching overwhelmed her. He had suffered so much and she was sure that he had been through many punishing ordeals, mentally, physically and emotionally during their years apart. Why was he continuing to run from them? Why was he continuously refusing their help? Why did he instead choose to turn to others who could not know him the way Team 7 did?

She didn't bother to mask her concern when his eyes rose to her face again. A thought suddenly crossed her mind as she looked into those endless pools of black.

What if...what if he believed that he no longer had the option of accepting their help? What if he thought that they had given up on him? What if he didn't know that despite the foolishness of his decision to join Akatsuki, she, Naruto and Kakashi were still ready to give him the benefit of the doubt? If he only spoke to them, explained, let them understand; if he only stopped pushing them away...

He detected the change in her expression. Suddenly, she was reaching out with a pale, slender arm. Eyes bleak, he watched as her fingertips crept closer to him.

"Sasuke-kun..." She whispered and the hard, guarded look in her bright eyes had all but completely vanished. He saw something else reflected in those brilliant emeralds, something that made him take an instinctive step back.

No, the thought echoed deafeningly in his mind. Unconsciously, his right hand tightened around the hilt of the Kusanagi. He had been able to tolerate Sakura's touches in the past. He had even accepted and initiated physical contact with her during their Genin days. He did not know why he now felt the sudden, inexplicable need to increase the physical distance between them.

For a terrible moment, her arm remained outstretched, hand wavering. The urge to cry was threatening to overwhelm her ability to think rationally. She swallowed thickly and lowered her head, summoning the self control she had spent years perfecting. The shaking hand that reached out to him slowly closed, becoming still, fingers clenching into a tight fist.

Still she could not reach him. Not yet, not alone.

Her arm dropped and she stepped back in turn. She knew why she refused to give up. She had known the reason since the night that he had left Konoha, and her, behind. Feelings that she had tried to repress and kill were now overflowing. She couldn't fight them, but she couldn't show him any more weakness either. Instead, she would use the intensity of her emotions to push her to become stronger.

I'll get stronger; she thought determinedly, I'll become as strong as I need to be to help Naruto save Sasuke-kun.

Eyes downcast, she missed the small, slight depression that formed at one corner of Sasuke's lips. It was there for a brief moment and then disappeared into oblivion, as if it had never existed. He was all cool detachment when her head rose once again. Her eyes slipped behind him and she found that despite Sasuke's instructions, Karin and Suigetsu were waiting for him a distance away. Although they were both out of earshot and could not hear what was being said, they were quietly watching.

The raven-haired Uchiha lifted the Kusanagi and pointed it threateningly at her. His eyes looked empty. Sakura's heart suddenly felt the same.

"Leave this forest." He instructed, voice that same torturing monotone.

Shaking her head was an entirely unconscious reaction. She opened her mouth to speak to him again, desperation and frustration swelling up and giving her the courage to defy him. But before she could speak, Sasuke's obsidian eyes widened fragmentally. With breathtaking speed, he moved back, skirting swiftly away from the blossom-haired kunoichi. His left hand produced a kunai from his cloak and he flung it toward her. Sakura's apple-green eyes widened with shock. He was attacking her, just as he had during their first reunion at Orochimaru's hideout. Her right hand moved far too stupidly, far too clumsily to deflect the electrically charged weapon in time.

Much to her astonishment a large, black and white lion lunged out from behind her, intercepting the kunai's deadly accurate path. It released a mighty roar as the sharp weapon pierced into its shoulder and a second later, disappeared in a puff of inky smoke. Sakura's mind was full of chaos as the smoke cleared to reveal Sasuke standing a much further distance away.

His intense onyx eyes were fixed on her.

"Sasuke!" Suigetsu and Karin had rushed back to join him. But all Sakura could see was the stoic Uchiha, even as she sensed Sai fall into place by her right side.

Had Sasuke timed the throw deliberately or was it merely chance that she had been spared the kunai's painful piercing? Surely his skirting back indicated that he had detected the threat from the lion prior to flinging the weapon?

Her heart pounded as realisation sunk in. If that were the case, if Sasuke had truly aimed for the creature that he was certain would intercept, then was it possible that he had also timed his attack on her back at Orochimaru's hideout, when Yamato had come between them?

She had also been the only person who had been untouched by his devastating Chidori Nagashi attack. Again was it coincidence or deliberate planning?

Her heart skipped a beat as something flickered to life within her, a faint glimmer of hope. Perhaps both incidents were truly nothing more than pure coincidence. It was likely that she was indulging in a bout of wishful thinking, but if she believed in the small, unlikely possibility...if she believed, then it had to mean something. Surely there had to be a reason why Sasuke did not attack her on a whim the way he did to others. With his speed and strength, she was a relatively easy target. Surely there had to be a reason behind why he seemingly chose to hold back.

If there was any chance at all that beneath his emotionless front Sasuke still cared, still felt something, even if a little, then her hopes were soaring beyond the clouds. If he had timed his attacks on her so that they were cut off by interferences, then there was a possibility that his actions were deliberately calculated to conceal a reality that he did not want others to see. It meant that he could have also timed his final attack to be intercepted by Orochimaru back at their first reunion.

The nukenin's attention had shifted to Sai, who stood with scroll and inked brush at the ready.

"Forgive me for being late, Sakura-san." The pale youth apologised politely. "But I was held up by another member of Akatsuki."

Sakura was relieved that he had joined her at last. When Sasuke had destroyed the ink bird, she had worried that Sai would be unable to relocate her again. Keeping her eyes on Sasuke, she addressed her team-mate.

"Are you injured?"

"Nothing serious." He replied, then met Sasuke's fathomless gaze. "Ah, Sasuke-kun. So we meet again."

"Hn." Sasuke tilted his head back, regarding his replacement haughtily. "I see you're still a part of the brat pack."

Sai smiled, but it did not reach his eyes. "The decisions I have taken since first meeting you have been arguably better than yours." He glanced pointedly at the medical kunoichi standing next to him. "Sakura-san, I know I promised not to badmouth him in front of Naruto and you again but I hope on this instance that you will overlook it." He glanced back at Sasuke and his companions. "I left who I assume is your team-mate swiping blindly at trees north from here." He finished, offering another false smile.

Karin cursed. "Juugo must have lost control again!"

Suigestsu glared at Sai. He found the strange boy's face irritating. "That's it, Sasuke, with or without your agreement I'm taking him out."

Sasuke blinked, his gaze still locked on the pale young man. Then he gave Suigetsu his full authority.

"Go ahead."

Sai had already reacted, painting rapidly on his scroll and summoning three more lions to life.

"Ninpo - Choju Giga."

With a deafening growl they leapt toward the three Akatsuki clad ninja. Sasuke did not need to move. He closed his eyes, a small smirk gracing one corner of his lips as Karin and Suigetsu made quick, short work of the animals. The Uchiha prodigy's eyes opened as the smoke cleared once again. The smirk had disappeared.

"Is that all you have?" He taunted, unable to hide the tinge of contempt from seeping into his voice. Onyx slipped away from black to meet with brilliant green, as he added more quietly, "Not much of a replacement."

Sakura's eyes widened at his words. What Sai sent at them next forced Sasuke, Suigetsu and Karin to scatter; a fierce, giant tiger, much larger than the previous lions. The beast lunged at Karin, who yelped in alarm. Suigetsu glared at her for being so useless, furious that he had to defend the annoying kunoichi yet again.

"I'll handle it, Sasuke! You stop them!" He called to his leader.

The Uchiha's attention turned back to the Konoha pair just in time to witness Sai's long arms circle around Sakura's slender waist.

Of their own accord, Sasuke's eyes narrowed. His grip on the Kusanagi instinctively tightened as he watched Sai effortlessly carry his former team-mate onto the back of a large eagle. The gigantic bird began to ascend into the air, great wings flapping loudly, creating a strong breeze that shook the leaves and branches of the surrounding trees.

The moment Sai set her down Sakura dropped to her knees, inching forward to peer over the edge of one mighty wing. Karin was standing back defensively, allowing Suigetsu to finish off the tiger without any impediment. Her eyes darted to Sasuke. He stood, motionless, the wind blowing raven strands of hair into his face. As he grew smaller, she was suddenly struck by how alone he appeared to be, even though his handsome face remained impassive.

"Hold on," Sai's voice came to her over the sound of the rushing breeze. "I think one of my animals has found Naruto!"

"Don't lead him to us!" Sakura glanced back worriedly at her team-mate. "We'll go to him!"

Sai nodded in understanding. She didn't want their blond friend to stumble across Sasuke alone; chaos would ultimately ensue. They both knew that now was not the right time to confront the unpredictable Uchiha.

It was for the same reason that they were both fleeing from him; Sakura was too afraid of staying to find out how events would unfold. Besides, she didn't want to risk Sai getting injured because of her.

Suigetsu finally deposed of the large creature and turned back to find Sasuke standing motionlessly in place, face tilted up toward the sky, merely watching as the giant eagle continued to rise higher into the air.

The silver-haired youth frowned. What the hell was Sasuke thinking? The two Konoha brats would go straight to their elders with information on what they had witnessed. They would no doubt give detailed, physical descriptions of the enemy. Suigetsu was not particularly fond of the idea of having Leaf ninja pursuing him wherever he travelled.

For once, Karin seemed to be on the same wavelength of thought. She spoke up, voice a shrill screech.

"Sasuke-kun! Do something! They're getting away!"

Suigetsu gritted his teeth, drawing up beside their stoic leader. What was his suggested course of action? When he still didn't respond, Suigetsu scowled and called out to him.

"Hey, Sasuke! You just gonna stand there and watch?!"

"They'll spread the word about us to the entire village – whatever's left of it!" Karin cried. Her ruby eyes were wide with open anxiety.

Sasuke's eyes narrowed into dangerous slits and he finally reacted. No. They were not going to escape. He wouldn't let Sakura go this way, not with his damned replacement taking all of the glory. Raising his hands, he swiftly performed the seals required for the technique he had in mind and raised the fingers of his left hand to his lips.

"Katon: Goukakyuu no jutsu."

Atop the eagle, Sakura released a startled gasp. She knew those seals! She recognised that signature move for she had seen it many-a-time when they had been Genin.

"Sai! He's going to-!"

Sai had already read the threat and inked furiously on his scroll. A rain of inky water burst to life from the parchment, a desperate attempt to at least delay the fire that was about to consume their chosen mode of transportation.

But it stood no chance against the fury of Sasuke's raging ball of flame. The eagle swept to the left, seeking to dodge the giant fireball amongst the trees but a blaze of undeniable flame clipped its right wing. With a screech it writhed in agony and instantly disintegrated into a puff of evaporating smoke.

Sakura screamed as she felt herself falling at unstoppable momentum. The impact when she hit the ground would surely crush every bone in her body. The force and heat of the fireball and the abrupt disappearance of his summoned beast had thrown Sai in the completely opposite direction. He was unable to assist himself or his team-mate.

On the ground far below, Sasuke stared up at the burning trees with intense, Sharingan eyes. He knew that he only had a small window of time; after all, any ninja located nearby would surely be drawn to the smoking wreckage and he could not afford to be spied by anybody else.

Suigetsu and Karin remained quiet behind him, both silently awed by the sheer magnitude and power behind Sasuke's Katon technique.

"I told you to find Juugo." The Uchiha stated in a low voice, replacing the Kusanagi back in its sheath. "Do it, and meet me at the border north-east from here."

Suigetsu nodded, knowing better than to disregard the command again.

"What about you, Sasuke-kun?" Karin frowned anxiously, and instantly found herself on the receiving end of a furious, crimson glare.

"Go." He ordered impatiently. She swallowed thickly and nodded, reluctantly turning to follow after Suigetsu once again. The ruby-eyed kunoichi cast one last glance back over her slender shoulder to find that Sasuke had already flickered out of sight.

High in the trees, Sakura's world was spinning. She coughed, a consequence of smoke inhalation, and winced as her bones screamed out in agony. Her left cheek stung from the scorching of tiny embers that had hit her on her way down. Her fall had been miraculously broken by a crossing of tree branches, but now she found herself in a very precarious position indeed.

Her arms were drawn back uncomfortably behind her, a bough gripped within the curves of her inner elbows. Her legs had been caught by another tree limb and she gripped the branch beneath her knees tightly to prevent herself from falling. The only other thing supporting her weight was the hard bough that dug into the small of her back. She stared up at the smoky sky, blinking, disorientated.

Automatically, the medical kunoichi focused a small, steady flow of chakra into her elbows and knees, providing her with a firmer grip on the only physical objects that were preventing her from plummeting to an untimely end.


She let her head fall back, closing her eyes and groaning as she wondered how on earth she was going to get herself out of such an awful situation.

Sai, she silently worried. They had been separated. Was he alright? She desperately hoped that his fall had also been broken.

Unbeknownst to her, another figure had alighted silently on the tree to her right. Sasuke stood motionlessly for a moment, regarding a slender form that appeared much more curvaceous due to awkward positioning. His eyes, onyx once again, trailed from her shapely legs, following the curve of her painfully arched back, up to the feminine rise of her chest. Finally they stopped on her face, smudged with dirt and debris. Her eyes were closed and she looked dazed.

He decided to make his presence known then, stepping forward, deliberately making sure that the heels of his nin sandals scraped loudly against bark. It worked. Sakura's eyes flew open and her head whipped around. On catching sight of him, she almost lost her precarious grip on the branches completely; porcelain cheeks turned a charming shade of pink. His appearance was like a shock to her senses, chasing out any last remaining remnants of cobwebs in her mind.

How long has he been standing there?! She thought, frantic and dismayed that he had caught her in such an awkward and embarrassing predicament.

Heat continued to rise in her cheeks and her insides were fluttering beneath the intensity of his heavy, silent gaze. Why had he followed her? Why was he just standing there and watching instead of assisting her? Was he enjoying her evident discomfort?

She knew that she looked a mess. Broken sticks of splintered wood were tangled in her dishevelled hair. Dirt and scratches marred her skin. When Sasuke took another step toward her vulnerable form, Sakura panicked. She was in no position to defend herself if he chose that moment to attack her. He came to a stop at the end of the branch and crouched down; regarding her with the same unreadable expression on his face.

She could do nothing but stare back. Movement was uncomfortable and impossible without aid. There was no way for her to assess whether or not there were any other branches to break her fall underneath her. The muscles in her arms were burning in agony. She couldn't hold herself up for much longer.

Sasuke had known that the trees would break her fall. After all, he had executed his attack at a very carefully calculated moment. The same could not be said for his replacement; if Sai lay crushed somewhere on the forest floor, Sasuke cared very little.

He felt a twinge of something akin to mild irritation when Sakura asked after the one who had taken his place on Team 7.

" he...?"

A pregnant pause; and then Sasuke's brusque response came to her.

"He is not the one in trouble."

Was he trying to scare her? Sakura gave him as defiant a look as she could manage; no easy task given her lamentable state.

"You won't hurt me, Sasuke-kun."

A dark brow raised slightly in response to her words.

"Are you so sure, Sakura?" He intoned.

She swallowed down the lump that had formed in her throat. He was bluffing. He was trying to trick her.

"You won't." She breathed, her confidence rising. She knew that he wouldn't hurt her. She believed it with every fibre of her being. "You didn't throw the kunai at me; you threw it at the ink lion."

He listened silently as Sakura continued, although his cool, unwavering gaze was beginning to unnerve her. "Just like...just like the time when we met at Orochimaru's lair. You knew that Captain Yamato would intercept didn't you? You knew that Orochimaru would stop you from using your secret jutsu before you could finish the hand seals. You weren't really going to hurt us, were you? I'm right, Sasuke-kun! I know that I'm-!"

In a flash far too quick for her to follow, he had unsheathed his Kusanagi and dove toward her. The chirping sound of Chidori Nagashi filled the air, crackles of electricity snaking threateningly toward her as he cleaved through the branches that supported her body. She braced herself for the stinging assault of his malicious lightning energy but was once again spared the agony. She didn't have the chance to feel triumphant over the fact that he had just unwittingly proved her right, for a second later she felt herself falling and looked up to him in startled panic.

Sasuke was perched nonchalantly on the branch above her, watching as she fell further and further away. Her eyes darted to her left and right, seeking something, anything to break her descent. At the last moment, she caught onto an extended bough to her right. Clinging on with focused chakra, she peered up to find that Sasuke had disappeared.

Her heart began to pound. Had he finally left her? Was she finally safe? Slowly, carefully, she edged along the length of the branch, fingernails digging into wood. When she was close enough to the body of the tree, she hoisted herself up, letting out a breath of relief as she rested her aching arms and sore back against the trunk.

But she wasn't granted much time to relax. A flicker of movement caught her eye and her head whipped around just in time to witness Sasuke materialise at the end of the branch on which she had sought refuge. He remained in place, face tilted away from her, as if he were listening intently to the sounds of the forest.

Slowly, Sakura pulled herself up, placing a gloved hand on the body of the tree behind her to steady her aching legs. She needed time to heal and Sasuke's presence was denying her the opportunity to tend to damaged tissue.

His raven head shifted to his left, not quite looking at her as a voice familiar to them both rang out faintly from the forest floor far below them.


Sakura's slouched figure instantly straightened and her eyes were alert once more. She ignored the burning pain in her limbs and turned to call out to the team-mate who was searching for her. Sasuke's hawk eyes were locked onto her, reading the change in her posture, anticipating her next action.

She took a deep breath, opening her mouth – and in a blur of blinding movement, he moved. Before she could form the first consonant of her friend's name, she was slammed back into the trunk of the tree. The air flew from her lungs and she was left stunned and breathless. A cool hand clamped over her lips and she raised wide eyes to find Sasuke, Sharingan activated. The tomoes spun hypnotically as he scanned the area that surrounded them.

"Sakura-chan! Where are you?!" The voice came from her left and Sasuke's right, now much closer, close enough for Sasuke to detect the concerned, frantic tones in which her name was called. His eyes narrowed slightly, moving back to examine the girl who stood before him. She was breathing heavily, bright green depths full of distress. Her hands rose and clutched tightly onto his forearm. She attempted to speak to him only for her words to come out as muffled nonsense.

"Smph. Mmmph!"

Strange, how he had avoided physical contact earlier and was now once again initiating it. It reminded her of the Sasuke she had known when she had been a young, carefree Genin. It reminded her of all that they had shared in the Forest of Death. She wondered if he even remembered. Tears stung at her vision as she looked pleadingly up into crimson depths that she could not quite bring herself to believe were heartless.

He read her unspoken request and to her astonishment, slowly pulled his hand back. She stared at him, dumbstruck as he turned his face away from her, eyes downcast as he caught a glimmer of blond in a stream of sunlight beneath them.

"Sakura-chan!" Naruto was now close enough to discover them.

"..." Sasuke remained silent and motionless as his former team-mate finally came into view. He was moving swiftly from tree to tree, scanning the expanse for the medical kunoichi standing by the raven-haired shinobi's side.

A soft frown settled on Sakura's forehead. Sasuke did not know that at that moment his posture appeared to her to be unwittingly unguarded. She needed only the smallest window to see beyond the emotionless mask he wore. She saw before her not the unfeeling traitor but a young man who looked broken and alone. She couldn't stand the intense aching that suddenly overwhelmed her and tried to reach out to him again.

"Sasuke-kun...please..." Her whisper travelled to his ears, as light and transient as air. From the corner of his vision he watched as her hand inched closer to him. His body tensed but this time he did not step away.

"Sakura-!" The call was cut short. Vivid blue widened incredulously as Naruto finally spotted the pink-haired kunoichi – and the tall, raven-haired shinobi standing beside her. He came to an abrupt stop on the lower branch of one of the trees opposite to theirs.

Livid fury flared on Naruto's expressive face. What on earth was happening? "You get the hell away from her, SASUKE!" He roared, and with great speed proceeded to make his way up, to cross the gap to reach them.

Sakura released a gasp of surprise as Sasuke's fingers clamped around the wrist of her outstretched hand. He jerked her roughly forward so that the front of her body brushed lightly against his left side. Eyes that he had momentarily closed suddenly opened again and without warning locked onto hers.

Sasuke's eyebrows drew together in concentrated strain as he unleashed the devastating, hypnotic power of his cursed bloodline upon her. He stared deeply into brilliant, apple-green depths, using the prolonged, intense eye-contact to send her wave after wave of disorientating visions. He watched as her irises clouded over, sensed the change in her body as a mild form of paralysis began to take merciless hold.

Sakura had lost her breath. She was captured, trapped, suffocating, smothered. She was drowning. An intense, crimson kaleidoscope pierced into her mind, mesmerising her, captivating her soul. She almost believed that she was drifting in a haunting dream but the sharp, freezing pain that assaulted her senses was all too real. She was at that moment lost in and consumed by a sea of blazing red. All other colours faded away into nothingness.

Mangekyo. He possessed it. The world spun and all she could see were his beautiful eyes. She was already falling, even before he pushed her toward the edge of the branch. For a long, terrible, heart-stopping moment, his cool fingers did not relinquish their hold on her slender wrist and she teetered precariously over the brink.

Naruto felt physically sick as he gazed up in wide-eyed, horrified disbelief. It was a scene from his nightmares. What in the world did Sasuke think he was doing?! It was Sakura whom he was about to discard like a lifeless, meaningless doll. Had he finally lost his mind?

Jiraiya's apprentice was shaking. Fear and dread had lodged itself in his throat. No. He refused to believe what his eyes were seeing. Sasuke wouldn't. He couldn't.

As if hearing the blue-eyed youth's stunned thoughts, and as if he were determined to prove Naruto's faith in him wrong, Sasuke turned his face away from the girl he was holding onto, eyes lowering. Dark brows drew together minutely and then, abruptly, he released Sakura's wrist and she was sent plunging to the dizzying depths below.

Naruto's heart fell into descent with her.

"Sakura-chaaaan!" His cry was full of panic filled terror. He stumbled forward, lunging toward her plummeting form, desperate arms reaching out to her. When she crossed his path, he clumsily caught hold of her small torso. Sheer relief flooded through him as he did so; she was safe! A blur of movement above him made him glance back up at the branch from which Sasuke had dropped her.

The raven-haired nukenin had vanished.

Cursing in a mixture of frustration and anger, Naruto landed on the nearest steady branch and gingerly set Sakura down. He crouched down before her, peering into her face to find that her eyes were glazed over.

Alarm filled him. What in the world had Sasuke done?

"S...Sakura-chan...?" He asked tentatively, worriedly. When she remained unresponsive he raised his head and howled out after their swiftly retreating, treacherous ex-team-mate.


Sakura suddenly stiffened and blinked, abruptly breaking out of the basic form of Genjitsu that she had been unwittingly caught in; a haunting state where she had seen Sasuke's Mangekyo in her mind, over and over again.

"Na...Naruto..." She breathed heavily. "I'm...I'm alright."

The blonde's eyes were back on her in an instant. His hands closed over her shoulders as he examined the general state of her in dismay.

"Are you sure, Sakura-chan? Did he hurt you?" He gritted his teeth, his grip on her tightening protectively. "That teme..."

"I'm fine," She reassured him, trying to shake the haunting, lingering imprint of the Mangekyo Sharingan from her mind. Had Naruto seen it too? She wasn't certain. She only knew that she had to notify Kakashi at once. Then sudden recollection washed over her and her eyes widened. She reached out and gripped anxiously onto Naruto's forearms in turn.

"Naruto - Sai! He was with me, but we got separated!"

The son of the Fourth Hokage nodded. "I ran into Kakashi-sensei just before I found you. He told me that you and Sai were looking for me and that Ino and Shikamaru had gone with him to investigate the explosion. Kakashi-sensei, Ino and Shikamaru found Sai injured on a tree. He told them that you'd run into Akatsuki..."

Sakura bit her lower lip, alarm etching on her delicate features as Naruto's hands slipped away from her.

"Did he tell Ino and Shikamaru that...that Sasuke-kun is...?"

Naruto shook his head, eyes falling momentarily away from her face. "No. Ino healed Sai and after she finished Kakashi-sensei took him aside and asked for details. That's when Sai told him that you'd run into Sasuke and his..." His expression darkened as he angrily spat, ""

The blossom-haired young woman allowed her body to relax and released a sigh of relief. She was happy to know that Sai was alright and that he hadn't told Ino and Shikamaru of Sasuke's treachery.

"Kakashi-sensei left them to look for you. I came across him by chance. He told me what had happened, so we split ways to find you."

They sat in silence for a few minutes as Sakura tended to the greatest of her damages. Then she noticed the small, bitter smile form on Naruto's lips and tilted her head questioningly at him. He shook his head in response, releasing a short, hollow laugh.

"Kakashi-sensei was right."

"Huh?" She blinked at him. What did he mean?

Naruto's eyes, a darker shade of blue than usual, rose and fixed on her face. "He said that I'd find you with Sasuke."

Sakura's eyes lowered. She turned her face away. Recalling her unexpected encounter with the stoic Uchiha brought so many feelings to surface within her; confusion, frustration, anger, despair, yearning, misery and yet beyond it all, there was a faint flicker of hope. She raised her head again and met Naruto's gaze once more.

"Naruto, I..."

Now it was the blond who averted his gaze. He hated that he cared and he hated feeling the need to ask the question burning in his mind. "What happened? You don't have to tell me everything." He finished with a mutter. Sakura's eyes widened in horror; Naruto had it all wrong! Sasuke had come to her – not the other way around. She was not so forgiving to seek him out willingly; certainly not alone. She proceeded to fill Naruto in on the reality of the situation.

"We were searching for you. Sai and I split ways and I soon came across two members of Akatsuki. They were Sasuke-kun's new team-mates; one was a tall, silver haired water-type shinobi called Suigetsu. The other..." She paused, recalling bespectacled ruby eyes, uneven scarlet tresses and contempt on a finely featured face, "...was a sensor-type kunoichi named Karin. They mentioned another who was missing from their unit, someone called Juugo. I was attacked by Suigetsu and Karin. I thought I could hold them off until Sai relocated me but then..." She swallowed thickly. "...I didn't expect him to appear."

"Sasuke." Naruto said in a low voice. She nodded and continued.

"Sai sent a dove with me to keep track of my location so that he could find me quickly if he needed to but Sasuke-kun detected it right away and destroyed it."

She frowned lightly. What had happened next? They had exchanged a few, unimportant words, but did Naruto really need to know what had been said between them? She decided to leave the unnecessary details out of her report.

"He told me to leave the forest. Then Sai found me. He summoned beasts to distract the three so that we could get away on an eagle. We were about to escape but then Sasuke-kun used his clan's Katon jutsu. The fireball caught us. Sai was separated from me in the fall."

Naruto frowned in turn. Why had Sasuke stopped them after telling Sakura to leave the forest? The blond wasn't the brightest shinobi of his village but even he could see that it was an inconsistent irregularity on the raven-haired nukenin's part.

"What happened then?" He pressed, curious to know how things had played out when Sasuke had met the coral-haired girl alone afterward.

Sakura took a deep breath and went on, "The trees broke my fall. Sasuke-kun separated from his team and found me."

Skip the details of what was said, her mind instructed. She readily complied.

"Sasuke-kun cut the branches that were holding me up. I managed to catch onto another bough and pull myself onto the tree you found us on."

Naruto stared at her, wide-eyed, eagerly awaiting further details.

"I wanted to help him," Sakura stated softly and the blond youth detected the quiver in her voice. "I thought that maybe, if there was nobody else around, I could talk to him..." She shook her head and released a small, embarrassed laugh. "We're hopeless, aren't we, Naruto? Still chasing after Sasuke-kun; even though we're angry and upset, we still can't bring ourselves to give up on him."

Naruto's eyes lowered. So that was how it had happened. He had seen the rest.

"He doesn't listen to words, Sakura-chan." He said quietly. "There's only one option left to make that teme understand." Vivid blue briefly met bright green before the blond looked away once again.

"But if that doesn't work..." He muttered dejectedly.

Sakura caught her breath. Naruto suddenly looked so tired. But they couldn't give up, not after what she had detected in Sasuke's behaviour.

", Sasuke-kun threw a kunai at me." Naruto's head jerked up, eyes incredulous, filling with instant anger.

"What? That asshole attacked you...?!"

She raised a hand, signalling for him to hear her out. "At least, I thought it was at me. But Sai had just arrived and summoned a lion to attack Sasuke-kun. The kunai hit the lion – not me. Do you remember back at Orochimaru's hideout? When he was going to use that secret jutsu on us, Orochimaru stopped him."

Naruto stared at her confusedly. He didn't understand what she was trying to tell him.

"So...?" He questioned, frowning as he struggled to interpret her words. "He did all of that deliberately."

"Exactly!" Sakura nodded, excitement shining in her eyes.

Naruto pulled a face, squinting at her, scratching the back of his head, utterly clueless. "Uh, Sakura-chan...?"

She realised that he wasn't getting it, and slapped a palm to her forehead in exasperation.

"Think, Naruto!" She exclaimed. "Why would he attack us only for his attacks to be intercepted or cut short every single time? It doesn't add up!"

"Uh..." Naruto blinked, thinking hard. Then his eyes widened as an impossible theory slowly came to life in his mind. "Wha...?" His face brightened and Sakura nodded again. "What? Sakura-chan, you mean that you think...?"


Something was bubbling deep within Naruto's chest; a feeling of hope that he had not felt in a long time. Happiness threatened to explode onto his face in the form of a giddy grin.

"So at Orochimaru's base, when he said he was going to end my life on a whim...?"

"He anticipated that someone would stop him!" Sakura replied.

A smile tugged at the corner of Naruto's lips, but then faltered.

"But Sasuke attacked us all with Chidori Nagashi. Nobody stopped him then."

"I didn't get hit." Sakura pointed out. "It was only meant to disable you, not maim you."

Naruto blinked. "It still hurt." He muttered. Then he argued,

"He stabbed Captain Yamato! Nobody stopped him then either."

"Sasuke-kun doesn't know him the way we do!" She countered. "And Captain Yamato was the one who intercepted Sasuke's 'attack' on me!"

The grin was now undeniable. "Sakura-chan! If that's true, then...then Sasuke is really..." He broke off, confusion and anger registering on his face once again.

"But that teme just threw you off a tree!"

Sakura rolled her eyes. "He had to retreat when he saw you and you were there to catch me!" Then she grabbed onto his shoulders excitedly.

"Don't you see, Naruto?! Sasuke-kun told us he was going to Orochimaru for power. We were all fooled into believing that he was going to let Orochimaru take over his body but then Sasuke-kun killed him at the last moment."

"Then some of his actions might just be for show..." Naruto whispered. He gripped onto her arms in turn, the boyish grin released in its glorious entirety. "There's still hope, Sakura-chan!"

She gave him a pained smile. "We've never given up, Naruto. Why would we now?" Then she suddenly felt guilty and foolish for getting ahead of herself and worried that she had raised Naruto's and her own spirits too soon. "I...I might be wrong. Maybe I'm looking into it too deeply. I don't want to get our hopes up only to be disappointed." She shook her head, hands falling away from him. "We can't take anymore disappointment."

He shook her lightly, reassuringly. It was hard to crush the jubilant feelings her words had stirred within him; he was now hoping as he had never before dared to hope. Naruto had seen and been through much and was mature enough to know that what thoughts they now shared about Sasuke had to remain deeply hidden on the battle-field and especially when they next confronted him.

"No, you have to be right. I never really thought about it before, but now that you've told me, it makes sense."

"Sasuke-kun could have finished us many times. He could have permanently broken our bonds. But he didn't and he hasn't." She pointed out.

"It has to mean something, Sakura-chan." Naruto agreed.

She met his gaze and then smiled a genuine smile. "Let's see what Kakashi-sensei thinks!"

Naruto nodded, letting go of her and getting to his feet. The sun was shining high in the sky above them as he reached down to help her up. She gave him her hand and was pulled to her feet. Then, together, they made their way down through the trees, back toward camp, their movements hastened by hope.




Author's Note

And that dear folks is a wrap! It's another 7,600 or so words lol. I tried to fill this story with as much SasuSaku as possible, but in case some things weren't clear, let's run through Sasuke's significant actions just for fun!

1)Sasuke stopped Sakura from hitting Karin because he could see the serious damage she's capable of doing. That, plus Karin is useful (for limited things); he doesn't let his team-mates die. He stopped her attacking Suigetsu for the same reason, although Suigetsu is much more dangerous than Karin is and there would have been a risk that he would have hurt Sakura. Saskay doesn't want that XD

2)He destroyed Sai's dove (because he hates Sai) because he wants Sakura TO HIMSELF! Mwaha. Okay that's just a fangirl's fanciful notion and isn't true in the context of this SERIOUS encounter. Sorry guys XD

3)In part 2 of the story, Sasuke tells Sakura she has changed. Yes, he can see she is stronger and less useless than she was as a child. That's not really a SasuSaku moment; Sasuke might act stupid at times but he's not blind to facts (most of the time XD)

4)Why did Sasuke feel the need to increase physical distance the first time she reached out to him? Because Suigetsu and Karin were watching? Or something else? XD Jump to any conclusion you like.

5)Sasuke was going to let Sakura walk away, but the appearance of Sai changed his mind. Why? Because Sasuke is a jealous little boy and doesn't want Sai saving the day. He'd prefer his best friend to take the glory over his replacement, which is why Naruto saved the day XD His "Not much of a replacement" comment while looking at Sakura should give you a clue about this. It's Sasuke's way of indirectly saying "I'm BETTER than him, Sakura, and you know it." And hell yeah she knows! Also, the part where Sasuke's eyes narrowed in response to Sai's arms going around Sakura's waist; can we say murderous intent, anyone? XD

6)Sasuke flung the kunai knowing very well that a lion would get in the way and take the hit. Just as clever Sakura concluded : )

7)Sasuke deliberately timed his Katon jutsu to ensure that Sakura's fall would be broken by trees. He's pretty familiar with the forest this story is set in.

8)Sasuke checks Sakura out before he makes his presence known to her XD Actually it's just his usual, blank, analytical once-over, that he's probably given Sakura a thousand times ; )

9)Sasuke was crouching above Sakura for enough time to analyse the surroundings BEFORE he cut the branches that supported her. Enough time to know that she would be able to break her fall herself.

10)Sasuke could have left her then but no, he chose (or I chose for him XD) to move to the branch Sakura landed on. This time he initiates physical contact (like he often did during their Genin days) and when Sakura reaches for him, he doesn't seem like he is going to pull away. UNTIL NARUTO WITH HIS EPICALLY BAD SENSE OF TIMING STUMBLES ACROSS THEM. Naturally Sasuke goes defensive.

11)Sakura is caught off-guard by the Mangekyo because she has never seen it in Sasuke's eyes before. CUE SEXY INTENSE SASUSAKU EYE CONTACT! XD Notice that she doesn't share this knowledge with Naruto. She will tell Kakashi first, but that isn't covered in the story.

12)OMG! Sasuke throws her off a tree! HOW OOC! But is it? Notice he held onto her wrist long enough to ENSURE that Naruto would be able to catch her falling form in good time. Naruto would have to be really lame to miss the catch at his proximity XD

13)Also eagle eyed readers would have noticed that Sasuke did NOT flicker out of sight until AFTER he had seen Naruto catch Sakura safely. Aww : )

14)Sakura has a knack for Genjitsu so she manages to break free of the very basic form Sasuke cast on her relatively quickly. In other words he can't keep her out for long : P

And that's mainly it, with maybe one or two additional things I left out. Please do keep in mind that this is supposed to be set some time ahead of the current manga, so there has been character development, especially on Naruto's part and the Naruto-Sakura bond, specifically with them talking about Sasuke and his actions. I'd like to see this happening toward the end of the manga, near to where Naruto has his final epic battle with Sasuke (before Sasuke HOPEFULLY rejoins Team 7).

Really hope that everybody who read this enjoyed it, and ESPECIALLY BLUEGREENAPPLES! Hope the wait was worth it Twinneh! XD (Ironically I finished writing this in the early morning of MY birthday loool! How LATE is that?!)

I really, really loved writing this. My FAVE part to write was the build up to Sasuke's plan to escape and avoid confrontation with Naruto; using his Mangekyo to catch Sakura off-guard so that he could throw her to Naruto to catch while he used the distraction to make his escape. It just put all kinds of awesome, EPIC imagery into my head XD

I'm eagerly awaiting reader thoughts and opinions. Please leave a review and let me know what you all liked (or disliked XD)!

Thanks so much for reading. Ciao for now!