Ino wasted no time at all in throwing her arms around Sakura's neck the second she reached camp.
"You're here," she sobbed, tears soaking into the collar of her borrowed dress. "You stupid, reckless princess, you're here and you're okay. Don't you ever do that to me again!"
Sakura laughed through tears of joy as she clung to her best friend. All around them people chuckled at the warm sight of friends reunited with one another; in the dark and uncertain time they found themselves in, such fleeting happinesses needed to be appreciated.
Sasuke couldn't resist smirking as he watched them chatter animatedly with one another like they weren't hunkered down in a rebel camp in the wilderness. He leaned against a tree, arms folded, his eyes rarely leaving Sakura. Now that she'd proven wily enough to escape his notice, he wasn't about to give her the chance to do it again. She was too important.
To the rebellion, of course, but also to him. And he'd sworn to himself that if Sakura was killed in this ordeal, it would only be because he'd died first.
"So what's your plan, Captain?" a cool female voice asked him, and he glanced to his left to find Tsunade, her eyes on her niece as well. "You're to return to Orochimaru tomorrow morning, correct?"
"Aa," he replied quietly. That would require particular finesse. His mission was simple: to find Sakura and return her to Orochimaru alive. The very idea of what the tyrant would do to her if Sasuke followed his orders made his stomach turn.
"And what do you plan to tell him?"
"My original plan was to tell him I found her body," Sasuke said in response. "But news of her escape spread throughout Konoha. People there cling to the hope that she's alive. It would damage morale for them to believe otherwise."
"So you aim to tell Orochimaru you couldn't find her?"
"Returning emptyhanded? He'd kill you on the spot."
Sasuke scoffed fearlessly. "I can handle myself."
Tsunade turned to him, and he didn't like the knowing light in her clever amber eyes as she pressed, "Can you?"
He raised an eyebrow.
"You'll have to leave her again," she said flatly, nodding towards Sakura, who was now greeting Gaara, prince of Suna, and the army he'd brought with him to help the Konoha rebellion. "To return to Orochimaru."
"What are you implying?" he asked, his eyes narrowing almost dangerously as his heart began to race.
Was he really that transparent?
Tsunade chuckled and folded her arms. "That I think the separation might be the only thing to crack your rock-hard exterior."
"Then you underestimate me," he said coolly. "My loyalty is to Konoha and the revolution – nothing else."
If he disliked the knowing look in her eyes, he loathed her secret smile.
Gaara, Tsunade, and several other tacticians were holed up in one of the tents discussing strategy. The plan was relatively simple, if not crude: the Konoha rebels, along with their allies in the Suna army, were going to attempt to seize Oto while Orochimaru continued his occupation of Konoha. It was a good idea in theory, but Sasuke had serious doubts. For example, even if Konoha succeeded in taking Oto, Sasuke knew full well that Orochimaru was not one to bend to anyone's authority. If anything, he might take his anger out on the Konoha citizens still kept in the city in retribution.
But he could also admit that without further information about what Orochimaru planned to do next, they really had no better recourse.
He sat on the thin cot in his tent, shirtless against the heat, planning his own moves. It would be beyond difficult to convince Orochimaru that he, the tyrant's best hunter, had let a sixteen-year-old girl slip through his fingers in just three days. He would be displeased, to say the least. It would definitely affect the trust Sasuke had forged between them, and that trust was pretty much his only card left to play.
He needed to learn more from Orochimaru. More about what was coming next. The more information he could feed to the Konoha rebellion, the faster they could take back their city.
The tent flap opened suddenly, and he looked up, expecting to have to yell at Naruto to get out of his tent and stop bothering him, when he saw Sakura instead. She was dressed simply in trousers and a loose-fitting shirt, her hair in a messy braid out of her face, worry written on her finely-cut features.
"Something wrong, Princess?" he asked, suddenly cognizant of the fact that he wasn't wearing a shirt. He set down the dagger he'd been sharpening to look at her properly.
"Auntie tells me you're heading back to Konoha in the morning," she said quietly, and he could tell by the furrow of her brow that she didn't like the idea one bit. The thought that she might distress over being separated from him brought him equal amounts consternation and thrill, neither of which he allowed to show on his face.
"Aa. We need more information from Orochimaru. I'm the only one who can get it."
"Suigetsu told us a lot," Sakura returned, her tone almost argumentative. "More than enough. What do you think you're doing, going back there? You'll be killed!"
"That didn't stop you, did it?" he countered. "You did what you thought you had to do, regardless of how stupid it was."
"This isn't a game, Sasuke," she hissed, little hands clenching into little fists at her sides. She was perhaps the least-intimidating creature in the universe, but he knew she was aiming for haughtiness. "He'll kill you the second you step through the gates without me."
"You underestimate me, Princess."
"What use can you be if you're dead?"
Sasuke was on his feet, frustration guiding his movements; he tossed his dagger carelessly to the ground, blind to how it cut smoothly through the dirt, and stepped towards her.
"It's time you learned your place, and let me take mine," he said softly, narrowed eyes taking in the girlish pout of her lips as she stared up at him fearlessly. "We each have our part to play in this. I have to go back. You have to stay here. That's it."
"Is it so terrible that I worry about you? That I care about what happens to you?"
"This isn't our childhood anymore, Sakura," Sasuke whispered, his attention drawn inexorably to the way her chest filled out the collared shirt she was wearing, the sleeves rolled up several times to show her dainty little hands. She was unfairly, absurdly beautiful and it infuriated him, that she could stand in front of him and tempt him with everything he couldn't have.
And be so unaware of her appeal.
"Your childish desire to keep everyone in your life safe is going to ruin any chance we have of restoring you to the throne and taking back our city," he continued, designing his words to cut. He would never tell her what it meant to him, that she gave two animal shits what happened to him. He would never tell her how overjoyed he was to be able to count herself among the people in her life.
"Risks have to be taken," he went on, "and we're going to lose something, sometime. You can't stop it. You can't save everyone and you can't save me. So stay here where you'll be safe. Everyone is counting on you, understand?"
She looked shocked, stricken that he had spoken to her so harshly, and he instantly felt a wave of guilt for making it seem like Sakura was anything less than 100% committed to their cause. He knew that she'd already lost so much in this occupation, and that her compassion was always one of the things he'd loved most about her. But she needed to let go this time, before they grew any more attached to each other. He had a role to fulfill in the city, and she couldn't follow him. She couldn't interfere this time.
If she tried to stop him – really tried – he knew he would let her.
She was his undoing, and this was his last chance at avoiding it.
"You speak to me as if I'm a child," she whispered. "As if I don't understand what must be done. And that is your mistake, because all this time, you've been the one understimating me."
He raised an eyebrow as Sakura took a step closer to him, poking a slender finger into his chest. He wondered if she could feel his racing heart.
"Because of me," she went on, her eyes two narrowed slits of beautiful green, "Orochimaru believes that there is no rebellion. Because of me, he believes that Tsunade is dead rather than organizing a revolution with our strongest allies. Because of me, we secured an information leak in Suigetsu and saved Tenten from execution. I am not pursuing the throne to be the figurehead of anyone's political agenda. I've made it this far on my own merit and intelligence, and that you continue to doubt in my commitment and my capability? Have you no faith in my aptitude to be queen? Because if that's the case, then abandon this useless endeavour to restore me to my throne, and remain here, where you'll be safe."
"I doubt nothing about you, Princess, except your judgment where your friends are concerned."
"Stop calling me Princess," she snapped. "Stop rejecting the fact that I'm more than that to you. Captain."
She poked him again, this time harder. "You underestimate me, and you underestimate your own value. This is suicide. And if you can't stomach the fact that your life has meaning to me, then at least consider the blow this rebellion would suffer if we were to lose you."
"That's exactly it, Sakura!" he exploded, using her name the way she demanded in that annoying, queenly way of hers. He seized the wrist attached to the finger she was poking him with and held it tight, just to feel her warmth, just to feel her pulse, to see if it was racing as fast as his. "I can't stomach it. It can't mean anything to me, that you're worried about me. Not now, not ever."
It can't. It shouldn't. But it did, and it scared the hell out of him.
A few seconds passed, both of them breathing heavily, glaring at one another, before Sakura wrenched her wrist away from him. He expected her to flounce out of the tent in an angry huff, but instead, she slouched onto his cot, her arms wrapped tight around her waist. Deflated, like there was no fight left in her.
He hated it. He hated her looking so defeated, so tiny and fragile. Knowing he had no place to do it, he sat down beside her. Close enough to feel the heat radiating from her body but not close enough to touch her. Never close enough.
"I just got you back, Sasuke," she whispered, not looking up or over at him, her eyes fixated on the dusty ground beneath them. "And perhaps it's selfish of me…but I'm running out of people to be selfish about."
Every word she spoke touched his heart and tested his resolution. With an aching surrender, he lifted his arm and wrapped it around her shoulders. He had no right to touch her like this, to touch a princess so familiarly, but she had already called him on that. Even if he rejected the fact that they could ever be together the way he wanted to be, she knew, at least on some level, that he felt something for her decidedly more than the loyalty a soldier might feel to his princess.
Decidedly, frighteningly more.
She didn't pull away from him, despite the fact that that would be the logical thing to do. He didn't deserve to touch her. Instead, she tucked her head into the crook of his shoulder and released a quiet little sob.
"I'm not dead," he murmured quietly, the closest thing he could come up with to comfort. "I have no plans to die. Don't go mourning me just yet."
"I just…miss you already," she sighed, her breath fanning hot against the bare skin of his neck and chest. "I feel safe, when you're with me. When you're with us."
It inflated his heart in a way he couldn't describe, to hear her say that.
"I know I have no claim on you, not anymore, anyway," Sakura went on with a humorless chuckle through her tears. "But…"
She trailed off, lifting her head to meet his eyes. Realizing her implication, he felt the heat simmering in his stomach explode like a volcanic eruption. He recognized the look on her face, burning in her beautiful eyes: desire, fiery and strong enough to match his own. An urgency there, too, the kind he could understand. They would be separated again, and he didn't know how long it would be – if ever – before they were reunited again. Running on borrowed time, Sasuke suddenly saw the lines drawn between them begin to blur.
"I loved you then," she whispered, sincerity trebling the lilt of her voice. "When we were children. And every minute you were gone, even when I hated you, I loved you then, too." Sasuke became dimly aware that she was running her hand over his chest, tracing the contours of his muscles with curious fingers unmarked by scars. "And it makes no sense, and I have no right to feel this way…but I just got you back, Sasuke. I don't want to lose you again, because…for better or worse…I still love you."
And she said the words he always wanted, but couldn't stand, to hear.
The truth: that his feelings were reciprocated, had been since childhood, and none of it mattered. It wasn't enough. It was terrible timing between two people whom life deemed incompatible. The daughter of his sworn enemies, the woman he'd pledged his sword to protect. It couldn't happen now. It couldn't happen ever.
"I know you don't feel the same way," Sakura went on, taking her hand back and turning away from him. "I never expected that you might. Especially now…knowing my parents' role in…in what happened to your family. But I can't turn this off, and I don't want you to leave again."
Sasuke's eyes widened. She thought he didn't feel the same. She thought he didn't love her back.
In the end, she knew nothing about him.
His desire couldn't be ignored another minute. He might not deserve this, but it was his, wasn't it? He thought back to the contract burning a hole in the pocket of his jacket, the one dictating that in just a few short months, Sakura was to be his. He had every right, didn't he?
A burning, fiery possessiveness erupted inside him. He became hyperaware of Sakura's presence a few inches away, on the rickety cot. Her whispered confession, the wandering of her fingers on his skin, the naked want in her eyes…the document that promised her to him, that bound them to each other…the years of agonizing desire he'd kept restrained underneath hours of rigorous training and years of trying – and failing – to forget the way the sunlight danced through her hair…
It was a mistake, but he could allow himself this, couldn't he? Just one night. He was taking a huge personal risk, selfless, in returning to an occupied Konoha as a spy. He might not make it out alive, self-confidence be damned; he could permit himself one night.
One night of pure, unadulterated selfishness.
"Sakura," he breathed from behind her, into her ear. He watched her shoulders stiffen as he reached for her messy braid. "You're as naïve as you ever were, to think the way you do."
With deft fingers, he loosened the braid, pulling out the ribbon and letting her hair fall in a pile of curls down her shoulder. She released a shuddering breath and leaned her head back against his shoulder, the satin of her hair on his skin little more than tacit permission.
"I can't give you what you deserve," he whispered, his fingers drifting down her side and taking her wrist; he lifted her arm until it wound around his neck. "But tonight…I can make you mine."
"Tonight," she murmured in confirmation, fingers curling and tightening through his hair as she leaned further into him. He sealed his lips against her throat and nearly lost it when she let out a gasp of exhilaration in response; she turned her head to meet his, and with a heat and a devotion he could never understand, she pressed her lips to his in a kiss of complete surrender.
Everything began slowly at first. Sasuke was not awkward in the slightest, but he seemed to be holding himself back, taking his time and attempting to be gentle. And Sakura loved him more than ever for it, for the way he kissed her softly, his hands massaging chaste circles into her sides. But she wanted more, and immediately.
He awakened a desire in her that she didn't think she could ever satisfy. He was and remained the most handsome man she'd ever seen, his muscles sharp and defined, his jaw cut, his eyes dark and smoldering, but that was nothing next to the blisteringly close connection she felt to him. It was more than mere attraction; she'd loved him since before she could process what love really was, and in his quiet, subtle way, she knew he loved her, too.
They weren't right for one another, and probably never would be, but that wasn't what this was about. And she was a masochist, and would take whatever she could get.
"Tell me to stop and I will," he breathed in her ear, as he laid her down on the cot, hovering over her like a shadow and eyes full of fire. "Or give me tonight."
His voice, deep and smooth, sent pillars of electricity rocketing up her spine. His hands on her bare sides weren't enough, and instinctually, she raised her hips to meet his, the motion drawing out a ragged groan from Sasuke.
"You have tonight and whatever else you want," she gasped, throwing her head back against the thin pillow as she arched her back, drawing them closer together. "Just stay."
He didn't promise her anything. Instead, he kissed every inch of her with a mixture of urgency and reverence, from her mouth to her stomach underneath her shirt, quick fingers negotiating the buttons open until it was discarded on the floor like an afterthought. His tongue swirled against her hipbone and she opened her mouth to cry out, only to have his hand slide gently over her mouth to muffle the sound.
"If they hear us," he murmured, before repeating the motion just to torture her, "they'll stop us."
She kissed his fingers as he drew them away; unexpectedly, he flipped her over onto her stomach. At once, anxiety rose inside her as she realized her scars, her hideous, disfiguring scars, were now on display for him to see. Remembering his disgust with them from the day before, she scrambled to reverse their positions, to turn back over, but he stopped her.
"You're so beautiful, Sakura," he whispered, and she felt him lean down and kiss a scar at the small of her back. Like there was no repulsive deformity there at all, like it was somethig lovely, and she nearly broke down crying at the tenderness in the gesture. He kissed his way up her spine, sending her nerve endings on fire, while her hands curled into the paperthin fabric of the blanket strewn lazily across his cot.
"Sasuke," she gasped, unable to articulate anything more than that, but it seemed to be enough for him. Strong hands slid up and down her sides, his calluses rough against the smoothness of her skin in a delicious way as he flipped her back over. In no time at all, she was kissing him again, her hands greedily exploring every inch of his rippling muscles, curving around his cast-iron biceps and drifting down to the button on his trousers.
At the provocative gesture, he looked down at her, meeting her eyes. His chest was heaving, his hair tousled and even messier than usual, and she had never wanted anything more. Overflowing with love, she whispered, "Sasuke, please."
She wasn't sure what she was begging him for. To stop, to continue, to stay. But he answered wordlessly, leaning in the rest of the way until there was no distance, no barriers, no space between them. Contracts and wars, tyrants and allies, rebellion and revenge, everything melted away in the tiny, humid tent on the edge of camp, until there was nothing left but Sasuke and Sakura, and all that entailed.
The phrase 'star-crossed lovers' crossed her mind for a brief second, before drowning in the overwhelming love and devotion only Sasuke Uchiha could inspire inside her as they surrendered to the night and to each other.
He was gone before sunrise.
When she awoke on his cot, undressed and disheveled, she was alone; even his warmth was gone. She ran her hand miserably over the empty space beside her.
He hadn't stayed.
She'd known he wouldn't. She'd known that his loyalty ran deeper than any bond he might have with her, as much as she resented it. But knowing what he would do didn't make it any easier to let him go.
All that was left, she realized, was to wait. Wait for word from him, wait for word on what to do next.
Suna was here, though. Gaara and his armies had come, their allies had answered their call. She knew that it wouldn't be long before they took their next step towards reclaiming their city.
Whether Orochimaru knew it or not, Konoha was going to war.
And unimportant things – like love and lust and loyalty – would have to wait.
It was impossible to drive her from his heart now or ever again, he knew. Now that he knew what it felt like to move with and inside her, now that he knew the blissful way she'd sigh and gasp and moan his name, now that he knew that his love was received and reciprocated in equal measure.
But there were more important things than the lives of two insignificant people at stake now. He knew that, and so did Sakura.
The ivory gates of Konoha came into view as he spurred his horse on faster. He could make out the palace near the beach, and grimaced.
He was returning – empty-handed – to Orochimaru and his Oto soldiers.
Sakura was right to worry.