"Shikamaru, you're folks aren't home?" Naruto asked, plopping himself onto one of the large, plush pillows arranged neatly in the Nara's large family room. The jinchuriki seemed to make himself at home, despite the less than numerous times he'd been to the dwelling, leaning back onto his arms and stretching his bare feet out before him. Shino merely stepped over the sprawled form of his friend as he searched out his own seat.
"Father's in a meeting with the Godaime and mother's off doing...something with one of her friends. I forget what she said."
Ten-ten shook her head at the genius, sighing at the lack of concern he had for the forgotten memory. "How could you, of all people, not remember?"
Long fingers absently scratched at the base of his spiky hair. "She was nagging about something before she told me. I tend to tune her out when she does that."
"And that's why she nags at you," Choji offered as he entered the room. His arms were laden with a heavy tray filled with tea for everyone present. The bags of chips stuffed in his pocket, however, were for him alone.
Kiba sniffed at the contents before testing a small sip. "You made tea?"
"Not like Shikamaru was going to."
"Can we just get started?"
"But everyone's not here yet," Lee objected.
"Ino won't be coming this time."
Those around looked at Choji in confusion. He simply shook his head and let Shikamaru answer for their absent team mate. "She said she couldn't sit through another group meeting. Even if this one will be vastly different."
Everyone was subdued at the answer, each of them silently understanding the conflict she felt. Naruto cast his eyes towards the only person who didn't grasp the meaning of that statement. Sasuke was obviously confused over the cryptic words, but he didn't question them. Before Naruto could hope to keep that previous matter silent, a chuckle across the room reached his ear. Kiba's grin held no true humor; instead, his eyes told of a grim fascination and held an interest in the reaction of the shinobi he currently stared at.
"Well it is kinda funny, isn't it?"
The young clansman paid no heed to Naruto's command and continued to stare at Sasuke as he stroked Akamaru's fur. "The last time we gathered like this was when we made the decision to kill you ourselves."
Though a thick tension now permeated the air, only Hinata's loud gasp rang out in the silence. Sasuke gave no outward reaction to the damning statement. His stoic face stared back at the Inuzuka, never wavering even at the expectant grin Kiba showed. When he spoke, Sasuke's voice was even and without malice. "Who proposed the idea?"
For a moment, it seemed none would speak. The participants refused to even cast their eyes towards the guilty party.
Shikamaru's voice was as even as Sasuke's - it carried no remorse or apology. The former avenger's dark eyes locked onto Shikamaru, accepting the firm truth in his steady gaze. He could feel the unease pouring from not only Naruto, but nearly everyone in the room. That alone made the young man want to chuckle.
"That makes sense," he returned. "That was sound judgment on your part."
For a heartbeat no one spoke, disbelief filling them. Yet, when the words finally processed, Kiba dissolved into laughter and the tension weighing heavily on their minds lifted. Naruto clapped his friend on the shoulder - ignoring the glare that action awarded him. He was glad Sasuke responded as he did, allowing the group to move past the seemingly dangerous moment. However, he vowed to speak to Kiba as soon as possible. He worried over the Inuzuka's continued suspicion and harassment of his returned friend.
Shikamaru nodded to the former missing-nin, a small grin tugging at his lips. "For the record, I'm glad it never came to that."
"No more than I."
"Well," Neji spoke over Kiba's dying laughter. "Perhaps we can finally get started."
"But what about Sakura-san?"
Sasuke didn't bother turning to Lee as he answered, "She's still in the lab working on the materials we obtained from Karin."
"She's been in there for days."
"And that's something we need to discuss as well," Shikamaru said, taking control of the conversation. "While I didn't see the samples she received, I was able to glance over the accompanying notes from Karin's pack. From what I can tell, it seems to be a formula for something."
"Karin told Sakura to finish it with Tsunade's help."
"So...what?" Naruto questioned. "It's a medicine or something? How's that supposed to help?"
"The Godaime and Sakura are not simply medics, dickless. They're advanced practitioners of medical ninjutsu and as such, are highly skilled at creating compounds to work for or against the body."
Instead of his usual vehement reply, Naruto settled for flipping Sai off for his continued use of that nickname.
"Many of the poisons we use in combat were developed by med-nins." Shino added.
Ten-ten's eyes lit with eagerness and hope. "Does that mean we have one specifically for him now? Something we can kill the bastard with?"
"We don't know," Shikamaru quickly offered, quelling the spark of excited murmurs from the others. "Whatever Karin gave to Sakura was unfinished. Right now, I don't know what she possessed or if it is even possible to achieve."
"Still," Neji began. "It seems unlikely that Sakura-san or Tsunade-sama would be spending so much time on a project that isn't feasible."
"I will agree with that, but we can't base our strategy on something that may not exist. We have to also prepare a plan in case that avenue doesn't pan out."
"Sure we need a plan to kick his ass," Naruto said, his words punctuated with animated fists. "But we gotta find the bastard first. That rat has been an expert at hiding from us!"
"There's already been some progress made on that."
"Yeah right," Kiba added. "Every time someone has supposedly found him, we find dead shinobi and no sign of Kabuto!"
"As much as all the hidden villages want to hunt him down, everyone is still scared of bringing home some new disease he might plant on them!"
"The fucker is a coward! He's just scared he isn't gonna win a man to man fight. That's why he's doing that shit."
"Come on, Kiba! You just said so yourself, all the shinobi that try to find him wind up dead."
"Probably because he's just picking them off from a distance with some poison or something."
"Ri~ght. That's why he destroyed an entire damn village. You really think they were all that weak? Use your brain!"
The Inuzuka sat up straight, his fists balling at his sides. "What did you say?" he barked, eyes narrowing dangerously. "You, of all people, shouldn't be telling me that, Naruto."
"Hey, if the shoe fits..."
"Say that shit again."
"Enough!" Sasuke's deep voice carried over the room, his tone demanding compliance with the order.
"Your arguing isn't helping anything," Shikamaru added in the ensuing silence. The genius let out a deep sigh as he searched out Kiba's angry gaze. "Like I was saying before, through a cumulative effort of the major villages, we've made some progress in pinning down Kabuto's whereabouts."
"Can you elaborate on that, Shikamaru?" Shino asked.
"There are several teams of black ops maintaining constant contact while they've methodically closed in on a hot zone we noticed a couple of weeks ago. While they haven't been able to pinpoint a specific hideout for him yet, it's certain they've found the right area."
"Who set that up?"
"It was a collaborative effort."
Choji snorted as he reached for his tea. "Meaning Shikamaru had a hand in it."
Said genius cast a narrowed glance at his team mate. "Regardless, we're gonna have to make a move in a couple of days - whether Sakura is finished with whatever Karin passed along or not."
"So we're gonna have to come up with a few different battle plans, huh?"
"And decide who's going, Kiba," Shikamaru answered. The confused looks from around the room were ones he'd anticipated.
"What do you mean?" Naruto asked.
"In light of the major attacks landed on all the hidden villages - ours included - I'm not open to leaving Konoha ill prepared to defend itself."
"So we're gonna separate?" Ten-ten asked.
"Of course," Neji answered instead. "It only makes sense to send a smaller team for the mission."
"But Kabuto has already..."
"Lee," the Hyuuga interrupted. "A large troop of shinobi traveling together would call attention to their positions. And leaving the village open for attack is never an option."
Any reply Lee had was swallowed back at Neji's stern glance. Choji finished off the last of his chips, crumpling the bag and addressing Shikamaru without the tension he saw filling most of his friends faces. "And? How do you wanna split us up?"
"I haven't made those decisions yet."
"Yes you have."
"Shikamaru," Choji interrupted, a grin tilting up his lip. "Just tell us what plans you've been working on."
The genius gave a sigh of defeat, making sure his friend saw the irritation flashing in his dark eyes. As he suspected, the look had no effect on his team mate. "Look, this is something we should decide together. While I have run through some simulations, it'll take everyone's efforts to be successful."
"We will decide this together, but you should know by now how much we trust in you, Shikamaru," Naruto said. His friends nodded their agreements, casting sly smiles at the genius. "Hell, we're banking on you to figure out the best plan to get us all out of this alive."
Choji slapped his friend on the back, clearly enjoying the dumbfounded look on his face. "No pressure though."
His mumbled curses were met with laughter around the room.
Though he did receive a few questioning looks as he made his way down the long, white hallway, no one stopped or even questioned Sasuke as to his destination. For a moment, he gave thanks to his unsavory past for keeping away the curious. He had no intention of hiding his purpose, but idle chit chat had no place on his list of things to do for the day. After having no more communication from Sakura than a mumbled 'busy' for the past three days, Sasuke was determined to pull the medic away from that windowless lab.
He gave a simple nod of greeting to the guard standing at the doors separating the main hospital from the rooms devoted to research and development. The acrid smell of disinfectant assaulted his nose the moment the doors parted. The bare white walls were broken only by the occasional doorway - all of them sealed tight. Muted voices could be heard down the corridor, behind a door marked only by the number six. Sasuke knew he would find Sakura holed up in the surprisingly large room, along with nearly a dozen other employees of the hospital. He didn't bother knocking as he opened the door; however, he eased the thick cedar aside gently as not to hit any busy shinobi.
The bustling scene was one he'd grown familiar with. Glass containers and tubes filled with unnamed, colorful liquids lined the many counters in the large area. The scratching of many a pencil could be heard from the numerous lab coat clad shinobi. The researchers spoke over one another; how they kept up with the many conversations going on, he'd never know.
"Uchiha-san, good to see you again." He knew the young, brown haired man addressing him to be Yukihito, a kohai of Sakura's. Sasuke found him to be the least irritating of her coworkers. During his daily visits to the lab, if Sakura was unable to speak to him, the former rogue searched out Yukihito for an update on their progress. As the young man was clearly aware of his purpose, an exchange of pleasantries wasn't necessary. "Sakura-sama is over in the corner."
Sasuke nodded his thanks and made his way around the cluttered lab. Though she was much shorter than many of the men around her, the pink crown of her hair was easily noticeable. As he'd seen her before in the past few days, she was hunched over a counter, a glass beaker bubbling over a fire and a pencil in her hand. A set of glasses were perched atop the haphazard mess of hair drawn loosely into a ponytail. The bags beneath her eyes were easy to see, even across the room. There was a pale luster to her skin that gave him cause for concern - that and the nearly full trays of food he passed in the trash can as he closed in on her location. Sakura was deep in concentration, tolling away at the massive task before her and, as such, didn't notice his presence. Sasuke leaned against the wall across from her bench, taking the moment to further scrutinize her appearance.
While he understood the importance of completing the work Karin had left - perhaps more so than others - he didn't like the effect the project was having on Sakura. Though, he would admit the others in the room were in much the same condition as she was. His roving eye caught the amused smiles of her comrades while they watched her continue working, unaware of his hovering presence. One women even winked at him before covering her mouth to stifle her laughter. Sasuke held back the urge to sigh aloud at their unnecessary silliness and moved towards Sakura. It was obvious he wouldn't be able to assess her condition in the crowded atmosphere. He stood next to her, his chest brushing against the sleeve of her lab coat and doing his best to ignore the pungent smell coming from her beaker.
"Aiko-san, hand me the alkaline phosphatase please," she mumbled without looking up.
As another round of giggling ensued, Sasuke's eyebrow arched over amused obsidian eyes. "I have no idea what that is."
Her glasses nearly tumbled from their perch with the speed at which her head whipped to his figure. The other medics were now openly laughing at their interaction, causing the pinkette to flush in embarrassment. Her glare did nothing to lessen their merriment. "Sasuke," she hissed through clenched teeth. "How long have you been standing there?"
"Here? Not long. In this room, well..."
"You could have told me."
"You should have noticed."
Sakura narrowed her eyes, her annoyance at having been the center of everyone's laughter apparent. This only awarded her a sly grin from the Uchiha. The look was short lived as she stepped away from her work area and stretched her cramped muscles. "So, what are you doing here?" she asked.
"Coming to get you."
"I can't leave, Sasuke. We're getting close to completing this."
"You need to sleep, Sakura."
"I did sleep, Sasuke," she shot back.
"You should go ahead, Sakura-sama," one of the medics spoke up. "Shizune-sama should be here in the next hour or so."
"Shizune-san isn't coming until tomorrow," she reminded her staff.
The group shared a look, some of concern while others were clearly enjoying her confusion. "Sakura-sama, it is tomorrow."
Sakura floundered at that information, checking the calendar and clock mounted above the door numerous times as if willing the statement to be false. The displeasure Sasuke felt at her loss of time was quite clearly etched on his face. His tolerance for her stubbornness had reached its peak and, regardless of their audience, he took hold of her arm, forcing the medic to follow his trail out the door.
"Don't worry, Sakura-sama," Yukihito called out as she was gently hauled from the room. "I'll let Shizune-sama know where you left off."
Sakura briefly thought about breaking Sasuke's hold to deal with the room of chuckling medics behind her. However, a glance at his profile had her rethinking that decision.
Sakura increased her pace, pushing her shorter frame to keep up with Sasuke's determined steps. Her brief worry about being paraded through the main hospital in this fashion was washed away when he began taking the less used, back hallways to exit the building. However, this only created a greater curiosity as to how he was able to learn such information. Those exits weren't public knowledge. In fact, not all of the hospital staff were aware of their existence. She couldn't stop herself from rolling her eyes at his blatant arrogance.
"You know, I'm pretty sure I remember you doing this to me before." Thankfully, his pace slowed the moment they left the building. Sakura squinted her eyes against the afternoon sun. "Do you always snatch people away from their jobs, Sasuke?"
He let go of her upper arm, but refused to release her completely. His hand wrapped gently, but firmly around her wrist. "Only little girls who don't know to stop working before they collapse."
"Look," she hissed between her teeth, mindful of the villagers walking near them. "I wasn't about to collapse. Yes, I will concede I have been in the lab longer than I anticipated, but there's too much work to be done. We have to try and finish Karin's work before we face Kabuto. The research she gave us...it will go so far in the fight! And I would much rather have an ace in the hole if at all possible."
"And how long will you deny your body's demands and remain hunched over that beaker in order to obtain that ace?"
"News flash, Sasuke; this isn't the first time I've worked overtime on a project..."
"So I've noticed," he interrupted, ignoring the glare she sent his way.
"And it won't be the last. Like you can sit here and tell me you've never pushed yourself to your limits when you're training!"
"How's that different!" Sakura seemed to be oblivious to the stares they were now receiving as they cut through the busier streets of the marketplace. Sasuke noticed the attention, but chose not to acknowledge the curious onlookers. "You know what? I think you're just being..."
"Stop interrupting me!"
"Even with this incessant babbling of yours..."
"Excuse me?" Her incredulous look lasted but a moment before she stumbled, staying upright only with Sasuke's help. She glared at the ground, willing anything to show itself and receive the full force of her frustration. Unfortunately, the barren ground seem to mock her ability to trip over her own feet.
"I can hear your stomach growling."
A shocked silence at the embarrassing statement allowed the medic to hear the very sounds he teased her of. Red bloomed across her apple cheeks and she dutifully followed him, quietly, to his apartment. Though the deep, rumbling chuckle from his chest had her shushing him - to no avail.
The interior of his apartment was as she remembered it - quiet, clean, and sparsely, but tastefully furnished. Even still, Sakura glared at every available inch of it she could. She stood now with her arms tersely crossed beneath her chest, her hip jutting out, and not making any attempt to hide her displeasure at his actions. Sasuke ignored her for the moment; choosing instead to empty the contents of his pockets on the small table in his living room. His silence after having taken her from the lab was grating the last nerve she felt she possessed.
"Well," she spat. "You've snatched me away from my important work. What exactly am I supposed to be doing?"
He peered at her through the curtain of his raven hair, his sharp eyes keenly trained on her figure. "And just how long are you going to continue sulking over that?"
The pinkette sputtered, righteous indignation leaving her slack jawed and wide-eyed. She stepped forward, hands dropping to her hips as she stared back defiantly. "You're just determined to be an ass today, aren't you?"
He shook his head, the statement whispered under his breath. "Those should be my words."
"What?" she hissed.
"I'm just amazed at the limits of my own patience," he deadpanned. She huffed a laugh, but didn't pull away as he grabbed her wrist once more and led her down the hallway. "I'm also reminding myself that you've barely eaten or slept for the past several days."
"With good reason!"
"I know that, Sakura!" Sasuke's voice raised slightly, finally having reached the limit of what he could take of the roundabout conversation. He blew out a heavy breath, willing himself to regain control of the situation. "But for the next few hours, you're going to take care of those issues."
"We don't have time for this!" Sakura exclaimed. "There's a limited window of opportunity here and the work Karin left us will be a huge benefit against Kabuto! We have to finish it!"
Sasuke stepped forward, forcing Sakura back until she met the hard wooden door. "I'll say it again...while you are one of the most capable med-nins to work on this, you are not the only one, Sakura. Continuing to work exhausted like you are will only increase the chances you could make a mistake on something."
"And I do not relish the idea of heading into battle with a weapon that could backfire on me."
That statement took the wind from her sails, filling her once determined eyes with a wariness that he felt no shame in having produced. However, the hurt he saw beginning to build was something he needed to stop quickly. "I...Sasuke, you know I would never..."
"I know," he interrupted. "That's why you need to let Shizune take over the shift now. Eat, sleep, and I will gladly send you back to your lab."
It took only a moment for her demeanor to change, reverting back to a playful smile at the look crossing his face. "What's wrong with my lab?"
His fingers sifted through the tangled mass of her cotton candy hair, gently removing the glasses nestled at her crown. "It's a lab. I saw enough of that with Orochimaru."
"You know damn well Konoha's is nothing like that."
"Didn't say it was," he remarked offhandedly. How she managed to get even her hair tie stuck in that mess, he wasn't sure.
"Then what was that look?"
If anything, removing her hitai-ate made the situation worse. "A look."
"Sakura," his words were quiet in the face of her whining tone. "Stop talking."
She was preparing a few choice words to respond with in the face of such an order, but his fingers, now gripping the ends of her shirt, actually had the medic falling silent. He smirked, sending her heart racing as he exposed her flat belly.
"Wha...what are you..." Obsidian eyes softened, a touch of amusement filling them while he held her gaze. His hands brushing against her back produced a shiver in the young woman - one she knew he felt. Sasuke gave a sharp tug, forcing her now compliant limbs to move and allow him to pull the shirt from her body. Sakura gave a breathless laugh, her smile nervous as she stood before him in only her unadorned pale, blue bra. "And just what do you think you're doing?"
A warmth bubbled in her stomach at the smirk that lifted his lips. Sasuke took her lips gently, slowly tasting her, pressing against her exposed flesh. Her fingers curled into the soft cotton of his shirt, searching for an anchor while her mind swam with nervousness and excitement. He teased her - his lips only skimming across her own, never giving her the deep satisfaction she desperately craved. Sakura tried to take what she wanted, tugging at his bottom lip, a whine sounding deep in her throat. Sasuke was having none of it, pulling just out of her reach and chuckling against her.
Sakura stepped backwards, moving as Sasuke's body demanded of her. All the while he continued the tortuous fleeting touches to her body, fingers skimming down the bare column of her spine, tracing the slopes of her shoulders, his tongue flicking against her lip. The immense pressure Sakura had been under the past few days, the hectic deadline looming just before her was no longer the forerunner in her mind. The tension weighing her down had been swept away under the attentions of the man before her. His heady scent and strong presence had a calming effect on her that, she suspected, nothing would ever be able to match. Regardless of the frustration she had building at his light touch, she smiled into his gentle kiss.
Nimble fingers danced down her belly, goose bumps popping up in their wake. Sasuke's fingers slipped beneath her waistband, unbuttoning her pants with frightening ease. The sound of her zipper lowering echoed in the quiet room. She felt her breath hitch with the weight of that sound.
Sasuke stepped back, his fathomless eyes taking in her flushed face and emerald eyes darkened with desire. No more was her face tight with worry, her mind racing with the complex problems laid before her. While she would have to delve back into that work in a matter of hours, Sasuke had achieved the result he'd wanted.
Her eyes were questioning now, watching as he stepped back further and grabbed the handle of the door. "Sasuke?" she asked. He managed to hold back the chuckle wanting to break free, but the smirk did appear on his face.
"You need a shower, Sakura."
He closed the bathroom door, leaving her standing in dumbfounded confusion while he made his way to the kitchen. He was determined to make her eat an entire meal before this last surge of energy was depleted. He had no doubts she would be fast asleep within the hour - despite her quick temper and steady flow of chatter on the way to his apartment. He stood by numerous times and watched Naruto or the members of Taka fall into the same condition, or much worse, than she was presently. Yet, the idea of Sakura collapsing from exhaustion or hunger was unacceptable to Sasuke. He knew she felt a responsibility to complete Karin's work, but he would not watch her push herself to such dangerous levels. Just a few hours of down time would be enough to perk her back up and he meant to see she had them.
Sasuke was just pulling rice from the cupboard when her angry cries echoed from his bathroom.
"Uchiha Sasuke! You bastard!"
He counted himself lucky she couldn't hear his answering laugh.
Well...fancy seeing me here, huh?
It's been more than just a little while since I posted a chapter, I know. Perhaps I just needed a break from the writing (wish I could have had one from life/responsibilities/etc...) but as I've said before, I will NOT abandon any of my stories. This may have been the longest break I've ever taken, but they shall continue on.
With that being said, I feel like I'm back in the saddle so I hope to resume our regularly scheduled releases ;)
I do want to give many, many thanks to all of you who reviewed/PM'd me during this little hiatus. Your wonderful words have always been a source of inspiration to me and I can't thank you enough.
I do hope you enjoy the chapter and will take a moment to leave a review (even though I've left you wanting for a while. My apologies for the wait.)
Thank you all so much! Until next chap!