There for You

Slowly, and with a calm sort of professional detachment, Sakura reached up and wiped—smeared—the splattered blood off her face. Then, using a cloth, she rid her kunai of its gleaming red sheen.

Sasuke tore his eyes away.

They'd had a run-in with the rogue ninjas they'd been warned about. There were many of them, some even possessing a certain degree of skill, and despite his best intentions, Sasuke had had to allow Sakura to largely take care of herself. He hated himself for it because he had lost his edge in Konoha, had grown soft and complacent, and if he hadn't, he wouldn't have had to leave Sakura's life in her own hands—meaning hands less capable than his.

Because even if Sakura could look after herself, Sasuke could look after her better.

That was what he told himself, at least, because he'd had a purpose all his life—first to please his father, next to kill his brother, then to destroy Konoha—and he couldn't seem to function without one. So now he obligated himself to protecting Sakura, and while one might think it paled in comparison to the others he'd had, it was something, and it was important to him.

Or perhaps it all burned down to his damnable need to be needed.

At any rate, they had killed roughly half of the rogues before the others had had the good sense to flee. Now, in the aftermath, looking at his teammate, something in him grew cold.

He acknowledged in an offhand, practically indifferent manner that Sakura had grown strong, but he didn't think of her as a fighter. In his mind, she was a healer, and that was the end of it. Watching her wipe another's blood from her face…

It was wrong.

Sakura wasn't supposed to be like that. Sakura was supposed to be compassionate and warm, always. Even when angry, as she so often seemed to be around him, she was lit up, and that was right, that was the way it was supposed to be, the way she was supposed to be, not hardened and impassive.

She shouldn't have to kill people. She shouldn't be able to kill people—because if she was, then Sasuke would have to (did have to, now) consider that she wasn't as pure and untouched and untainted as he had thought, as he had wanted her to be.

Perhaps he and Naruto had been deluding themselves all along, thinking they were protecting her—from battle, from harm, from all the nasty, darker aspects of the world. Because they'd both left her, hadn't they? For different reasons entirely, it was true, but ultimately they had both stepped out of her life and thus stepped down from their mantle as Sakura's protectors.

Had they really thought that she wouldn't have to get her hands dirty, have to get blood on them? That she wouldn't have to grow up and become a real shinobi (no emotion no crying), a tool to be put to the use of the highest bidder?

Sasuke was disturbed by this turn of events, this realization that Sakura wasn't as taintless and sheltered as he had hoped she would remain.

But then he noticed that her hands were trembling, that malaise stirred in the depths of her eyes, and he thought…

He thought that it was maybe okay for her to kill, as long as she retained this humanity and conscience, as long as she didn't become a ruthless, cold-blooded killer.

(But then, it was Sakura, and there was no way she would ever be like that, anyway. He still knew that much about her, even when so much else had changed.)

"Sasuke-kun…"

At Sakura's shaky voice, he looked up. She was directing her gaze a little to the left of his face, avoiding his eyes. "Ready to move on?"

He grunted a confirmation, and once they were a sufficient distance away, performed a fire jutsu that would dispose of the bodies.

As they continued on their way, a steady drizzle descended upon them. They were both wearing waterproof cloaks, but it was still miserable weather, and they were weary after two days of traveling. Sasuke suspected they would stay at an inn that night instead of camping and being at the mercy of the elements.

Jumping from tree limb to tree limb, a familiar, roiling cloud of darkness probed his conscience, brought to the surface by the bodies and death and fighting. He knew it well, the darkness, the hatred, the bloodlust; when he had turned against Madara, he had managed to bury it somewhere deep inside him, but it had never disappeared.

He could only hope it didn't grow stronger with time.

To combat it, he focused on other things. Glancing to the side, he studied Sakura, whose expression was pensive. For the first time, it struck him that her eyes were truly green—not blue-green, or green-hazel, as most people's were. Just green, and that notion… well, he wasn't sure what it made him feel, but he was confident that it was silly and sentimental, so he disregarded it.

Over the course of their travel, she had kept up better than he'd thought she would. She didn't have his speed or stamina, but not once did she complain about their pace or long hours. Still, he ended up going slower and for shorter amounts of time than he would have had he been by himself. They were in no rush, and he was ever-conscious of pushing her past her limits.

They'd been on the move for a little about an hour when Sasuke sensed something wrong up ahead—nothing exactly terrible or foreboding, but just not right. He didn't mention it right away, and Sakura seemed to notice it too a few minutes later. She met his eyes, and her own were cautious, but curious as well.

He inclined his head to acknowledge that he was aware of it too and that he thought they should continue on and inspect it. She offered him a little half-smile to show acceptance before turning her attention ahead again. Somehow, their unspoken communication pleased him. It meant they were working well as a team, but it also indicated that they were growing closer.

Once they drew nearer, the wrong-feeling increased, and he scanned the area for chakra signatures. Finding none, he was perplexed and wary. He upped his pace slightly to make sure that he was a little ahead of Sakura.

They heard a continuous noise, and as they drew nearer, the increased clarity allowed them to identify it as sobbing—that of a small child, to be specific. Immediately, Sakura sped up and jumped from the trees to the ground, where the cries originated.

Sasuke followed her swiftly, angry and frustrated that she had made herself vulnerable by drawing away from him to an unsecured location.

Beneath the trees they found the mutilated corpses of a man and a woman dressed in civilian attire. It seemed that anything of value had been taken from them, and from a simple, cursory look over their bodies, it was evident to him that they had died slowly.

There it was again, that darkness, that churning, ugly sickness. He fought it down.

The sobbing had come from a young girl, no more than four at most, who had been kneeling by the side of the woman—her mother, Sasuke presumed. When he and Sakura had appeared, she'd cried out and run to cower behind a tree.

Sakura dropped to her knees, completely disregarding the wet, bloodied grass. "Hey, sweetie," she called softly. "It's okay. We won't hurt you. You can come out, it's all right. You're safe now, everything's fine now. Come on out."

After some more coaxing, the girl gradually approached, as Sasuke had expected. Sakura sounded so soothing, so warm and tender; she was exactly what a young, frightened child would be drawn to.

He remembered being a young, frightened child; he remembered wanting exactly the same thing.

The girl's hair, which fell to her shoulders, was so dirtied that its color couldn't be determined, but her eyes were a warm brown, and after a few shaky steps forward, she threw herself into Sakura's open arms and started bawling.

Sakura held her close, arranging her cloak in such a way that it covered the child. "Poor baby," she crooned, "poor baby."

Watching the scene, Sasuke shifted on his feet awkwardly, unsure of what to do. At one point Sakura glanced back at him, and her eyes were so sad that he had to look away.

When a few minutes had passed and still the girl wailed, he approached the bodies and respectfully searched for anything that would indicate their identities and whatever their intended destination had been.

He found some papers in the man's breast pocket and learned, after scanning them, that they were refugees of a tiny, recently-destroyed village in the Land of Lightning. They were seeking shelter in Kumo.

Tucking the papers into his pack, he looked to Sakura. The girl had finally quieted and now rested in Sakura's arms, making the occasional whimper. Sasuke knelt beside his teammate and imparted the information to her quietly, then prompted her with a look.

She bit her lip and began hesitantly, "Hey, sweetie… what's your name?"

The child's face screwed up in misery. "K-K-Kei… -ko…"

Sakura smiled at her gently. "Keiko-chan? That's adorable. Keiko-chan, what happened… to your mom and dad?"

"W-We were w-walking… and th-then… we heard the, the bad people c-coming, and M-Mama…!" She started crying again. Once she was nursed back to coherency, she picked up, "M-Mama made me hide… and so I watched when… when…!"

Again, she dissolved into tears, but Sakura made no effort to hush her, instead only rocking the child. Without looking up, she said quietly, "It must have been those rogues we encountered. Sasuke-kun… do you think you can bury her parents…?"

He nodded and set about the gruesome task, using a few jutsus to speed the process along. Once they were buried where they lied, he found two large stones to use as grave-markers.

When he returned to Sakura's side, the child had been fed and her face cleaned, and she was dozing on the lap of the kunoichi holding her. He found green eyes looking at him intently. "We have to take her with us." Sakura braced, as if expecting opposition from him, but Sasuke only nodded. It wasn't like they could just abandon the kid.

When Sakura rose to her feet, Keiko started. "It's all right," the green-eyed girl soothed. "We're going to take you with us, okay? I'm Sakura, and this is my friend Sasuke. We're going where…" she hesitated, "where you were going."

Keiko nodded miserably and snuggled closer. Alighting to the trees, Sasuke and Sakura promptly set course for the nearest town, which, moving at a speed that wouldn't jar the child in Sakura's arms, would take them roughly three hours to reach.

By the time they were halfway there, Sakura was visibly tiring. She started falling behind, her arms even shaking a bit with the weight of the child.

Uncomfortable but resigned, Sasuke motioned for her to halt. "I'll take the kid," he said gruffly, looking away.

Sakura stiffened. "I can carry her," she insisted defensively.

He searched for a way to not wound her pride. "You carried her halfway there," he pointed out. "I'll carry her the rest of the way."

She looked like she wanted to argue but was too tired even for that. Nodding listlessly, she shifted to hand over the child. Immediately, Keiko started squirming, try to remain in the arms that held her. Sakura exhaled. "I'm just going to let Sasuke-kun carry you for a while, okay, sweetie? It's all right, he won't hurt you."

Keiko eyed Sasuke mistrustfully, but allowed herself to be passed over. He gripped her awkwardly, unaccustomed to holding a child. At the sight, Sakura cracked a weary smile and demonstrated. He imitated her and soon they were on their way again.

Having the girl in his arms felt very strange and foreign to him. He didn't appreciate the encroachment on his personal space, and he had never been comfortable being in physical contact with another person, but it was necessary so that Sakura wouldn't drive herself into the ground with exhaustion.

"S-Sasuke-nii…?"

He was caught off-guard by the honorific. It was perfectly normal for a child to address someone his age as such, but it made him think helplessly of his own elder brother. "Yeah," he grunted.

"You and Onee-chan… are you ninjas? You…" Keiko frowned, the baby fat of her face crinkling. "You move like ninjas." She gesticulated with her tinytiny hands, trying to illustrate what she was saying.

He understood. Shinobi, even when walking, were much stealthier and fluid in their movements than civilians. Still, he was surprised that someone so young was perceptive enough to notice. "We are."

"Oh…" Keiko looked apprehensive. "Ninjas… are scary. They do bad things." She shrank in on herself, as if expecting him to strike her. "But Onee-chan isn't scary. And you're…" she looked up at him nervously. "You're not that scary."

Sakura was listening and seemed to be stifling laughter at his expense. He glared at her, then pointedly avoided looking at the both of them. "Hn."

Sasuke decided that he didn't like kids.

~x~

They got a lot of strange looks when they arrived at the town; two Konoha-nin with very different reputations and a child between them was
sure to start talk.

They acquired a room with two beds at the small local inn. Keiko would stay with Sakura. Their meal consisted of items purchased from a nearby convenience store, and after they'd eaten Sakura helped Keiko with her bath, which revealed her hair to be a honey blond.

Wearing a shirt of Sakura's as a nightgown, the child curled up against the medic and fell asleep immediately, the older girl drifting off not long after. However, insomnia visited Sasuke like an old friend, and he found himself standing on the room's tiny balcony at one in the morning.

At Sakura's quiet, approaching footfalls, he grimaced. He hadn't wanted to disturb her sleep.

"Hey…" She came to stand beside him, hair mussed, eyes glazed and unfocused from slumber.

He exhaled. "Go back to bed. You need rest."

She didn't answer, and she didn't leave. She kept him company for a while, and he couldn't find it in him to push the matter. If she wanted to sacrifice her sleep, it was her own business. And… her presence calmed him, in a way. He'd been going over the day's events with anxiety over the darkness and grim anticipation for what awaited him in Kumo.

Staring out into the night, his eyesight blurred, as it did from time to time. His eyesight had seemed to improve after he stopped using the Mangekyo so often, but these bouts of bad vision still occurred, and they were painful.

Hissing quietly, he covered his eyes with his hands.

Immediately, Sakura was awake. "Sasuke-kun! Are you okay?" She reached out as if to touch his shoulder.

He jerked away from her. "I'm fine!" he snapped. The spells made him edgy and bad-tempered.

Her hand hanging awkwardly in the air, her expression went through a rapid slideshow of surprise then hurt then anger, where it halted and remained, as if captured in a photograph. She dropped her hand to her side stiffly.

Damn it. "I'm fine," he said again, more gently, in lieu of apology.

After a moment she relaxed, hearing the undertones of compunction in his voice.

The bout passed, though he was noticing that, slowly but surely, his vision was becoming less and less sharp. Tension and disconcertion coiled in his chest. Sakura was regarding him quietly and with mild distress, which made the corners of his mouth tighten. He hated it when people—especially she—worried about him.

Once more, he reiterated firmly, "I'm fine."

Dubiety evident in her tone and particularly in her eyes, she murmured, "If you say so…"

He expected her to pursue the subject, to nag him to reveal the reasons behind his strange behavior, but instead leaned her elbows on the railing and kept quiet. Grateful, Sasuke remained with her in such a manner for some time after.

Perhaps he didn't resent Sakura's changes so much after all.


Okay. Guys. I am ashamed to ask this, but does anyone have any ideas for what mission the Raikage will assign to Sasuke? I have ideas, but they all kind of suck. And I warn of original characters up ahead; I'll try to keep them as realistic as possible, but shout at me if I start getting self-indulgent. Keiko will be major-ish for a while; my plot is still regrettably inchoate. (And I only realized after I wrote it that I made her physical appearance like, exactly that of Kisa from Fruits Basket, haha.) And I know this chapter is later than usual, but I won't apologize because, contrary to popular belief, I do kind of have a life.

Huzzah for precarious mind!

Unrelated:
1) I was at the National Book Festival in D.C. yesterday, where Daniel Silva signed my book! I realize that many of you probably don't know who he is, but still. Oh. Em. Jesus. Also while there, I got rained on, ran into five people, spilled soda on my favorite white jacket, made a kid cry, and knocked over a table with like, twenty-gagillion fliers on it, which I then had to pick up. (It's all a long story.) But I also got a free poster, so it like, balanced out?
2) I'm hungry.