A/N: This chapter is dedicated to Luna Silvereyes for her relentless encouragement! Thank you, and enjoy the chapter.


"Yet another river."

Sandaled feet came to a halt where the gruff voice came from, the figure looking over a stretch of water in the north-western side of Fire Country.

"The scent ends here, Kakashi."

Said man looked down at the small dog by the edge of the riverbank, and sighed.

"So, it's either Grass or Rain Country. Although I have a hunch it may be the latter."

The dog sat down, taking a much-needed break after some long hours of pursuit.

"Why would she be in Rain?"

Kakashi squinted his eyes, scanning the tree line ahead of him for any clues.

"She's been there before."

"Well either way, these rivers are bad enough at throwing me off Sakura's trail let alone a country where it constantly pours."

"I know Pakkun, but we have to try."

The pug scratched his hindquarters, readying himself for yet another bout of travel.

The silver-haired jonin wasted no more time as he made his way across the water, Pakkun already running few meters ahead.

.-.-.

Warmth.

It was the first sensation she felt, as the haze of slumber slowly cleared from her mind. She imagined the light from her bedroom window bathing everything in her apartment in a soft yellow.

'Maybe I'll visit Ino... buy fresh flowers...' she mused, still tethered within the grasps of sleep.

But she was perfectly content to stay here, unable to detach herself from the fluffy pillow under her cheek, the sunlight on her skin, and that delightful warmth pressed against her back.

Sakura cracked open an eye, the yellow walls she imagined from back home not matching the white her gaze was met with.

'But, Ino doesn't work at the flower shop anymore... this is not my apartment...'

And she was not in Konoha.

The girl shifted slightly, the confusion from her eyes quickly giving way to alarm as she realized that the warm presence behind her was in fact breathing, and slowly she looked down noticing a bare, blue-gray arm nestled under her breasts.

Her bra-clad breasts.

Sakura's heart sped up, realizing whose arms she currently occupied. Whose bed.

'Ah.'

Snippets of the previous night quickly permeated her memory, as she tried to recollect just what exactly had transpired between her and Kisame. Trying not to move, she pieced together what she could, and remembered the anguish she had felt - the very reason she had come here in the first place. She was going to spend the night, but couldn't sleep, then she had tried to drink, and Kisame woke up and stopped her, and then...

Her eyes widened and a hand moved towards her lips as she remembered how fiercely he had kissed her. Sakura's heart beat loudly at the memory, as her mind raced to search more in detail.

'Did... did we..?' she thought, and then felt that weight against her ribs shift as she froze.

She waited a few seconds, but Kisame made no move to indicate that he was awake, and Sakura tried to still her heart lest it give her away. Yes, he had kissed her, and she felt something deep within her twist and ebb as she remembered how she kissed him back - and most importantly how damned good it felt. It didn't help that she was beginning to feel acutely aware of how close he held her now, his legs tangled with hers under the sheets, his arm anchoring her to him.

Sakura's instincts begged her to turn around and look upon his face, because at this point it still felt surreal. But her eyes were gummy and the skin around them swollen, as she remembered the way she had broken down completely in the arms of this very man.

And at that realization, her heart sunk a little. Now, she found herself surprised that he hadn't left - that he had stayed all throughout the night while she bared herself to him so completely.

'Kisame...'

She gazed down longingly at his arm, so tightly pressed against her, as she felt the rhythmic rise and fall of his chest at her back.

Yes, the man had stayed - stayed with her during her worst - and despite her conflicted thoughts, it was difficult to feel completely guilty and apologetic for it. The fact was, for the first time since leaving Konoha, she was able to get some sleep, and acquire some semblance of peace. For some reason she couldn't help but feel light and oddly content, in spite of her state of mind just hours before.

Sakura smiled, tracing the scar around his wrist ever-so lightly, before regrettably peeling herself out of his warmth. Quietly, she padded towards the bathroom and splashed water on her face, scrubbing the last of the night's sadness away. She watched the water flow down the drain, and thought of Sasuke again, finding that his name didn't cause her chest to constrict anymore.

'Sasuke,' she said more firmly, realizing that the name still bore sadness, but didn't threaten to crush her any longer.

With a deep breath, she walked back towards Kisame's room, pausing in the doorway for a moment, taking in his sleeping form. He was clad in a plain gray t-shirt and short pants, further suggesting that the passionate kiss didn't escalate to something else. She stood there and wondered if he knew what he had given her.

Sakura walked back to the bed and lied down next to him, allowing herself to enjoy this new lightness she felt.

Kisame shifted after a moment, and mumbled something groggily as he also came to. He glanced to the side, and felt his breath catch at the unexpected sight. She lay there fingers neatly linked across her ribcage, hair splayed out against his pillow, and the grief completely gone from her face. He watched her for a moment longer, then turned on his side towards her.

"Hey," he said, his tone soft with the remnants of slumber. Sakura's eyes were closed, but she was anything but asleep.

"Hey," she responded, taking a few seconds to enjoy the sound of Kisame's voice as it reverberated in her head.

She opened her eyes, almost scared to meet his gaze, then finally turned towards him.

His hand propped his head up as he looked down at her, and Sakura felt her heart begin its frantic beating as the corner of his lip twitched upwards momentarily.

She blushed a little, and felt her own smile manifest without any instruction.

"Welcome back," he said, immensely relieved by her small reaction.

Whatever fears he had as he held her crying form the night before, quickly skittered away into dark corners as he took in the girl in his bed. He allowed his eyes to trail over that pretty flush of pink against her cheeks, then down the smooth expanse of neck before settling on the very unavoidable - and quite fetching - tops of her breasts, still cupped in her black bra.

The fact that she made no move to hide herself stilled the trickle of fear at the base of his spine that had taken residence there the night before, threatening to manifest into something worse.

Her eyes flickered back to meet his then, and he let himself linger in their depths.

She let out a breath she didn't know she held, and her eyes softened as she looked up at him.

She didn't need to say anything, because her gaze spoke volumes. The immense gratitude there was enough to dispel the last of his doubts as he felt that pull again, longing to taste her lips once more. Instead, he reigned himself in, and brought his free hand around to catch a lock of her hair, bringing it towards his nose.

Sakura then chuckled, bringing him out of his actions.

"What?" he asked.

"I think... next time, I'll have to bring you a bottle of my shampoo, since you like the smell so much apparently."

He smirked, and let the lock of pink hair fall back to its resting place against the pillow.

"Is that so," he drawled out, stretching his arms behind his head as he settled on his back, "Sounds good to me. Maybe then I won't need to keep you around anymore."

Sakura laughed, imagining Kisame cooped up in his apartment sniffing Ocean Mist shampoo like some sort of junkie.

"Yeah?" she said, turning on her side to face him, "Don't think you'll be rid of me that easy."

And she knew it too, as his words from the night before echoed in her mind.

"Mm," he said, closing his eyes and allowing himself to breathe in her scent.

Amidst his thoughts of the kunoichi, he took a moment to think of how strange this was - to wake up next to a woman, and not have to watch her hurriedly gather her clothing and leave. It was stranger still, to be so encompassed by Sakura's presence, and see her so openly comfortable in his bed as if it had never been any different. As if she belonged there.

And if only she knew how deeply he wanted to sense her desire for him again - the thick, dark notes amidst her usual sweetness. He closed his eyes and let himself think back. Would he ever experience it again? Or was that something he would have to recall from the depths of his memory, time and time again until there was nothing left?

A soft touch against his bicep broke him out of his thoughts.

He peered down at the girl as she traced the grooves on his arm, and he tried immensely hard not to react too openly in response, lest his actions take him too far for the second time.

But oh, how nice it felt.

"Kisame..." she began, almost unsure of the words as she continued to touch him.

He felt her inch closer to him - felt the fabric of her bra, her skin, against his arm. He swallowed, hard.

Her hand was on his chest now, and he felt the ends of her hair brush against his neck as he struggled to maintain his breathing.

Sakura hovered over him, eyes tracing over his lips as she too recalled the heated moments from before.

'My first kiss,' she thought, gazing longingly at Kisame's smooth skin, wondering if she should tell him that - if she should bring it up at all, for that matter. Did he even remember?

Did he remember it like she did?

"Last night," she began, the words almost cracking, as she struggled to find the rest of them.

'Yes, let's talk about last night, Sakura. You were a mess, Kisame came and rescued you from what was going to be a very poor, very reckless decision, then he kissed you. Then, we were... um, and then... well,' she thought, warring with her thoughts, 'then he was going to leave.'

She sighed.

'And of course, he stayed, because you needed him to. He did what you needed - and it's done now,' she thought, then with great regret, pulled away and settled back down next to him.

Except Kisame was waiting. She didn't finish the rest of her sentence, and her hands on his skin trailed away, leaving yet another unfinished clause.

"Last night," Kisame said, re-opening his eyes after realizing she had moved away, "Last night was my fault. I shouldn't ha-"

"Don't Kisame."

He looked at her, trying to place the expression on her face.

"I'm the one who should be apologizing. You didn't deserve to see me like that."

He struggled to find words, but she beat him to it.

"But still... I don't regret it," she said, "I don't regret any of it."

He felt that knot within him constrict almost impossibly tight, and allowed himself to think that perhaps he had done something right. That perhaps her desire for him had been real.

And if it was real, then...

"And..." Sakura added after a moment, "I don't want you to regret it either."

The maturity in her words betrayed the flush which crept back on her face, and he felt himself drawn to her once again.

'So unable to hide the truth,' he thought, wondering how she could get flustered at that, yet be lying so openly in his bed, nearly topless, at that. Briefly, he considered if she had ever experienced a man's touch before him, and it brought forth a strange possessive swell within him. He cleared his throat.

"Alright then, kunoichi," he said, taking her tightly fisted hand in his, unfurling her fingers, "I won't regret it either."

Sakura let out a shaky breath, melting into his words and his touch. Desperately, she wanted to feel him all around her again, but she knew the moment was suspended now somewhere else, waiting, perhaps, to be picked up and continued where it had abruptly ended.

But she knew it was not now, not when her wounds were still open, regardless of how diminished.

And she knew that Kisame knew it also, because even in his touch, she felt his restraint, his hesitation. She watched lazily as he smoothed his thumb over her bruised knuckles. She squeezed his hand in reassurance, and watched as he sat up, stretching his arms back and above his head.

'Thank you,' she thought, hoping to find the right way to say it to him, but found none.

Somehow though, she knew he understood.

The sound of cracking joints brought her out of the moment as she watched Kisame trying to ease the kinks out of his neck.

"Hey! Don't do that, it's bad for you."

"What?"

"Your spine is sensitive, cracking it like that could cause a stroke you know," she said, sitting up as well.

"Yeah? Shit, good thing I've got you to tell me that now, after you know, a lifetime of morning spine-cracking."

Sakura rolled her eyes as the man smirked at her, and rewarded her with yet another alarmingly loud crack.

She slapped his arm.

"Turn around you overgrown shark, geez."

He scoffed, then promptly sat on the edge of the bed, awkwardly lifting his shirt up over his head as her hands quickly found their way to his trapezius muscles. The soothing hum of her chakra followed soon after as he felt himself sag from the relaxing effect.

"How's that?"

The flow of chakra slowed as she massaged him, weaving her way across his shoulders then down the cleft of his spine, as he found difficulty concentrating.

"Mm, nice."

Sakura's rhythmic kneading stopped abruptly.

"Nice. You always say that."

"Well because it's true."

Sakura shook her head lightly before continuing.

"Something a little more descriptive wouldn't hurt, you know. Tell me how it feels."

"It feels... not shitty?"

"Okay smartass, you know what? I'm not even gonna get mad at that little remark. I'm going to take it as improvement of your expanding vocabulary."

She felt the rumble of his laughter through his skin as she continued kneading his scarred skin.

Kisame cocked his head to the side, deciding to humor her request as he closed his eyes and focused only on the girl's touch. He let out a low hmm, the ebb and flow of soothing relief difficult to think through.

"Soft..." he said, fully absorbed by not only Sakura's touch, but her scent now, her breaths, her heartbeat, the way her knees touched against the small of his back.

"Warm," he said after, listening to the increased pace of her heart beat now, "Soothing..."

He felt the confident motions in her hands waver, and he wondered if it was because she imagined the same thing he was. He thought of the kiss once more, of her legs wrapped around his waist, her hands fluttering along his body, weaving in his hair, exploring, clutching him in desperate need.

"What else?" he heard her whisper, the breath against his ear sending another shiver down his spine.

"It feels..."

Kisame felt her hot breath against his neck, her hands no longer touching him with clinical purpose. Her scent was laced with the stronger notes of the night before, and he turned around, unable to deny the magnetic pull.

She looked up at him, her hand against her lips as she gazed with a nearly frightened longing into his own darkened irises.

His hand snaked around her waist as he loomed over her, slowly inching her back down against the mattress. Their noses nearly touched as they took one another in, so close.

Kisame's free hand smoothed against her lips, his thumb travelling where his lips wanted to. He took a moment to observe her like this, relishing the sight before he spoke.

"I've been with many women who didn't want me," he said, watching the confusion etch on her face.

"I don't want you to be one of them."

"Kisame..."

"Things between us are different now, kunoichi. You can't even work some kinks out of my back like you used to."

Sakura blushed at that, but fixed her gaze on his fiercely.

"Well you don't have to make it seem like I'm some wanton whore."

Sakura tried to push herself away from him, but he stopped her.

"No, you're clearly too inexperienced."

"Oh fuck off," she said and forced herself away from him.

She angrily strode towards the door, looking for her shirt so she could leave.

"Hey, hey, hey - stop."

"What?" she shouted, spinning on her foot as she turned towards him.

He just sighed and plopped back down on the bed, defeated.

"I don't even know kunoichi. This is all new for me too, shit."

Sakura crossed her arms against her chest, her anger dissipating in favor of sympathy.

He ran a hand through his messy hair in frustration with everything.

"I know," she said.

He glanced at something poking out from the sheets beneath him, and pulled out Sakura's shirt. He absently thumbed the fabric as he spoke.

"I've placed my loyalty in too many of the wrong things. Made too many bad decisions."

"You're right. And I don't want to ruin everything just because I need a distraction from Sasuke."

Kisame looked out the window, taken aback at the words. A distraction. Was that all he was? So, his intuition hadn't failed him on that account, but he hadn't expected her to admit it so unabashedly.

Sakura noticed, and winced at how the words came out. She wouldn't belittle this man now, not after how much he had given her.

"Remember back in Tea, when you told me about that girl?" she asked.

Kisame thought back and recalled the incident clearly, and found it odd that he hadn't had any thoughts of Kaori since the day he told Sakura about her. He did however, find it odd that she would bring it up now of all times.

"What of it?" he said, trying not to sound as frustrated as he felt.

"I told you... I am not her."

Kisame turned towards her, the meaning of the girl's words resonating within him. He realized quickly back then his foolishness in comparing his old teammate to this girl. They were nothing alike after all. And...

He rose, walking over to the still standing girl, and handed her the wrinkled shirt.

"And I'm not Sasuke," he said.

She smiled, and slipped the flimsy shirt over her head.

"No Kisame you're not. And yes, things are different now between us, and everything else. But what hasn't changed is that I care about you, and I want you in my life."

"Good," he said simply, glad to have that at least; It could have ended up much, much worse after all. He really did fear the morning would be a lot more angst and anger-filled. Needless to say, this was a welcome surprise.

"Let's go eat," he said, hoping to change the topic regardless.

"Yeah I'm starving," she replied, glad that he still wanted to do their usual mundane things in spite of it all.

The man washed up quickly, pulling himself into some semblance of order - physically, anyway - before rejoining the girl.

"Thank god I have the day off from work today," Sakura said, "the last thing I need is-".

"Oh shit."

Sakura turned and looked at the man whose hand was planted to half his face.

"What?"

"I... have to be somewhere," he said, glancing at the clock in the living room, "and in half an hour apparently."

Sakura looked taken aback, suddenly getting the feeling that he was avoiding her.

"Oh."

Kisame ran a hand through his messy hair, looking apologetically at the girl.

"I never told you... I'm kind of teaching basic Kendo to the combat squads."

Sakura raised a brow, unsure of whether or not the man was serious. Swordsmanship? She recalled her training back in Tea, and how annoyed he'd get at just teaching her - not to mention how much he hated the sensei title, joking or not. But this? She couldn't picture him training an entire group of shinobi. She wondered if he argued and bickered with his current disciples, then realized he was actually only ever like that with her.

Which was again, utterly baffling.

"Kendo, huh," she said.

Sure she was disappointed that they wouldn't get to spend some more time together - being normal, that is - but she couldn't forget that war was still looming on the horizon.

At that reminder, Sakura straightened, realizing the recent events were nothing compared to what was in store for them.

It was so easy to forget though, she thought, giving him a subtle once-over, trying hard not to think of... well everything.

"Yeah," he finally said, digging some garments out from his closet and stuffing them into a bag, "We can meet later if you want."

He didn't hear a response, and peered out from behind the closet door.

"Are you... are you okay?"

"What? Yeah," she said hastily, realizing she was standing dumbly in the doorway, "Of course Kisame, you go do your thing."

Not like that, he thought. Kisame looked at the ground, trying to figure out how to word himself. He needed to at least know she was okay when it came to Sasuke, and everything else. She seemed to be, but he knew now that nothing compared to verbal confirmation. But before he had a chance to ask more concisely, she interrupted him.

"Anyway, I won't keep you. I have a couple things I need to take care of too," she said with a small smile.

Kisame observed her carefully, but she turned heading for the door. He packed the rest of his training gear and followed suit.

As they slipped on their shoes in silence, Kisame wondered if Sakura's mind was as scrambled as his was still. He found it incredibly hard to resist physical contact - however minute - with the girl. Would this feeling haunt him forever? Never allowing him any semblance of normality around her again? He watched her teeter slightly as she balanced on one leg, trying to slip on her boot. His hand reached out for her shoulder, but he withdrew it quickly as she straightened.

"Ready?" he asked, hoping that words could drown out his thoughts.

She shouldered her backpack and gave a nod before they headed out into the rainless morning.

.-.-.

"Was that better?"

A dark-haired youth stood legs apart, short sword thrust out before him, the group of shinobi surrounding him in various stages of practicing their swinging techniques. The young man's head was cocked to the side, expression hopeful as he looked to the tall figure standing before them.

"Hoshigaki-sensei?"

He would have been the perfect image of a seasoned, disciplined swordsman, clad in a traditional black yukata, the sash at his waist sagging down from the weight of the katana at his hip, a second blade in his hand. But despite his appearance, Kisame's mind was elsewhere.

"Hoshigaki-sensei?"

"Hm?"

He blinked, shifting where he stood as he nodded at the young man whose name he suddenly couldn't place.

That and he couldn't really even recall what he had asked, since the kid looked at him so expectantly.

Right, probably something about the technique.

"Your knees are too stiff," Kisame said, giving him a once-over, "and you're gripping the handle too low. Bring your hand closer to the fuchi."

The man promptly looked down and bent his legs, sliding his hand up towards the collar of the katana, his knuckles white from the ferocity of his grip.

"Like this?"

Kisame rubbed his temple in irritation as he looked upon the sorry sight.

"No, I didn't say- tsk, you know what? Just go do a few stretches, we'll resume tomorrow."

With that Kisame let out a sharp whistle, gaining the immediate attention of the dozen or so shinobi in the small dojo.

"You're dismissed for today, practice your katas and I'll see you all tomorrow."

The group of ninja gave a collective bow in respect, leaving Kisame feeling oddly out of place. It seemed even after three sessions, he could not become accustomed to his role, and the subsequent admiration it garnered. The setting - even what he wore - just reminded him of his old sensei at the orphanage in Mist, even if the differences were vast. Still, he bowed back, as the room soon filled with murmured voices and the clinks and slides of metal as they retired their blades for the day. He waited for the last pair of feet to pad out the screen door before he allowed himself to slump against the wall. Kisame breathed in deep, taking in the scents of wood, steel and sweat as he tried to clear his mind from the thoughts which plagued him since he woke up.

Despite their attempts to clear the air that morning, Sakura continued selfishly occupying the space in his mind, never allowing him to drift to other subjects for too long. But of course, inwardly, he knew he was entirely responsible for that state of affairs anyway.

He shook his head and turned around so he faced the wall, unsheathing the katana at his hip as he replaced it on the notched weapon rack in front of him. He took a moment to admire the sleek beauty of the sword, eyes following the long, soft curve from the hilt to the tip before he stopped himself, realizing his thoughts immediately went elsewhere in the process.

Honestly, it was a wonder he had managed to teach at all today.

He had never imagined himself as an instructor, but the thought struck him at random after a visit to the local training grounds revealed the rainy city's ninja to be rather lacking in the sword-fighting department. They all carried the weapons, yet it seemed none were too adept at using them. Of course, later, he would teach them the value of imbuing chakra into their blades, but that was still a ways off, he noted. Ever since his return to Amegakure with Sakura, he had wanted something substantial to occupy his time with, especially since she had wanted her distance, so he offered his services if only for a short time. What he didn't expect, was that he actually found himself enjoying it, today being an exception of course due to the unforeseen circumstances.

'Unforseen circumstances of nearly sleeping with one very damaged, emotionally distraught kunoichi,' he thought bitterly, angry that it had happened like that at all.

But his mind of course was traitorous and cared little for the circumstances, and more about the visceral sensations of her in his arms, the taste of her skin...

The little gasps she made as he kissed her...

Kisame opened his eyes, realizing he was gripping the scabbard a little too hard and he pulled away as if burned.

"Hoshigaki-san."

Kisame pivoted on his heel at the voice.

"Ah, Jun."

A man clad in Amegakure's steel-blue garb stood at the entrance way, arms crossed at his chest. As the head general of the city's armed guard, Kisame found it admirable that the man never carried himself with pomp or arrogance despite his title. It was one of the growing qualities Kisame respected in the man, having met too many a high-ranking shinobi who acted otherwise.

"If you came to check up on your men, I just let them go," Kisame said.

The man remained at the doorway and nodded curtly.

"How are they holding up against a legendary swordsman's training?"

Kisame chuckled at that, finding himself feeling slightly guilty for his lack of any actual teaching today. He absently adjusted the belt around his yukata as he tried to order his thoughts.

"They're doing as well as expected. It's only been a few sessions anyway."

Jun looked serious for a moment and finally entered the dojo, hands behind his back as he strode slowly yet purposely towards Kisame.

"Hoshigaki-san-"

"Kisame is fine," the shark-man interjected.

"Kisame then - I'm worried for them. As their general... perhaps it is undignified of me, but I fear I will lose my shinobi."

Kisame crossed his arms against his chest as he considered his words.

"I've sent out two squadrons last month, and they have yet to send word or return. My army is dwindling, and even with the extra training..."

"I know," Kisame said bluntly, knowing full-well Jun's concerns.

"If this Madara were to come here now, in his current state, I have no doubts we could defend ourselves, but..."

"The bijuu," Kisame finished.

The man breathed in deep and sighed.

"We are alone, Kisame. Just yesterday, the messenger Konan sent to Kumogakure came back empty-handed. Nobody will ally with us because of our weak history and small size. I fear Rain will be the first to be destroyed should Madara gain his full power."

Jun stared to the side, looking bereft and defeated. Kisame felt sympathetic if not slightly off-put by the man's solemn admission.

"There's still a chance that he won't get his hands on the last two tailed-beasts. It's not hopeless yet," Kisame said.

In an instant, the man snapped out of his zoned-out state and nodded at Kisame, his usual well-meaning smile back on his face.

"Ah, yes of course. Forgive me; I don't know why I'm burdening you with all of this. You're right, there is hope."

Kisame observed him, realizing how much he resembled Itachi with his dark eyes and long, albeit reddish hair tied in a neat ponytail. With that, the man gave a curt nod and made his way back out the door, and Kisame felt a touch of pity for him.

What Jun said was undeniably true, but at this point, Kisame wasn't entirely sure what to do about it. It was all one big waiting game, and there was nothing he wanted to do more than to jump into battle already and get his sword wet with Madara's blood.

At that thought, Kisame walked over to the far end of the large room and picked up Samehada, giving it a few swings as he relished the feel of his own sword after using the loaned one all day. He then proceeded to the shower room, disrobing from his yukata to the usual slacks and t-shirt, skipping showering since he barely even swung his katana decently.

At that thought, he remembered why, and like clockwork, his mind went back to that morning.

He groaned, realizing this wasn't about to clear up on its own. It seemed he and Sakura really did need to talk further about the state of affairs between them, because at this rate he would lose his mind.

Yes, he would go find her and they would sort this out once and for all.

.-.-.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

Sakura sat with her head propped under one hand as she rhythmically tapped the back of her pen against the journal in her lap.

Tap.

She looked at the last sentence she wrote, the words losing their meaning as she read them over and over. Frustrated she drew a line across the string of words, before scribbling it out altogether.

I'm sorry Naruto.

The words were still legible, still visible despite her efforts to conceal them, and she sighed, beginning anew.

I'm sorry that it had to end like that.

Again, she drew the black ink across the words, unable to bring to writing what her heart felt.

The fact was, she was no longer sorry. And that was something which although initially alarming, was setting in solidly, and becoming less and less harrowing to admit.

She re-read the rest of the letter, filled with vague details of the past year's events, but could not find the words to tie it all up in the end. After a moment, she brought the pen back down onto the paper.

'I'm sorry I couldn't be there to help you grieve.'

She felt a sting in her eyes as she penned the last word, the finality striking a chord.

Sakura bit the tears back, scrawling down the final few sentences, sincere and hopeful in her thoughts that they would soon meet again, and in better circumstances.

With a deep breath, she signed her name and leaned back against the couch in her loaned apartment, reading over the scribbled rough draft one final time before she rewrote it on a scroll. Her heart was heavy still, but there were fewer things which weighed it down now, and she found it almost cathartic to do this - to have something she could give her friend in her absence.

Of course, she knew it would be another thing altogether to get it to him. After all, nobody knew where she was, and Naruto especially had to be kept in the dark; she was still under Madara's grasp despite it all. Regardless, the kunoichi rolled the parchment up, and rose from her seat, hoping against hope she could find a way to send it.

And now that this weight had lifted from her shoulders, she could go see the man who aided in giving her the strength to do so.

She rose and made her way out and towards the main headquarters.

.-.-.

Kisame stepped away from the door he fruitlessly knocked on, realizing finally that Sakura wasn't at her place. He remembered her comment earlier about not having work, but he decided to head to the medical ward just in case she went anyway. That cursed voice at the back of his mind caused his steps to slow, reminding him that she could in fact be in her apartment, and actively avoiding him. Maybe she really did get angry earlier? Perhaps that morning, the prior night's events hadn't quite sunk in and that's why she didn't push him away immediately?

He tried to quash the thoughts, only to have them replaced by that other voice, the one which suggested that Sakura's whereabouts were known by one very dangerous Uchiha, and that she was in danger.

Kisame didn't realize he had picked up speed, until he nearly crashed into an oncoming ninja.

"Oof! Slow down there Hoshigaki-san," the man said, taking a moment to catch his breath.

Kisame looked down at the young man, recognizing him as one of the usual messenger nin.

"Urgent news. Leader-sama asked me to find you."

Kisame froze, that horrid dread rising tenfold.

"Where's Sakura? Is she alright?"

The young man, Shogo, he remembered, seemed confused.

"Uh, yeah? Why wouldn't she be?"

Kisame clicked his tongue in irritation, either at his own paranoia or the kid's vague and unsatisfying answer, he wasn't sure.

Either way he quickly changed direction towards the center of the metropolis, arriving there sooner than usual. He cursed the high-rise building, as he waited for the elevator to reach the top, and he nearly burst into the main doors, only to be met by Konan's surprised golden gaze.

...and Sakura's pink head of hair as she turned from where she stood at the leaderwoman's desk.

"Kisame," Konan said, intoning a question.

He stood there, trying not to look dumbfounded as he cleared his throat, nodding his head towards her, suddenly noticing Jun's form there and two others as well.

Kisame didn't feel like explaining himself, quickly taking a seat and avoiding Sakura's questioning gaze.

"I was just apologizing to Sakura for having to bother her on her day off. It seems like there's no time for such luxuries during war," the woman said, dismissing the other two shinobi as she sat behind her desk.

Sakura sat as well, placing the scroll she held into her backpack, still disappointed at the fact that there was no way to get her letter to Naruto without her whereabouts being figured out. It was a let-down, but one which wasn't fully unexpected, and she tried not to think about it further, as there was clearly a more pressing matter to attend to. The tension in the room was high as everyone was on edge and waiting for whatever dire news there was to report now.

"A scouting team just came back with news of activity in Yugakure. The daimyo of Hot Springs country has been assassinated, as well as the village completely eradicated."

Sakura gasped, "But how?"

Konan turned her gaze towards the pink-haired medic.

"Madara has an army. Our worst fears have been realized. It's no longer one man against the world. The scouts report seeing masses of what appeared to be Zetsu killing off villagers en masse. But instead of the split black-white Zetsu, this one was all white."

Jun shifted as he stood, clearly distraught despite his best attempts to remain stoic.

"He cloned Zetsu?" Kisame spoke.

"I don't know. This is very unexpected. Whatever Madara's intentions, it is clear that if he can do that to Yugakure, this very city is in danger as well."

Konan was visibly distressed, and Sakura's heart clenched in sympathy for the woman. She had lost so much, and seeing the way the woman looked out the window now, gazing down at the people in the streets leisurely enjoying their day, she felt the need to help her.

"Zetsu... he was captured here before my arrival right?" Sakura asked.

Konan turned towards her and nodded.

"This might be a long-shot, but I would like to examine his body, if possible."

The three shinobi looked at the pink-haired kunoichi with intrigue.

"I studied herbology in-depth, and since he seems to be a plant-like hybrid I could find something in his cells to give me insight into his biology. If all goes well, I could possibly find a way to counter the clones attack - should they come here."

Jun's eyes widened as he considered the words.

"Of course!" he said, an urgent and enthusiastic undertone to his usual calmness.

Kisame also looked mildly shocked at the proposal, mostly impressed by the idea. He felt a surge of pride within him at the thought that she could do something about this new threat, once again reconsidering her abilities. She gave him a glance and smiled, as if reading his thoughts.

The shark-man then thought of something himself.

"Even if there's a way to defeat the Zetsu, there's still the possibility that Madara might use the bijuu to cause war. I know he was adamant about having them all before he did anything, but his philosophy might change if he's desperate enough."

Kisame paused, recalling his earlier conversation with Jun.

"Amegakure lost its allies because of the Akatsuki," he said, pausing to glance at the other man.

Konan sighed, sagging a bit at the reminder. It was true, nobody trusted a village which was the main headquarters of the presumed leader Pein and his ill-reputed organization. And perhaps talks could have been reopened with Konoha, but if they found out that she housed one of its missing-nin, that would never happen. She glanced up at Sakura, realizing that she would never blame the girl for any of it - especially not after she had proven to be of such help.

Kisame raked a hand through his hair, then spoke up, his tone even and clear.

"I will go to Mist, and ask the Mizukage to forge an alliance."

Everyone was taken aback by the words, and Sakura jumped up from her seat.

"Are you insane?"

He crossed his arms over his chest and closed his eyes.

"I've thought it through."

"Oh, a whole twenty seconds? And I'm the reckless one, alright!"

Konan was at a loss, unsure of how to react to both Kisame's proposal and the little scene between him and the girl. She almost felt like an intruder.

"I will have to agree with Sakura on this one," she said, "I am sorely aware that we need allies, Kisame, but going to Mist is suicide."

"It's not-"

"I will go," Jun said, his voice firm and unrelenting.

"With all due respect," Kisame said, "If the general leaves, it will cause a divide within your men. We can't let them lose morale; they need leadership, especially now."

The man knitted his brow in concern, knowing Kisame's words to be devastatingly true. Yet nobody could argue that Kisame seemed to be the least qualified to go on such a mission.

"Look, if I didn't think this could work, I wouldn't have mentioned it."

Sakura shook her head at him.

"Why not try another village? Why Mist when you're still being hunted by them?"

"I don't trust I'd come back alive if I went anywhere else. Besides," he added, raking a hand through his hair, "I have a few ties left with some of the people I grew up with back then."

Sakura inhaled a deep breath and pinched the bridge of her nose in frustration.

She wanted to scream. How could he even consider such a thing? Especially now, of all times.

Konan seemed pensive for a moment, then took advantage of the small stretch of silence to speak.

"You know I would go, but I cannot abandon my post either. I take it you will refuse any escorts I appoint to you?"

Sakura crossed her legs the other way and tapped her foot rhythmically.

"We're fine on our own," she answered, looking out the window at nothing at all.

Konan was about to say something, but Kisame quickly interjected.

"I'm going alone, kunoichi. You're staying here."

Sakura turned to him, incredulous.

"I need to be alone for this. Besides, you have your work cut out for you with the Zetsu thing, and it'll be too dangerous if you come with me."

He got up, rolling his shoulder before readjusting his sword strap. He watched as Sakura rose as well, her furrowed brow relaxing as she seemed to snap back to normal.

"I'm ready to start with my research then, Konan," she said flatly.

"Oh. Of course," the woman managed after a second, duly noting the tension in the room and hoping to release it in any way possible. Jun took the initiative and stepped forward.

"I will show the medic to the mortuary."

Konan nodded, and without further ado they left.

The indigo-haired woman quietly shuffled some papers on her desk as Kisame stood in place, trying not to think too much about Sakura's cold exit. He considered his options, the things he would say to her later on when they met up, when Konan's voice interrupted his thoughts.

"I forgot what that's like."

"Hm?" he said after a moment, turning around to face the woman.

"I forgot what it's like to have someone attempt to convince you to stay," she said, continuing to meticulously flip through the stack of papers on her desk.

Kisame wondered briefly how the leader-woman managed to have so much stuff so neatly organized and arranged all the time, until her words sunk in.

"I don't remember how it feels to be non-expendable," she continued blankly, her mind elsewhere, as her hands busied with the papers.

Kisame wondered about that - wondered how she could say such a thing when the entire city had an unrelenting admiration for her. But he knew now that there was a vast difference between detached admiration and true care for someone's well-being. Yet it was all new territory for him regardless.

"I don't really know how to be anything other than expendable," he added.

Konan smiled a little, glancing over one of the sheets amidst a stack before pulling it out.

"I believe now that one of the fundamental failures of Akatsuki was the lack of emphasis concerning the partnerships. Despite being a group - a unit composed of pairs - we were all primarily concerned with our individual survival. At times, I will admit even my own fault with Pein. I had lost sight of Nagato, of Yahiko within him more than once."

With a small brush in hand, Konan dipped it in ink and began to write on the parchment, her strokes quick and sure.

Kisame didn't know much concerning Konan's relationship towards the man, but from the way she always talked about him, there was always a ghost of regret lacing her words. He decided not to allow that to be his future.

"The Akatsuki was a learning process," he said, "Your partner now is Rain and everyone in it."

Konan paused, looking up at him.

"Y-yes. You're right," she said, the gratitude in her tone not lost on him.

"I plan on leaving tomorrow," he said then, hoping to leave the haunting past behind him, even if it was rather ironic considering the impending trip.

She nodded, continuing her writing. A few minutes later, and she finished, finalizing the document with a stamp.

"You'll need this since you're going on my behalf."

He took the scroll from her and nodded, already heading for the exit.

"I should be back within a week."

"Thank you Kisame. I know you don't need to hear it, but take care of yourself."

He paused for a moment then opened the door, realizing that for the first time he would do just that, if only because this time he had something to lose.

"I will."

.-.-.

The darkness was comfortably settled around Amegakure when he returned to his apartment that night, take-out container in hand as he fumbled with the keys in the other. Before he entered, he tested the air for any sign that Sakura was there, but found nothing; it was futile with the rain anyway. He shook his head lightly then walked in, not finding her scent inside either - not that he entirely expected her to be here, but still.

"Just you and me tonight old girl; like old times, eh?" he said, removing Samehada and placing it against the wall.

He took a quick shower, finding himself surprised that he felt no trepidation about the upcoming trip whatsoever.

'Well, not like I'd be going if I thought I'd get killed on the spot,' he thought to himself, towelling off while he walked into his room.

But it wasn't so much the possibility of death that should scare him, but rather everything else which Mist harbored.

Regardless, his past home seemed to be of the least concern presently, because he couldn't find his favorite shirt - the stupidly comfortable one with the wide collar and perfect ratio of stretch and breathability.

With an exasperated sigh, Kisame rummaged around in his small heap of clothing, unable to find anything, until he pivoted around on his foot and saw the familiar black fabric amidst his white bedding. He plucked it from the bunched covers, sitting down on the edge as he took in the sight of his bed. Smoothing his hand over the linen, he closed his eyes and picked up on Sakura's scent, still lingering there along with the memory of her body tangled in the sheets and in his arms.

He took in a shaky breath, distancing himself from the thoughts as if they could harm him. No, the Mist no longer filled him with dread compared to the uncharted things which lied with the pink-haired girl. It was the unknown that people seemed to fear the most after all.

Before he could think further on it, there was the muffled sound of knocking from beyond his bedroom. Jerked out of his pensive state, Kisame hurriedly donned the shirt and some loose slacks before briskly making his way to the front door. His heart beat quicker than normal in hopes it was her behind it.

"Sakura," he said, before the door was even fully open.

She looked annoyed but strode in, ruffling out her damp hair.

He wanted to say something light-hearted - start with a humorous jab at her state of disarray - but came up empty and waited for her to initiate.

"Well?" she said finally, making no move to take off her raincoat.

"Well what?"

"Well are you going to fricking explain yourself or not so much?"

Okay, so she was still pissed.

"I thought I explained myself thoroughly?"

"Oh!" she said incredulously, throwing her hands in the air.

"If you feel like you need me here in case Madara comes after you, then tell me now."

He watched as she angrily picked at some loose threads on Samehada's bandages, wondering when she overcame her fear of his sword. She shook her head and laughed humorlessly.

"I don't need your protection Kisame. I know I'm safe here."

"I won't be there long. It's the trip there and back which will take the most time, but I only intend to stay in Mist long enough to get-"

She looked up at him, eyes bearing a deep sadness. Kisame swallowed hard, resisting the pull he felt towards her.

"Your timing really fucking sucks."

He blinked at her, trying to process the words.

"...why?"

"Because... because of the other night," she said quietly, wishing she didn't have to spell it out.

He watched her cheeks tint pink slightly.

"You think I'm running from you?"

Sakura averted her gaze to the ground, suddenly feeling ridiculously conceited for thinking such a thing. The world didn't revolve around her after all.

"I know it's stupid, but you can't blame me for thinking that way."

Kisame laughed, the rich sound warming her heart instantly.

"You can really be an idiot sometimes kunoichi," he said.

"Hey! That wasn't the only concern I had, okay? I had to ask, geez! How am I supposed to know? You're not exactly the most forthcoming person. Hell, I even assumed once that you hated merely mentioning Mist, but hey I guess I was completely wrong about that too."

Kisame's mirth died down as he observed the frustration ebbing from her in waves. He felt guilty for doing this, and in retrospect realized that he probably should have factored her into his decision before he said anything.

"Hey," he said stepping closer, "I know this sucks, but it'll help keep this place safe should anything happen. I don't plan on living somewhere which is open to attack so easily. Besides, you live here too now, temporary or not."

"I know all that, and I don't doubt- it's just..."

"I'm coming back Sakura. I'm not done being a pain in your ass just yet."

Sakura smiled and found it incredibly hard not to reach up and touch him again. Instead she looked away from his magnetic gaze, changing the topic.

"Well since I can't stop you..." she said, shrugging off her backpack as she unzipped it and withdrew a file folder.

"What's that?"

"This, is a bargaining chip for you in case your beloved countrymen decide not to be hospitable."

Kisame scoffed and grabbed the file, opening it and reading the pages within. After a moment he looked back down at the girl.

"All this from today?"

"Yes well, it's not complete obviously, but I did do a thorough analysis of Zetsu's physiology which - as you just read there - shockingly contains some of Senju Hashirama's DNA. And I only figured that out because I've studied Yamato's cells in the past - something he may or may not be aware of, so don't go telling anyone now. Anyway, I remembered the unusual patterning in the helix, something only those of Hashirama's bloodline have."

He looked thoughtful for a moment as Sakura continued.

"I plan on investigating the whys and hows in the days to come, but that's a start."

"Hashirama..." Kisame drawled, fascinated despite the millions of questions he now had.

"Yeah, so that and a ton of other things I discovered about our creepy friend are in there. Mist might want our intel if anything. And including the things we know about Madara too, I think you really might come out of this alive."

"This is... well, I gotta hand it to you kunoichi, I'm impressed."

"Seriously you should be praising whatever gods are out there that you have my superior research to win Mist over with, because your charming skills would get you killed right at the gate."

Kisame smirked.

"Hmph, lucky for me I know my way around Mei Terumi."

Sakura raised an eyebrow.

He just grinned smugly and turned, placing the folder on the coffee table with his other things.

Mei? Sakura tried to recall all the things she'd heard in the past concerning Mist's current leader, then remembered the four-page feature on the woman in the little book she bought back in Konoha. Yes, Mei freaking Terumi, the ridiculously gorgeous and physically gifted woman. Amidst the various accolades outlining her abilities, Sakura couldn't help but also recall that glaring 'unmarried' word typed somewhere amidst her biography.

Ugh.

'Wow Sakura, this is not happening. You are not getting jealous over some woman probably twice your age - gorgeous and single notwithstanding. And it's Kisame, for god's sake. She wouldn't... they don't have a... history...right?'

Sakura stopped her mental thought-train before it got any crazier. She did not do jealous. No.

Trying to brush off the sudden self-consciousness that came over her, Sakura cleared her throat.

"Anyway, knowing you, you're probably leaving tonight or something, so I won't keep you. Just thought I'd come by and give you that I guess. Oh! And this-"

She yanked out another parcel from within her oversized backpack.

Kisame turned around from his position at the stove, trying to make out what was in the rectangular box she held.

"Some soldier pills for the road."

Sakura placed the box on the table as well and backed away towards the door. He looked at her for a moment, then the things on the table, wondering how her anger about his little mission had even allowed her to still think of his well-being like this. It was her day off, and she spent it on making sure he would be okay. Kisame didn't know what to say.

"Right, so I'll leave you to it then," she said, making ready to leave.

"Really? All that and not even a goodbye?"

Sakura pocketed her hands in her coat and smirked, "That'll cost you extra."

He turned back around, setting a pot of water to boil.

"Then I hope you accept payment in a humble cup of tea."

Sakura laughed.

'Oh, what the hell,' she thought removing her coat and striding over to the couch.

Despite her feelings concerning his imminent departure, she was at least glad they had these small pockets of normalcy to hang on to.

"Make mine a small one, I gotta be up early tomorrow."

She heard him mumble something then turned around, propping her chin on the top of the couch as she watched him. She wondered if bringing up their passion-filled night was a good idea, but decided not to make things awkward right before he left.

'When he comes back,' she thought, desperately hoping it would go smoothly.

"So..." she started, "you must be feeling pretty weird going back home after all this time."

"I guess," he said, grabbing a small jar from the cupboard.

She let her eyes linger on the lines of his back for a moment longer, debating whether or not she should change the subject; he still seemed reserved about the topic. Instead...

"Hey, remember way back when, when we escaped Suna and camped out in that forest?"

He paused, almost forgetting just how long he had actually known this girl for. In fact, it almost seemed strange that he didn't know her at some point. He smirked.

"You mean when I escaped Suna, with you in tow. Complaining, sunburnt and lost, no less."

"Hey, you wouldn't have gone anywhere without my chakra. Just remember that.

"Yeah, yeah. Why do you bring it up?"

"Well," she said, "You gave me something before I left."

He turned his head to the side, listening.

"My ring?"

"Mhm," Sakura said, running her hand along her right thigh, to the small pouch where it hid. She took it out, having tied it to a small strap.

Kisame looked at her as she observed it.

"Why'd you keep it?"

"At first, I dunno. Then after a while, I realized that I kept it because it reminded me of you, of all the time we spent together. And now, well, I like to think it may be a bit of a luck charm considering how many times I've escaped death," she said with a smile.

"A luck charm," he repeated, shaking his head.

"Well you might think it's dumb, but keeping the ring on me makes me happy," she said, pocketing the dangling object back into her pouch and walking over to the man.

"So I thought..."

Kisame turned to face her, as she took something else out of her pocket, then held up a small charm of a jade carp.

He looked puzzled, and took it for closer inspection. It was intricately carved even if the pale green stone looked worn at the edges. The carp's mouth was open, a red braided strap coming from it, adorned with a few small beads. He looked back down at Sakura.

"What's this supposed to do? Remind me that I'm part fish?"

Sakura laughed a little too hard at that, almost knocking the pot of boiling water from the stovetop.

"Oh my god, I didn't even think of that!"

He looked at the laughing girl with a quirked brow.

"You? Missing an opportunity to ridicule me with your crappy fish jokes?"

"I have to step up my game apparently," Sakura giggled, wiping a tear from her eye as her laughter died down.

"But seriously, I've had that for a while. I bought it back when I first started training as a medic. Believe it or not, the first thing I ever successfully healed was a fish. I bought that to remind me of my beginnings."

He chuckled a little at that, finding it oddly endearing.

"Well, I guess I'm lucky to have such a powerful fish-healer like you in my life."

Sakura punched him in the arm lightly, "Hey, if you think it's stupid, I'll be happy to take it back."

He closed his fingers around small charm, and ruffled her hair.

"No, I think I'll keep it."

"You're welcome," she said poking her tongue out at him.

Kisame pocketed it and grinned, turning off the stove as the water came to a boil.

"You know what I find weird about you? You never really thank me, or apologize or anything. Yet, you're so frickin' polite with everyone else. What's the deal?"

He poured the water into cups, handing one to her as both of them leaned against the kitchen counter.

"Formalities are for people you don't know. I figure... by now you know that I- well, appreciate the things you do without me having to say it."

Sakura felt taken aback by that, feeling a warmth swell within her, echoing the heat from the ceramic cup in her hand. She never really thought about it like that.

"I guess you have a point..." she said, mesmerized by the steam billowing out of the cup in haphazard patterns.

"But why the hell are you so polite anyway? I've always wondered about that," she asked.

"Because I'm unpredictable like that."

"Hah! A guy named Kisame, with gills, sharp teeth, a shark-skin sword and hair shaped into a fin thinks he's being unpredictable. Right."

He turned to her, crossing one leg over the other.

"Really? Do you really wanna go there miss Sakura, with hair the color of... oh shit - cherry blossoms?"

"Oh please, you win the predictability contest by a long-shot."

He snorted.

"Your favorite color is blue, isn't it?" she asked with a smug grin.

"And yours is pink, right?" he shot back.

"I'll have you know, that no, pink is not my favorite color," she said with a defiant sniff.

"Well mine's not blue either."

"Good," she added.

"Yeah, good."

Sakura took a cautionary sip of the tea, deeming it too hot still.

"I like green," she said with an air of self-importance.

To her surprise, Kisame burst out laughing. And not in his usual sardonic way.

"Yeah ha-ha, cherry blossoms are a plant, and plants are green, and I also study herbology, blah, blah. Laugh it up, you win."

"Mine's green too," he said.

The girl was taken aback, unsure why it struck her so much. Green. She didn't understand why it made her feel so damn happy all of a sudden, but she welcomed the sensation. Perhaps it was because they finally had something personal in common, but also, she decided she liked knowing the little things. She liked how it added yet another layer to his character - to that which she had grown to care for so much. And the more they knew about one another, the more they could clear away the hurdles which got in the way - the awkward silences, the hidden secrets, the fears, the shame, the past - and work towards something more, something bigger and more substantial.

Both ninja were lost in their thoughts, silent as they stood waiting for their tea to cool. He wanted to find something poignant to say before they parted ways, but he didn't quite know what. The longer the silence dragged on, the more he wanted to bring up the other night and that unforgettable kiss. He didn't want to go, only to come back and still have unresolved issues concerning the nature of their relationship.

"Sakura-" he began, only to be interrupted by his name on her lips.

They both shut up, waiting for the other to speak. He decided he was through beating around the bush.

"When I come back, I want to know that things won't be different between us."

Sakura looked up at him, thumb rubbing against the hot lip of the cup. So, he was bringing it up after all.

"What I mean is, different than it is now."

"I don't know what to tell you Kisame, I'm not exactly sure what to make of us now anyway. I just know that I like this. I like just being able to talk without all that horrible tension. Like how it used to be before... well before the thing with Sasuke."

He felt taken aback at that, feeling a small pained jab in his chest. So, she preferred what they had before - before things got taken to that level. He nodded, hoping his expression wouldn't give anything away. In the morning, she had told him she didn't regret anything that happened, but perhaps having a day to clear the mind helped her set it straight.

"Good," he lied, taking a sip of the too-hot beverage.

Sakura brushed it off, not even entirely sure she knew anymore. The only thing she did know, was that she didn't want a repeat of that morning, when he had rejected her advances, leaving her in a state of embarrassment. Whatever was going on between them, she was hoping it would resolve with time - and hopefully, when he returned things could be completely normal again. And by that, she was hoping against hope that they could build on what they already had, and one day even pick up where they left off.

The girl blushed at her own thoughts, oblivious to Kisame's misinterpretation of her earlier words.

The pair finished their tea rather hastily, and Sakura decided she should go.

"Well, I'll leave you to pack or whatever. Don't forget this," she said, picking up the case folder and waving it at him, before donning her coat and backpack.

They walked the few steps to the door, and she turned towards him. Briefly, her mind went to a dark place, as it struck her that this could be the last image of him she'll ever see - her tall, rogue, shark-man, with his damp hair roughly swept upwards, his lopsided grin - stupidly handsome in some strange way. Sakura shook the thought quickly from her mind, giving him a reassuring, awkward pat on the arm. She quickly withdrew, realizing that being platonic with this man was no longer possible.

"Hah, well I guess no use for a goodbye since I'll see you soon, right?" she said, hoping light-heartedness would help ease the twisting knot in her gut. In the far corners of her mind she absently wondered why evolution didn't equip people with better mechanisms to deal with goodbyes, because they were always so damn crippling.

Kisame seemed distant, and his unreadable expression was only helping further the nervous anxiety she felt. In a bout of boldness, Sakura just clicked her tongue and hugged him. He was stiff for longer than she had expected, and she just wanted to go. He responded after a few moments, forcing himself to return it, if only to reassure her that he was fine.

"Yeah, I'll be back soon," he said, abruptly pulling away from her.

"Okay," she said quietly, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.

He didn't want her to go, but opened the door anyway, watching as she stepped out into the night. It was more difficult than he thought - letting her leave him - but he realized that if he ever wanted a normal relationship with her, he would have to forget about the things which happened the night before.

"Bye Kisame," she said, fighting every instinct in her not to turn back around and give in to how she really felt.

"See ya," he said, equally conflicted, closing the door after her.

He leaned on it, listening to the sound of her sandals against the metal outside until they were no longer audible, unaware of the pair of eyes on the kunoichi who he was about to distance himself from.


A/N: Hey guys, first off I want to apologize for how long it takes me to update this fic, but given how long it's become, keeping track of certain plot details can become crazy, haha. I've mapped out the rest of the story now, so it should be easier to manage everything, but who knows in the end, lolz. Now that the pathetic self-pity is done with, I hope you guys enjoyed this chapter and don't hate me because I've done the bad thing and separated our lovely duo again. FYI, also I'm not up to speed with the Naruto manga, so I'm potentially going to deviate from whatever's going on with the war there, but I guess that's to be expected anyhow since this is AU after all.

A few things I wanted to mention, I know in canon, Amegakure does in fact have allies, but I wanted to portray a more outcasted state, because of their Akatsuki relations and the stigma it carries. I also hope you guys aren't too disappointed in the lack of KisaSaku sexy time because I'm sure people were expecting it. But just so you know, when it does happen, I will post that part on AFF probably, since I don't want Coercion to get deleted by report-happy haters :c Just a heads up! Otherwise, thank you so much for your continued support, and 'til next time my lovelies~