don't touch my hand and call it love
you said it was over, and then cried and cried; you were gone before i said goodbye.

18.


Ever since he deemed them unimportant and left them behind, she had been working.

Not just so she could stand on the same playing field as him.
Not just to catch up to everyone else who was racing ahead.
She did it for herself—to discover her worth.

To discover just what she is without him.

She can survive without him. She can, and she knows it.

She just doesn't want to.

"Sasuke, don't—ah!" Sakura tries to squirm away from him when he gently touches her waist, just light enough to tickle. "You do that on purpose, don't you?"

The smirk is faint on his lips, but it's there. "Haruno Sakura, apprentice of Tsunade, renowned medic and murderer of Akatsuki's Sasori—is severely ticklish."

"Oh, shut up. I bet you are too." And without warning, she pounces, and they tumble to the carpeted floor of their living room. She straddles his hips and tickles his sides—Sasuke twitches, even though he tries very valiantly not to let it show on his face. Sakura gasps. "You are ticklish!"

"I'm not." He grabs her wrists and holds them tight, preventing her from tickling him further.

"You are," she gushes with glee, before leaning all the way down to press her grinning mouth to his lips. Sasuke releases her wrists and one of his hands finds its way to her hair, gently keeping her in place. The other rests at the small of her back, and after she pulls away from his mouth, she moves down a little to press her ear to his chest and listen to his heartbeat. "You're warm," she says softly.

"If I were cold," he replies, "I'd be dead."

"Yeah, that's true." She smiles, even though he can't see from his angle. "I'm glad you're warm."

"I'm sure there are many people who don't feel the same way."

"Yeah, well, those people don't matter! The only people who should matter are the people you care about."

"So…you, basically."

Sakura looks up and props her chin on Sasuke's chest. "Yeah. And Naruto too."

"Not really."

She frowns. "Have you been talking to him lately?"

"Sakura, he shows up at our door every other morning. It's impossible to not talk to him."

"How do you find him? I mean…do you remember anything about him?"

She rests her cheek on his chest again, and he idly pets her hair. "Sometimes. Some things. But never everything."

"I see." They lay there on the floor for a while, and Sakura almost wishes that they wouldn't have to move from this spot. Outside of their home are a million uncertainties, and every day, it scares her a little more. What has Konoha done? Why do so many people hate it? Who wiped Sasuke's memory?

Sasuke is real. Sasuke is right here. Is it selfish for her to want both him and Konoha? It probably is.

So which would she choose? Sasuke, or Konoha?

When she was twelve, she would've chosen Sasuke in a heartbeat. But now—after proving to herself that she's a person without him, that she can live without him, that she is successful and capable—would she still make the same decision? It's Konoha, and the people in Konoha, who helped her stand up. Konoha, just like Sasuke, is irreplaceable to her.

But that's a silly thing to think about. After all, this is just a tiny fear. No one has even said that she has to choose between the two.

"Sasuke?"

"Hm?"

"Let's go visit Sai today."

The frown on his lips is evident. "Why?"

"Because he's our friend?" Sasuke's frown deepens. "Let's invite Naruto too. I don't think he's on a mission right now."

"We could just lie here on the floor all day," he suggests.

Sakura laughs, and stands to her feet. "We'll rot away if we do."

(I wouldn't mind rotting away if it was with you.)

After a moment more of grouching, Sasuke lets her pull him to his feet. "You still haven't explained to me why you don't like Sai," she reminds him.

He straightens his shirt. "Because he's just a washed out replication of me."

Sakura narrows her eyes, a slight irritation igniting in the pit of her stomach. "Hey. Don't."

"It's true."

"Sasuke."

He glances at her, before moving to grab the house keys. "Why are you and Naruto so adamant that he is also our teammate?"

"Because he is. Sasuke, we love you and you know that we do, but you also have to get that when you left, the world kept on turning. Sai is just as important to us as you are, but you two are completely different people, so stop comparing yourself to him."

"Who would you choose?" Sasuke demands, his eyes hard. "Me, or him?"

Disbelief washes over Sakura. "What?"

"In a life or death situation, would you choose me, or Sai?"

She walks up to him and reaches out, taking his hand. "Are you really that insecure, Sasuke? Are you really that afraid of him?"

Scowling, he pulls his hand out of her grip.

Sakura sighs. "Come on. Let's go." She stands up on her tiptoes to peck him on the cheek, as if trying to appease him. Sasuke is still volatile and easily provoked, and she doesn't know if that part of him will ever change. In ways, he's like a wildfire, almost impossible to control. She doesn't know why she tries. Sasuke was made for bigger things—no walls surrounding him, a vast and endless sky above his head. His short temper and superiority complex are no exceptions.

She leaves their apartment first with Sasuke at her heel, but she has to gently tug on his hand the entire time. She supposes, if Sasuke is the fire, she can be both his wind and his rain.

"It's the middle of the day, Hokage-sama. Can't you wait until a little later to get shitfaced?"

"Hey, watch your language," Tsunade reprimands Shikamaru. "I could exile you on a mere drunken whim."

"Yeah, except I'm too valuable of an asset, and even alcohol won't change that fact."

The Hokage sighs, and sets aside her sake bottle. "So? What brings you here?"

Shikamaru really, really wishes he could be having a smoke in front of Asuma's grave right now. "The worst case scenario."

She raises her eyebrows. "Care to elaborate?"

This information, he realizes, is enough to have this entire village crumbling down. Without a proper moral foundation, without the support of the people, this structured society is nothing. And right here, right now, Shikamaru may be initiating its downfall.

But what does he choose? The truth, or a home built on lies?

Asuma would have chosen justice. Asuma would have fought for what he believed was right.

"It was Konoha. Konoha attacked Sasuke and wiped his memory."

Sai has a paintbrush perched on his ear and is pouring himself another cup of cold tea when there are knocks at his door.

"Hi, Sai!"

He blinks. Sakura and Naruto, grinning from ear to ear, and Sasuke standing behind them, brooding as usual.

"You guys," he greets. "What are you doing here?"

"To ask if you wanted to have lunch with us." Sakura peeks around Sai and into his home. "Are you painting again?"

Sai moves into her line of vision, because he isn't quite ready to show it to anyone yet. "Yeah, but I'm not finished yet."

"You can finish it later. C'mon, it's unhealthy to stay cooped up at home all day!" She plucks the paintbrush from his ear. Every single time she and Naruto make an effort to include Sai in their activities, he can't help but be glad, and a touch confused. After all, he's from Root, and was originally assigned to their group to keep an eye on Naruto. He's only still around now because Danzou is beginning to distrust him and won't allow him back in the inner circle.

Ever since Sasuke was brought back, Sai had been prepared to lose the only people who saw him as more than a soldier. He bought new canvases and sketchbooks and paints to immerse himself in, and vowed to himself to never question Danzou again.

But—

"Sai?" Sakura peers at him curiously. "Are you alright?"

He forces a smile to his face. "Yes. Shall we go?"

They go to Ichiraku, predictably, and Naruto is chattering the entire way there. Sai watches him argue with Sasuke and Sakura trying to calm them down, and he wonders if it's always been like this, even before he came into the picture.

Why is Sai even here? Why do they still keep him around? Especially after everything he's done…

At Ichiraku, he spends less time eating his ramen and more time sketching. He keeps everyone's faces out of the picture, but draws the bowls of ramen, the chopsticks, their hands—Sai has known Naruto and Sakura for far too long to not remember the exact shape of their fingers, the shadows cast by their knuckles, the odd chipped nail here and there. It's only after some consideration does he add Sasuke in the sketch as well, sitting farthest away from Sai, his hands still unfamiliar and foreign.

"What are you doing?" Naruto leans over, mouth stuffed and breath reeking of miso, to glance at Sai's sketchbook. "What's this one called?"

"I don't know yet," he replies, although he already has a title in mind.

Without Me, perhaps?

In half an hour, Kakashi and Neji have arrived at the Hokage's office.

"Where's Naruto?" Shikamaru asks.

"I want to hear the whole story first," Tsunade says, her lips pursed. "If this is as bad as I feel it's going to be, then I'd rather have level-headed people in the room. We'll brief him afterwards."

Neji tilts his head in question. "I'm assuming…?"

"I've figured it out, yeah." Shikamaru moves until he can lean against the wall. It's going to be a long discussion. "Who wiped Sasuke's memory, and why."

There is an unhealthy mix of different emotions swirling around in Shikamaru's stomach right now, but if he has to put his finger on just one of them, then it would be fear. He's always been afraid of the future, but never as much as he is now—because time will pass, and Sasuke will have to know who did this to him, unless they come up with a spectacular lie that can appease him. But Sasuke is smart, and can't be appeased—even if they did lie to him, which is something Shikamaru isn't exactly a supporter of anyway, he would find out eventually, and his anger and desire for revenge will only multiply.

So perhaps, if Shikamaru has to pinpoint exactly what he is so terrified of, it would be Sasuke.

All eyes are on him, waiting and expectant.

Shikamaru roughly pushes through his fears, and tries to find the strength not to shake in his skin.

"Never thought I'd see the day," Sakura says, letting out a low whistle. "Are they actually helping each other?"

"It looks more like they're screaming at each other," Sai observes.

"That's the only way they communicated with each other, even back in the day." She smiles fondly as Sasuke and Naruto seemingly argue a few feet away from them. They agreed to teach each other Chidori and Rasengan, which is a huge step in itself, because those are their most prized jutsu.

"Can Naruto even learn Chidori? If I remember correctly, he doesn't have the right chakra type."

"He doesn't, but don't burst his bubble. They're bonding for once."

Sai turns to her, his usual smile on his face. "Shall I teach you something too?"

"Like what?" she replies, grinning impishly. "I'm afraid I don't have much inclination for the arts."

"Of course you don't. Your taste in aesthetics is appalling on most occasions."

She blinks. "It is?" He's never told her that.

Sai's voice holds genuine surprise. "You didn't know?"

"I…no…"

He recovers quickly. "Well, it is."

"Thanks, Sai."

A moment later, and a laugh bubbles in her chest. Of course he finds her taste in aesthetics appalling—as shinobi, they don't have set trends or styles, and even the most horrid choice of clothing go unspoken for. She could say the same for him, walking around with an exposed stomach.

Much to her surprise, a quiet chuckle escapes Sai's lips as well. Her laugh turns into one of disbelief, because one of those chuckles is so rare for him—but today it comes easier, and some tension from her shoulders that she didn't realize she had disappears.

"I want you to always be like this," she tells him honestly. "I want you to always be happy. And never feel like you're any less than who you are and what you deserve."

It's a moment of him gazing at her, before he says, "I feel the same too." And uncertainly, he holds out his arms; Sakura takes the initiation and steps into him, letting him hug her. Over his shoulder, she's vaguely aware of Sasuke shooting a glance at them, but he's too far away for her to tell if he's bothered by it. Hopefully not, since Naruto charges him with the Rasengan a moment later, and he's forced to leap back.

"So," she says once she pulls away from Sai, feeling warm and ten different kinds of happy, "what are you going to teach me?"

There are probably a million things everyone in the room wants to say right now, but everything remains eerily silent.

"So?" Neji's voice is stiff. "What's our plan of action? Hokage-sama?"

Tsunade's brow is furrowed with a mix of several turbulent emotions, ranging across disappointment to fury. "I need to think." Her voice is stitched tight with tension. "Give me a minute." The atmosphere in the room is so heavy it's palpable, weighed down by everything Shikamaru never wanted to face.

"Sasuke will find out anyway, in due time," Kakashi reasons. "It would be impossible to hide it from him for long."

"But if he finds out," Neji says, "the situation will be far from democratic. I suggest making an intricate, easily plausible lie to cover the truth and let him achieve his fake revenge; that will cause the least amount of damage to the village."

"And who would be our martyr?" Shikamaru asks lazily. "It's hard enough for shinobi to die with their secrets never revealed, much less by the hands of Sasuke." He can't comprehend—can't even begin to fathom what Uchiha Itachi went through, the ridicule and hatred he had to face alone, the sheer amount of pain—how does anyone kill his own blood on orders from above? How does a person choose between family and loyalty, and point his blade at his own kin?

Who cares if Itachi was a shinobi, and it was his duty? Itachi is human, just like every other person living in this village. Shikamaru finds himself unconsciously clenching his fists and grinding his teeth just thinking about it. He wouldn't be able to do it. He wouldn't have.

What seems like an eternity of silence passes by, with Tsunade deep in thought, and the rest of them waiting for her decision.

"A big foreseeable, but potentially inevitable, problem is Naruto," Kakashi reminds them. "He's going to want the best of both worlds—"

"Which isn't possible," Tsunade finishes for him. "This is…the last thing I would have wanted. It's not something I can condemn the council for either, because they only did what they thought was right." With each passing minute, she looks closer and closer to obliterating everything within a ten foot radius of her. One more moment passes, and resolve sets in her eyes. She straightens up in her seat. "We tell Sasuke the truth."

Out of the corner of Shikamaru's eye, he sees Neji stiffen. "Hokage-sama…!"

"We detain him," she continues firmly, "and tell him the truth. And we will use whatever means necessary to make sure he does not harm the village."

"I can't guarantee that will work," Kakashi warns.

Tsunade breathes in deeply and exhales, keeping her breath as steady as possible. "I know. But we have to try."

Shikamaru raises his hand to grab everyone's attention. "If I may contribute. I don't know how much this is going to help, but I think having Naruto around when it happens would work in our favor. He's always been the one chasing after Sasuke, and rumor has it that those two are bonding again despite Sasuke's memory loss. Even though we have shinobi more capable than Naruto, Naruto might be the only one to really get through to him. And maybe getting Sakura in on this would up our chances as well."

Even though Sakura is a trump card that Shikamaru didn't want to use. Especially since she's finally picked herself up in these past weeks—the last thing Shikamaru wants to do is to have everything crumbling down for her again. He's seen her stand up despite the odds, and trying to make everything work—she's strong, in ways that he isn't, and he hates to be the one to give her another obstacle to overcome.

But she's strong. Shikamaru wouldn't be able to do something like kill his entire clan, or withstand a tug of loyalties between his village and the people he loves, but maybe Sakura can. He wanted to keep her as far away from this as possible, but maybe she'll be the one to save them all.

"I agree, Shikamaru," Tsunade says with a nod. "Sakura specifically asked to be excluded from the issue of Sasuke's memory loss, but I think it's time we called her in. She may be essential for this mission to be successful." Seemingly having reached a solution, she leans back in her chair, although her posture hasn't relaxed one bit. "Neji, go get Naruto so I can brief him. The rest of you, be back here tomorrow morning—I'll have a more detailed plan laid out by then. And you know the rules: not a word of this to anyone."

Shikamaru leaves the Hokage's office with ten different possible scenarios already mapping out in his mind in case this mission goes wrong. He can see all of Konoha crumbling to the ground with nothing left—he can see people dying, people he swore to protect as a shinobi, people he would die for just to have them live.

He's jolted from his thoughts when he feels a hand on his shoulder. He looks up at Kakashi, who's matched his slow pace down the hallway.

"Failure isn't an option," he reminds Shikamaru. Shikamaru thinks it's not reassurance for him as much as it's Kakashi's reassurance for himself, because there isn't even a trace of the fake smile that Kakashi puts on, the one that gives people false hope that everything will be okay.

Shikamaru nods. "Right."

There's no need to think of ten different possible scenarios and coming up with counterstrategies. Because failure isn't an option.

"Where is the grip on this thing?" Sakura struggles for her voice to be heard over the wind as they soar in the sky, Sasuke and Naruto just tiny specks on the ground below. "Sai, I'm going to fall!"

"You won't," he says loudly, his mouth surprisingly close to her ear despite how loud he's shouting and how little she hears him. He has his hands on her hips and holding her steady, like an anchor and a lifeline. "And even if you do, the chances of you dying are very slim."

Sai is teaching her how to fly.

She has always seen him soar in the sky on his ink birds, but never in a million years thought that she'd get the chance to fly one for herself. This is less of learning anything practical and more of just having fun, but she doesn't mind—after all, from what she can see, Naruto and Sasuke seem to be having a blast. She isn't going to miss out.

"I'll show you something," Sai says in her ear, and somehow controls the bird while still behind her. Sakura reaches back to frantically grab his arms when then begin to fly upwards, higher and higher until she feels a little lightheaded. The sky is a stunning blue with white, fluffy clouds, matching the spring weather. She finds herself sliding backwards when the bird tilts even more, but Sai acts as a strong pillar behind her and doesn't budge when she finds herself pressing against him. How does he keep his grip on this thing?

They leave the training grounds and fly above the village, getting a bird's eye view of the neighborhoods and marketplaces. Sakura's fear of falling to her death begins to dissipate as she gazes down at the people who live their lives day after day, redundantly boring but beautifully ordinary.

It takes less than a minute for Sai's bird to cross the entire village, and she finds them coming to a landing on top of the Hokage cliff that overlooks all of Konoha. "Have you ever been up here before?" Sai asks, sliding off the bird and holding out his hand.

She takes it and jumps to the ground, and shakes her head. "No." Sai's bird puffs away, leaving her with the view of their village—the first one in existence, allowing shinobi and civilians alike to live in peace.

"Danzou-sama told me that everything started here," Sai says. "That Senju Hashirama and Uchiha Madara looked from this very spot, and that was how Konoha came to be."

"Is that really true?" she asks skeptically. "Right from here?"

"That's what I've been told." A pause. "I would do everything I could to protect this village. Even if it cost me my own life."

"Me too. This place is my home."

"Would you really?" Sai inclines his head as he turns to look at her. "Would you really die for Konoha, no matter what the cost?" There is a coldness in his eyes that Sakura hasn't seen for a very, very long time. "Does the village really come before everything else?"

A frown touches her lips, and she takes a step back. "What is with both you and Sasuke pinning me with questions like this? Do both of you know something that I don't?"

He doesn't answer, but looks away.

"Why do you and Sasuke keep on questioning my loyalty towards Konoha? When have I ever shown disloyalty?"

"You haven't," he answers vaguely. "But you might, soon."

"Why?" With every moment that her questions go unanswered, Sakura becomes more uneasy. "Sai, why?"

Sai takes a step towards the edge of the cliff, and looks down. Sakura does the same, and sees the familiar blur of a shinobi moving at a high speed from the window of Tsunade's office. A brief moment of the shinobi landing on the roof of a building before launching off again tells her that it's Neji.

"We should get back, don't you think?" When she looks at Sai, his smile has slipped into place, but it gives her no comfort this time around. "Sasuke would get mad at me if I stole you for too long."

"I'm not something to be stolen," she tells him. "And I don't want to fly anymore."

Thump, thump, thump.

Naruto can hear him. He can hear him knocking.

Thump, thump, thump.

Well, not knocking—more like pounding on the heavy metal bars, baring his teeth and growling threateningly. Sometimes, it's so very hard to ignore it.

"We what?" He trembles, not out of fear, but in attempt to keep his anger under control. It's proving difficult.

"We can fix this, Naruto," Tsunade says, her voice holding a strict resolve that he hasn't heard in a very long time. "But in order to, we need you. And more importantly, we need you to remain calm and not do anything irrational."

"So you're telling me"—thump, thump, thump—"that I have to sit back and let those old geezers do whatever the hell they want? They don't run this place anymore, you do! They're way too old-fashioned for this day and age and—Baa-chan, the Uchiha clan! Sasuke! Because of them, Sasuke—"

Thump. Thump. Thump.

"If you let me out, Naruto, we can kill the council together. We can take Sasuke's revenge for him."

"Get out of my head, Kyuubi, I don't need you."

To his surprise, it isn't Tsunade who stops him from his rampage of words, it's Neji. The Hyuuga remained in the room even after Tsunade gave him permission to leave, and had been listening quietly from the back of the room. His hand is on Naruto's shoulder now, squeezing half in warning, and half in an attempt to appease him.

"What's done is done," Neji says, his voice the epitome of control. "All we can do now is try to clean up the mess that was left behind."

Naruto roughly shrugs his hand off his shoulder. "I know that," he says, even though the rage is still simmering right underneath his skin, dangerously close to reaching the surface.

"I'll deal with the council," Tsunade says. "But when it comes to Sasuke, Naruto, we believe that only you and Sakura can bring some sense to him. I'm going to have a more detailed outline of this mission tomorrow morning, so come back then—and bring Sakura with you."

Naruto swallows. "Fine."

Thump, thump, thump.

"And don't let Sasuke suspect anything."

"I know that."

Thump.

"Naruto, we can end this right here, right now, you know."

"I don't care what you think, okay?" And anyways, Sasuke would never be satisfied if someone else carried out his revenge for him. Naruto would love to pound the faces of the elders, and curse every god for such misfortune on the Uchiha clan, but what can he do, really?

He has to save Sasuke. His top priority since he was twelve was to save Sasuke. Even if Sasuke doesn't remember him, and even if it means that Sasuke might hate him for the rest of his life. These are the sacrifices that he has to make if he wants to save his best friend, and wear the Hokage's hat.

"Is that all, Baa-chan?" The thumping of the fox in his belly begins to fade away, becoming just a dull throb in his temples. "I was with the rest of Team 7 earlier—I should get back if I don't want to arouse suspicion."

Tsunade nods, dismissing him. "Remember, back here, tomorrow morning."

"Okay."

Thump. Thump.

Thump.

Sakura and Sai have walked halfway through the village when they bump into Sasuke.

"Weren't you training with Naruto?" Sakura asks him, reaching out to touch his hand. Just that is enough to ease some of the tension from her shoulders, even though it doesn't erase it completely.

"He was called to see Hokage-sama," Sasuke replies listlessly. "I couldn't see you or Sai anywhere, so I was heading home."

"Oh, I see." She looks at Sasuke, and then glances back at Sai. She doesn't particularly want to be with either of them right now—not after the conversation she just had with Sai. She feels shaken, like the very foundation of her beliefs are beginning to crack. She can't pinpoint why, since there is no real reason why she should feel this way, no physical evidence to tell her as such, but her instincts are telling her that something is wrong. And she just wants Sai and Sasuke to tell her otherwise, because the way they've been talking to her lately is what's been making her so uncertain.

Sasuke tilts his head in question. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing." She draws her hand away from his—a small action, but one he doesn't miss. "I think I'll head to the hospital, to see if they need any extra hands."

"In that case, I'll go too."

She instinctively takes a step back, which has Sasuke tensing up immediately. "It's okay," she says. "Your medical jutsu has been really good lately, you don't really need that much practice. I'll just go, okay?"

Sasuke reaches out and grabs her wrist, his grip a little too tight to be considered friendly. "What's wrong?" he asks again, and her heart hurts a little, because he genuinely sounds concerned.

What is it that you're not telling me?

But of course she couldn't ask that. Not only would Sasuke never tell her anyway, but he would even put up those walls again that they worked so hard to knock down. Yes, it is a fact that Sakura loves Sasuke, but sometimes, it's just so hard.

"We can talk about it later," she says, glancing at Sai to convey that she doesn't want to do this in anyone else's presence.

The three of them are just about to part ways when a ball of blonde, black and orange barrels right into them. Sasuke's already tight grip on her wrist tightens even more on instinct, and she flinches at the pressure.

"Naruto. Weren't you called to see Tsunade-sama?" Sasuke's fingers loosen.

"Yeah, but the meeting was quick. I'm done now." It takes a moment too much for the blinding grin to reach Naruto's lips. "So? What are you guys up to?"

"Sakura was going to the hospital," Sai fills in. "I assume we were going to part ways."

Naruto stares at all of them. "Are you serious? How often are all four of us in the village at the same time? Let's make a party out of it! Let's buy some booze and some snacks and crash at…I vote Sai's place."

"But why my—"

"Everyone who agrees, raise their hands!" Naruto shoots his hand up, and when no one else does the same, he reaches for Sasuke and Sakura's arms and raises them as well. "Three against one, Sai. This is a democratic village that we live in. Let's go!"

"I'm not entirely sure if that counts as democracy," Sai says, but does not protest any further. Naruto races down the road, and although Sakura is not particularly up for throwing a Team 7 party at Sai's house, she isn't sure how to get out of this without Naruto being upset—after all, he's actually been having a good day, unlike the rest of them.

As Sai makes his way to follow Naruto, Sasuke tugs on Sakura's wrist and leans down so his lips almost touch her ear. "Are you going to join them?"

"Better than wallowing in my own thoughts, right?" She smiles wryly at him. He frowns in response, unsure of what she means. If anything, Sakura has always been straightforward with Sasuke; for her to be cryptic is something beyond his comprehension. The fact that this knocks him off his axis makes her feel a little better about the situation. "Are you going to go, Sasuke?"

"If you're going too, then that's fine," he says, and that is that. Clearly, Sakura is not the only one with something on his mind.

"You know," she tells him softly even as they start walking, "you can always talk to me, right? If there's anything that's upsetting you, or that you're unsure about. My feelings aren't just for show."

"I know." He trails ahead of her, following Sai and Naruto the the marketplace, seemingly lost in thought.

(What goes on in that head of his?)

She jogs to catch up to them, letting Naruto sling an arm around her shoulder, because at the very least, Naruto wouldn't hide anything from her.

(What secrets is Sasuke keeping from me?)

He sees it one of two ways: either Kisame was lying, or he was telling the truth.

If Kisame was lying, then Sasuke is back to square one. He has no leads on his memory loss, and he'll continue to treat Konoha like a crutch for God knows how long, and exist in this routine of a life until he finally finds some answers.

If Kisame was telling the truth, then the scarce information he gathered on his mission with Sakura would make sense. That little organization that they crushed wanted to join forces with him and destroy Konoha. And if Itachi was truly ordered by Konoha to slaughter the Uchiha clan, then it would make sense as to why Sasuke would…

He shakes his head to rid himself of these thoughts. There isn't enough proof yet.

"What happened to you? Where did all of your hatred go?"

Sasuke isn't entirely sure where to find the past doings of Konoha, but he's sure the information will come up somewhere. It always does, as long as he keeps looking.

He watches as Naruto and Sakura buy snacks and food at the marketplace. Both he and Sai stand back and let them do the work, and they share a mutual glance—one that is only capable of being expressed by socially stunted and psychologically damaged shinobi. Tension flits across Sasuke's shoulders.

It's not that Sai was his replacement in Team 7, and it's not that he knows Sakura much better than Sasuke wants him to. Well, it is those things, but not completely—Sasuke wouldn't hold a grudge against someone for small things like that. Those were inevitable; sacrifices Sasuke knew he had to make if he was going to leave Konoha and pursue Itachi. He doesn't like it, but he understands.

But it's the way Sai acts, and the way he talks. Because Sai is cold and calculated with just a shred of warmth in him, thanks to Naruto and Sakura—but essentially, down to his bones and deep in his marrow, Sai is a soldier. And there are two things that soldiers are very good at doing: obeying, and lying.

Sasuke knows a liar when he sees one, because he's a liar himself.

But what Sai's lying about, Sasuke doesn't know yet. Maybe it's something insignificant. Maybe he harbors secret feelings for Sakura (after all, he did make that cup of coffee quite intimately that one morning), or maybe he only pretends to enjoy the presence of Team 7—but maybe, just maybe, it is something much bigger than that. Maybe Sai is hiding a big secret that would wreak disaster if it ever got out.

Something in Sasuke's gut tells him not to trust Sai. And before he trusts anyone else, he trusts his own gut. It's what's gotten him this far.

"Sasuke?"

He's jolted out of his reverie when Sakura waves her hand in front of him. Her brow is furrowed in slight concern, and something buried deep inside of him aches.

"We're going to fry some fish tonight," she says. "I asked if you wanted halibut or black cod."

He shakes his head. "It doesn't matter."

"Well, choose." She smiles a little. "Naruto is going to be deciding on everything else, and we all know what his appetite is like."

Sasuke studies her for a long moment, trying to take in every detail. It's hard to memorize her in just a heartbeat—to remember the exact way her hair curls at the base of her neck, the little dip above her top lip, the way she looks at him with such blind faith and endless love. How does she do that? How does she love someone this much and not be afraid?

"You love them." He nods towards their companions who are currently arguing with each other on what else to buy. "Naruto. Sai. And Kakashi, too. You love them."

She lifts her head a little, in a display of both defense and pride. "Yeah. And it's not just them. I love everyone in this village. My parents are my flesh and blood, but they're civilians—they don't get it. All of my friends are my shinobi family, and they know exactly everything that I go through. To me, they're exactly the same as flesh and blood."

"You love them," Sasuke repeats.

"Yes."

"I love you," Sasuke says.

For a brief moment, Sakura doesn't respond. At one point, not too long ago, she would have cried at that. But she's different now.

(They're all different now.)

"I know," she says, tenderly. "But thank you for telling me, Sasuke. It means more than you can imagine."

All he can wonder is when she dropped that whimsical suffix from his name. When did he go from being Sasuke-kun to just being Sasuke? Why did he become just Sasuke? What about them has changed, between then and now?

Sakura stands on her tiptoes, takes his face in her hands, and presses a brief kiss to his lips. "Are you okay?" she murmurs.

"Yes," he says, and he's half tempted to pull away.

But he's paralyzed.

Sasuke loves Sakura. Sasuke loves Sakura.

And he told her. Dammit, he admitted it.

He would have never done that in the past.

Sasuke doesn't know what's scarier: the fact that he can't even recognize himself anymore, or the fact that he—

He loves Sakura, and unlike the first time, he can't stop anymore.

Sasuke eats the fried fish (he decided on black cod) and repeatedly refuses the sake that Naruto downs like water. Sai and Sakura have a little, but from Sasuke's years of instinct acquired from his life of a missing-nin, he knows better than to let his guard down at any moment, no matter how safe he may seem.

Sai's home is small and frugal, and the only thing it's in abundance of is painting supplies. Sasuke has no idea where his artistic abilities come from, since Sai is about as stunted as a rock. Some paintings are hung on the walls, several others are stacked in the corner, and there are paints and sketchbooks laid neatly on the table.

The four of them now, are sitting in a circle on the floor, exchanging mission stories and trying to up each other with how gory things became. (Or more like the three of them—Sasuke just listens, not interested in divulging such details from a past he doesn't completely remember.) Naruto is currently narrating with dramatic hand gestures about a time when bird guts exploded all over him and his team, bones and feathers and all.

"Oh, I remember that." Sakura wrinkles her nose. "When we met up with you guys, you were covered with it and reeked of disease."

"And you made us this disgusting drink." Naruto pouts.

"To make sure you didn't catch those diseases!"

Naruto and Sakura's gaze then turns to Sasuke, waiting expectantly to tell them something even more revolting.

"My preferred killing technique is burning people to a crisp," he says flatly.

Naruto rolls his eyes. "Boring. Sai, what do you do? Cut off people's dicks? Because that would definitely take the prize, I don't have anything that could top that."

"Actually, that may be an effective form of torture," Sai says. "Thank you for the suggestion, Naruto, I will keep it in mind." His lips curl into that familiar smile—the one that always has Sasuke suspicious, because it's so obvious that it's not real.

"Sai," he says, drawing everyone's attention. "Can I use your bathroom?"

Sai points down the only hallway in his home. "My room's to the left; the bathroom is connected to it. Help yourself."

Sasuke glances around at his company, stands up, and heads to the bathroom. He feels restless, as per usual—he suspects that this won't go away until he finally regains his memory, or leaves the village. It just doesn't feel right, to spend time with people as if…as if he deserves happiness, or if he even wants it.

Is that possible? For a person to not want happiness?

It's not that he doesn't want happiness. It's just that he wants everything else, too. And there are things he considers more important than happiness.

Revenge. Justice. Itachi.

He passes through Sai's room without a thought and heads straight for the bathroom, when suddenly—a thought does strike him. Sasuke stops in his tracks and spins in a circle, inspecting the room: as frugal as the rest of Sai's home, with a bed, desk, and blank canvases.

As indifferent and apathetic as Sai may seem, he must have secrets. He must have a weakness.

And Sasuke has never exactly been praised for his manners anyway, so he decides to rummage around. It's Sai's own fault for letting another shinobi into his home.

He searches the drawers—charcoal and paintbrushes. He checks underneath the pillows and mattress—a few kunai and shuriken. He checks the closet—extra sets of clothes, most of them identical to what Sai is wearing right now.

There is nothing to be found anywhere.

Sasuke stands with his arms crossed, deep in thought. If he were a shinobi (which he is) who actually has a home to live in (which he now does), where would he hide anything that he doesn't want anyone to see?

Of course. A secret compartment. Every shinobi's house has one or two hidden somewhere. Beneath the floorboards, behind a cupboard—with trump cards, rare pills, and anything else they would want to keep to themselves. Sasuke has never had anything like that, since his trump card is his eyes, but it is by no stretch of imagination that most shinobi have tangible objects that are not their body parts.

He spends the next few minutes swiftly searching the room once more, because if he stays for much longer, he'll arouse suspicion. It's easier now that he has an idea of what he's searching for—and in the back of Sai's closet, Sasuke feels some loose wood. After a few pokes and prods, he manages to slide a tiny door open.

Jackpot.

There is only one thing in the small compartment: a scroll. Sasuke bites into his thumb and summons Yuko and hands the scroll to her.

"Keep this with you—I'll take it back later tonight."

Yuko is generally an obedient summon, but today, she is a little snarky. "It's been a while since you've snuck around," she says, her voice slithery as ever.

He tilts his head. "Don't get smart with me."

She emits a sound that Sasuke suspects is a snake laugh, before wrapping her small tail around the scroll and disappearing in a puff. As quickly and quietly as he can, he closes the closet and returns everything to normal, and uses the bathroom like he intended to in the first place.

"Dude, were you taking a dump in there?" is Naruto's question once Sasuke returns, but his mind is already elsewhere; thinking of what that scroll could be, or if it's even related to him at all. Sakura seems to sense his detachedness and glances at him every now and then—but she doesn't push it, because if there's one thing that Sasuke can be grateful for, it's that she doesn't forcefully pry him open in one way or another.

By the end of the night, Sasuke is the only one who's sober. Naruto is completely gone and Sai and Sakura have lost enough inhibition to be arguing and casually touching each other. It makes Sasuke uncomfortable (he's not jealous, absolutely not jealous), and the few times he tries to distract Sakura with something else, she just waves him off and returns to her conversation with Sai.

What's so good about Sai, anyways?

Sasuke is abruptly jerked from his thoughts when Sakura pulls him into a kiss.

"You're not enjoying yourself," she states with her bottom lip jutting out in a faint pout.

"You're enjoying yourself a little too much," he counters quietly. "We should go home. Staying this late will only be intrusive towards Sai."

"Sai doesn't care. Do you, Sai?"

"I don't if it's you," Sai says cheerily. "You're special."

"Special?" Sakura presses, abandoning Sasuke (again) and leaning forward towards Sai, her hands supporting her against the floor.

The familiar feeling of anger flares fiercely in the pit of Sasuke's stomach when Sai smiles widely. "Yes. Because you're my favorite person in the entire world." Sasuke reaches out to grab Sakura's wrist, but she swats him away.

Sakura giggles, not quite flattered, but questioning, as if saying ah, is that so? "What happened to that girl you were crushing over?"

"That was you," Sai answers with no reservations. "Are you telling me you were stupid enough to not realize?"

A heavy silence follows, interrupted only by Naruto's heavy snores.

Sakura stares at Sai for a moment, before drawing back. "Let's go home, Sasuke." Which makes Sasuke glad, for several reasons.

She doesn't look at Sai as she gets to her feet and gathers her belongings, but Sasuke sees the smile slowly slip off Sai's lips, his expression hardening into something unreadable, something cold. Sai's eyes follow Sakura as she moves about the room, tucking her hair behind her ear, moving all the empty sake bottles to the counter.

No one says goodbye to them when they leave, but as they're walking quietly down the street, Sasuke offers, "He could have been drunk."

She shakes her head, completely sober compared to several minutes ago. "Sai wouldn't. He's been through too much ANBU training to let his guard down, even around us. He loosens up, but never enough to make an unintentional slip."

Sasuke wonders if this is Sai's big secret, and that the scroll he stole was inconsequential after all. "You really didn't know?"

She casts a glance at him. "Did you?"

"I had my suspicions."

He reaches out to hold her hand, but once he does, she pulls away, displaying the same distance that she did earlier in the day. Sasuke doesn't hide his frown.

"It doesn't matter, right?" she says, but it sounds like more of an attempt to reassure herself. "I mean, Naruto used to have feelings for me too, and we got through that. So I just have to sit through this thing with Sai, and he'll get over it too."

"If you say so," he says, even though he'd much rather her never talk to Sai ever again.

"I mean," she continues, "even if things didn't turn out the way they did—with us, I mean—I don't think I would have ended up with anyone else. I think, even if time passed and I forgot about you…no one would have ever matched up to you or made me feel the way I felt about you."

Then why won't you hold my hand?

Sasuke stops walking, and Sakura turns around to peer at him curiously. "Sasuke?"

"What's wrong?" he asks again, because the fact that she's keeping something from him makes him uneasy.

Her lips purse into a thin line. "What are you hiding from me?" She answers his question with another question, the words almost as sharp as a kunai. Sasuke forcibly keeps himself from wincing.

"Nothing," he says.

It's clear that she doesn't believe him. "I see. Then nothing's wrong." She turns on her heels and continues walking home, leaving him standing there.

Are neither of them going to give? Is this how things are going to end up? Is Sasuke going to continue keeping secrets from Sakura, and is she going to become even more distanced from him?

He loves Sakura. Dammit, he loves Sakura.

So he jogs to catch up to her, and promises to tell her once they get home.

And he does, as honestly as he can. They're sitting on opposite ends of the couch, but it feels like they're a thousand miles apart. Sakura is hugging her knees to her chest like some sort of shield to protect herself.

"So you're saying," she says to clarify, "that you think Konoha ordered Itachi to kill your clan."

"Yes."

"And that may be the reason why your memory is wiped and you don't remember killing Itachi."

"Yes."

"Because if you remembered anything after that, you might be plotting to destroy the village instead of living in it."

Sasuke fights the urge to reach out and touch her. "Yes."

It's quiet for a long while as Sakura thinks. "You're sure?" she asks. "Absolutely positive?"

"Not yet." He shakes his head. "But I think I'm on the right track."

"And this…" With her toe, she nudges the scroll that sits between them, from Sai's closet and still unopened. "This might be a clue."

"Or it could be nothing at all." And he almost wishes it is—he almost does, because if it really is something, then that only means one thing for him.

"What are you going to do if it's true?" Sakura's voice is quiet, and maybe trembling, just a little bit.

Sasuke wishes she didn't ask that. She should know the answer even without asking. Saying it out loud makes it hurt—saying it out loud makes everything feel hopeless, and it has been far too long since Sasuke has lived without hope so this is crushing, it's absolutely devastating and he doesn't know what to do to stop it.

(And even if he did, he isn't sure if he would.)

"I'm going to do what I planned to do from the start," he tells her. "Destroy Konoha."

With every passing day:

He teeters. And totters. Back and forth.
Back and forth.
Right. Wrong. Black. White.

Through a monochrome world, there was suddenly a burst of color.

And he burst too—past his limits, past the impossible.

He burst out and he was free.


A/N: The exploding birds is a tip of my hat to the fic I'm currently reading, Break to Breathe by Okami Rayne.

Two chapters left, I think? You guys can't understand how glad I am to almost be done. I've lost sight of what I was aiming for when I first started writing this but I'm glad there's a chance of me making it to the end! As always, please let me know your thoughts. It's always so interesting. :D