Hello, all! That was a long wait this time, huh? Sorry about that. It's just, you know, I have this little thing to deal with called college. I really appreciate all the amazing reviews and comments and votes of encouragement, but as for the people who say things like, "Aren't you ever gonna update?" or "What's taking so long?"

One, that's rude. Two, reading those comments makes me want to update even less because I'm petty.

But pettiness aside, I really am sorry for taking so long to finish this chapter. I'll try to do better next time. :)

And for those of you who are wondering if Sakura and Sasori are ever going to get together, look up at the top of your screen where the summary for this fic is. See those two names listed as the main characters? Sakura and Sasori. See those two genres listed? Romance and adventure. Anyone want to try and guess what that means?

Ding ding ding! We have a winner!

But romance is still a few chapters off. I mean, they were kids when they first met; serious romance at that age would be kinda creepy, you know? However, our two stars are now young adults, so they'll probably jump each others' bones soon, right? Not so much. Sasori's a bit on the socially awkward side, and Sakura never once considered him in that light because she was too busy revering him as a God when she was little. It needs time to bloom first, but it will happen. I promise.

Anyway. Please read and review!


Inception


The very instant Sakura laid eyes on him in the cave, all will to fight had left her. It didn't matter that he had poisoned Kankuro and helped kidnap Gaara. It didn't matter that he was a member of the Akatsuki, Konoha's greatest enemy, the organization that wanted to capture Naruto. It didn't matter that her mission was to stop and, if necessary, kill him.

None of it mattered, because he was here.

He was here.

Sasori was here.

His name. Gods above, his name.

She hadn't allowed herself to say or even think his name all these years, instead just referring to him as "aniki" or simply "him." She'd promised herself that she would only use his name again once she'd found him and become strong enough to stand at his side.

And now she'd found him. She'd found him without even having to look for him, and God, he was here.

Chiyou had, understandably, been rather confused when Sakura suddenly stopped in her tracks. She'd been worried and asking difficult questions to answer, and she'd been just on the verge of realizing that her partner and her grandson were connected somehow when Sakura reacted. It was instinct, really, that prompted her to catch the woman in a genjutsu. Something in the back of her mind had screamed that Sasori was in danger, and she had to protect him.

A good ten minutes passed in which they both just stared at Chiyou's unconscious form. Neither spoke. Neither looked at one another.

Eventually, Sakura had told him in an absentminded murmur what illusion she'd cast on the Suna elder, to which Sasori had replied just as quietly that it didn't do her any good to weave such a detailed genjutsu if she didn't make it believable. So, after another moment of watching Chiyou breathe, she'd set to work on destroying the cave, left Naruto a message, and then followed him when he turned without a word and walked away.

Now, an hour later, they were still silent as they leapt from branch to branch, and Sakura couldn't seem to take her eyes off of him. Some part of her was terrified that if she looked away from him for even a second, she'd suddenly wake up to find that this had all been some sort of cruelly-realistic dream. That, or he'd disappear again while she was distracted, leaving behind nothing but a scroll telling her that she wasn't ready yet.

But an hour had passed since he revealed himself, and he was still here.

Sakura admired, not for the first or third or even tenth time, how very much Sasori had changed without really changing at all. For whatever reason, she'd always pictured him that way he'd looked back then, and her mental projection of herself had been that tiny little child gazing up at him in awe. She'd never even thought about him growing older. She was seventeen now, making him twenty-one — twenty-two in November, if memory served.

And even after all these years, her feelings hadn't changed.

She loved Naruto. She loved Sasuke. She loved Kakashi.

But she loved him more, and he would always come first, no matter what.

Her breath nearly caught as she realized that he was starting to slow down and descend to lower branches, the motion so slight that she wouldn't have noticed if she hadn't been so utterly focused on him. She adjusted her speed accordingly so that she lagged behind his right shoulder rather than running beside him and, little by little, their pace reduced until they came to a leisurely walk on the forest floor. A moment later, they broke through the dense woods and emerged into a small clearing occupied only by sparse grass and a single fallen log. Somewhere close by, Sakura could hear the muted murmur of a stream.

Sasori stopped altogether, his eyes meeting hers. She halted a few feet away.

"Where are we?" she asked when several minutes passed without him speaking.

"The Land of Rivers," he replied evenly. "This is the rendezvous point that Deidara and I agreed upon; we will give him until sundown to meet up with us, and if he fails to do so, we will continue on and set up camp elsewhere for the night."

She processed this quickly. "Deidara is your partner, right?"

"Yes." He spared her a glance. "Will that be a problem?"

"That depends on whether or not he deems me a problem."

He studied her for a beat before turning and taking a seat against the log. "He won't."

She hesitated, then pushed aside her reservations and sat on top of said log. From this new position, she towered over him — strange, because he'd always been the one looking down at her. "He knows about me, then?"

"He will shortly."

Silence settled over them, and Sasori withdrew a scroll from his cloak. From it, he summoned the pitiful remains of Hiruko and set to work on fixing it. Sakura winced. Chiyou had said that was his favorite puppet. Should she apologize for destroying it? But, wait — he hadn't hesitated to fight her without telling her who he was, so maybe he'd expected her to smash his puppet; he'd overseen her study of Tsunade's chakra-enhanced strength, after all, so he should have known a single punch from her would shatter the poor thing. So it was better not to apologize…?

If he was mad, an apology wouldn't be enough. She'd have to help him put Hiruko back together. But if he wasn't mad, an apology would just annoy him, and then he would be mad.

Sakura pinched the bridge of her nose, eyes closing. Since when had she been this obsessive and worrisome? This wasn't like her at all. She was the smart, level-headed kunoichi with no patience for stupidity. She was better than this. Just because she'd found Sasori didn't mean she could start freaking out over everything like a ridiculous little child.

Slow breaths.

In. Out.

"Sorry about Hiruko."

Sasori grunted nonchalantly. "You've grown stronger."

Sakura positively lit up like the sun, being careful to hide her smile. It had always irritated him when she basked in his seldom-delivered praise. "I've been training for this since the day you left."

His hands stilled and he looked up at her searchingly. He didn't have to ask or even open his mouth.

"I worked hard to make myself stronger," she said. "I didn't dare leave until I was sure I wouldn't just be a burden to you. I was actually planning to start looking for you as soon as I finished this last mission." Her smile broke through. "I guess the Gods approved."

"The Gods have nothing to do with it," he countered flatly. That was another thing that ticked him off. Sasori didn't believe in fate or destiny or even higher beings; he used to tell her that being a shinobi was sixty percent skill, forty percent luck, zero percent faith. To be honest, Sakura wasn't exactly sure of her own beliefs either.

When he didn't continue, Sakura cleared her throat quietly. "Since we're meeting up with your partner, I assume we're going to one of the Akatsuki's bases. Is it here in River Country?"

"There is no base in River Country," he disagreed. "The only use we have here is the cave you stumbled upon earlier." His gaze slid to hers. "But that no longer exists."

She couldn't help but duck her head in embarrassment. "So, we are going to a base?"

He paused. "Are you aware of the Akatsuki's goal?"

Her face dimmed a little. "I know that the Akatsuki has been hunting down the jinchuriki, supposedly to remove the bijuu from them, and I know that doing so kills the host. While I don't know why they're doing this, I can guess."

"And?"

He was back to working on Hiruko, not bothering to look at her. To anyone else, it might have seemed as if he'd simply inquired about the weather or something equally trivial.

She inhaled and exhaled slowly, clearing her mind so she could give him a truthful response. "Naruto is my friend," she said. "I don't like what the Akatsuki's doing, and if they order me to hurt him, then I'll refuse… But if you ask me to…then, I will." She held his stare evenly. "That day, when you found me, you made me promise to pledge my loyalty only to you. After you left, I tried to distance myself from everyone so I wouldn't become attached to them. But I failed." The corner of her lips curled up in an ironic smile. "They managed to worm their way into my life, and I've become attached to them despite my best efforts, so eventually I just gave up." The tiny smile evaporated. "But I never forgot what you told me. I pledged my loyalty to you, and you'll always have it." She broke out into a grin to lighten the mood. "So whenever you tell me to jump, all I'll ask is, 'How high?' "

Sasori snorted quietly, his mouth twitching ever so slightly. Sakura felt like she could walk on air if she tied; Sasori rarely ever showed emotion, so it was a real treat.

"You never had a second thought about it, after all."

It took her a minute to realize what he'd said, but when she did, she frowned in confusion. "What?"

He looked at her with something akin to amusement. "After I left, did you ever once consider spending the remainder of your life in Konoha?"

She blinked. "Why would I? You told me to work hard to find you again."

"Hm." Sakura didn't really understand why, but he seemed distinctly satisfied. Before she could ask him if she'd said something funny, he abruptly changed the subject. "I left you a scroll on wind-style ninjutsu."

She perked up at his unvoiced question. "I mastered it. I know they were only basic techniques, but it took a while because I didn't have enough chakra back then for elemental ninjutsu." She couldn't help the way her chin lifted a little in pride. "My old sensei taught me a few earth-style jutsu, too, because he said I have a minor affinity for it."

When he looked at her, she saw his eyes flash with the tiniest hint of surprise. "Wind and earth. Conflicting elements." Somehow, that seemed to amuse him, too. "I suppose I should have expected that."

Sakura was thrown for a loop. "Huh?"

He studied her for a heartbeat as though trying to decide whether or not to say something. Like she was some sort of puzzle with pieces that didn't fit together. Like at any given moment she might do something spectacular and logic-defying.

Years ago, she'd seen him watch her this way sometimes when he thought she wasn't looking. She'd never understood what it meant, but she'd recognized the almost vacant gleam in his gaze, as if he didn't even realize he was staring at her, so she always pretending she hadn't noticed. But this time, he was looking at her outright, and she couldn't ignore it.

She swallowed to wet her suddenly-dry throat. "Have I done something wrong?"

The side of his mouth quirked up in what might have been a smirk. "No. And for the record, I have absolutely no interest in Konoha or any of its inhabitants, Uzumaki Naruto included." And without another word, he turned around and resumed his work on Hiruko.

Hours passed with a comfortable kind of quiet between them. Sakura entertained herself for a while by compiling a mental catalog of the techniques she could no longer use now that she'd essentially defected from Konoha. The first one that came to mind was the summoning jutsu — Tsunade had allowed her to make a contract with her slugs a year earlier, and Sakura somehow doubted that Katsuyu or any of the others would just "forget" to mention to the Hokage that she was still alive if she called upon them. Another was her chakra-enhanced strength. She could still use it, but she'd have to be careful who she used it on because it was basically Tsunade's signature technique, and she'd yet to hear of anyone else who'd mastered it. Her puppet master jutsu was unlikely to draw attention, what with how common it was (mostly amongst shinobi from the Land of Wind, but still). Her medical jutsu might draw attention, but as long as she didn't do something drastic like reattach a limb in front of someone who might realize who she was, she would probably be fine.

Then, of course, there was the matter of her hair. In all of her years, she'd only ever heard of two other people with pink hair — Kakuyoku Fubuki from that tedious mission to the Land of Snow (now Spring), and that Tayuya chick from Oto that Shikamaru'd had quite a few unpleasant things to say about after going on that (failed) mission to drag Sasuke back to Konoha. Well, three people, actually, if you included her father, whom she had no memories of — and the only reason she even knew that was because Sasori had located the files on her parents after she'd begged him for nearly a year. The files had only contained very basic information and they hadn't even had photos of them, but they'd had their descriptions and, more importantly, their names.

Father: Haruno Kizashi — pink hair, blue eyes. Mother: Haruno Mebuki — blond hair, green eyes. She'd spent hundreds of nights after that trying to imagine how they'd looked. Sometimes, she'd look at someone and wonder, Is that how my mom looked? or Did my dad have a mustache like that? She'd dug deep into her subconscious and employed the persona she'd childishly dubbed "Inner Sakura" to see if she could find even one memory of her parents hidden somewhere in the recesses of her mind. Needless to say, it hadn't worked.

But it had been years since she'd thought about her parents. Somewhere along the line, she'd almost…well, forgotten about them, because Sasori had become everything she'd ever needed.

.

Sakura was staring up at the sky, observing how the sun was just beginning to caress the horizon with a warm reddish-orange glow, when she finally realized that Sasori had gone absolutely still. Immediately, she stiffened and casted her senses outward to search for whatever he'd detected. It took her a minute to figure it out: all of the birds and animals in the forest surrounding them were unnaturally silent.

Someone was here.

As a precaution, Sakura allowed a bit of chakra to trickle into her closed fist, and she scanned the tree line for any signs of movement. A moment later, Sasori visibly relaxed and stood. His joints protested loudly from being in one position for too many hours, but it didn't seem to bother him. Just as Sakura was taking her cue from him to ease up, a shadow caught her eye, and her gaze snapped back to a tree directly across from them.

It was Deidara, looking a little worse for the wear.

A lot worse for the wear, actually.

Before the blond could speak, Sasori demanded flatly, "What did you do?"

An excellent question, considering one of his arms was missing and the other one was crushed into, quite literally, a bloody pulp.

Had he been anyone else, Deidara might have collapsed and passed out from the agony. Or, he might have begged his partner for help in getting to a hospital. Instead, he fixed Sakura with a suspicious glare and said, "What the hell is she doing here, yeah?"

"She," Sasori replied in a tone that just dared Deidara to argue with him, "is one of my spies, and as her position has been compromised, I've had to extract her from Konoha. However, the more pressing matter in this situation, I believe, is the state of your arms." He arched a brow scathingly. "Or, rather, lack of them."

The blond scowled at him furiously. "Oh, really? I hadn't noticed, yeah!"

Sakura had no time to dwell upon the story Sasori fed his partner about her being a spy because, in that instant, a patch of ground beside Deidara lurched upwards and morphed into the shape of an enormous Venus fly trap. It opened, revealing the head and upper torso of a man with green hair, unnerving yellow eyes, and skin that was split right down the middle — one half solid white, and the other pitch black.

His name was Zetsu, if she recalled correctly.

"Deidara, here, ran into some trouble with Hatake Kakashi," the white half explained helpfully, holding up the indicated missing arm.

"Fucking Sharingan, yeah," the victim input sourly.

Sakura's eyebrows shot all the way into her hairline. "You actually managed to save his arm?"

Zetsu looked at her blankly. "Who is this?"

She ignored him. "If you reopen the wounds where the arm was detached — both on his shoulder and the actual arm — I can put it back on."

Civilian doctors could reattach limbs only if they had just been severed within the past few hours, a little longer if the limb was on ice, but medic-nin could reattach limbs that had been severed as long as a day with the aid of their chakra, and she already knew that Deidara's arm had been very much a part of his body earlier that day.

He glanced at Sasori questioningly, but when the red head didn't object to him talking to her, he eventually replied. "Are you a medic-nin?"

"Would I say that if I wasn't?" She didn't wait for his answer. "Now stop wasting my time, and get over here."

Startled, Deidara stared at her. "Wait a minute — you're the one that was talking about how you hated to be kept waiting in the cave." He rounded on Sasori. "I get it — that's why she reminded me of you, yeah."

Sakura decided to take that as a compliment as she stood and marched over to the pair that apparently didn't understand the words "get over here." A chakra scalpel blazed to life in one of her hands as she snatched Deidara's dismembered arm from Zetsu with the other, and she swiped it across the freshly healed skin on the arm.

"Oi, what the hell are you doing?" the blond demanded angrily.

"Shut up," she all but snapped, ripping off the shredded ends of his cloak so she could slice open the wound on his shoulder. When he tried to fend her off, Sasori finally spoke up.

"Stop wasting our time and stay still," he bit out. "She is a highly advanced medic-nin, and unless you like missing an arm, I'd suggest you let her help you."

He quieted down despite eyeing them both with a mutinous glower, and his expression was less than trusting as he watched her align his served arm with the stump it originated from. Glowing green chakra enveloped both of her hands, and she closed both palms completely around the break to hold it together. Deidara nearly jerked away at the sudden feel of her energy invading his system, but when the warmth began to sooth his aching nerves and breathe life back into his muscles, he reluctantly relaxed.

He didn't even realize his mind had drifted elsewhere until she abruptly let go of him less than a half hour later. Instantly, he cried out, afraid his arm would fall to the ground, but instead it lifted the way he'd unconsciously instructed it to do in order to protect it. He stared at the limb, dumbfounded, while Zetsu watched silently with his piercingly perceptive eyes. Blinking, Deidara slowly flexed each of his fingers, then bent and twisted his arm in every which direction until it finally hit him that, yes, it was attached to his body again.

A wide, brilliant grin spread across his face.

"Hey, now, you're not too bad, yeah." This time, he studied her appreciatively from her pink hair all the way to her unpainted toenails. "Who are you?"

"Sakura," she said simply. "Now give me your other arm."

He gave her a dubious look, glancing back and forth between her and his bloody mess of an appendage. "Reattaching my arm was awesome and all, but you'd have to be a freaking miracle-worker to fix this thing — everything's been completely crushed by the Kazekage's sand."

"Don't make me ask again."

Sighing, he turned a bit to give her easier access to his other arm since he certainly couldn't move it. She tore off the entire sleeve when it got in her way, and she had to admit that it looked pretty bad. Entire chunks of the limb were missing, presumably stuck in Gaara's sand somewhere, and if she hadn't known it was supposed to be an arm, she probably wouldn't have recognized it.

Cracking her knuckles, Sakura took a breath to relax herself. "This might take a while, so I hope you're comfortable."

She set to work without another word. At some point during her healing session, Zetsu and Sasori engaged in a conversation about the Konoha and Suna shinobi they'd fought, and Zetsu eventually disappeared back into the ground to go God only knew where. An hour passed much more quickly than it should have, and Sakura could feel every single ounce of her chakra draining away as she meticulously pieced each fragment of bone and tissue together, intensely aware that a single misplaced piece could ruin everything. The skin regrew itself with little prompt from her chakra, cells splitting and multiplying at a mind-boggling rate, and the muscles reformed at her command. The arteries were, by far, the most difficult part for her to reconstruct. They were extremely delicate, and it was a miracle — no, a miracle inside of a miracle — that Deidara hadn't bled to death before he found them.

Another hour passed before Sakura was forced to halt the flow of healing energy if she didn't want to pass out from chakra exhaustion. She almost asked Sasori for her bottle of chakra pills so she could go on before she remembered: she'd had to leave her pack in the cave because she was supposed to be dead, and dead people didn't need packs of supplies. With a sigh of frustration, she removed her hands from his almost-halfway-restored arm, disregarding the way he was gaping at her.

"That's all I can do for now," she told him matter-of-factly. "Tomorrow, after I've replenished my chakra, I'll work on it again. Until then, don't try to do anything with that arm."

"You," he mumbled, almost as if in a daze. "How did you do that?"

She shot him a look that said she thought he was an idiot. "I'm a medic-nin. Or did you miss that part?"

Sasori grunted softly, holding out a nicely-cooked fish on a stick he'd apparently caught and cooked during their healing session. "You used up too much chakra. Eat before you pass out."

She complied without arguing, plopping down rather ungracefully in the dirt beside him and tearing out a large mouthful of meat. Sasori had barely held the water bottle out in her direction before she took it and drained half its contents in one gulp. Around another mouthful of fish, she ordered Deidara, "You eat, too. You're lucky you're even alive right now."

Still gaping at her, he did as she said without seeming to realize what he was doing. Many minutes passed in silence. Then:

"Holy shit, yeah," Deidara exclaimed, staring at her wide-eyed. "Where have been these past three-and-a-half years? If we'd had a medic like you earlier, we wouldn't have gotten into half of the sticky situations we did!"

Though she tried not to show it, the deity worship in his expression boosted her ego. He scrutinized her a moment longer before snapping out of it.

"So, you were Sasori-danna's spy all along, yeah?"

Instead of answering directly in case he was one of those people that could smell a lie a mile away, she said, "Sasori started training me when I was six."

He gave a low whistle. "Damn. That's a long time, yeah. How old are you?" The last part was said in a different, slightly more playful tone.

"Seventeen."

His brows rose. "Eleven years. God, how did you put up with him?"

Sakura glanced at Sasori to make sure speaking about him in the third person wasn't ticking him off. It appeared he was more irritated with the blond's comment at the moment.

"He only trained me for four years," she corrected. "After that, I was on my own."

"So you've been posing in Konoha for seven years." He gave his partner an impressed look. "That's smart, danna — no one would expect a kid to be a spy, yeah."

"And, yet, you still wonder why I'm in charge instead of you when we go on missions," Sasori concluded flatly.

Deidara rolled his eyes. "It's 'cause of your suckish attitude, yeah. It's always 'grumble' this and 'bitch' that — Your art is stupid, Deidara or Stop being such a brat, Deidara or, my favorite, I haven't got time to babysit you, Deidara." He huffed indignantly. "Seriously, danna. Someday, someone's gonna get tired of all your nitpicking and kick your ass, and then you'll understand what I'm talking about."

The look Sasori fixed him with was severely uninterested. For her part, it took a lot of effort for Sakura to keep a straight face.

Hm, she thought to herself sarcastically. Who do these two remind me of?

It was funny how all of the blond-haired people in her life had such loud mouths and short fuses. She wondered if her mother had been like that, too.

Probably.

"So, what's your deal, huh?" A second passed before Sakura realized that Deidara was addressing her. "You were Sasori-danna's spy in Konoha, but you got found out, so…now what, yeah?"

She had to tread carefully around this subject and remember everything she told him. If any of the other Akatsuki members so much as suspected that she was lying to them, no matter that the lie she was telling about being a spy wouldn't affect anything at all, they'd most likely kill her.

"I wasn't found out," she began evenly, feeling Sasori's attention on her like a physical entity. "I almost was, but we managed to contain the situation. However, too much suspicion was already pointing in my direction, so we cast an illusion on the woman I was partnered up with and faked my death." She indicated their surroundings. "And now here I am."

While Deidara contemplated this, she glanced at Sasori and received a tiny nod of approval. Good. It was simple, and it used enough of the truth to sound genuine.

The only problem now would be if the Akatsuki expected her to hand over information that could get her friends from Konoha killed. Sasori had told her that he didn't care either way about Konoha, but it was ultimately the Akatsuki's leader that determined whether or not she could stay. So, then, the question was, how much information could she give them to both satisfy the Akatsuki and keep Naruto out of danger?

That was something she'd just have to worry about at another time. She had too much on her plate as it was.

Like how everything got really blurry and warped when she turned her head to look at Deidara again. There was no telling how many minutes passed before it occurred to her that he had asked her something — something that sounded suspiciously like an ape groaning, muffled by a sheet of cotton. And underwater.

She blinked slowly. "Sorry, what?"

He frowned at her uncertainly, then looked to Sasori. "She doesn't look so good, yeah."

The words were barely out of his mouth when the former Suna-nin grabbed Sakura's chin roughly and forced her to look at him. He frowned, reaching out with his chakra to tap at her own reserves, then set his jaw in a hard line. He released her, making sure she saw his disapproving grimace.

"That was stupid," he informed her icily. "Clearly, you've become careless; you wasted far too much chakra on that buffoon that calls himself my partner" — here, Deidara's outraged protest was ignored — "and you are now teetering on the edge of chakra exhaustion." She opened her mouth to apologize, but he just shook his head. "Sleep. Now. We won't be adjusting our schedule to accommodate you, so make sure this doesn't happen again."

Recognizing that she had been dismissed, Sakura climbed somewhat unsteadily to her feet and trudged over to the fallen log. She was out before she even hit the ground.

.

.

.

Sakura was only half awake when the sounds of arguing filtered into her ears.

"Seriously, danna, it's been twelve fucking hours! How long are we gonna wait, yeah?!"

"We'll wait as long as I say so."

"What the hell, yeah! Where's all that shit you were saying last night about We're not gonna adjust our schedule for you?!"

"Tell me, Deidara." His voice was perfectly calm and cool. "How do you feel about dying?"

"Oi, I'm just trying to make a point here!"

"No, really, I'm curious. Does poisoning make you uncomfortable?"

"Alright, fine, I get it!" he spat, throwing his arms up.

"It's amazing how the people who get along the best also fight the most," Sakura observed, stretching her limbs wide as she sat up.

Sasori gave her a sharp nod, completely disregarding that egregiously untrue comment. "Good. Five more minutes, and I would have woken you myself."

Deidara stared at his partner incredulously, his mouth actually falling open in his shock.

Sakura nodded back seriously as she stood. "Sorry I cut it so close. I won't be so reckless with my chakra next time."

Satisfied, Sasori turned on his heel and began the second leg of their journey. Sakura followed him without hesitation, never once mentioning the fact that they all knew he'd let her sleep in many hours after their planned time. Deidara could only trail after them in stunned silence.

.

.

.

For two straight hours now, Deidara hadn't stopped staring at her. She'd ignored him at first, then pretended to ignore him when it started getting on her nerves, but now she was becoming too agitated to do even that. In general, Sakura had very little control over her temper and even less patience. Really, it was remarkable she'd lasted this long.

"Unless I've got something rather fascinating hanging off my face, then I see no reason why you can't seem to stop staring at me." She punctuated this with a glare that could've burnt through concrete.

Deidara blinked, then frowned in confusion. When he still didn't say anything, she rolled her eyes and slowed her pace a fraction, allowing Sasori to pull further ahead of them.

"Spit it out, or find something else to occupy your interest."

"What is it with you?" he blurted out, tone curious rather than hostile.

Her brow arched. "You'll have to be more specific than that."

He glanced at Sasori before returning his gaze to her. "You…" He shook his head. "He's different with you, yeah." She didn't have to ask who he meant.

Her lips pulled down a bit in one corner. "Different, how?"

The blond sputtered for a second. "What do you mean, how? He talks to you. As in, says more than five fucking words at a time to you. He actually answers your questions. He doesn't take every chance to insult you. He doesn't go through with the threats he makes to you. He waited for you. Sasori-danna doesn't wait for anything, yeah!"

Sakura shot him an odd look. "He's always been like that."

Deidara drew up short, nearly stopping altogether. "He's always been like that?" he repeated.

"Yeah." She gave an amused sort of smile. "Maybe it's you he treats differently."

"No," he said automatically. "It's you. It's definitely you. The way he treats me? That's the way he treats everyone." He stared at her intently. "Except you."

"Right," she snorted, rolling her eyes, leaving the blond staring after her in disbelief as she pulled ahead of him. But despite her response, some small part of her was elated that it might be true — and she had absolutely no idea why.

Deidara didn't try talking to her again after that. He just cut quick glances at her when he thought she wasn't looking, then frowned at Sasori's back, and repeated the process. Multiple times. This was only slightly less annoying that his earlier blatant leering of her, but she somehow managed to restrain herself from spitting metaphorical poison at him long enough for them to finally reach the border.

The first sign Sakura received that they were approaching Amegakure's unnamed country was the subtle but steady drop in temperature as they continued along their invisible path. The second was the change in the wind coupled with the scent of rain it brought. The third was the slow thickening in cloud coverage and dimming of the sunlight as they drew nearer.

And the fourth was the sudden wall of rain that appeared in the distance, perfectly edging the border without a single drop falling on River Country's side.

Sakura's eyebrows rose all the way into her hairline. "Well, now, that doesn't look unnatural at all."

"What gave it away, yeah?" Deidara deadpanned. He sighed, shaking his head in contempt. "Seriously, I keep telling Pein that only a moron wouldn't notice how suspicious that is, but does he listen to me? Of course not!"

"Pein isn't the only one who doesn't listen to you."

The blond scowled at Sasori's back. "Oi, what the hell'd you say?!"

Making a deliberate show of ignoring his partner, Sasori glanced back at Sakura briefly. "Prepare yourself. As soon as we step into the rain, the chakra it contains will probe your system. Don't fight it, or Pein might presume you an intruder."

True to his word, she felt a foreign energy enter her body the second a drop landed on her skin. She grimaced but forced her chakra network to relax and allow the presence to roam freely, though the feeling of it nearly made her shiver with discomfort.

Dimly, it occurred to her that there was no backing out of this now. This Pein person, most likely the Akatsuki leader or an important figure within the organization, had sensed her with Sasori and Deidara. To leave at this point would be certain death, because the Akatsuki surely wouldn't allow people to roam free with knowledge of their location.

In the next instant, she forgot the thought even existed, because she had no intentions of leaving. She was right where she wanted to be.

Perhaps influenced by her suddenly good mood, she turned to Deidara. "If I'm still alive two hours from now, I'll finish healing your arm."

He grinned widely. "Sweet, yeah! Ne, Sasori-danna, we gotta make sure Pein keeps her around, 'cause I don't think I can ever go back to letting Kakuzu sew me back together again."

She caught Sasori's eye and broke out into a grin of her own. Instead of frowning or demonstrating his dislike for such an outward display of emotion like he usually would have, he allowed the smallest of smirks to quirk his mouth up on one side.

With a kind of happiness she hadn't felt in years, Sakura proclaimed a childish, Tadaima! in her mind and imagined that Sasori might tell her, Okaerinasai.


This strength you have given me, I will now use for you.

I am your shield, your sword, and your marionette, too.

So from this day to my end, I shall live for you.