Disclaimer: Naruto and its characters are created by Masashi Kishimoto, but the new plots are mine. This fanfiction had been written for entertainment purposes only and without intention of infringing upon any copyright.

A/N: Apologies for my long absence. I'm back now! Please enjoy the update.


The Truth behind the Mask by elle6778 – Chapter 16

Sakura was still staring at him with a look of utter confusion. It made her look so cute, not that he would ever tell her that out loud. He could not describe how glad he was to see her. It seemed like forever since they'd last stood together like this even though it had only been a few weeks.

"Are you inviting flies into your mouth or what?" he teased.

Her mouth snapped shut and her eyes narrowed. Then planting her fists on her hips, she exclaimed accusingly, "You remember me!"

"Of course, yeah. What do you think?" he replied with a smirk. "I don't have that many partners in my lifetime, especially one with side benefits."

A vein throbbed at her temple and she cracked her knuckles. "Keep on talking like that and I'll show you some other side benefits. Now tell me what happened."

Grinning unrepentantly, he retorted, "You know I like it rough too, yeah."

She scowled darkly. "Can you be serious just for a minute? The last time I saw you, you were trying to kill me! So obviously you didn't remember me. We were all under the impression that Kagami was controlling you."

At the unpleasant reminder, rage instantly bubbled within him and his humor fled. "That bitch! She blocked my consciousness or something, yeah. I know what was happening but I couldn't do anything about what I was seeing. It's like she was operating my body while I watch. I'm going to blast her head into dust when I find her!"

Sakura blinked. "You knew what was happening all that time? You were… conscious?"

He ran a hand through his hair, hating the memory of feeling so helpless. "Yeah." Another unpleasant memory hit him then. "And I also saw you with that Konoha ANBU. What was all that about? The last I checked, he was hunting you down to drag you back to Konoha. When did you become best buddies, hm?"

Something in her eyes flickered. "We're hardly best buddies. It's just… Let's say we came to an agreement."

He could not help but think that something was off. "What sort of an agreement?"

"An agreement to help each other out," she returned impatiently. "Does it really matter now? He's not here, is he?"

"No. I guess not."

He wanted to press the issue but from the mutinous look on her face, it was unlikely that he would get very far. That ANBU was clearly a sore topic for her. Hell, it wasn't as if he wanted to talk about that bastard anyway. Still, something told him that there was a bigger story between the two of them.

"Deidara, how did you regain control? And for that matter, how did you escape Iwa?" she asked quickly, glancing around them worriedly. "Last I saw, you were slung over this big guy's shoulder."

"That must be Akatsuchi, yeah."

She gave him an odd look. "I guess you knew them before you left Iwa. That dark haired kunoichi addressed you as sempai."

"Aa. They used to tag along when I train. Kurotsuchi is my sensei's granddaughter," he admitted uncomfortably as images of those days came to mind. "That was a long time ago, yeah. It's a little different now."

"So?" she prompted impatiently. "What happened? Tell me."

He shrugged. "Some blonde Konoha kunoichi got into my head and helped me regain control. It was weird, almost like she was walking all over inside my mind and I couldn't do a thing to kick her out."

Sakura's eyes widened. "Blonde?"

"What?" he asked cautiously.

"Is her name Yamanaka Ino?"

"Something like that. I wasn't paying attention with everything else that was going on. I remember thinking that she was a little strange. Hot, but there's something wrong about her. You know her?"

She took on a faraway look. "We used to be very good friends, but we… drifted apart, I guess."

"Good friends? You've got to be joking," he said disbelievingly. "She's weird."

Sakura rolled her eyes, clearly exasperated. "And you're not weird?" She exhaled slowly. "Anyway, Ino wasn't always like that. Believe it or not, she used to be a great girl to hang around. But I guess things… happened to her. Eventually we sort of lost touch with each other."

He rolled his eyes dismissively. "But what does that matter? You have me now, yeah. So that should be enough."

Something clouded her expression then and she looked away, sparking his curiosity. What was she not telling him? A shiver of apprehension ran up his spine. What had happened while they were apart?

"Hey, what's wrong now?" he asked seriously.

She shook her head and then looked up at him. "You still haven't told me how you got out of Iwa."

He knew a diversion when he heard one. She didn't want to answer his question, but there was no need to be so obvious, yeah. Tsk, he supposed he could humor her for now. He would get the answer from her later.

"So?" she prompted, crossing her arms over her chest. "How did you get out?"

Payback time. Besides, it was a question he did not want to answer just yet. "Long story."

"And since when that stops you from speaking?" she shot back, eyes narrowing suspiciously. "What are you keeping from me?"

Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. "I can't deal with telling you that bit yet, yeah," he returned irritably. "And I can't be bothered to make up a lie, so you just have to wait until I'm ready to spill, alright?"

She stared at him for a long time. And then with a huff, she said, "At least tell me if we need to lay low."

"Don't bother."

"So Iwa is not coming after you."

"Nope."

"The Tsuchikage let you go just like that?" she asked disbelievingly.

He scowled at her obvious tactic. "I said I'll tell you later, yeah. Which part of that don't you understand?"

Reaching out, he yanked her towards him. Her eyes widened as she slammed into him. Without pause, he linked his arms around her and held her gaze. Holding her always felt so right. This time it felt even better. They might have a point about absence making the heart grow fonder. If only they could be like this forever, just them and no one else. And then he promptly snorted inwardly at the direction of his thoughts. She would laugh her ass off if she knew what he was thinking right now. But somehow, he couldn't be bothered to stop the words from leaving his lips.

"This makes me sound like a fool but I missed you, yeah," he told her quietly. "Really, really missed you."

Her bottom lip trembled slightly. "Me too."

He narrowed his eyes in warning. "Don't you dare start with the waterworks."

She buried her face in his chest and her body shook, sending alarm racing through him. She mumbled something but it was muffled so he couldn't make sense of it. Somewhat at a loss, he resorted to running a hand up and down her back.

"Hey, get a grip, will you?" he told her gruffly. "I didn't tell you I missed you so that you can cry all over me. All those tears on me… So disgusting."

She lifted her head then and stared at him with watery eyes. Her lips were stretched into a wide grin. "You idiot! Who said I was crying?"

Feeling like an idiot, he scowled at her. Laughing at him, was she? Offended and embarrassed, he tried to shove her away only to have her arms tighten around him.

"Let go of me, yeah," he snapped irritably. "I didn't confess so that you can mock me."

"It's my turn then."

"Eh?"

"To confess." Her grin softened and the expression on her face made his heart race. "Deidara, you're very special to me. Don't ever forget that."

Much to his horror, he felt his face redden. "Well, that's even worse than what I said. Don't you dare ever say it again!"

Her cheeks were flushed but that did not stop her from swatting the side of his head. "Good thing I'm not planning to say something like that again. It's a one off thing."

He caught her hand before her palm made contact with his head again. Using it to pull her close, he lowered his head to nuzzle her jawline and murmured against her skin, "No more talking for now, yeah. We can do that later."

000


000

Itachi stood patiently as he waited for the Hokage to digest what he had just told her. His verbal report had covered most of the events related to the stone tablet fragments but he had left out anything associated with Sakura, Naruto and Sasuke.

Before leaving Iwa, he had caught up with Yamanaka and had sworn her to silence. The kunoichi seemed suspicious but had fortunately agreed before he had to resort to using his Sharingan on her. Once that task had been completed, he had travelled to the Uchiha hideout where Sasuke was detained and spent the day interrogating his little brother. It had been pointless, for speaking to Sasuke was akin to speaking to a stranger. Although the miko was no longer near him, it was clear that whatever she had done to Sasuke remained. Perhaps the only option would be to return him to Konoha and appeal for Tsunade's help. It would be best to do this in tandem with returning Sakura to the village.

The Godaime's voice interrupted his thoughts. "You did well, Uchiha."

"Not all the fragments are accounted for yet, Hokage-sama," he told her quietly. "There should be one in Mist and a final one in this country."

"Yes. But at least she won't be able to get her hands on all of them. The message you sent earlier was useful. The Mizukage and her team are searching for the Water fragment as we speak. As for the one in Fire, I'm deploying your ANBU team and Aoba's to locate it."

His appointment with Sakura being foremost in his mind, he asked, "When?"

The Hokage stood up and walked to the window. Staring out of the glass, she muttered, "Who knows when it would turn up. Based on your observations, the Fire fragment shouldn't appear until after the Water one has been retrieved."

"Aa." After a moment of consideration, he added, "A week at the earliest, perhaps."

Tsunade turned towards him. "It has been a couple of days since the Earth fragment was found. If the Mizukage find hers early, then ours could appear in less than a week. Make sure you're ready to leave at a short notice."

"Understood."

Although his composure remained unfazed, inwardly Itachi was concerned. His priority was clearly the mission but he had a binding contract with Sakura. It was very likely that both would clash unless he did something about it. He could always terminate the contract with her provided she consented. And he doubted that she would disagree seeing that it would grant her further freedom. The problem was, the contract also dictated that he was not to track her down before the agreed time. Without doing so, he could not obtain her agreement to terminate the contract.

"By the way, Yamanaka Ino also reported back."

Itachi tensed inwardly. Had Yamanaka broken her words to him?

"She mentioned that the miko also took control of one of Onoki's nins."

He relaxed. It seemed that Yamanaka might not have mentioned Sakura. "Aa."

"Keep that in mind just in case any of your team or Aoba's behaves strangely. We don't want them falling prey to the miko's technique and start attacking each other." Tsunade tapped her fingers on her desk. "It's a good thing it can be undone."

Itachi hid his surprise just in time. This wasn't something he had expected to hear. "How?"

Irritably, the Hokage sighed. "The Tsuchikage asked Yamanaka to try to help. That crafty old man probably knew that anything mind-related is well within her capabilities. To cut a long story short, her success with the Iwa nin means that she would be deployed with Aoba's team for the duration of this new mission."

He could only stare at the Hokage while his mind whirred with the implications. If Yamanaka had managed to heal the Iwa nukenin, then it was likely that she could do the same for Sasuke. However, how was he to persuade her to assist in such a matter?

"Well, if there's nothing else, you can leave. Rest while you can but stay within the village."

Itachi kept his expression bland. "Very well, Hokage-sama."

With that, he left the room. As he walked out of the building, he thought over her words. Her decree that he was to remain in the village posed a problem as he needed to find Sakura to release her from the contract, and perhaps it was also a good time to bring up the topic of yet another unresolved issue between them. As much as it pained him, perhaps it was time for him to let go, as it was clear that his persuasions were completely ineffective on her. Whatever interest she had for him was no longer there.

Before that however, he needed to locate a certain kunoichi.

It did not take him long to find the Yamanaka kunoichi in one of the training grounds. She halted her exercises but said nothing as he approached her. It was only when he was standing in front of her that she spoke.

"Uchiha-Taichou. You're looking for me?"

"Aa."

"A mission?" she prompted.

"Not quite."

She stared at him for a few seconds before she asked, "What is it?"

"I understand that you used your kekkei genkai on the Iwa nukenin."

Looking disinterested, she responded, "The Tsuchikage asked me. Can't really say no, can I?"

"So it resulted in the successful return of his memories?"

"Well, it seemed that way," she replied flatly. "But he didn't lose his memories in the first place."

Interesting. "His memories are intact?"

"The link between his conscious mind and his body has been tampered with. I only restored it to its previous state."

"How did he behave when he resurfaced?"

"Why are you so interested in the missing nin?" she asked mildly. "Do you think he presents a danger to Konoha?"

"I doubt he presents a danger to anyone at the moment. He must be facing punishment for his crimes as a missing nin as we speak. It is unlikely that the Tsuchikage would allow him to set foot outside Iwa's cells so soon."

"Wrong."

Surprised, he eyed her consideringly. "Explain yourself."

She shrugged. "I left a day after you. That very same day, the nukenin walked out of Iwa's gates not far behind me. There were no guards around him. It sure didn't look as if he was facing any punishment."

Itachi stilled. Deidara was free? From Yamanaka's description, it did not sound as if he had escaped. Instead, he had been released. But why had the Tsuchikage allowed this? And now that the nukenin was free, would he return to Sakura? The urge to find them was strong but he knew that he had another issue to resolve.

Needing to hear the confirmation, he pressed, "He was allowed to leave?"

"Yes. So, why do you want to know?" the blonde kunoichi asked.

"It relates to another matter of interest to me. Can I trust you to keep a secret, Yamanaka Ino?"

She gave him a thoughtful look. "Is it something that might endanger Konoha?"

"Ultimately no."

"What do I get from it?"

Itachi sighed inwardly. Of course it would not be so simple. Nothing came for free, after all. In the past, when she was still a giggly teenager, he would have known what to offer her. But this kunoichi before him was harder and more jaded.

Or was she?

"An opportunity to meet my little brother."

Those blue eyes widened in surprise, the first sign of true animation he had seen from her in recent years. Perhaps this little enticement would suffice after all.

000


000

Itachi sat on the wooden platform outside the small house, listening to the rhythmic sound of the bamboo hitting the rock at the edge of the shallow pool in the courtyard. The entire compound was an Uchiha hideout, a private property at the edge of Fire Country. He had reset the security barrier such that no one could get in or out without him. In the room behind him, Sasuke remained asleep. His little brother had not regained consciousness ever since Yamanaka had completed her technique on him yesterday, but his sleep was restless. Sasuke had been tossing and groaning all this time.

Just as he wondered if he should seek medical assistance, a sharp inhalation of breath made him turn around.

Sasuke's eyes were open and there was a stunned expression on his face. Relief mingled with concern coursed through Itachi as he stood up slowly and then walked inside. His brother's eyes did not leave him as he sat down.

"Sasuke," he greeted. "How are you feeling?"

Sasuke blinked once and then frowned slightly. "Nii-san." He glanced around. "Is this real?"

Itachi felt his chest twist. "Yes, it is," he assured. "You have been released from the miko's spell."

"Ino." After a thoughtful pause, he added, "I remember seeing her but I wasn't sure what was real."

"What else do you remember?"

Sasuke's features twisted with frustration. "I don't know."

Alarmed by his brother's response, Itachi prompted, "Do you recall leaving Konoha on a mission?"

"The mission. Yes..." His eyes narrowed slightly. "I was traveling back to Konoha when I was... Wait! I remember now." Seething, he continued, "The miko pretended to be in trouble and I helped her. I don't know how but she made me obey her will."

"So you knew nothing of her before then?"

Sasuke gave him a disgusted look. "No."

Deciding that his little brother's reaction was real, Itachi asked the question which had been on his mind. "Do you recall assisting her in retrieving the stone tablet?"

Eyes flashing, Sasuke shot to his feet and snapped, "I didn't do it willingly! Are you accusing me of being her accomplice?"

"Calm down, Sasuke," Itachi instructed in a hard tone. "You have to admit that the circumstances don't put you in a good light."

"What do you mean?"

"Am I right in saying that you knew about the stone tablet long before you left for the mission?"

Something flickered in Sasuke's eyes. "So what if I knew about it?"

"And you've been asked by the head of the Uchiha clan to locate it, isn't that true?"

Sasuke clenched his fists. "Nii-san, why don't you come right out and accuse me of treason to Konoha?"

"Are you denying the accusations?"

"I didn't commit treason," Sasuke retorted harshly. "Chichi-ue might have asked me to, but I didn't do it. I can't believe you're actually pointing a finger at me."

The heavy load which had been weighing Itachi all these years dissipated instantly. "I needed to hear your denial, Sasuke. That's all."

Sasuke frowned at him, clearly confused. "Look, if I obeyed Chichi-ue's orders, the entire clan would be in trouble. I was just pretending to go along with it so that he doesn't get someone else stupid enough to do it. Not that it matters right now." He glanced away with a frustrated huff. "If I remember correctly, the miko got a piece of it."

"You retain the memories of the time you were under her control."

Grimacing, Sasuke explained, "Probably not everything. I have no control over myself. At the beginning I could see and hear clearly but things seemed less clear after a while. I remember following her in a search for a long time, and then eventually we found the tablet in Lightning. But by then the details were blurred. It was almost as if I couldn't tell what's real and what's not." Brows furrowed, he asked, "How long has it been?"

Itachi looked him in the eye. "Almost four years."

Sasuke squeezed his eyes shut, and when he opened them, the dark orbs were alight with his tomoes swirling murderously. "That bitch took four years of my life. I'll kill her."

"You'll have to return to Konoha first."

Sasuke tensed. "What will happen to me then?"

"I expect you'll be subjected to interrogation and then monitored before you're set free. It is a standard procedure for shinobi returning after a prolonged unsanctioned absence."

Shoulders slumped in resignation, Sasuke said, "I guess I don't have any other choice, do I?"

"Not if you wish to return to Konoha. Your alternative would be to live the life of a nukenin."

Eyes taking on a faraway look, Sasuke asked, "How are my teammates doing?"

"They are well. Do you recall meeting Sakura?" Itachi asked quietly.

A few seconds passed before Sasuke nodded jerkily. "Maybe. I can't be sure. There was a battle, I think."

Realizing that Sasuke was feeling remorseful, Itachi told him gently, "She would understand that you were under the miko's influence."

"I only remember this sad look on her face. Nothing else." And then he glanced over. "How is she? And Naruto? What has that idiot been up to?"

"Your blond teammate is still alive," Itachi remarked wryly. "He would be a Hokage before you know it."

Sasuke huffed, "As if! And Sakura?" He frowned. "I was probably just imagining things but I thought she wasn't wearing her hitai-ate. And her hair was black. So maybe it's not real."

Itachi debated if he should answer truthfully, for he knew that this topic would escalate exponentially once broached. "Sakura is fine."

Sasuke eyed him suspiciously. "What are you hiding?"

Realizing that it was probably pointless to keep this from his little brother, Itachi sighed. "Sakura left Konoha."

Tensing, the younger Uchiha bit out slowly, "Left? What exactly do you mean?"

"She has been a missing nin for the past two years."

Sasuke's eyes widened in disbelief. "Sakura is a nukenin? How did this happen?"

Itachi looked away. This conversation could not be avoided. "I understand that she wished to escape her marriage."

There was a long stretch of silence. When Sasuke finally spoke, his voice was icy. "Who did she marry?"

"Me."

When the blow came, Itachi did nothing to avoid it. Sasuke's fist hit his jaw and sent him crashing against the nearest shoji. The flimsy screen tore at the impact and Itachi thought idly that it would need to be repaired before his parents decided to pay a visit to this compound.

Rubbing his face, Itachi picked himself up to face his brother. "Calm down, Sasuke."

Sasuke snarled, "You married Sakura? Why? Was it because of Chichi-ue? I overheard him talking about it to Okaa-san but I didn't think that you'd actually agree to do something like that!"

"I had mistakenly assumed that she would refuse."

"You what?" Sasuke exclaimed incredulously. After a tension-filled pause, he hissed, "Wait, I think I see where this is going. You married her, and then treated her badly so that she has a valid reason to leave you. Isn't that right?" +

"Yes."

"You're unbelievable, you know that?!" Angrily, Sasuke stalked outside to stand on the wooden platform. "How could you make her leave Konoha? And leave her friends?"

Guilt stabbed through him. "She would return soon."

Sasuke snorted. "You sound so sure."

"She agreed to return, but not so soon."

He did not need the reminder that he would have to dissolve a certain contract before his mission commenced. Now that he knew that Deidara was free, it gave him a way to achieve his goal. When he left this place, he would create a bunshin to remain in Konoha in his place while he pursued a certain blond nukenin.

"Where is she now? I want to see her."

"Not now," Itachi told him.

"Then when?" Sasuke demanded irritably.

He stepped outside onto the platform facing the courtyard to stand beside his brother. "I will bring her here and then escort both of you back to Konoha at the same time," Itachi said. "You will see her in a few weeks."

Sasuke tensed. "What will happen to her?"

"The same as you, I expect."

A pair of dark eyes bored into him. "This is all your fault. And you'd better fix it."

Another jolt of guilt lanced through Itachi. Sasuke was not wrong in his accusation. If only he hadn't misjudged the situation so badly, Sakura would still be in Konoha. As he stared at the pool of water in the courtyard, the past returned to him.

He stood by the kitchen table, his eyes fixed upon the neatly scroll set in the middle of it. The afternoon sun shone through the window and highlighted the thick parchment. He had been expecting this, but his chest still gave an odd lurch when he opened it and saw the heading. At the bottom, a signature was already there.

He should really sign his name beside Sakura's signature.

It had always been his belief that Sakura had been backed into marrying him, that she would not have even contemplated the notion if not for the benefits such a union would bring Konoha. Why else would Sakura marry the elder brother of the man she loved, but thought to be dead? He had deliberately stayed away from her because he thought that once Sasuke returned, she could annul this farce of a marriage and return to the man she loved. Sasuke was alive out there. It was only a matter of finding him. However, his search so far had yielded nothing.

Even now he should be concentrating on the search. Instead he had spent the whole of yesterday and this morning in the forest, seated on the bank of Nakano River as he calmly thought over his confrontation with Sakura. Following her outburst he was beginning to wonder if he should attempt to make the marriage work. Whatever feelings she might have for Sasuke, Itachi could tell from the way she had acted that night that she was not completely indifferent to him. In fact, in her anger she had even confessed her attraction to him.

And all this time, he had thought that she was only fulfilling her duty, that she was still pining for Sasuke. That was clearly not the case. She had been hurt by his treatment, and to hurt, her emotions must be involved.

How could he be so foolish?

He did not know how long he had stood there in the kitchen, silent and unmoving, but the next time he glanced out of the window, it was already dark.

His fists tightened, crumpling the scroll in his hands.

Mind made up, he pushed the crumpled scroll into his pocket and left to find Sakura. He had not seen her since she had stormed out almost three days ago, but she was likely to be at Naruto's place. He was her closest friend after all. Naruto's absence from Konoha would not stop her from staying at his place.

Not long afterwards, he arrived at Naruto's flat. He recalled the conversation he'd had with Sakura, long before this entire marriage issue muddied their relationship. Sakura had told him that the blond jinchuuriki had insisted on staying in a small apartment, stating that it was enough for him, even though the villagers wanted to build him a mansion to thank him for saving them from Akatsuki.

Nearing the apartment, he expanded his senses. There was no one inside, but Itachi managed to gain entry via one of the windows. Pausing to check for traps and surmising rather incredulously that there were none, he then went over the apartment. There was one bedroom, a bathroom and an open plan sitting area plus kitchen. It did not take him long to find Sakura's belongings stacked on a chair in Naruto's bedroom.

He frowned when he noticed that although her clothes were there, none of her weapons or her medic pouch was there. The medic pouch was easy to explain, as she usually carried it with her despite the fact that she was no longer on the active roster. The weapons however were harder to explain. He knew that she had not left them in the house they shared because all her personal effects had been removed. The pair of kodachi Sasuke had given her for her seventeenth birthday was also missing.

Indeed, all the signs pointed to the fact that she had left on a mission.

He felt a chill wash over him. Needing to confirm his suspicions, he made his way to the Hokage Towers. There, he gained entry to the secured administration office and immediately went to the boards. It did not take him long to find the information he was looking for.

Haruno Sakura was out of Konoha, on a solo A-ranked mission.

Itachi sucked in a sharp breath. She had left last night, which was the day after their confrontation. He did not understand how this could have been sanctioned. Tsunade could not have possibly sent her on such a high ranking mission when Sakura had been absent from active duty for the past eighteen months. The risk was too high.

Perhaps Sakura had requested it.

His head dipped as he considered the situation. The crumpled scroll was still in his pocket. There was nothing left for him to consider. His plan had unfolded as he had wished and now, he would see it to the end by placing his signature and blood where it was needed.

000


000

Clad only in her underclothes, Sakura rested languidly against the rock lining the edge of the hot springs. It was the perfect night for a soak. The past two days spent with Deidara had been relaxed. Both of them seemed to have come to an unspoken agreement that they would take things easy. If only she could stay like this forever, she would die happy.

Unfortunately, this would not last. In about three days, Itachi would come for her and she would have to return to Konoha. How was she to explain this to Deidara? How was she to explain that their time together was so limited? What about him? What would he do? She suspected that he would fight Itachi to prevent her from leaving, but ultimately, she would have to go.

A loud sigh from across the hot springs reached her. Cracking her eyes open, Sakura glanced at her partner who was submerged in the water up to his waist. Illuminated only by the full moon overhead, she could tell that he was still a little bruised but he was fine otherwise. Someone had healed him and she could only conclude that it was the Iwa medics. It was not as if he was willing to part with any information on that topic.

Thinking about Iwa hurt her head. On the surface, it looked as if they had released Deidara but that didn't make sense since they had been hunting him for so long. Why release someone once they'd captured him? And why heal him to his full health right after capturing him? That was not how one treated one's nukenin. She was certain that she would be suffering a worse fate once she set foot in Konoha.

"This is the life, yeah!" Deidara exclaimed as he stretched his arms over his head.

He looked so peaceful there leaning against the rock with his head back against the edge of the natural hot spring. It was almost a shame to leave him in peace. Grinning, she splashed a handful of hot water at him.

"Hey!" he protested. "You're breaking the mood. And all that splashing is just childish."

She did not know why but she sure felt childish at the moment. Unrepentantly, she scooped up another palm of water and flung it his way. It connected with his face and he sputtered indignantly. Dragging a hand down his face, he glared at her and began to move swiftly through the water towards her.

Letting out a choked laugh, she scrambled back. The slippery rock under her feet made any abrupt movement precarious so she channeled chakra to stabilize her foothold. Deidara had obviously done the same, considering the speed at which he was coming upon her. Refusing to allow him the upper hand, she shot him a challenging look and darted away.

"Oh, this is how you want to play it, huh?" he yelled gleefully behind her.

"As if you can catch me! Your chakra control is nowhere as good as mine," she taunted and then stabbed a finger at the cluster of rock near where they had left their belongings and clothes. "I bet I'll reach that rock before you."

"You dare issue me a challenge like that, hm? Now you'll just have to watch me win, and suffer the consequences!" he shot back amidst the sound of vigorous splashing.

Feeling lightheaded with adrenaline and heat, she surged forward and sent large ripples of water crashing against the edge of the hot spring. He was catching up with her fast as she was finding it difficult to stop giggling like an idiot. Her target was just twenty feet away from her target when she felt herself being yanked backwards and her head unceremoniously dunked in the water.

Damn it!

Sputtering as she surfaced, she wasted no time in pursuing the blond just ahead of her. He was laughing uproariously, clearly expecting to win. Over her dead body! Channeling more chakra to her feet, she sent herself flying out of the water.

A second later, she crashed into his back and forced him down with her weight and her considerable chakra. He stayed underwater for a few seconds before he managed to push her off.

"Oi!" he shouted as he struggled to right himself. Swiping water out of his face, he then narrowed his eyes at her. "That's cheating. You'll pay for that, yeah!"

She laughed at his bedraggled appearance. The next thing she knew, she was slung over his shoulder. Still laughing, she punched his back lightly.

"Hey, let me down!" she cried amidst her chuckles. "Fine, fine. You win."

He huffed and then lowered her down. Her laughter died as her body reacted to the sensation of wet skin sliding against wet skin. There was a flare of something else inside her. When her feet touched the ground, their gazes connected and she could see an answering heat in his blue eyes.

"Deidara," she whispered huskily.

"I won, yeah." His intent was clearly written all over his face as he dipped closer. "So I'm claiming my prize. Right now."

His reward, huh? She could only smile softly as he began to nibble down her jaw teasingly. Her fingers slid into his hair and gently tugged it the way she knew he liked. He groaned his appreciation before he moved to lap at her ear.

"Hey," he murmured. "If this is all you want, then you could have just asked, you know."

She let out a soft laugh as she tugged hard at a lock of hair. "Don't flatter yourself."

"Hm."

Their kiss deepened and their movements grew more urgent. She felt warm and tingly all over as he ran a hand down her back to cup her rear, pulling her up against him, while his other hand snaked up her front. Lips locked with his, she moaned as she circled her arms around his wet body. This was not the first time they were in this situation but somehow, they never actually completed the act. Perhaps this time, they would. Perhaps this time, they would go all the way.

An image of the kiss she'd shared with Itachi flashed across her mind and she immediately tensed.

Sensing the change, Deidara pulled back to give her a heavily-lidded searching look. "What's wrong?"

What was she doing? She shook her head and pulled him back down to her. Deidara buried his fingers in her hair and lowered his lips against her neck, causing her to squeeze her eyes shut in pleasure.

Why was she thinking of Itachi at a time like this? And why did she feel a stab of shame, almost as if she was doing something wrong? She had every right to enjoy her time with Deidara. And since this was probably their last chance to be intimate, she was not about to back away.

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A/N: Hope you've enjoyed that. Please review!

:elle6778: