The Atrophy and Redemption of Uchiha Sasuke

Chapter Seventeen: What's a cursed clan?


Arms crossed, Sasuke observed with vague amusement as his companion inspected their room from ceiling to floor. Not until they reached the coast had he been reminded of the kunoichi's meticulous tendencies; the pinkette had been adamant about finding an inn both clean and reasonably priced. Truly, cost was little but an insignificant detail to the Missing-nin, but he had calmly resigned to her wishes. Many a time she had marched out of an establishment, muttering something about sand and insects. Watching her was favorable to the bothersome realms into which his mind delved unchecked. There was nothing else that demanded his attention, after all. No immediate threats nearby, no silence to welcome the usual influx of numbing thoughts. Her friendly chatter and eager gazes made certain of that. There was nowhere else to go—the harbor was vacated of all vessels not belonging to the local fishermen, so there would be no ships arriving until morning.

The two shinobi had been searching for a suitable inn all afternoon, and now dusk's dying light was already spilling in through the windows. Her body was swimming in it. A stark contrast, the gloaming shadows emphasized each of her movements, beckoned Sasuke's eyes unconsciously to each dip and swell as she flitted about the room.

And the woman in question was currently on her knees, lifting up one of the tatami mats and peering underneath with a calculating eye. Once again, her hair fell over her face. She blew at it distractedly and when that failed, swiped it away.

The Uchiha quirked a brow, "I take it the room is up to your standards?"

No answer.

Expelling a frustrated breath, Sasuke pushed away from the jam of the shoji screen and stalked inside.

"Sakura."

"Wha—ouch!" pouting, Sakura ruefully ran her hand over the top of her head. In her surprise, she had slammed it against the edge of the closet door. "Ah, dammit . . ."

"Heh," softly, Sasuke huffed above her, but the look in his eyes was accommodating—teasing, even, "There is a large marketplace by the docks. We can begin restocking our supplies there and find out when the ship leaves."

Sakura was in need of clothing and the both of them required food. Silently, Sasuke waited for her to remove the futon from the closet. He watched, eyes somber, while she laid them out on top of the mats and prepared them for the evening, for it was unlikely that they would return before then. She was obviously anxious about something, worrying like she always did, and attempting to placate her nerves with work.

Pulling his gaze from her form, Sasuke looked out into the hallway. They had requested their room strategically, of course; it was located along the edge of the building nearest to the village borders. Far from prying eyes and ears, ideal for a swift escape.

Seeing Sakura in such a domestic setting almost roused the constant guilt festering in his chest. She should be living comfortably in her home, safe within the confines of Konoha and only in danger when completing missions for the village. She should be with her friends and her family—though he was ignorant to their identities, he knew she must have family. Not here. Not in the company of someone still classified as an international criminal, a young man chasing goals even he could give no reason for . . . except that he missed the weight of his favorite weapon at his back, and that he wanted to properly bury his brother. And. And.

A muted snap sounded behind him as Sakura unfurled the cotton blankets. Sasuke screwed his eyes closed.

Uchiha Sasuke had many regrets, and he did not want this . . . this situation, this arrangement, to become one of them. But it was always her choice. She had chosen this and now had to endure the consequences, whatever they may be. It should not be any concern of his, but was that not what it had already become?

And.

And.

Would she still decide to accompany him if she knew he was keeping something from her? She was already suspicious of his goals. That much, he could be sure of. Although she had made it clear how much she trusted him—every time that, backs to the other, they fought against a common enemy, every time that she reached out to comfort or heal—Sasuke was no stranger to the fact that he had not given her reason to quell her instinctual apprehension. When they had rested earlier that day, halfway to their destination, she had voiced her concerns under the guise of good-natured teasing.

"You must miss fighting with a chokutō very much if we're going all the way to Lightning."

Regardless, it was not as if this was an unprecedented dynamic between them: he was secretive, she was suspicious. Slamming a seal of indifference down onto his thoughts, Sasuke became convinced he knew the answer.

"You will refuse to return to Konoha when we reach Kumogakure."

The ruffling of Sakura smoothing out their beds ceased suddenly. Her voice was soft when she spoke, word for word, as her companion had expected her to.

". . . Yes, Sasuke-kun."

Unbidden and despite his most resilient efforts, the guilt flamed to life.

Sasuke allowed a sad smirk, "You are . . . staying with me."

"Certainly."

A forced playfulness had laced itself into her voice, but the Uchiha knew her contentment and resolution to be genuine. He turned to face her. Dark eyes dotted across her face.

He nodded.

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The first signs of evening to touch the coast were not the encroaching darkness, but the last brilliance of sunlight before it vanished for the rest of the night. Here the horizon was so defined, so unlike the trees and mountains Sakura was used to seeing in the distance back in Konoha. Once the sun set, however, the darkness was absolute. Slightly salty, the air had an almost humid quality but was far colder than the young medic had imagined it might be.

She glanced at Sasuke from the corner of her gaze, attempting to be discreet. Of course, she was unsuccessful and suddenly seemed to find the row of stands on her left very interesting when Sasuke turned to her in question. He had stopped walking altogether, and when the pinkette chanced another peek he was looking straight at her. Apparently, he had absolutely no intention of continuing through the village until she spoke what was on her mind.

"Um," she brushed her hair out of her eyes, sheepish, "I think I'll go look at that stand. We're running low on tea, and I imagine you've gotten tired of it by now."

"I find nothing wrong with your tea."

She almost gasped at his praise, was unable to keep from directly catching his gaze with hers, as if she needed reassurance that he had indeed just spoken. He looked especially pale in the dark. Only the dim lantern light from a stand behind him enabled her to distinguish between the sky and his hair.

"O-Oh! Well, that's good, Sasuke-kun. I'll just get more of the same then . . ." mentally beating herself into a blissful unconsciousness, Sakura shuffled blindly away.

The middle-aged civilian who owned the stand was obviously entertained by the exchange and smiled at the kunoichi. His friendly eyes eased her heartbeat, "What type of tea do you like to prepare, young lady?"

Grateful, Sakura grinned back at him, "Green tea, please."

She remunerated the man his asking price, not in the mood to haggle, and searched for Sasuke over her shoulder. He was leaning against the post of another stand, the merchandise of which was nondescript from Sakura's position. It was the flirtatious smile on the face of the female vendor that commanded her attention, and a sickly feeling she had not felt in a long time weighed heavy in her stomach. Sasuke, thankfully, seemed wholly disinterested, his attention focused on the counter, where his finger traced along something the kunoichi could not see.

But all feelings of jealousy vanished at the look on Sasuke's face. Sakura's very breath seemed to freeze in her lungs as her eyes traced a drop of perspiration running down his temple. Only because he had shifted closer to the light had she seen it. His wounds had healed and she was positive that she had expelled all infection. What was the matter with him?

He just looked so . . . so tired. Almost weak.

A century older than his true age.

Instincts causing her to panic, the medic almost moved to join him until the voice of the kindly man drew her attention once more to her unfinished purchase.

"Quite a serious one, isn't he?"

"Yes," Sakura laughed nervously, rather surprised by how engaging this vendor was. The couple that had sold her and Sasuke their evening meal had not been even slightly interested in their customers. She supposed it made sense though, especially if he stood there behind his stand for as many hours as she suspected, "Thank you. Have a nice night, yes?"

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"Sasuke-kun?"

The Uchiha sighed wearily and looked down. Curious green eyes met him.

"Are you feeling alright? We should probably sleep as soon as we reach the inn."

"Hn," he nodded.

Unsatisfied, Sakura pursed her lips and shifted her bundle of new clothing to rest against the crook of her other arm. While Sasuke had been so amiable and alert to her presence earlier that afternoon, he was now obviously deep in thought. She would be receiving no personal admissions tonight. If she had not spent as much time by him as she already had, she would have attempted to press for a more thorough response; instead, Sakura fondly ran her gaze over his profile. It was stifling and almost unbearable, her physical attraction towards him. Being a twelve-year-old who thought her crush handsome was one thing, but this—whatever it was—was just unsettling.

Therefore, it came as a shock to the kunoichi when, wallowing in her disappointment, she felt something cool and metallic pressing into her open hand. She looked down. Cradled in the center of her palm, lay a small hair clasp. It was as simple as it was practical. It was so similar to Sasuke's personal tastes that Sakura's eyes began to water. Although he had probably only purchased it on a whim, heat was already blooming across her chest, crawling gradually up her neck.

"It would be foolish to get yourself killed because you couldn't see your opponent."

Still blushing, Sakura sniffled, tightened her fingers lovingly around the expensive clasp, ". . . Yeah. You're right, Sasuke-kun."


Konoha.

The insignia of the Leaf glared back at him, engraved into the forehead protector nestled in her pink mane of hair. Her head snapped forward painfully as he slammed her slight body into the rock wall, fixed his hand around her neck. There was no mercy to be shown, and it was all too simple to erase her face from his mind. There was no past together with her. And she had no name.

Liar. Leaf shinobi.

She had tried to kill him. They were after him again. Why would they not just leave him alone?

The Uchiha furrowed his brow in determination; acrid, the taste of blood still lingered in his mouth from the battle fought earlier. His eyes, cloudy and already failing him, ached like creatures dying in the swollen, bloodied sockets.

He would kill them all first. They were all guilty. All of them, responsible for his brother's suffering.

Frowning, Sasuke tightened his hand without remorse, and she began coughing under the pressure. He could feel everything. Could feel the muscles straining beneath his fingers, could hear her desperate gasps for breath as she held on, until the yells of Hatake Kakashi somewhere behind him became little but panicked clamors.

The fog of hatred around him thickened. Sick laughter swelled from his chest and up into his throat at the sight of her gaze trained upon him in pure disbelief. She was pleading with him.

Still, he allowed his grip to grow tighter and tighter, leaning forward until he could see the life drain from her green eyes altogether.

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Sasuke jack-knifed onto his side, sweating profusely. Beneath him his forearm shuddered as it held up his weight. His chest heaved with each pant, and he sat up on the futon, head bowed. It was still dark and the cold air was infused with the scent of salt from the sea. Sighing, the Uchiha dragged a quivering palm over his face, the movement succeeding in pulling damp strands of hair from his scalp and leading the stinging residue of perspiration into his eyes.

With each haggard breath a pain both staggering and acute pounded against his cranium. And once the Uchiha stepped off of the bedding, embracing the chill beneath his feet, the first sight he looked for was the cheap tea pot. Its contents were nearly lukewarm, untouched from the night before. The tea slid down his throat, slick as liquid metal against the parched tissue, the tensing muscles beneath. It did not quite sate his thirst, however, only beckoning further notice to the emptiness of his stomach. He moved to slam his cup down onto the low inn table, barely managing to slow his arm so that the cup only resonated a subdued clink upon the wood.

Almost instinctively, as seemed to have developed into a reflex these passed weeks, Sasuke searched the inn for Sakura. At the sight of the kunoichi's slight form huddled beneath her blankets, his once harsh breathing slowed and became regulated once more.

He was no stranger to nightmares. They were age-old enemies with leering eyes he could hide no secrets from. They visited often. They clawed at his subconscious, tore his deepest fears up from the dredges of his past and displayed them before him as embodiments of a grim, hopeless future. They were always there.

Shadows, regret. Blood, loss.

All presented to him in sleep, in reimagined forms that terrified him to what he desired would be his unshakeable core.

And they were steadily growing worse.

Eyes closed, Sasuke dragged an icy palm down his face, crossed the floor with soundless steps. He crouched down and ignored the dizziness that followed. Both food and further rest were necessary, he knew, but his mind was rampaging and the dream he had just experienced had doused any appetite his body may have developed.

The Uchiha felt contemplative tonight, kneeling here between their two futon. Mind numbed, he reached out slowly until his fingertips grazed the scratchy sheet covering Sakura's body from her chin to her toes. The coastline was cold at night, after all.

He hesitated. For a few scant seconds he hesitated.

But he was already peeling the covering back before he had any more time to question what the hell he was doing. His eyes left his hand, darted with urgency to the smooth expanse of her neck. In relief he sighed, and dropped the blanket.

No bruises.

No bruises from his hand.

Of course there would not be, but he had needed so desperately to check. Eyelids growing heavy, Sasuke pulled the covers back up to her chin, feeling sleep pulling coaxingly at the edges of his consciousness.

Still, he wondered. Had he? Had he left bruises that time?

He might as well have been possessed, so lusty in his hatred for anything related to Konoha he had been. That is what Sakura would tell him. Even she, she who had every reason to shy away from him, to fear him.

But Sasuke himself did not believe such a defense; he had still been the same person then; it had still been his hand wrapped around her throat. And she was frightened of him, that much he was certain of. He had touched her before with innocent intent, only receiving a flinching response from her.

Yes, he had only been protecting himself—but choking her, using Chidori . . .

Frustrated, Sasuke brushed the hair from his face, "Tch."

The simultaneous rage had long muddled those memories. He had no excuses.

Abruptly, Sasuke inhaled. A sudden, albeit stray thought had just occurred to him, and he found himself carefully studying Sakura's peaceful face. It had the smooth appearance of a lack of burdens, an absence of worry and emotional pain. The Rogue-nin frowned.

How deceptive sleep made the body.

Sasuke closed his eyes. He had no excuses, but what were hers?

He began to stand but did not make it to his feet—a firm grip enclosed his wrist, tugged him back down with such force that he had to hold himself up with his other hand to stop his body from crushing Sakura's. When he opened his eyes he saw green, a dark green misted with night and drowsiness and confusion. Not moving, he watched as recognition entered her heady gaze. Her fingers slackened immediately around his wrist but she did not let go.

"Sasuke-kun?"

Her lips parted and his guilt worsened.

"What's wrong? Are you alright?"

Unbelievable. Even as she spoke, she was already soothing his bruised wrist with healing chakra.

The drowsy medic sat up, turned to look at him. The exhaustion on his face was emphasized even more by its characteristic blankness. It was a carefully vacated canvas covering a soul awash in a complex plethora of hues. There were no barriers between the pigments, no find distinction. It was his eyes and the sweat on his skin that betrayed him. So. He had been having a nightmare.

Sakura almost asked what was happening in his mind, if he wanted to speak with her about it, but she was finished dancing deftly around him.

"Tell me."

"Hn," a tired smirk lightened Sasuke's wan face. His eyes, however, remained dismal. Absently, he dropped his gaze to his freshly healed wrist. He tested its movement by rotating it in circles. "Some ideas are best left alone, Sakura. Even those fears and speculation that are manifested in dreams."

Sakura blinked in shock at his willing response, "I-I suppose so. . . . I guess talking about them really wouldn't make a difference, huh?"

She could feel her throat beginning to tighten at the implication in his eyes. His gaze was so soft, so why did she feel so awful?

Sasuke did not deign to answer. He instead settled back onto his own futon, transferring his gaze to the ceiling. Sighing, Sakura did the same but remained on her side facing him, ". . . I guess those speculations include regrets, right, Sasuke-kun? But," her fingers toyed with the edges of the sleeping pallet as she attempted to ignore the fact that her voice was already cracking with emotion, "I think regrets can be fears to. I . . . I have those. A lot of them."

They continued to lay beside each other in silent wakefulness, quite close but separated by their thoughts. Sasuke knew that Sakura was troubled, that her thoughts had drifted to the same memories his had upon his waking; nevertheless, he knew not how to comfort her, if she even needed it. The thought alone was unthinkable. Touch, to him, was unnecessary outside of battle. And so he remained there, exhausted yet lost in an arrested cycle of conflict.

But, eventually, the ceiling in Sasuke's gaze began to blur into welcome darkness.

The last noise he recognized before finding sleep was the sound of Sakura sobbing quietly into her blankets.


"How about something with more protein?"

Sakura shook her head at the young shop owner, "Only the two onigiri, please."

"Suit yourself," humming disapprovingly, the woman tossed her bright hair over one shoulder. She returned with the portions of packed rice shortly after, but held them just out of Sakura's reach. "Why don't you buy some dango? Or something sweet? Surely the young man must want something more than rice."

Sighing at the woman's nosy antics, Sakura turned around, only to find her infuriating travel companion perusing the tomatoes at the vegetable stand across the road.

Spinning away from the window, Sakura stuttered, "We've already eaten this morning, so if I can just pay for my—"

"Alright, alright, little lady," the vendor huffed, but her eyes still strayed to the other side of the road while she counted Sakura's money. "Hmm. He looks awfully exhausted," she winked. "Been wearing him out, have you?"

Flustered, Sakura had to struggle to keep from choking on her own saliva, "Eh—no! . . . Thank you. And goodbye."

The kunoichi snatched the bag and darted beneath the crude welcome banner, ignoring the taunting snickers behind her. She preferred to spare strangers, especially civilians, from her ire, but she was too embarrassed to have acted any differently regardless. Sasuke was looking intensely at a tomato resting in his hand when she reached him.

"Sa—" away from his side, the Uchiha's free hand darted out and snagged her wrist. Startled, Sakura gave little resistance against the tugging and fell forward into sound torso. She pushed back, but found herself accidentally gazing wide-eyed into Sasuke's face.

He was looking at her strangely, as if perplexed by her response. Thankfully, an issue much more important seemed to be troubling the rogue shinobi, for he chose to ignore her fumbling. He focused on something in his peripherals, "Don't move. Just look."

The pinkette acquiesced, instantly recognizing that serious edge bordering his tone like a warning. She gasped.

Until his face was nearer to hers and the tips of his hair grazed her ear, Sasuke ducked. Quietly, he murmured, "They have been approaching gradually. You see them?"

It was difficult to ignore the tender brush of his warm breath, but the situation effectively quelled any chance of temptation.

There were five of them. Having not bothered to make themselves inconspicuous, they were as easy to spot as bright lanterns amidst the civilian crowds, despite the fact that they were more than ten stands away. One of them, whose face was hidden, wore the shinobi garb of a Lightning-nin; the other four stood uneasily around him and were clothed more ambiguously. It looked as if the Lightning shinobi was speaking to them. Giving orders. Devising a plan.

"Yes," breathed Sakura. "Do you think they were sent by the elders?"

"Hn," the Uchiha turned from the vegetable stand—much to the dismay of the owner, who had been under the impression that the young man would surely relieve him of his entire tomato supply—and angled his way swiftly into the crowd, Sakura close at his side. "It is doubtful that uninformed bounty-hunters could have tracked us this far."

Sasuke had to speak closely to Sakura's ear while they walked towards the docks. As they were both taking utmost precaution with their chakra, enhancing their hearing with it was definitely not optimal. Sakura stretched upwards to voice her concerns, eyes wide and expressive with every emotion rampant in her mind. And Sasuke—though he preferred to avoid contact—discovered that the situation rendered it effortless for him to span his forearm across her back. It was his hand on her shoulder that kept them anchored together amidst the sea of travelers. The last time they had been separated when first entering the logging village, he had felt a distinctly personal panic, an infuriating sentiment he did not want to experience again.

"We can't risk meeting them now, Sasuke-kun. There's too many civilians."

The Rogue-nin nodded. Down the last stretch of the coastal market, his eyes trailed. He sensed the other shinobi moving steadily closer and knew Sakura did as well when he felt her form stiffen beneath his arm. A large pier with a height equivalent to that of at least two buildings towered above the coast. Three ships were docked beside the wooden structure, much like slumbering giants, while several workers restocked the vessels and made needed repairs. The farthest of them would serve as their passage to Shimo.

Her gaze searching his face, Sakura said something Sasuke could not hear, but he read her lips with veritable ease.

We can't let them board the ship with us.

She was right. The Uchiha surveyed their surroundings with calculating rapidity. Once he spotted a stand that was not surrounded, he and Sakura moved to stand in front of it and pretended to peruse the merchandise. The elderly man who owned the stand was falling asleep, opening his eyes every few seconds to make sure they were not attempting to rob him. Not that he could have stopped them if they decided to. Here, in the relative quiet, they could better hear each other.

"They're at the stand we just left, asking questions."

Sakura peered around Sasuke's shoulder and, as he had said, the bounty hunters seemed to be verbally harassing the vegetable vendor. She furrowed her brow, unable to quash the sense that something was different about the group. Suddenly, they all turned in her direction. And just as she made to shift away, the kunoichi realized what was different; there were only four of them.

Aware that they were now the ones being watched, Sasuke and Sakura looked down again at the rows of mismatched trinkets. The medic whispered urgently, "The one from Lightning . . . he's gone."

Sasuke nodded, his lips pursed into a grim line.

"We'll have to avoid them until our boat leaves."

"We need to split up," added Sasuke calmly.

As he expected, Sakura grasped his forearm, "Sasuke, no. What if—"

"If you two are going to have a spat, you'd better do it elsewhere. I'm trying to run a business, you know, so if you're not buying anything, go bankrupt another stand." Unfortunately, it would seem the old man had chosen that moment to fully awaken.

Sasuke turned slowly to face the source of the rude disruption. His eye twitched. The kunoichi went tense beside him, her hand still flexing against his arm. And despite the immediate threat lurking only a few stands away, Sasuke entertained a brief rippling of amusement. Just what did she fear he was going to do to the shop owner? Dark eyes explored the worry and comfort in her gaze, the rosette fringe that barely fell, wispy as a curtain over her eyes. Slowly, he nodded, "We're leaving."

The crowd was already thickening. It was likely that they would be ambushed in the chaos, which they could not allow to happen for the safety of the numerous innocents around them.

"The ship leaves in fifteen minutes. We will meet there."

Sakura could almost taste the adrenaline seeping throughout her system; she was no less upset about splitting up, but it was unlikely that any other tactics would prove more effective, "Will you flare your chakra if you need my help, Sasuke-kun?"

Black eyes narrowed, ". . . You do the same."

It was not a promise, but they had no opportunity to argue anymore.

"Now."

In the smidgeon of time it took Sakura to blink her surprise away, Sasuke was already gone. She too maneuvered around the travelers and market clientele, noticing almost immediately that the four shinobi once trailing them in a close unit had also divided.

Not for the first time in her shinobi career Sakura wished she could control her heartbeat. Ironically, she knew that as a Med-nin she could. But there was no need for it, and wishing alone offers no respite when one is fleeing from the enemy.

Biting her lip in harried contemplation, Sakura soared past several startled civilians. They cried out in shock and the kunoichi was overcome with relief once she burst from the densest crowds of the marketplace and into a vast, more secluded part of the village. Before her and to the right, the direction Sasuke had gone, lay the ocean. The static sound of the waves frazzled her and she almost thought to see if she could find Sasuke's form on the pier, but she could feel them closing in. She ducked quickly behind an old building that appeared to be a fishing boat workshop.

It disgusted her, the manner in which these bounty hunters were chasing after them.

However, if she knew Sasuke as well as she hoped she did, Sakura could safely conclude that those very enemy shinobi that went after her companion were now the ones being hunted.

If Sakura wanted to stay alive, she realized she would have to do the same.

She swallowed harshly, reached out with her senses in a tentative attempt to locate her pursuers. Her brow arched once she spotted them. They had split up again; one was headed towards the pier, towards Sasuke. The other . . .

Frowning, the medic smothered her chakra but prepared herself to mold it into her fist at a moment's notice. She darted to the end of the building. A bounty hunter emerged as she reached the corner, and Sakura sent the shinobi reeling back with a punch to the face. Vaguely, she noticed that the ninja was female. The woman howled in pain, unable to stop herself from flying into a stack of damp fishing crates.

The kunoichi was tired of them chasing after Sasuke like he was some escaped, feral dog. By nature, she did not enjoy hurting people. But this shinobi would have absolutely no reservations about doing the same. Blood pounding in her ears, she allowed her battle instincts to consumer her, to take over completely. The bounty hunter struggled to her feet and rushed towards her brandishing a kunai. Sakura rapidly lowered into a Taijutsu stance. She ducked and lunged upwards with a chakra-laden punch, which she aimed beneath the enemy's attacking arms and into her ribcage. As she plummeted back to the ground, Sakura followed, refusing to give the Hunter-nin an opportunity to move.

"Clavicle," Sakura panted. Chakra surged to her fingertips and she shoved the pad of her thumb into the woman's collarbone, flinched at the shrill screech of pain that immediately followed.

Kicking upwards, she sneered at Sakura, "Don't bother, little girl. I'm not telling you anything, so you'd better kill me and get it over with."

As she struggled with the bounty hunter, Sakura contemplated briefly whether questioning this woman would be worth the trouble. Finally, she reached a conclusion, turned her opponent onto her stomach with a wrenching movement that most likely sprained the woman's wrist. Bounty hunters in general tended to lack loyalty for those who employed them; it would be much more difficult to question a shinobi who was dedicated to a village.

"Alright. Let's see. . . ." Sakura panted. Her voice was simpering, a warning in and of itself. Down to the woman's jaw, she lowered her hand. "Mandible, then."

"No, wait!"

The pinkette withdrew her hand but made no movement to release her, "Who was the other man that was with you, the one dressed like a Lightning ninja. Where is he?"

"I promise you, I don't know his name. He just paid me and two others to help him. He was with two shinobi when he met with us—ROOT shinobi from the Hidden Leaf, I think—but one of them suddenly died on the way here. I don't know anything else."

"Oh?"

"N-Nothing. Just that I'm not one of them—those ninja from Fire Country. . . . The ones with the eyes."

The woman, practically growling in anger, turned her head to look at her captor, a young woman who was meant to be one of her targets. Her eyes widened in fear. Sakura was drawing her fist back once more. Her chakra was radiant as she molded it into her clenched hand, not unlike blue fire.

Coyly, Sakura smiled, "Lucky you. Sorry, but I'll be leaving now."

Her threat, though unspoken, was conveyed clearly enough.

Life will rapidly become very unfortunate for you, should you choose to follow me.

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Clouds of sand exploded into the air, laboring Sasuke's breathing as he lifted his pursuer up by his collar and slammed him to the ground once more. His head bounced with a sickening thwack off the back of the abandoned vending stand; splinters of the decrepit wood—parched after many months abandoned in the sea air—imbedded themselves into the shinobi's scalp. His neck was broken.

Sasuke stood over the still body, fingers twitching above the flap of his weapon's pouch. In anger he furrowed his brows, smothered the urge to cough inside his heaving chest until the dust they had kicked up during their fight began to settle around him. It had been little but a hasty scrap that began and ended amongst the rows of stands that stood in eroded clusters behind the marketplace. Easily resolved. A life taken in self-defense, unknown to the carefree customers at a market only some paces away.

And Sasuke's suspicions had been affirmed. He glanced dismissively at the cracked ANBU mask in the dirt, and began to expel flames from his mouth. The Uchiha's disdain practically pooled around his feet as he watched the katon lick along the dead body, the flames consuming the dying Sharingan in the man's swollen eye sockets. In his mind Sasuke supposed this thing must be one of the better ones; he refused to acknowledge it as a person, for the ROOT soldier had allowed himself to become naught but a tool.

Sasuke gave a withering sigh. His adrenaline was fading and he felt tired, even more so than he had been at dawn. With heavy eyes he scoured the shoreline, smirked softly when a fair pink blur darted in front of the azure waves. It disappeared suddenly—a darker form followed after until it too vanished into the shadows of the docks.

Rendered anxious, the Missing-nin bolted towards the pier, ignoring the curious murmurs of civilians who had just noticed the smoke.

The legs of the pier were massive, but they left enough empty space beneath the structure that every sound heard within seemed to be magnified. When Sasuke dashed around the first leg and heard a scream, it echoed like thunder in his ears. His hand snapped to the small of his back, which he only noticed once he managed to calm his panicked heart rate; in search of Kusanagi he had immediately reached, a reflex driven by the urge to protect. The Uchiha hastened his stride, felt the grit of sand invade his shinobi boots and wedge between his toes. He was infuriated with his own nerves. There was no need, however, to kneel under anxiety. She was fast. She was strong. She would be alright.

"Sasuke!"

She was bleeding. From her cheek, she was bleeding. Sasuke's visage hardened as he watched the offending shinobi break his circle around Sakura, watched the man widen his stance to keep the Uchiha in his field of vision. Sakura's blood still stained the tip of his tantō. Eyes spinning with his bloodline limit, Sasuke followed the liquid until it fell from the blade, became a crimson splatter on the sand. With his other hand the bounty hunter grasped his abdomen. His own blood seeped through trembling fingers, rendering him paler with each step he took.

Panting, Sakura ran to Sasuke's side. She noticed the darkening cloud in his eyes, "Are you hurt, Sasuke-kun?"

He shook his head, refusing to turn away from their opponent. With pride he observed the bruises discoloring the bounty hunter's face. The medic may have been injured as well, but she certainly had given this man a difficult time. And finally, with a weak groan, the rogue Hunter-nin lost consciousness and fell on his face into the sand.

Sakura quirked a brow at Sasuke and the two agreed to leave the man where he lay. Although they were not immediately threatened, hidden here in the shadows, both were still anxious. Their eyes darted around each other, flashing upwards at each creak and footfall on the pier overhead.

"I encountered another back there," the kunoichi rasped, gingerly wiping the blood from her cheek. "She won't be waking up for a while."

A smirk tugged at Sasuke's mouth, but fell soon after, "I did as well. He was from ROOT."

Grimacing with nervousness, the pinkette ran the tip of her tongue along her chapped lips, "Is he . . . ?"

Sasuke nodded. He cast his gaze down the long underside of the pier, beside which the hull of their ship, where it merged with the fluctuating waterline, was visible, "That leaves two, but we need to leave now. We'll just have to wait for them on board," a dangerous gleam rent his gaze, causing the pupils to stand out against the normal uniformity of black irises.

A shiver barreled its way up Sakura's spine. She knew what he was thinking, and had the situation been any different, she would have stopped to marvel at how amicably their minds had come to coincide. Mentally preparing herself, she sprinted beside the Missing-nin towards the vessel that would transport them to Shimo.

Cautious but perfectly embodying the roles of commonplace travelers, they boarded the ship. Sasuke, however, lingered on deck, pretending to gaze entranced over the railing as the boat slowly left port.

They were only two minutes into the voyage when he felt the man's presence. He saw him in the corner of his vision, slowly crossing the deck towards him. Sasuke, feigning obliviousness, began walking in the opposite direction. Drastically, the footsteps behind him increased.

Before his pursuer could grab for a weapon concealed beneath his cloak, Sasuke had him restrained. He twisted the man's arms behind his back and dragged him roughly inside of a supply cabin. Sakura met them inside and blocked the man's chakra points with short, precise hits until he was doubled over against the wall, groaning. Tomoe spinning wildly in his eyes, Sasuke pressed a kunai to the bounty hunter's ribs. "Are you one of them?" he hissed. His hand moved forward just slightly, causing the blade to cut through the man's clothes and just barely knick his skin. "Answer me."

"N-No!"

A threatening silence fell over the cabin until the man managed to catch his breath. Shakily, he continued, "I'm not one of those ROOT freaks, I swear."

"Sasuke-kun," Sakura walked up behind the Uchiha and rested her hand on his shoulder, "I don't see any chakra activity in the ocular region. He's telling the truth; he's just a bounty hunter."

Through his nose Sasuke exhaled. The tension in his shoulders gradually receded; his anger, however, would not dissipate so easily. Sakura bit her lip, watching as her teammate hoisted their enemy up off the floor. When he deemed it clear of witnesses, he pulled the bounty hunter onto the deck, kunai still clutched in his free hand, and shoved the man up against the sturdy, bamboo railing.

"Now," growled Sasuke. Small sparks of Chidori danced up and down the kunai, "jump."

He did not have to say it twice.


Scattered waves of cherry blossoms descended upon the Uchiha compound. Some found rest atop the grass, some glided the extra distance to land upon the quivering surface of the lake. To young Sasuke, they seemed as if they rained down from the very sky above—it was an azure arc, just barely alight with the glowing streaks of daybreak. The child bunched his hands into little fists, lifted them to wipe sleepily at his eyes. He was so happy. He had been far too excited that morning to fall back to sleep, for Itachi had returned from a mission almost four hours passed midnight. It must be very interesting, Sasuke thought, to be able to stay awake for so long.

And so it was with that question in mind that Sasuke turned to look at his older brother. The Uchiha heir sat beside him at the farthest corner of the clan's training grounds, still writing his mission report with committed strokes. Practically bouncing on the grass, Uchiha Fugaku's youngest son tried desperately to keep from disturbing Itachi's work. He tried his best—he really did—but he had not seen his Aniki for more than a week and craved attention from his hero with the voracity of any child his age.

Suddenly, however, as the seven-year-old scoured over his brother's profile, he noticed something about the older shinobi that he had not before. The lines that worried Itachi's handsome features seemed to have deepened, somehow grown harsher since his last "farewell," that customary flick to his forehead. He actually looked tired. Worn ragged.

Gone from Sasuke's head was the fanciful notion of how exciting it must be to leave on long missions, to return in the middle of the night without preamble. Now, a new question arose to the forefront of the young Uchiha's thoughts. It was something strange he had heard before; although he did not understand what it was that he had heard, it seemed oddly relevant. Relevant in a manner that only a child's naïve objectivity can conclude. All that this shift required to take place was that look on Itachi's face, and his little brother viewing him anew.

"Nii-san?"

"Hmm," Itachi hummed pleasantly and ceased writing to look at his brother, "yes, Sasuke?" He returned to his mission report while Sasuke paused uncertainly, as if he was further mulling his question over in his curious mind, trying to find the most intelligent way to present it to his wise older brother.

"What's a cursed clan?"

Itachi went rigid, nearly dropping the pen from his fingers, which were suddenly stiffened by a death-like chill that ran passed the dexterous muscles and penetrated deep into the marrow of his bones. He turned with deceptively calm eyes to face his curious companion once more. "Sasuke," his soothing baritone was gentle but inquisitive, "where did you hear those words?"

Sasuke shrugged. "I heard cousin Shisui say it to Tou-san. They were yelling yesterday," voice catching in slight fear at the memory, he tried to wrap his arms around himself. "It was scary; I really wished you were there."

Itachi was inclined to comfort Sasuke with promises of always being at his side, be it to save his life, to spend time with him, or to shield him from the cruelty and insensitivity of others. Even from their father when he was in one of his moods. And yet, the words would not come. Itachi began to frown but refrained from doing so for Sasuke's sake.

I tell enough lies.

The thought stung but it was true. Itachi remained silent for a long time. He wished his father would be more careful about discussing, or apparently shouting, clan matters when Sasuke was close by. Allowing his pen to mark one last character with crisp black ink, he reached into the bag next to him. He offered Sasuke a small smile as he retrieved a succulent-looking tomato from within. Holding the fruit out to his little brother, he captured the boy's dark eyes with his own—eyes that had already seen far too much red, "Don't worry about such things, little brother. Now is not the time for you to know."

But the voice of his conscience screamed, Tell him. Tell him the truth. Tell him everything.

He merely gave a gentle smile and, with that, all talk of bloodlines was forgotten, and it was just Sasuke, his beloved brother, and the lake and sky.

Itachi tilted his head back, saw patches of that ever-lightening sky through the patchwork of branches belonging to the cherry tree they were resting beneath. They had not even begun to bloom when he left on his mission . . . and yet, their short lives were already drawing to a close. Dark eyes slid to take in the gaze of his much younger companion; surprisingly, the Uchiha heir found himself relieved at the innocence and eager hunger for life that he saw there. Not an inkling of sadness did this child yet perceive regarding the tragedy of life short-lived.

He had sworn long ago, holding the child before him now, who had only been a baby then, that he would protect Sasuke no matter what.

Uchiha Itachi was no stranger to breaking promises.

Sorry, Sasuke. Next time.

But this promise, at least, he intended to keep.

.

.

.

"Sasuke?"

Sighing heavily, the Uchiha ran his fingers through his hair and furrowed his brow in confusion. He felt terrible. Ill. He felt ill, could not even remember when he had drifted into sleep; all he knew was that his chest hurt, that it ached for so many reasons, and that he heard a voice. It was a soft, pleasing lilt. When he opened his eyes, the ship's cabin before him was still blurred with the remnants of sleep.

"Sasuke-kun."

The Uchiha blinked rapidly. Slowly, his vision refocused, enabling him to look into the face of his teammate. She was frowning and pressing her palm to his forehead. The dim candlelight served to emphasize the lines of her expression. They had already been at sea for at least ten hours; the first few had been tense as the two Leaf-nin remained on the alert. Only when they were certain that the remaining bounty hunter, the man dressed in Lightning garb, was not on board with them had they withdrawn into their small cabin.

Alarm danced across Sakura's features, "You're burning up."

Sasuke blinked once more; the unhinged reaction would have been almost owlish had he been anyone else. Disquieted by this development—his prevalent exhaustion, Sakura's annoying perceptiveness, every damned thing—the Uchiha narrowed his eyes as the medic started leaning closer. Burning? How was that possible when he was so, so cold?

Her hand, initially pleasant in its warmth against his cold skin, became enflamed with healing chakra.

"No," he grabbed her wrist, but gentled his grip as soon as the virile thumpthump of her heartbeat increased beneath his palm, "Nothing is wrong, Sakura. I'm alright."

Instead of grudgingly agreeing, the kunoichi gritted her teeth and struggled to retrieve her arm from Sasuke, the maneuver violent, stubborn, "This is ridiculous, Sasuke," finally she wrenched her arm free, but immediately reached around to snag his wrist. "Why won't you ever tell me what's wrong, what you're thinking?"

And then the words were there, poisonous and cruel, sitting eagerly at the back of his throat: Why should I tell you anything? . . . Why, indeed?

Downcast, Sakura suddenly seemed to find her lap immensely interesting. It was much easier, after all, to focus on her new medic's apron when he was looking at her like that. His gaze was so very severe; it made her feel hot, jolted the young woman to the core of her being. And for all the years she had been acquainted with the last Uchiha, Sakura had never known the full impact of his presence on her sanity until their post-war reunion. Every interaction between them beforehand had been marked most notably by his effect on her emotional state. But now . . . now she did not want to even think about the implication of his physical sway over her. She just knew that what she felt for him—had felt for years—was making it ever worse.

Sasuke was relieved when the pinkette retreated back to her bed. He became mildly amused, realizing that she was dutifully ignoring him.

She rifled about on the sheets until comfortable, and withdrew her new hairpin from the side-pocket of her weapon's pouch. She brushed her thumb along its cool surface. It was made out of the same strong metal used to craft most nin-weapons, but a thin layer of polished obsidian adorned the center.

A flush accosted Sakura's cheeks at the realization that the Uchiha had purchased both the pin and pouch for her. It was such a thrilling thought, not dissimilar to the novelty of a child treasuring a secret. But the more practical part of her acknowledged that this was how teammates looked after each other; even she bought dried tea leaves solely for his sake, expended her energies to heal him whenever she could—at least, whenever he would allow her to.

Somewhat outraged at her own inability to remain angry with him, Sakura shot Sasuke a playful glare from across the room. "This pin had better not fall out during battle. If it does, I won't pick it up," she accented her words by snapping the clasp open. Her fingers gathered up the overgrown side fringe, and she affixed the pink strands at the back of her head. The pin closed, the crisp snap easing the tension in the room.

"Heh," Sasuke smirked.

Sakura smiled back, trying her best to mask the overwhelming concern for her companion's well-being. If possible, he had grown paler and the kunoichi now had half a mind to stay awake until the Uchiha fell asleep. Perhaps then she could examine him with chakra without his knowledge. Unfortunately, it was difficult as hell to do anything without Sasuke's knowledge, and the medic herself was beyond exhausted after the day's chaos.

.

.

.

Tugging the blanket tighter around his frame, Sasuke swallowed but only succeeded in coughing into his pillow. Sweat dribbled down his chin and soaked into the collar of his dark shirt. But, damn it all, he was freezing. He looked to the small window, expecting to see it open with its plain green curtains blowing inwards with the wind.

Yet it had remained closed as tightly as it had been that evening.

An alabaster hand rose to the Missing-nin's neck, intercepted another drop of sweat retreating from his hairline. He was thankful that Sakura was sleeping deeply in her bed. The knowledge that he remained unseen enabled the chill in his hands to manifest into a manic quivering. He fisted them into the sheets that had pooled around his waist, but the campaign to stop their shaking was done in vain. He screwed his eyes shut, teeth gritted against the hacking compulsion clawing its way up his already raw throat.

It was getting worse.

He did not even know what it was. He had no name for it. Somehow, this insulting state of suspension, of not-knowing, made it worse.

Subdual had been easy enough over the past few months, and it had not happened every day, but once autumn had ascended the compulsions had grown more and more difficult to restrain. Nevertheless, Sakura's tea truly had helped. The only reason he had allowed them to linger so long by the river, even when Sakura and Sai had recovered, was that he had been able to wander off alone when it became unbearable. But now . . .

The blankets tumbled to the floor. The Uchiha did not bother to look down or pick them up.

He stumbled out of the cabin, eyes dazed and vision blurry. The cold air. The heavy exertion. His body was not able to handle it anymore.

Then he fell, barely caught himself against the ship's railing; again, he tried, calmed his breathing and swallowed profusely. He did everything that used to work before, his one last attempt.

But it was for naught. A whirlpool of nausea had him pitching forward until his shoulder slammed painfully against the middle railing, had him hacking until he vomited mouthful after mouthful of blood into the ocean.

Uneven but rapid footsteps sounded on the deck behind him, ". . . Young man? . . . Young man!"

Panting, Sasuke turned and found himself looking into the face of a sailor. The man was approaching his elderly years and, although his face was rough, wrinkled from continuous sun exposure, he had one of the most kindly eyes the Uchiha had ever seen. But the man's mouth was frowning; the expression was strained, as if his face was not used to it. Still dizzy, Sasuke pushed himself to his feet.

The old man took his arm, attempting to help steady the young ninja, "Young man, you don't look so well. . . . We'll be reaching Shimo tomorrow, but we have a doctor from Iwa on board. I'll go wake him—"

"No," Sasuke gently removed the sailor's scarred hand from his arm. He allowed his tired gaze to slip from the sailor and down to the ocean. He breathed in deeply at the sight. Liquid gurgled in his lungs. ". . . No."

Some of his blood still lingered on the lower railings, the spattered drops streaming downwards until they too plummeted off the vessel. Before him the ocean surged, a blue-beryl landscape of water and foam ceaselessly upending itself beneath the still sky. Its crash against the sides of the vessel became a roar in Sasuke's ears, echoing louder and louder through the cold air. There was a faint murmur behind Sasuke and he could barely hear the steps of the elderly man limping away.

Suddenly, a gust of ocean air plunged against the ship; Sasuke's hair and the flaps of his clothing rose with the salty draft. Stifling was the chill that rattled passed his skin and into the very marrow of the Uchiha's bones, an invasion that had him white-knuckle grasping the railing with shaking hands.

It was all that kept him from doubling over. It was all that kept him from falling to his knees.


A/N:

Yes. The "atrophy" is literal.

Again, I apologize for the wait. It might be redundant for me to keep apologizing like this, but I wish I had more time to write; oddly enough, it's actually finding time to reread and edit that has become most difficult for me, especially since this chapter ended up being longer than expected. To be honest, I was originally going to divide it in half, but decided that you all would be more pleased with a lengthy chapter. I hope you are!

Thank you so much for reading. I appreciate each and every one of my readers, even if not all of you leave typed feedback; all I truly want is for you to enjoy. But if you have a mind to, please, do review.