Title: Vengeance
Date: May 20, 2015
Summary: Haruno Sakura was dead. Haruno Sakura was dead and Uchiha Sasuke knew that he shouldn't care. But he did anyway.
Pairing: Team7ness, Sasuke/Sakura, Naruto/Hinata
Rating: M
Themes: Angst/Mystery/Drama/Romance


Vengeance
ELEVEN

"Well, isn't this just fan-fucking-tastic–owfuck!"

Suigetsu's soft, self-deprecating mutters were cut off by a pained hiss, sharp teeth grinding together tightly as amethyst irises examined his left arm, the limb shifting and distorting, transitioning involuntarily between dense and fluid consistencies. His hands flexed experimentally consequently causing droplets of water to fly off his fingertips and land, with a sizzle, into the burning fire pit in front of him. Frowning, he reached for his water bottle and took a generous gulp, replenishing the hydration reserves he was surely losing.

The cool liquid dribbled off his chin and down the slope of his neck. After a satisfied sigh, Suigetsu capped his water bottle and settled it beside him, flinching slightly as another spasm shocked his system and caused his body to ripple and undulate uncomfortably.

Too much remnant electricity was still running rampant – and unwanted – throughout his veins.

Swallowing thickly, Suigetsu ran a hand through his sweat-dampened white locks, training his stare upwards toward the star-studded skies. The moon was small and shaped into a thick crescent of light, slightly obscured by the few clouds of grey that decorated the blue-black expanse.

"…We leave at dawn."

Upon hearing the low voice, his sights shifted away from the blinking lights above to gaze beyond the flickering flames in front of him. Sasuke sat across the clearing, in silent contemplation, atop a boulder, his left leg bent and his hands fiddling with an object Suigetsu couldn't discern in the shadowed darkness.

The former Mist ninja didn't respond. Instead, he observed Sasuke with narrowed eyes, curiosity and suspicion swirling in their purple depths. His mouth twisted into a thoughtful frown, inwardly analyzing Sasuke's recent behavior.

The Uchiha was still the silent, brooding, and deadly shinobi Suigetsu had conveniently teamed up with three years prior. He was still arrogantly confident in his abilities and exuded an air of suffocating authority in that condescending way Suigetsu always found irritating. And Sasuke's thirst for vengeance was just as strong as when they had been seeking out Uchiha Itachi or recklessly waging war against the Five Great Shinobi Countries.

But, there was something different about Sasuke too.

Suigetsu eyed his companion skeptically. The Uchiha continued to glare down at the object in his hands, orange flames dancing across his dark irises and giving the shinobi a more menacing appearance. Upon closer scrutiny, Suigetsu discerned the Leaf kunoichi's blood-covered hitae-ate cradled in Sasuke's palms, the metal shining against the firelight every time the Uchiha turned it over for inspection.

There was no denying that Sasuke had latched onto a new goal – a familiar goal – and one that involved his former teammate.

'Nakamura Leiko…' Suigetsu recalled the name in his mind and tried to remember her character synopsis from his Bingo Book. She was an impressive kunoichi, with a high mission-success rate and an even higher kill count. Her photo flashed in his head – arms crossed, a scowl twisting her decidedly attractive features, and her grey eyes sharp and penetrating. She looked mean and intimidating; and, despite her injuries, she had been able to hold her own against Sasuke.

However, Suigetsu had also met Haruno Sakura, and she was intimidating and frightening in her own right – crushing a mountain-sized boulder with her pinky finger right in front of him, with a smugly satisfied smirk on her lips.

'Leiko has to be fucking impressive if she was able to defeat that pretty, little Leaf kunoichi…' Purple irises flickered back to Sasuke, 'And fucking stupid too – Sasuke isn't going to rest until she's dead.'

Thinking about their standoff against Leiko and Katsuo, Suigetsu's wary suspicion returned.

He could have killed her. Sasuke could have killed Leiko. He had the perfect opportunity.

All he had to do was take his tantō, run the blade clean-through Sakura's corpse, and straight into Leiko's heart.

But Sasuke had hesitated. He had stopped his assault on an empty threat. He had shown…restraint.

For what? Solely to preserve the body of a dead woman?

A sudden exhale drew Suigetsu's attention back to the subject of his thoughts. The Uchiha was running a hand through his hair, his expression a little more shuttered as he pocketed Sakura's headband and removed a crumpled piece of parchment.

In that brief moment, Suigetsu had never seen Sasuke look so…vulnerable.

'…It's different this time – his behavior. This vengeance for Sakura isn't like his vengeance for his brother and for his family.'

This immediately prompted Suigetsu to wonder why Sasuke had chosen to stay, and save him, instead of continuing his hunt for Leiko and Katsuo.

If it had been years before, Suigetsu would have had to fend for himself – alone. When Suigetsu first woke from unconsciousness, he was fully prepared to face the fact that Sasuke had callously left him behind to continue pursuing his personal goals, finding no other use for a liability of a swordsman, who couldn't discern the danger of mixing water with electricity.

His amethyst irises switched between the tender-pink flesh of his arms and collarbone, the water canteen sitting at his side, and the warming fire in front of him.

Sasuke didn't have to jump start his heart – but he did. Sasuke didn't have to bring him water from a nearby river to help his hydration reserves – but he did. And Sasuke didn't have to provide him with the warmth of a fire – but he did.

Suddenly, a surge of guilt hit Suigetsu, and an involuntary scowl twisted his lips, "Fuck, I'm a fucking burden." He shook his head dismissively when Sasuke glanced at him upon his mutter. There was no reason for him to feel so shamefully uncomfortable, but Suigetsu's mind argued that if it wasn't for him and the injuries he received, Sasuke wouldn't be held back from completing his objectives.

Rolling his eyes, Suigetsu pushed away his self-guilt, 'Fuck that. Sasuke chose to stay. He didn't have to. There's no need for me to feel this way.'

Groaning at his train of thought, Suigetsu grabbed his water bottle and took another generous gulp of the refreshing liquid. His spasms had lessened considerably and he stretched out his legs in an effort to help relax the muscles of his calves.

The fire crackled and stray embers floated up towards the midnight skies. The sound of rough parchment drew Suigetsu's attention back to Sasuke, who was glaring red irises at the crumpled paper held between his fingers.

Quirking a brow, Suigetsu eyed Sasuke's brooding disposition before clearing his throat, "…Call me a prick for asking, but, before all this shit happened, when you found me at that tavern on the southern border of Rice Country, where exactly were you going?" When Sasuke only stared at him blankly, Suigetsu shrugged, "Ueda is in the complete, opposite direction you were initially headed. You didn't start hunting for this Leiko-chick until you heard those bastards at the tavern." Suigetsu narrowed his eyes, meeting Sasuke's stare directly, "So, what were you doing before that? Where were you going?"

Sasuke was silent, fingers twitching against the creased paper in his possession. He stared at Suigetsu with an unfocused – unreadable – expression before his features shuttered. A sudden scowl pulled Sasuke's lips, his crimson eyes darkened, and his brows steepened into a look of pure annoyance – although it didn't seem to be directed at Suigetsu.

"Nothing." Sasuke grunted as he swiftly stood up and threw the parchment into the blazing fire. He began to walk away without a single look back, disappearing into the shadows of the forest, "Nowhere."

Suigetsu blinked, regarding Sasuke's broad back until the Uchiha was out of sight. Curious, the missing Mist ninja shuffled forward, searching the dancing flames whilst grabbing a stick at his side. When he spotted the paper, already flaming at the edges, he quickly poked it with the stick, smoothing out the crinkled document and flying his eyes across the inky black words that began to burn into nothing.

As the message settled in his head, Suigetsu sat away from the fire with a soft breath and threw his stick into the inferno with a pitying shake of his head, "Well, damn…"

Dated only three days before…

naruto–

valley of the end. two days. noon.

we need to talk.

i've decided to give konoha another chance.

-u.s.


Six Months Earlier

"The eastern wares have already been secured in the southern caches. It should only be a few more hours until we've finished transporting the northern goods into the western warehousing." Leiko raised an arm to signal a group of men to gather up crates full of sealed scrolls, before resting her knuckles on her hips. Her sharp, grey eyes critically assessed the transportation process as she calmly debriefed their progress to Shadow and Goro.

"What's the estimated time of completion?" Goro inquired, walking over to another crate as he inspected several black market weapons stored inside.

"At approximately 0800," Leiko responded, "If all goes well."

Goro raised a brow, "What wouldn't go well?"

Leiko scoffed, arms crossing over her chest, "The competence of your men." She jerked her chin towards a far-off group struggling with a pallet of metal barrels, "Whether they can work fast enough." She shrugged a shoulder towards the center of the village, "Or, whether the protection detail can keep Haruno contained."

Goro sighed, "Twenty of my best have been posted around the Tanaka Inn. Haruno Sakura will not be going anywhere without me knowing about it."

"Let's hope," Leiko muttered.

Goro ignored her and turned to Sasuke, regarding the quiet man with interest, "Shadow-san. Is something the matter?"

Sasuke said nothing. His arms were crossed and his dark eyes were trained towards the center of Kokumotsu, where the Tanaka Inn was located. It was too quiet; too calm; too suspicious.

"How many are posted around the Tanaka Inn?" Sasuke questioned.

"Twenty-two." Goro's answer was smug, as if having that many men, to spare, to watch just one kunoichi was something to be proud of. Sasuke scoffed beneath his mask.

"And how many are stationed around the southern warehousing?"

"Fifteen, perhaps." Goro shrugged, "Most have been dispatched here to help with the west-to-north transfer. Besides, Haruno has already inspected the southern wares. The eastern transfers have been thoroughly concealed."

"I made sure of it." Leiko added briskly.

"Why do you ask?" Goro queried, curious.

Sasuke felt the wind shift and listened to the distant sounds of wares being loaded onto several wagons for transport. Something didn't feel right. In fact, from a ninja's perspective, the situation was almost too…perfect.

He uncrossed his arms and leveled Goro with an even stare, "I will rejoin the protection detail of Haruno Sakura."

Goro blinked, "Is there a problem, Shadow?"

Sasuke shook his head, exuding nonchalance so his suspicions wouldn't bleed into Leiko and Goro, "I'm not needed here. And I don't trust your men after the hospital incident. I'd prefer that my own mission isn't compromised."

Goro exhaled an exasperated breath as he rubbed at his temple, "I suppose you're right, Shadow-san. Go on, then."

Leiko snorted, "I'm beginning to wonder what your intentions are with Haruno, Shadow. You spend an awful lot of time with the bitch."

Goro leered, "Well, who wouldn't. What I would do to trade places with our friend."

The dark-haired woman only sneered, "The only reason I'd get so close is to cut her throat while she sleeps."

"Keep your intentions to yourself," Goro waved a dismissive hand, "No harm will come to our guest…unless I tell you otherwise."

Leiko scowled. And Sasuke could clearly see that, even though the criminal kunoichi was going to follow Goro's orders, there would be nothing to stop her once she decided it was Sakura's last day to live – consequences be damned.

"Come on, Shadow." Leiko stepped closer to his dark-swathed form, reached out a hand, and fingered the lapels of his collar, "Forget the Leaf bitch. There are twenty-two men watching her. I should be done here in an hour or two. You can spend some time with me instead." She smiled coyly, ignoring the way Goro rolled his eyes several feet away.

Sasuke smoothly stepped away from her before her hands could move lower on his chest, his dark eyes slitted with annoyance, "No."

Goro chuckled, "It's no contest that a man would choose Haruno-san over you, my dear."

"Fuck off, Goro." And Sasuke could see, as he began to walk in the direction of the Tanaka Inn, that Leiko's grey eyes burned brighter with furious contempt, fueling her already-burning hatred for the Leaf kunoichi he was assigned to protect.

It would only be a matter of time before Nakamura Leiko would finally act upon her disdain for Haruno Sakura in a raging assault.


It was quiet.

It was a few hours past midnight and the majority of the residents of Kokumotsu Village were blissfully asleep.

Sasuke scaled the rooftops across the street from the Tanaka Inn. He counted the twenty-two shinobi that stood, or patrolled, as protection for Haruno Sakura. Most of the ninja were on the street or in the alleyways surrounding the Inn. A handful of shinobi were within the building, monitoring the halls. And a select few were hopping the adjacent rooftops and balconies in routine circuits around the perimeter.

Sasuke observed the patrolling units' several different routes and the radius of each ninja's viewpoint. He counted the minutes – seconds – of each movement, calculating any possible escape plan Sakura would have used.

Because tonight was the night. Tonight was the perfect opportunity for Sakura to make her desired move.

"…I will offer one final chance to change my mind. I have already assessed the southern and western districts. First thing, tomorrow morning, I will finish my evaluation of the eastern and northern warehousing…depending on how this inspection proceeds will determine whether or not I follow through with the extensive involvement of the Great Nations."

Her speech. While her words had a meaning for Shadow to leave Kokumotsu while he had the chance, it was also for Leiko to specifically hear. It put her in a last chance panic. Every bit of Masaru's resources were being put into transferring forbidden product from one cache to another. And, since the southern wares were already secured and already checked out by Sakura, Goro's priority for the south had diminished.

And the Uchiha had little doubt that Sakura would be counting on that misstep.

Sasuke crouched low, avoiding the moonlight's touch, as he regarded Sakura's inn window intently. The curtains were closed and it was dark beyond the sheer fabric. There was no movement within but a chakra scan confirmed a dormant – sleeping – presence.

But Sasuke knew better.

Several men standing post on the streets stood abnormally still. When Sasuke had passed a kunoichi in the back alley, earlier, her eyes had been dulled and unfocused.

Genjutsu.

Glancing around cautiously for any of the moving patrols, Sasuke pulled his hood lower, over his forehead, and allowed his onyx irises to bleed crimson.

Immediately, his eyes adjusted to his surroundings, breaking through the intricate pattern of illusions that had been cast around the Tanaka Inn – the dormant chakra, within the room, disappeared into nothing to his senses. And his special eyes could physically see Sakura's invading chakra surrounding the heads of the men and women she had generated her Genjutsu on.

One more scan of the environment and Sasuke's Sharingan faded away. With a frown, he sped off towards the south, in pursuit of his missing charge.


It was ridiculously easy to maneuver through the southern warehousing. Sasuke had only counted seven of the fifteen sentry ninja that Goro had informed him of. Although, on cursory glance, the southern cache seemed like innocent inventory filled with farming produce and simple artisan wares – Leiko was very thorough in her black market concealment.

However, just because the forbidden goods were hidden didn't mean they couldn't be found.

Swiftly moving through the aisles of high stacks of wooden crates and metal barrels, Sasuke's dark eyes darted around wildly in search of Sakura, inwardly debating on how he was going to handle the moment when he found her.

Would he turn her in? Would he knock her out? Would they fight? Would he give her a warning or a threat to leave Kokumotsu?

Would he protect her?

Creak.

Sasuke ducked down and rapidly searched for the origin of the muffled noise that bounced off the tall walls of wooden containers. Jumping over a pile of rucksack-bags of rice, Sasuke turned a final corner just as a dark shadow darted into a trap door hidden in the wall, conveniently obscured by heavy crates of rusted farming tools.

With rapid, silent, steps Sasuke followed the petite sleuth into the small opening, which lead into a small hallway that ended in a spiraling stairway leading down to mysterious lower levels. Keeping at a safe distance and suppressing his chakra to the lowest he could manage, the Uchiha soon found himself in a new, massive room several hundred yards below ground, and filled completely with the black market inventory Sakura so perceptively searched for.

Carefully, Sasuke hopped onto metal shelving that allowed for a better viewing of the space. From his vantage point, he could see large mechanics that could potentially be weaponized, crates covered in ink seals and blood seals, and piles of scrolls that emanated with dark, yet powerful, chakra. The air smelled of gasoline and smoke which instantly put Sasuke on edge – he wouldn't be surprised, in the least, if Goro had rigged his black market inventory with bombs to avoid incrimination.

Yards ahead, Sakura confidently walked the concrete aisles. She pulled off the hood of her black cloak and shook out her pink hair while observing her surroundings with calm indifference. She peered into several crates, inspected a few scrolls with gloved hands, and took a mental index of what was stocked around her.

"Jackpot…I suppose…" Sakura murmured softly. She ran her fingers through her hair as her green eyes darted around searchingly, "…But where are you?"

Her focus was mostly on documents and scrolls, rummaging through several crates and hastily reading the print on the weathered parchment, clearly seeking for something specific as she moved some aside with disinterest.

Sasuke frowned, moving closer on light feet, inwardly evaluating his next course of action. The best scenario was to knock her out and take her back to the Tanaka Inn. When she woke, he would demand that she leave Kokumotsu Village. It may be a mission failure for her record but at least she would stay alive.

Decision made, Sasuke clenched his fists, crouched meters away from her, and awaited the opening he needed to take her by surprise.

"AAAARRGHHH!"

Both Sakura and Sasuke froze but Sakura was quick to release the scroll in her possession and produce a kunai in sudden defense. Tension coiled Sasuke's shoulders as he watched the Leaf kunoichi begin to edge towards the source of the agonized screams.

Sasuke couldn't afford having her get caught. He couldn't afford her blowing her cover to help someone else.

"AAAAARGHHH! NO! Y-YOU CAN'T! I WON'T L-LET YOU!"

There was a distant flash of bright, blue light and the air suddenly grew colder. Sakura ducked passed a suspended, metal glider before kneeling behind long crates filled to the brim with several styles of naginata and yari.

"You are no longer of any use, Hiyashi Ashura."

A single beam of light fell, in a five yard radius, upon an open space of the warehouse. Within the dimmed, yellow circle was a caged cell housing a single prisoner, bound by wrists and ankles, and bruised and bloodied all over. His dark hair hung limply around his head, crimson stained his cheeks, and his dark blue eyes glared angrily at the man standing on the opposite side of the vertical, iron bars.

"What you're doing is dangerous!" The prisoner rasped, blood flecks falling from his mouth and onto his grey and beige clothing in gruesome splatters. "I know your name, Fujiyama! You're supposed to be a protector of your bloodline, not an abuser!"

"There is no point protecting something when you cannot use it to its full potential. It's why I went rogue, you see." He stepped further into the light and Sasuke immediately recognized the prisoner's captor as one of the smarter ninja of Goro's elite guardsmen – Fujiyama Kento. "As I said, Goro Masaru no longer has a use for you. What you have provided for us. What we…stole from you…has been successfully integrated into our plans."

Kento raised his hand and everyone watched as ice slowly began to materialize along his forearm before solidifying into a sharp, one-meter point, "The Hiyashi bloodline limit…is a beautiful technique." A slow smirk curled Kento's lips before he straightened his arm, aiming the point towards Ashura's heart, "…And now, it belongs to me."

Ashura's blue eyes were wide with disbelief as he regarded the crystallized ice surrounding Kento's arm, before clenching his jaw with determination, "You don't understand what you've stolen. And you will not possess my family's technique for long. Goro will not win."

Kento's brows steepened, "We'll see."

"No…" Sakura whispered.

The air grew cold once more and the ice around Kento's arm glowed bright blue. Chakra began to gather around Sakura's legs and she bent her knees, clearly preparing to launch into the fray to save Hiyashi Ashura. But Sasuke was quicker, and he sped forward, curling his fingers roughly around her wrist and pulling her backwards with a forceful grunt.

Sakura's surprised yelp was muffled by his other hand as she stumbled into his chest, her green eyes wide as Ashura's pained screams reverberated throughout the underground warehouse.

"AAAHHHHHHH!"

The sound of pointed projectiles hitting flesh, amplified by Ashura's accordant sounds of agony caused both Sasuke's and Sakura's adrenaline to spike. With self-preservation taking the forefront of her mind, Sakura lashed out, using her flexibility as an advantage as she swung her leg out in an effort to throw Sasuke off her.

Her green eyes glittered in the dark as she glared at Sasuke fiercely, her eyes glassy as they heard the dying gurgles of the prisoner behind them. Her movements were angry as she swiped her kunai towards his upper chest, only to be blocked by his left forearm – although the force of her swing would leave a severe bruise.

The kunoichi sneered as she channeled her chakra-enhanced strength towards her hands, pinning one of Sasuke's wrists above his head and straddling his waist with a quiet snarl. Sasuke's free hand grabbed her other free hand and instantly twisted it around her back, using the momentum to throw his body and roll Sakura onto her back with a suppressed grunt.

"Haruno." Sasuke hissed. "Stop!"

"I can save him!" They're quiet scuffle persisted, "Get off of me!"

"Shut up!" The Uchiha maneuvered himself so he could quickly swipe a hand over his belt, removing the spool of wiring at his left hip and efficiently wrapping it around her wrists to help bind her wild movements. "What will you do? He's dead." Reluctant, but impatient, Sasuke unsheathed his tantō and pressed the sharp blade to her throat, making sure not to push deep enough to draw blood. Sakura stilled, swallowed thickly, but her vicious glare remained.

"I dare you, Shadow." Sakura whispered lowly.

Sasuke's dark eyes narrowed, "No."

"Why?"

"Just stop talking." Sasuke tilted his head, listening intently for any distant footsteps, any indication that Kento was still in the area, or had heard their quiet tussle. When silence was his only answer, Sasuke leveled Sakura with a stern stare. "You were willing to blow your cover for a stranger."

Sakura scoffed, "For a lead." She didn't deny her mission and her expression was laced with confusion as she regarded him, probably uncertain of the fact that he hadn't called for any aid or hadn't openly revealed her true intentions. She turned her head away from him, "Besides, I can't just stand back and watch someone just…" She trailed off and closed her eyes, probably remembering the haunting echoes of Ashura's screams.

Sasuke kept silent, observing the inner turmoil that scrunched her brows. Slowly, her muscles began to loosen with surrender beneath him, though her shoulders were still tensed in the vulnerable position she was in, the blade still threatening against her throat.

A soft sigh escaped her, "You've caught me." She turned her head and met his stare with challenge, "Will you turn me in?" She snorted, "Or will you use this for your own benefit? Blackmail me?" She shook her head, a self-deprecating smirk on her lips, "I was careless." She eyed him again with a pensive frown, "And I underestimated you."

Sasuke scoffed, "You still do. I won't blackmail you, Haruno."

Sakura's expression darkened with suspicion, "Why? What is it you want, then?"

Sasuke removed his tantō from her throat and sheathed it back into his belt, "I want nothing from you, Haruno." He stood up and searched his immediate surroundings while Sakura warily got to her feet, wrists still bound together by wiring.

Sakura stared down at her restraints, brows furrowed with the utmost confusion as she turned Shadow's words in her head over and over again, "…You…" She looked at him searchingly, "I just…I don't get you."

Sasuke shook his head, "We should get back to the Inn."

Bewildered, Sakura regarded him with frustration, "That's it? You…you just caught me and you're…you're just going to let it go?" She glared at him, fingers clenching, and knuckles turning white, "No. You want something. What is it, Shadow? That can't just be…it."

Sasuke frowned, "Do you want to be turned in?" He could see the confusion in her green eyes increasing, only to morph into uncertainty and paranoia, tension stiffening her entire body as she began to analyze her unorthodox situation.

"Of course not! But–"

"Then I won't turn you in. I'm your bodyguard, not your keeper."

Sakura glowered with annoyance before pulling her wrists apart, breaking the wiring without trouble and allowing the thin metal to fall uselessly to the floor, "If you won't turn me in, then I'm going to continue investigating."

"I won't allow it." Sasuke patiently picked up the wiring to avoid leaving evidence, pocketing it into his cloak, "And you don't have the time. Your window of opportunity has passed. Soon, the guard detail for this warehouse will triple with the coming of dawn."

The Leaf kunoichi shook her head, trying to wrap her head around what was happening, "Why are you telling me this? I mean, you may have saved my life – several times, in fact – but I don't…" She looked at him, "I don't trust you. I don't…I don't know you."

Her confession caused Sasuke's chest to ache, even when, in hindsight, she was speaking to Shadow. But to hear those words fall from her lips as she stared straight into his eyes – Sasuke didn't like it.

Suddenly, he stepped closer towards her, towering over her petite form, yet she stood firm, staring at him with steady conviction and calm defiance.

"…We're leaving, Haruno." And he grabbed her wrist with rough fingers and forcibly pulled her along, through the wide aisles of black market wares, intent on getting her within safer quarters, while she could only trail after him in a baffled stupor.


When they finally reached the Tanaka Inn, there were still about two hours left before dawn's arrival. Fortunately, their journey had been without problem. When they left the southern warehouse, Sakura had pulled her wrist from Sasuke's hold and followed after him with practiced stealth, silent, but radiating with obvious mistrust as she glared at his broad back. She was still rightfully apprehensive, as if waiting for the moment when she would finally be ambushed by Shadow's cohorts.

But, Sakura wasn't ambushed and Sasuke remained taciturn. The sentries posted at the Tanaka Inn were no longer under her Genjutsu, completely unaware that they had been trapped in the first place.

And, once Sasuke stepped into Sakura's room and closed the door behind him, the weight of what just happened settled into his mind.

Shadow had actively protected Sakura. Shadow had put his job on the line – put his identity on the line – by allowing himself to put Sakura's mission before his own.

And his actions had put Sakura in a state of uncertainty that could complicate her mission even further.

He watched as she sped towards the window and closed the thicker curtains over the sheer ones, allowing for absolute privacy. He watched as she ran a hand through her pink hair in an unconscious act of anxiety, muttering to herself while shooting him wary glances of complete distrust.

He had just made himself another complicated ambiguity to her plans – one that was going to place her in a perpetual state of paranoia and suspicion.

Would she miscalculate any encounters with Goro and Leiko because she would be too busy worrying about Shadow? Would an unnecessary mistake be made because she would be too busy worrying about someone who wasn't the real threat? Would her anxiety and mistrust affect her mission, for fear of any blackmail she believed he might instigate against her?

Or maybe…maybe she would leave. Maybe this would compromise her mission beyond repair and she would – finally – just go home.

"I've spent too much time on this mission." Sakura stated firmly, refuting his unspoken hopes. She regarded him coolly, "I've missed out on too much for me to go back to Konoha with a failure. And I have too much riding on this damn mission to run away after one little screw up." She clenched her fists, "What are your intentions, Shadow?"

Sasuke frowned, defensive, "I'm doing my job."

Sakura crossed her arms over her chest, "I'll offer you a proposal – leave and I'll pay you quadruple what Goro is offering you."

Sasuke raised a brow. Quadruple? What kind of mission had Sakura accepted to warrant such high stakes?

Sasuke crossed his own arms, defiant, "…I'm not leaving."

The Leaf kunoichi glared, "Why not? If you're not here for Goro then it must be for the money. Take the deal!"

"It's not for the money," Sasuke growled lowly, though it had only been meant for his own ears to hear.

Sakura shook her head, "What?"

Suddenly angry, Sasuke glowered at her, "They're out to kill you, Haruno."

Sakura blinked, incredulous, "That isn't a surprise to me, Shadow. A lot of people want to kill me. And I knew the risks when I accepted this assignment. I don't need a…a protector." She shook her head, exasperated, "Why does this even matter to you? I don't even know you. And you don't know me."

"I know you can't do this alone," Sasuke countered.

Sakura bristled with fury, stepping forward with a finger pointed accusingly at him, "Who the hell do you think you are to know what the fuck I am, or am not, capable of?"

Sasuke closed his eyes, raised his hand and pulled at his bangs with a frustrated breath, "You are still so damned annoying, Sakura."

Sakura faltered, green eyes wide, "…E-Excuse yo–wait…what…" She blinked at him, stunned, "What did you just say?"

Sasuke was tired. Sasuke was tired of arguing when one side of the heated conversation couldn't understand his reasoning without the context of a past history. He was tired of her unawareness of both her situation and his. He was tired of not being able to actually…talk to her.

He was tired of seeing a side of her personality that was meant for enemies and strangers.

Damn it, he was just so, so tired.

With a weary sigh, Sasuke dragged his hand down his face and deliberately pulled off his mask, throwing it to the ground and opening his dark eyes to her soft gasp. He took in her wide, green eyes, her surprised expression – that was so Sakura – and allowed a brief smirk to twitch one corner of his lips upward in reminiscence.

"…S-Sasuke-kun?"

Exhaling with resignation, Sasuke met her stare with a steady composure that conflicted with the rapid, almost painful, thudding within his chest, "I said…after all this time, you're still annoying, Sakura."


A/N: Um…long time no see, eh? So sorry for the late update guys, life got super busy for me. Got a new job and my own place, so it's been a roller coaster. But thanks a bunch for your patience, guys! I hope to make updates more frequent now that things are settling down, especially since I'm so hyped that SASUSAKU IS CANON and that little Sarada is super amazing and adorbz in Gaiden!

Also, for The Curse fans – still working on an update, my horror muse hasn't been cooperating lately, but I really don't want to give up on that fic. It's a personal mission of mine to get it finished! So, fingers crossed!

But what did you think about this chapter?! Sasuke revealed himself! Next few chapters are going to pick up! So excited to get that fleshed out! YAY! What are your guys' thoughts and theories? I'm curious!

And if you have a Tumblr follow me! I put all my updates and little ficlets on there! The name is sincerelylen

Thanks for reading/reviewing/favoriting/alerting! I really appreciate the support guys! It helps me keep writing! YOU'RE THE BEST!

Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto and Company.

~Len