Sasuke's head spun with the knowledge of what he'd just learned.
There was no lie in Sakura's eyes as she admitted her reasoning for keeping him in the dark about her parents. If anything, she looked furious with herself for confessing, but honest all the same. He'd been prepared for something, anything else, her continued hatred of him for abandoning Konoha, her distrust of him for his resolve to kill her in the past, but this? Fear that he might leave her again?
That was one outcome he had not been expecting from his hot-and-cold teammate.
She looked everywhere but at him, fuming to herself over what she'd let slip. He remembered her slightly creepy, one-sided conversations with herself from her younger years, and it looked like much the same situation: like she was arguing fiercely with nobody in a silent battle of wills.
"You should've told me sooner," he muttered, still feeling cheated somehow, though slightly mollified. It had been years since Sasuke could have called himself Sakura's favorite, but hearing it straight from the horse's mouth that it mattered to her whether he stayed in Konoha or left had a seed of something frightfully close to hope blossoming in his stomach.
"It's not like you ever asked, you know," she said somewhat coolly. "I wasn't aware you even knew I had a family." Then her demeanor changed completely at his somewhat guilty stare, and her eyes softened. "That, and it's not like I liked to broadcast things like that to you and Naruto and Kakashi-sensei. Back when I was younger, I always thought that…well, since none of you had families anymore…it would've been rubbing salt in the wound."
Sasuke had never realized Sakura had felt that way before. He'd always just assumed that, like every other spoiled little girl who still had both parents alive and well, she took them for granted, wrote them off for hassling her about typical parent-child arguments and never spoke about them just because they got on her nerves the way parents do. He never really thought that Sakura might have been holding herself back out of sensitivity towards her teammates' family situations.
It was like turning a diamond in the light, each revelation that Sakura provided. Each subtle motion cast the atmosphere between them in a different glow, and he got the feeling that, for the first time, maybe ever, he was starting to understand the teammate who remained entirely mysterious to him throughout their whole lives.
"But now that they're gone," she said, half-wistful, half-sad as she took another sip of her tea, "I kind of wish I'd told you guys about them." A bitter smile twisted her lips and the look didn't suit her at all; Sasuke felt an acrimonious guilt stir in his gut, fresh this time, different from the old self-loathing he would feel whenever Sakura shied away from him at practice, whenever her once-sunny gaze would dim when he looked her way.
Her parents' murders were his fault. He might as well have slit their throats himself. The Elders – his hatred sprung forth in boiling hot waves at the very thought of them – had wrongfully assumed that Sakura was an accessory to his assassination of Danzou. Perhaps they thought that they were next on his list, and that if they couldn't reach Sasuke, they would have to send a message to his kunoichi ally.
Of course Sakura hated him. Of course Sakura didn't trust him. How could she, knowing that it was thanks to him that her mother and father were dead?
And if there was one thing Uchiha Sasuke understood better than anything else, it was the all-consuming need for revenge you felt when everything you loved was taken away from you.
"I don't blame you, Sasuke," Sakura said gently, and his eyes snapped back to her face. Was he really that transparent? Then again, for all of their differences, Sakura had always shown a surprising perception when it came to him. There hadn't been anyone else on a moonlit road out of Konoha that night so many years ago, hoping to stop him from making the first in a series of tumultuous mistakes…
"You should," he ground out.
Wasn't that always Sakura's problem? Loving what she shouldn't, forgiving what shouldn't be forgiven? Never laying blame with the person who deserves it most?
"No, I shouldn't," she said harshly. "You didn't know. I'm not condoning what you did, but I sure as hell understand your reasoning for it. But you didn't send two innocent civilians out to their deaths just to convey a message." Her voice strengthened, even as they kept their conversation hushed so no one would overhear them in the crowded restaurant. "Even if I was guilty of helping you out with Danzou, that would never have justified what they did to my parents. And that right there, Sasuke? That's what I'm trying to stop back in Konoha."
"Not revenge," Sasuke said slowly. "Justice."
"Exactly. And it's why I came to you first."
"Because you think I owe you for what happened."
"No. God, it's like you refuse to listen to me. I came to you because I know you'd understand the way I'm feeling."
"You think I understand that?" he almost laughed. "You're handling this a hell of a lot better than I did."
"Am I?" she countered, raising a slender pink eyebrow. "Sasuke I'm angry."
He watched her expression change, her eyes glaze over, like she was reliving a thousand memories he wasn't around for. To hear Sakura, a girl he'd only ever known to possess a sweet disposition, punctuated by a few moments of annoyance whenever Naruto was around, express such hostility was startling.
"I'm so angry, all the time, it's like a slow burn inside me and whenever I think about how I'm still working for them, how I'm serving the very people who had my innocent family slaughtered just to send a message…it feels like fire in my veins and that I'm just gonna…"
Snap, Sasuke finished in his head. She was revealing more and more of herself to him in this busy restaurant, and the more she spoke, the more he found they had in common.
"Snap," Sakura breathed. "And…and I'm trying to work through it but it's so hard. And it's not like this is a common problem I can talk to just anybody about, but you…I saw it all happen before, with you, and I don't want to live in a village where this kind of thing will happen again. It can't keep going on like this, Sasuke. I can't take it."
He could do a lot of things right now.
He could tell her he still thought she was crazy to be planning an indictment of the Konoha Elders, because he did. Even if he could understand her motivation now, he couldn't think of anything in life worth losing Haruno Sakura for. Not even justice.
He could tell her he would help her, support her, be her first ally in her crusade, because whether or not it was crazy, she'd won his implicit loyalty with a handful of whispered confessions in a crowded Ame café.
He could tell her he was sorry, sorrier than he'd ever been, except for when his brother fell at his hands one horrible sunlit day in the mountains, at what she'd suffered, what she'd lost, thanks to him. That he knew what it was like to live your life with holes in it that couldn't be filled, and that he never, ever wanted her to know that kind of agony, and that he was sorry.
But he knew, deep down, that nothing he could say would take Sakura's pain away. No stiff, awkward apology he could make would give her back what she'd lost. And Sakura had never been the kind of girl to need to hear the words I'm sorry, even when she deserved them. Had he ever apologized to her, in all the years he'd known her?
Instead, Sasuke finished the rest of his tea and asked quietly, humbly, "What did your parents do for a living?"
The look of muted astonishment was nothing next to Sakura's soft, sweet, grateful smile. For the first time in a long time, there was no guarded restraint in her stormy eyes, no stiffness, no animosity between them. But she didn't address the cataclysmic shift in the atmosphere between them, and neither did he. Instead, she finished her tea, too, and replied, "My mother was a scientist. And my father was a librarian. He ran the civilian library, down by the river."
He didn't expressly tell her that he was now her sovereign ally on this suicide mission, but somehow, he was certain that she knew.
"So you think Tsunade-shishou sent us out here to get us out of Konoha," Sakura said slowly, as they headed through the rain back to their hotel. Now that he said something, it was starting to make more and more sense, and it seemed like the kind of conniving trick her mentor was capable of. Normally, she would be furious to know that someone else was pulling the strings without giving her all the information, but she knew that Tsunade was only ever looking out for her. And in the last few motherless months of her life, she'd be lying if she said she resented an older, maternal figure who cared about her wellbeing.
"I only told her, and you, about what I was kicking around," she went on. "You don't think someone overheard us?"
"Hn. Don't know. But if she sent you out here, then she must be concerned."
"Then I wonder if she sent the others out on missions as well."
"Guess I never got that far in my plan with you," she said dryly, but he caught the teasing tone in her voice that outweighed her frustration. "Part two of my crazy idea was to replace the Konoha Council entirely, and to do so with the Konoha 12."
"Yeah, right, Sakura. Like they'd put me in a position of power this soon after letting me out of prison."
"You were pardoned," she said fiercely. "Those were the terms of your sentence and you met them. Besides, it was my understanding that the Konoha Military Police Force was populated by members of the Uchiha Clan."
Out of the corner of her eye, she made out the tightening of Sasuke's jaw as he weighed her words, the way his grip hardened on his sword as they moved purposefully down an empty side street. Not for the first time, she cursed the thrill of butterflies that exploded in her stomach as she imagined Sasuke's strong hands locked tight around her instead of his precious sword.
Furious with herself for even entertaining the notion, she plowed ahead.
"We're a good cross-section, you know," she said eagerly. "Of everything Konoha has. We're all active shinobi and kunoichi, so we're out there every day in the action instead of just reading about it in mission reports. We're…"
"We're teenagers," Sasuke finished bitterly. "And that'll be their argument. If you're that eager for a promotion, you could just ask Tsunade."
"Tch, I'm not in this to spruce up my resume'," she sniffed, knowing he was just prodding her to get a reaction. "I already told Shishou that if people thought I was trying to elevate myself into a position of power just for personal gain, then to leave me out of it. I don't need to be on that council, but picture it. A group of active, well-rounded shinobi each with different strengths and specialties, elected democratically and working in the best interests of the village. A new Konoha."
Sasuke had agreed – in unspoken words – to help her in her mission, rather than impede it as he'd been doing. If that was Tsunade-shishou's goal, to force them to work together by throwing them on this asinine mission under false pretenses, then she'd succeeded immensely. Sakura felt an unbelievable burst of confidence knowing that Uchiha Sasuke was now on her side, not to mention a lightened burden on her shoulders she hadn't even realized she'd been wanting to shed until it was gone. Now Sasuke knew the truth about her parents, and hopefully he understood that she didn't blame him for it in the least.
It hadn't driven them apart. It hadn't driven Sasuke to madness again, hadn't sent him out of the village in disgust and revulsion.
It had brought them closer together.
"Well," she said diplomatically, trying to tamp down her sudden elation at the monumental shift taking place between them, "we should send word back to Konoha, then. I have most of the wounded stabilized at the hospital, which takes care of my half of the mission…I wonder if Naruto and Sai were able to figure out anything strange about Ame's new Kage…"
"Nothin'!" Naruto groaned, and Sasuke sighed, trying to focus on the comforting heat of the hot spring instead of his dumbass teammate's loud, frustrated voice. "We got nothin'! Nobody here seems to know much of anything about Aoi, or the mine crash, or what's going on. What are we supposed to report back to baachan, huh?"
"That we didn't find anything suspicious," Sakura's thoughtful voice called quietly, from behind the fence, in the women's section. "Maybe there really isn't anything suspicious to find."
Sasuke didn't like discussing mission strategy in a hot spring, especially when their kunoichi captain was separated from them by a fence, but a quick stealth genjutsu ensured that they wouldn't be overheard. Sai had drawn up a few ink mice to patrol the hot springs in case of a possible intruder, but Sasuke never relaxed his guard. It was hard to unclench his muscles. He'd done almost nothing for two days but lift unruly patients for Sakura to operate on and wander aimlessly around a rainy village. He felt like he was going stir-crazy.
It was a very nice hot spring, though. Two pools divided by a thick wooden fence, natural hot water creating a calming layer of steam on the surface; trees lined the sides, concealing the bathers from view of the rest of the inn's guests as slick rocks rimmed the borders. A good place for Sakura, the only one of them to have expended significant chakra energy on this mission, to rest and recover her strength.
"What d'you mean by that, Sakura-chan?" Naruto asked, confused. He swam to one end of the pool and rested his elbows on the rocks, deep in thought. "You think it really was just an accident, the mine collapsing? And baachan's worked up about nothin'?"
"I think that if we don't have any proof that it was anything but, then poking around here is a waste of our time," she replied. "We've all spent so many years trying to look underneath the underneath and everything, and it's made us overly suspicious. Cynical, even. Maybe we're expecting to find something suspicious with the new Kage and the new regime here, just because before the war, it was status quo."
She had a point. All of them were disillusioned, in a sense; he'd watched Sakura plunge her arms into the chest cavity of a wounded miner without so much as a wince, even when blood had sprayed across her cheek and soaked her hair. He couldn't remember anymore how many shinobi he'd mowed down on missions, both for Konoha and for Orochimaru, and knew that Naruto and Sai had to have similar body counts on their hands. Having seen so much violence, so much betrayal in their pasts, maybe they couldn't trust in the possibility of a true ally in Ame, instead of an old enemy.
Their instructions were clear: to stay here until Sakura had healed the wounded at the hospital. Get a read on the new Kage, and what his subjects thought of him. Then come home.
"Sai, send a message to Tsunade-shishou that our mission is complete, and we're on our way home first thing in the morning," Sakura's voice called from behind the fence. "I'm gonna head back to the hospital tonight to check on my patients, give some departing instructions to the other doctors, and…"
Abruptly, her voice cut off, replaced with a sharp intake of breath and the splash of water.
Sasuke's eyes widened.
"Oi, Sakura-chan!" whined Naruto, oblivious as ever from one corner of the hot spring. "Now's not the time to rinse your hair, what about your orders?"
"Dobe!" Sasuke snapped, standing up out of the water in a second, a towel tied tight around his waist. His Sharingan activated automatically, and he directed his attention to what was happening in the women's side of the spring.
His ultra-honed senses picked up the presence of three foreign chakra signatures besides Sakura's. Their chakra was too refined to belong to civilian women who might be dipping into the hotel spring.
"Sakura-chan!" Naruto yelped, finally understanding what was happening as all of them reassembled their ranks on the rocks that bordered the water.
It was an attack. Hostile chakra signatures converging on a sole kunoichi, whose chakra levels were lower than average after two days of constant healing…
"Three-man shinobi cell!" Sai declared, his ink mice blinking out of existence after returning their information to their creator. "Hostile, jonin-level chakra!"
Sasuke seized his sword from where it lay on the rocks by the pool and prepared to take down the fence, but found that quite unnecessary in the next instant. Sakura let out a familiar cry and he felt the surge of her chakra as one of the shinobi advancing on her was punched right through the wooden boards divided the men and women's sides. With a shout of pain, he hit the hot water they'd just vacated.
"Sai, take him!" Sasuke shouted. "Naruto!"
"Got it, man!" Naruto yelled back, immense chakra funneling through his body as he created twenty clones of himself in a flash of hand gestures. "LET'S GO!"
Their teamwork was as flawless as ever, even dressed only in towels and soaking wet. With a flourish of his pen, three ink serpents slithered like lightning off Sai's scroll, streaking into the water after the shinobi Sakura had punched; in seconds, he was bound by their inky scales head to foot as Sai launched himself at him with chakra restraints. Naruto's clones flung themselves at the two remaining assailants, their sheer numbers overpowering one of the tall, dark-clad shinobi, but he underestimated the speed of the last.
Sasuke almost smirked. This was exactly what he needed, reckless and dangerous as it was: a battle. Something to wake up his muscles and blow off some steam. These shinobi were incredibly foolish, to attempt to attack Team 7 on their own. He pinned the final shinobi with a fierce glare, raising his sword, about to engage…
At the last minute, however, the third enemy shinobi, wielding two handfuls of senbon, redirected his attention to Sakura. A death wish, Sasuke registered grimly, as the shinobi flung poison needles at Sakura, crouched defensively on the rocks by the women's pool, no weapon in her hands.
Sasuke didn't slow his attack, but his mind registered something unsavory: this wasn't an attack on Team 7.
It was an attack on Sakura.
The interest he'd held in this fight a second ago evaporated, morphing into white-hot anger. Few things these days could provoke the rage he'd clung to for so many years, but someone threatening the lives of the people he held dear – namely, his frustrating kunoichi teammate who was starting to make more and more sense lately – was one of them. He felt the vicious surge of his own chakra as he flashstepped between the shinobi and Sakura; with a wave of his sword too fast to be seen, he'd deflected all twelve of the poison-tipped senbon from their intended target.
"Sasuke, don't kill him!" Sakura hissed quickly from behind him. He felt her hand grip his bicep, and to his astonishment, felt his murderous intent bleed out of his muscles as clarity overtook his anger. Killing these shinobi – while rewarding – would leave Team 7 in the dark as to their identities and purpose. He needed to find out who they were, where they were from, and why they'd attacked Sakura.
"These two are out, Teme!" Naruto called from behind them, referring to two of the cellmates that he and Sai had taken down. That left one for interrogation.
Sasuke smirked, watching the conscious enemy shinobi pale as he realized his mistake. But as he raised his sword again, Sakura beat him to it. She ducked out from behind him in a flash of pink hair and residual moisture from the hot spring, and had the last shinobi on his back, her knee digging into the hollow of his throat, in an instant.
Sasuke had to admit, it was not exactly the Haruno Sakura of memory, this deadly-fast, lethal kunoichi. She didn't seem to mind at all that she was almost completely naked, concealed only by a flimsy, soaking-wet towel. Instead, her instincts, like his and Sai's and Naruto's, had kicked in even at such a vulnerable time and she flipped the switch. Beautiful and deadly in equal measure, it was like turning the diamond again. Finding a new light to see her in.
"Who are you?" she demanded of the shinobi, who lay choking and writhing on the damp rocks, pinned by a 90-pound kunoichi with fire in her eyes. "Who are you working for?"
She applied greater pressure with her knee to his throat.
"OI!" Naruto yelled suddenly. "Don't let him kill himself!"
Sasuke's head snapped back in Naruto's direction, to where the two shinobi he and Sai had incapacitated now lay twitching and spasming on the ground, foam dripping from their mouths. His eyes widened as he realized what happened.
"It's cyanide capsules!" he snapped.
It was a last-resort move for a shinobi who was about to be interrogated: suicide. They couldn't let the last cellmate die until they'd milked him for information.
Sakura flung out both her hands, seizing the enemy shinobi's wrists and pinning them ruthlessly to his sides so he couldn't reach his suicide capsule the way his fellows had. "I don't think so," she snarled, her voice menacing and seductive in equal measure. "Who are you working for?"
"Y-You'll go the s-same way as your parents, kunoichi," he gagged, eyes bulging when Sakura applied nearly enough pressure to break his neck in her fury. She leaned in close to his ear, and Sasuke watched the enemy shinobi's body stiffen in response. Even two seconds from death, men were still so weak, susceptible to a woman's wiles and physique; his lip curled as his grip on Kusanagi tightened, ready to slay the enemy if the interrogation got out of hand.
"What do you know about my parents?" Sakura asked smoothly, and Sasuke was somewhat taken aback at the killing intent injected into her normally balmy voice.
The enemy shinobi let out a gurgling laugh, and she loosened the pressure she was applying with her knee enough to let him speak.
"Plenty," he spat, glaring up at her with a manic grin on his face. "Enough to know they deserved what they got, bringing a filthy, traitorous whore into the world!"
Sasuke moved in an instant. If there was one thing he had become quite adept at recognizing over the years, it was a shinobi's dying declaration. Remembering his fights with Deidara, Madara, even Itachi, he knew exactly what a desperate man's last words sounded like. And just because he couldn't reach the cyanide capsule in the shoulder pocket of his unmarked jacket didn't mean he didn't have another suicide option. And he doubted anyone else had glimpsed the explosive tag attached to the enemy's hip.
His hand closed around her bicep and with a fierce tug, he ripped her off of her captive, throwing her behind him. In the same movement, he drove his foot into the enemy shinobi's side, sending him careening over the rocks and into the hot water.
"Get down!" he shouted, flashstepping to Sakura's side; he pressed her back against the stone wall, shielding her with his body as the explosive tag detonated.
A massive explosion rocked the entire hot spring; water evaporated into clouds of boiling steam as the rocks lining the pools were blown apart. When the commotion died down, he threw a look over his shoulder, and saw that what little water remained that hadn't been evaporated by the explosion now ran ruby red with blood. All that remained of the third enemy.
"ARE YOU GUYS OKAY?" Naruto shouted from the men's side, all of his clones vanishing as he ran to check on his teammates.
"We're fine!" Sakura gasped. "An explosive tag…I'm so glad you saw it, Sasuke!"
It was a bit hard to think with her pressed so intimately against him, both of them clad only in thin, wet towels. Her bangs hung in her wide green eyes, dripping with water, her bare legs locked with his. Relief coursed through him that she was all right, and with all the fortitude in the world, he stepped back to give her room to breathe.
"They were after you," he said fiercely. "Not the team. Their primary directive was to take you out."
Sakura blinked as she processed the information, then turned to Sai.
"Sai!" she called. "Check them! See if you can figure out who they are!"
"Sakura-chan, you're okay!" Naruto exclaimed when he reached them, seizing her in a fierce hug. Sasuke decided he didn't much like seeing a shirtless Naruto wrapped up around Sakura so sweetly, but pushed the thought out of his mind. They had bigger things to worry about. "See? I told you there was something fishy about this place!"
"An Ame nin squad?" Sakura mused, when Naruto put her back down. She seized her towel before it slipped and tightened it around her chest. "For what purpose?"
"It wasn't Ame, Sakura," Sai said suddenly, kneeling beside one of the poisoned enemies. The corpse's pack was unloaded, and Sai was holding what looked like a hitai-ate in his hand.
Sasuke didn't like the way he said that; Sai never referred to Sakura by her given name unless it was serious. They all joined him at the body's side as he revealed what he'd found, his expression even colder than usual.
Sasuke's eyes widened; he heard Sakura gasp beside him, and Naruto mutter a low, disbelieving, "No way," one his other side.
"An assassination squad," Sai intoned darkly.
In Sai's hand was a hitai-ate…with a leaf inscribed in the metal.
note.. hey y'all. how's your weekend so far?
xoxo daisy :)