From his perch high atop the hokage's mountain, the many lights of his restored home town welcomed weary cerulean eyes with the familiarity of a lover. What would have been simply another dark patch of forest a few months ago was now an easily distinguishable village rising out of the dip in the earth left by Pain. Yet, the sight of his village thriving once more was a source of bittersweet pain to the jinchuriki. For while he could now sigh in relief at the restoration of his home, another group of villagers were lamenting the vast loss they suffered.

Kabuto had not simply attacked Kirigakure - he had decimated the village. Buildings were leveled with the unforgiving earth, civilians and shinobi alike had been murdered, and their kage had fallen at his vile hands while trying to protect all those under her watch.

Naruto felt the rage building in his gut, rolling and twisting until it tickled the edges of the cage buried deep within him. It was sheer force of will that allowed him to reign the fury back in so as not to awaken the slumbering bijuu he housed. Still, his blunt nails dug painfully into the hardened skin of his palms. His jaw began to ache where he clenched his teeth in outrage. The senseless loss of life they suffered could not go unpunished and the lack of leads they had on the former medic's whereabouts frustrated him greatly.

A soft hand slid over his tightly clenched fist, resting there until the trembling ceased. It was still a few moments before he could regain control over his emotions and turn his hand, accepting the touch of the woman beside him. She didn't turn to face him, but continued to simply gaze at the lights twinkling amongst the darkness - and for that, he was grateful. Naruto wasn't quite ready to allow the smile so usually found on his face to break forth; for once, he felt like allowing the angry, depressive thoughts to linger.

They sat in the face of the chilling north winds listening to the sounds of the night, fingers entwined, while their minds once more tried to process the information Tsunade-sama passed to the village the previous morning. Even through the blinding anger that immediately boiled to the surface, he could remember the many tears the gentle woman next to him shed throughout the day.

Tsunade-sama was sending only one team of shinobi with the field medics to meet the refugees of Kirigakure. Despite his very vocal protests, the hokage was firm in her decision that he stay in the village. Hinata was the one who managed to curb his anger and draw him from the Hokage's office – and possibly saved him from a great deal of trouble with Tsunade-sama. She patiently listened to his angry ramblings while guiding him away from the busy center of the village. She gently coerced the still grumbling hero into a spar, allowing him to burn off the rest of his frustrations – even if it meant she left the training field with a few new bruises. When the tense lines left his face, the Hyuuga heiress suggested they get something to eat. As Naruto slurped down his third bowl of ramen, the smile finally returned to his face.

Hinata had stayed by his side the past two days. They visited Sai several times, spared, chatted with their friends, he even accompanied her on an errand for her father. Though, he could admit to feeling some unease when bringing the package back to her home. The Hyuuga household did not break formalities – even between father and daughter. However, the look on Neji's face when he found the jinchuriki sipping tea with Hiashi had more than made up for the edginess.

Naruto felt a chill pass through their hands, stemming from her smaller body. He smiled down at her. "Cold?"

"Mmm...just a bit."

"Come on," he said, tugging her gently to her feet. Naruto took a last look at the peaceful sight of the slumbering village before leading her away onto the dark path home. He made no move to release her hand and was glad she hadn't either.

It was...odd, how comfortable he was around Hinata. Not only that, the usually boisterous young man found he was much calmer when in her presence. This was not a great revelation on his part, but something he'd noticed after observing not only Hinata, but also his own behaviors and feelings over the previous months. While she hadn't asked – and he had not broached the subject – Naruto had not forgotten her confession. The words might not have fallen from her lips again, but her actions told him all he needed to know.

A soft smile tipped his lips as they weaved around the few trees peppering the dusty path back to the village. Naruto was done with berating himself for never noticing her feelings. He was done with silently questioning every little word she said or motion she made. Weeks had passed since he last wondered the hows and whys of her love for him. The decision to simply let things be and accept any changes that may come had been the smartest thing he'd done in a long time. The moment he stopped worrying, he began to truly enjoy the feeling of being loved.

Naruto's eyes sought her out in the darkness. Her gentle smile graced her face, moonlight glinting off her raven hair. While it could still amaze him that such a woman wanted to be by his side, he found there was no where else he'd rather be. As deeply as he loved and cherished his friends, his heart craved her presence.

He tightened his grip on her fingers and paused at the border of the village. She tilted her head in question, but Naruto simply stepped closer to her bundled figure and smiled. She flinched slightly, a reaction to the cold pads of his fingers trailing up the side of her neck. The jinchuriki felt positive the red now staining her cheeks had nothing to do with the cold.

"N-Naruto-kun, what is it?"

"Thank you."

Pearlescent eyes searched his own. "For what?"

He enjoyed the feel of her satin skin beneath his fingers for a moment longer before delving into the silken mass of her hair. "For staying with me."

"Today?" she questioned. Naruto chuckled lightly and simply shook his head. How did he thank her for being by his side for so many years? Supporting him, believing in him, never giving up on him. For once, Naruto couldn't find the words he wanted to express the myriad of emotions he had for the woman before him.

He searched her eyes for a moment more before slowly closing the distance between them. His heart sang as their chilled lips met - slowly, nervously tasting the other for the first time. A warmth rushed through his body as he felt Hinata take hold of his arm, her body leaning against his. Naruto knew his cheeks mirrored the blush on her own when he pulled away, but so did the smile that covered his face.

Despite the cold worsening as the night worn on, the couple took their time returning to the village, both of them reluctant to part from the other.


A sense of unease filled Sakura as she ran through the darkened forest beside Sasuke. Chills raced along her spine, but they had nothing to do with the drop in temperature. The odd look that crossed the guard's face when he relayed the news of an intruder found near the village had Sakura curious - and not just a little worried. There should have been a greater sense of urgency in his voice, some sign that he was prepared to face an intruder, but she saw nothing of the sort cross his face. The pinkette feared what they were about to find.

All too soon, they spotted the few ANBU who'd been available to set up a perimeter around the suspect. It was disconcerting to see how close they were to the gates - only a couple of miles away - yet, it was even more worrisome to not find any of her fellow shinobi with their weapons drawn.

Was the intruder already dead?

She slowed her pace and fell in step beside Sasuke, nodding to the masked black-ops agent as they passed.

"Haruno-san." Sasuke paused as she stopped and faced the agent who called out to her. "Please proceed with caution. The medics have yet to arrive and assess the situation, so we are unsure how close we can safely get to her."

Her? Sakura's brow rose as her ears picked up on that distinction, but she nodded her understanding. "I'll take care of that." She would make that call on her own. The duo continued on, moving closer to the weak light of some scattered lanterns the shinobi before them had placed around the area. They passed one other ANBU who simply nodded at their presence as they walked by. However, Sasuke was tired of being left in the dark.

"Alive?" he questioned the unknown shinobi.

"Barely."

Sasuke let his hand fall from the hilt of sword and his body relaxed slightly as they covered the last few feet to the unknown's position. Several low burning lamps were placed in a semi-circle around the tree against which her body was slumped, allowing them to see clearly despite the midnight hour approaching. Sasuke heard the startled gasp slip from Sakura's mouth and he was honestly surprised one had not fallen from his own.

The physical signs left on her body indicating she'd been in an altercation were few. Her glasses missing, one sleeve of the long shirt she wore was torn down to the elbow, one of the black, thigh high socks had been ripped, causing it to pool around her ankle. There were only a few cuts and bruises to her body. Yet, that wasn't what caused the pair such alarm. What could once be described as pale skin had taken on a sickly, gray, almost translucent shade. Thin wrists and ankles were now swollen with the fluid collecting there.

"Karin," Sakura gasped behind her clasped hands, shock and pity lacing the words.

Their eyes raked up her painful figure, following the dark, prominent network of veins that stood out as if they'd been drawn in place. Those connecting vessels trailed over her legs, up the small strip of skin exposed around her navel, wound down her arms, and boldly wrapped around her neck like chains. Though difficult to see at first, Sasuke eventually found the ends of the dark lines licking up the side of her jaw. Karin's breathing was raspy and shallow; her eyes closed in what was clearly pain and exhaustion. Even the bright red hair she was known for seemed lackluster and limp, stuck to her skin with the dampness of her sweat.

"Sakura, do you have any idea..."

"No," she interrupted, anticipating the rest of his question. As painful as it was to see anyone in this condition, Sakura was unable to look away from the sad sight before her. "I have no clue what she's been given."

With obvious effort, Karin's eyes peeled open - the crimson orbs slowly searching for the voices rousing her from rest. The dull expression she had cleared - if only slightly - and the former jailer struggled to raise her head. Sakura's body began to move on conditioned response to assist the young woman, but a staying hand from the Uchiha reminded her the perilous situation they possibly faced with any interaction made. It was difficult, but Sakura held herself back, patiently watching as Karin righted herself.

"Sas...Sa-su...ke."

Her low voice gurgled deep in her throat, her breath coming shorter from the sheer effort it took to speak. While the unspoken assumption lay between them, Sasuke wanted to hear the words spoken aloud to verify his thoughts. "Did Kabuto do this?"

The red head took a moment, panting as she gained what watery breath she could, before slowly shaking her head and making an affirmative hum in her chest. Despite the absence of her glasses, Karin's fiery eyes seemed to catalog every nuance of Sasuke's body as she gazed her fill at him. The pair stood silent, allowing Karin to move at her own pace. Soon, those red eyes locked onto Sakura's figure. Her hand twitched, muscles straining as they tried in vain to move. When the effort proved too much, she collapsed against the tree once more, pinning Sakura with her intense stare.

"Pou...pouch. You...and the...slug prin...prin-cess finish it."

The young woman visibly deflated after using so much precious air and the ensuing coughing fit produced a pink, frothy liquid that spilled over her open lips.

There was no holding back the few, errant tears that slipped past Sakura's vibrant orbs. Karin had made some very bad choices in her life, participated in and carried out orders that went against everything Sakura stood for. And yet...

Sakura felt an odd connection with the woman. One stemming from the love they shared for the man standing beside her; a love that had been sorely tested on both their parts. Sakura could never see herself making the same kinds of decisions Karin had, but, then again, Sakura had not suffered the same trials Karin had. While the information they had on the red head was limited, there was enough about her background for Sakura to understand her struggles began long ago.

The weak cough that slipped past Karin's lips had Sakura's glistening eyes locking on her figure once more. The missing-nin was unable to wipe away the saliva leaking from the corners of her mouth. Even in the weak lamp light, the blood tinged fluid dripping onto her torn short was clear to see.

"Karin."

Sasuke's clear, strong call seemed enough to pull what remained of her consciousness to the forefront and her eyes found him once more. Each breath was a struggle for the failing kunoichi.

"I'm sorry, Karin."

Sakura could feel the presence of others - more shinobi from the village - filing the dark shadows behind them, but thankfully, they did not come forth. The pinkette curled her nails into her palm, willing herself not to reach out to Sasuke as he spoke to Karin during this last moment.

"I betrayed your trust...betrayed you, and for that, I am sorry."

A corner of her pale lips tipped upward, just so, giving the pair enough hope that a smile had tried to grace her face. The raspy breathing soon slowed until it was no longer audible. Fiery, crimson eyes dulled as their spark of life was extinguished.

Sakura turned, addressing the group of medics lined behind them in bio hazard suits. "Check the contents of her pouch thoroughly; she said there would be something for Tsunade-sama and I. Make sure you have the surrounding area quarantined off until we identify whatever infected her. Sasuke and I will be waiting a hundred yards north of here; bring everything to set up a decontamination area. We had no contact with her or her belongings, but we can't be too careful."

She didn't wait for Sasuke to follow her, but took off through the darkness to the area she identified to the medics. Her hands shook as a torrent of emotions swept through her. Sakura herself was confused as to how she should be feeling at the moment. While they might not know with a hundred percent accuracy just how much Karin contributed to the deeds Kabuto carried out, it was certain she did have a hand in the dealings. Countless deaths and many more's suffering could be linked back to the former Taka member and yet...

How much had she suffered? What tragedies had she suffered through to make her choose to help carry out the madness Kabuto inflicted on the five nations?

Sasuke broke through the small clearing she'd stopped in, his head downcast and dark fringe hiding his eyes. The pinkette could still feel the tension rippling through his body, the anger bunching his muscles, and the same confusion giving him pause as it did her.

Knowing she joined forces with Kabuto, knowing she helped create pathogens responsible for harming thousands of people, the hand she played in the destruction of Kirigakure...

Sakura broke the silence weighing down on them.

"Did she deserve that? That horrible kind of death?"

Fathomless eyes met her own, holding their gaze as his only response. There were no answers to be had for such heavy questions. They could only accept the opposing emotions ripping through them and ready themselves for what would come.


A/N:

Hell, even I'm a little disgusted at myself for the delay in chapter release here. Sorry guys!

Thank you all for the amazing reviews!

Happy (a day late) Thanksgiving! Hope everyone had a great turkey day! I, however, am off to begin cooking for my own thanksgiving feast. (working in medicine, I changed my family's get together to the weekend since people don't stop getting sick on the holidays. Luckily, the family is understanding.)

In case I don't get another chapter out before then (it'd be a Christmas miracle wouldn't it? :) Happy Holidays to everyone! Be safe and have a great time.