No sooner had Sasuke shut Sakura's door behind him than he realized he wasn't alone in the hallway. Annoyed, he shoved his hands in his pockets and turned his head to the left, towards the shadows by the stairwell.
"It's rude to listen in on other people's conversations," he quipped.
A quick rustling, and then Naruto appeared before him, grinning as usual, but it didn't meet his eyes.
"No offense, man, but you and Sakura don't exactly have the best track record. I was just listening for gunshots."
Sasuke quirked an eyebrow, not buying it. Naruto's smile dissolved into a frown as he jerked his head in the direction of the stairs.
"Not here," he mumbled. "Let's go. There's something I want you to see."
Sasuke was wary, but he followed Naruto down the stairs all the same. He was a bit taken aback to see the differences in his former best friend; two years ago, Naruto had been little more than a prankster who'd retained this childish innocence despite his treacherous line of work. He'd been quick to smile at everyone and painfully optimistic.
Now, though, he looked older. Tired. Run down. His bright blue eyes were dimmer and his skin, usually perennially tan, was pale and almost clammy. Sasuke studied him from behind and narrowed his eyes in suspicion.
Things must really be bad here, he thought.
Not that this was news to Sasuke, of course, but never before had he seen Naruto looking so stressed. They'd seen some truly horrible things back when they were both Ringers, but despite each tragedy, Naruto had come out on top with that bone-deep, impenetrable optimism still in tact.
"Where are we going?" he asked quietly, once they'd left the Tower and were heading down the street. He didn't like walking around Konoha in the middle of the night. He felt exposed and curiously vulnerable; being back in a place you'd once betrayed had that effect on you. Despite the protection offered by Naruto's presence, he was still expecting a sniper on a rooftop to take aim at the back of his head.
"Someplace you need to see," Naruto returned without looking behind him, so Sasuke drew up to his level instead of following.
It was much, much darker in Konoha than he remembered, he realized, as he and Naruto made their way swiftly through the city. They passed Ayame's All-Nighter, a diner they all used to frequent multiple times a week, windows boarded up and shielded by two lines of police tape. Trained eyes made out the bulletholes in the brickwork. Police sirens, though not uncommon in Konoha before his departure, played an almost endless concerto in the distance and he wondered how many of them were cleaning up Madara's messes. It was chilly and unseasonably foggy, no longer the busy, bustling city Sasuke had once loved.
Two years and Konoha was becoming a ghost town.
Naruto led him about a mile away from the Tower before making his way purposefully into the South Konoha Resting Ground.
"The cemetery?" Sasuke demanded, anger flaring up inside him, along with a little bit of panic. Itachi… "What the hell are we doing here?"
"It's not about Itachi," Naruto said, annoyingly perceptive as always. "I know it fuckin kills you to admit it but not everything in life revolves around you and your brother. C'mon. Let's go."
Unsure if he should kick Naruto's ass for that comment or not, Sasuke followed warily as Naruto weaved his way expertly through the maze of tombstones and mausoleums, even in the deep darkness. He'd clearly been coming here for a very long time, to know his way around so well.
Naruto stopped at the crest of a small hill, where two lone gravestones sat side by side overlooking the rest of the cemetery. Sasuke frowned before taking in the names enscribed on the stones.
"You need to see the reality of what we're dealing with," Naruto said firmly,none of the childish naivete on his face that Sasuke had come to associate with him. He looked harder, older, shockingly mature. "And I know you act like you don't care…but Neji was your friend. He was your brother same as all of us. And now he's dead."
The gravestone on the left bearing Neji's name was very recent, unblemished by the influence of the elements like the others were. The one beside it, Hinata's, was slightly older, her name and young age still frightfully legible against the pearly white stone. It was impossible to forget what had happened that terrible day, and Sasuke realized belatedly that maybe this was the real root of Naruto's hardened maturity.
"And Hinata…" Naruto trailed off, looking skyward as if hoping to catch a glimpse of her face on the passing moonlit clouds. "I had to watch her die, Sasuke. I…I was holding her when it happened. I was the last thing she saw. I couldn't do anything to save her."
"Hn." I know. I remember. I'll never forget.
"I know that being here with Sakura is hard for you," he went on, running a hand through his spiky blonde hair. "Both of you. But if we can't work together, if we can't get this done…" He nodded towards Hinata's tombstone, then looked around at Sasuke, eyes hard, "…you're gonna know what it felt like that day to lose everything."
Sasuke stiffened. For the millionth time, he was forced to imagine the possibility of losing Sakura. Granted, he'd left her himself two years ago, but it was with the understanding that she would be alive, looked after, taken care of. He wouldn't have been able to tolerate anything less than that. The knowledge that she was okay, somewhere out there in the world where he couldn't reach her, had been enough to get him through the darkest, hardest, loneliest Oto nights. He didn't know what would become of him, if he lost that security.
"I'm here," Sasuke said curtly. "What more do you want from me?"
Naruto was quiet for a moment, then he sighed, shoving his hands in his pockets.
"I won't let you hurt her anymore than you already have," he said flatly. "I know your reasons for leaving, but she doesn't. And she deserves to. You should've told her two years ago, instead of holding her responsible with the rest of us. I was listening outside her door tonight because I know what kind of power you have over her."
Worrying about Sakura, Sasuke thought, uncomfortable and annoyed by this line of questioning. Worrying about the power I have over her.
Does anybody give a shit about the power she has over me?
"She was destroyed after you left," Naruto plowed on, while Sasuke pointedly looked away. "Picked herself up though and survived and sometimes she smiles. She's stronger than any of us have a right to be and she's better than this life. You said so yourself."
"Get to the point, asshole."
"The point is that I don't care what happens with Madara. I don't care if we need you and you need us. If you hurt her again – if you hurt her one more second of your life – I'll fuckin' kill you myself."
There was grim, grave, terrible truth in Naruto's voice. He faced Sasuke squarely, perhaps anticipating a fight.
He wasn't going to get one.
Sasuke let his shoulders relax and murmured, "I didn't come here to hurt her."
He couldn't make any promises; it was a war, after all, and this wouldn't be the first time he'd had to do something he didn't like. Even if they survived, he couldn't guarantee that Sakura would come out of this physically and emotionally unscathed.
Such a luxury didn't exist in their world.
But it was true. He'd never meant to hurt Sakura, and that wasn't his reason for coming back.
Naruto studied his face for a minute before breaking into a smile.
"Good," he said, satisfied. "Now that that's out of the way…"
"I'm going to bed," Sasuke interjected, shoving his hands deep in his pockets. He wanted out of this cemetery. Too many friends rested here, and he knew for a fact, in a shallow, poorly-marked grave at the north end, so did his brother. He wasn't ready to face him yet.
Today had been draining. He was exhausted.
"…okay. Yeah, dude. Suigetsu's staying at my place. We can…we can head back there now. And figure shit out tomorrow."
The next morning, Sakura joined the boys at Naruto's apartment looking a bit tired. Normally she dressed like the sultry, hardened gangster she was – in thin, scrappy leather with her best assets on prominent display – but today, she looked completely different. She was wearing skinny jeans and a sweater, her hair pulled up into a ponytail off her neck, her heavily-tattooed arm concealed under her clothes.
If anything, Sasuke realized, something churning in his stomach as he glanced her over, she looked like a normal girl. A college student, maybe.
She stepped inside, ignoring the way he looked at her with raised eyebrows, and said, "C'mon, let's go."
Sasuke did not like being ordered around anywhere, something he very strongly wished to remind his old friends, but given the shaky armistice he'd reached last night with Sakura, he figured he would let this one slide.
"Where?" he demanded.
"Suna," she said flatly.
"Hurry up," she snapped, impatient. "Didn't Naruto tell you?"
Sasuke rounded on Naruto, sprawled out on his sofa; he grinned sheepishly. "Oh, yeah, that's right. Meant to tell you last night, but you were all worked up and shit. You and Sakura have to go to Suna to convince Gaara to help us."
"Wasn't that what Kakashi was supposed to do?" Sasuke demanded, pissed off at Naruto's convenient amnesia.
"He tried," Sakura sighed, shaking her bangs out of her eyes. "So did Shikamaru. We explained that we were working on you guys to join up, too, but Gaara won't buy it unless he sees it in action."
"Sees what?" Suigetsu asked, emerging from the bathroom with a towel around his neck, extremely comfortable in the home of his once-sworn enemy. "What's he gotta see before he helps us?"
Sakura hesitated. "Hawk and Outer Ring working together," she said after a pause. "Allies. If anything's gonna bring him around, it'll be seeing us together."
Sasuke shoved his hands in his pockets, thinking deeply. That did make sense; Gaara, a painfully pragmatic gang leader if there ever was one, was not the type to stick his neck out for anybody unless success was guaranteed. At the moment, Akatsuki hadn't made any moves against the Sand Sibling gang in Suna, which explained Gaara's lack of action.
"Gaara owes us," Sakura said stiffly, sounding pissed as she folded her arms across her chest. "He conveniently forgets that. The only way he'll help us out is if he's sure we'll win."
Sasuke understood why she was angry. Sakura had no respect for anyone who reneged on an agreement, whether that be a vow to repay a debt, or…
Or a broken promise. He refused to let his discomfort show on his face, even as Sakura's slightly-bitter gaze came to rest on him, a delicate reminder that he could now count himself among the people who'd made her a promise, then broken it.
"But it's okay!" Naruto said hastily, apparently sensing tension stirring in his living room. "See, once he sees Sasuke and Sakura back together and partners again, he's bound to come around!"
"How are you not angrier about this?" Sakura demanded of Naruto, while Sasuke tensed at his dumbass friend's phrasing.
Back together, he thought, lip curling into a sneer. This is a temporary truce. Nothing more. The dumbass is a fool for thinking it's anything more than that.
"He owes you, Naruto! It's fucking bullshit. He should have been the first to answer our call for help! We shouldn't have needed to convince Sasuke just to get him on our side!"
Sasuke thought back to the time Sakura was referring to. It was several years ago; he was probably 16 at the time. A scandal had erupted in the confines of the Outer Ring, one involving the typically practical, always-sensible Shikamaru, and rival gangleader Gaara's sister.
"You remember the whole deal with Temari," Sakura remarked, apparently seeing the nostalgia on his face. "Well after all that went down we figured Shikamaru would be our best bet. But I guess Gaara still hasn't warmed up to him."
Sasuke rolled his eyes. As if he had time to fritter away thinking about petty, insignificant things. Like two people who loved each other, star-crossed and kept apart by the strictures of enemy gang status. Shikamaru's untimely romance with Temari Sabaku was of absolutely no interest to him.
"But after what happened with Suna," Sakura went on, "I think maybe we can get through to him. We tried appealing to his human side, getting Temari's on-off boyfriend to go talk to him…"
Sasuke scoffed; Naruto chuckled.
"…but maybe if we play the logic side instead…like, 'hey Gaara, you owe us and if you don't pay up now, they're gonna wipe out your gang next'…"
"Sounds a lot like you want us to threaten him," Sasuke observed coolly, studying her unruffled expression. "Which is suicide."
Sakura's eyes narrowed. "Do I look threatening to you?"
No, she didn't. In civilian clothes, apparently unarmed, Sakura was nothing more than a short, small, approachable girl who looked more ready for Anthropology class than throwing knives. Slowly, Sasuke was starting to see her angle.
"We're going unarmed," she informed him. "Just us, no back-up."
"No fucking way," he said immediately.
"Damn it, Sasuke…"
"You're fucking insane."
"Maybe I'm the only one who actually remembers what happened," he snapped, angry that the once level-headed Sakura Haruno seemed to have abandoned reason for insanity over the years. "But like hell am I wandering into his territory unarmed and with no back-up like some fuckin' civilian."
"I missed having you guys arguing," Naruto remarkked nostagically, leaning back in his chair like he was watching a prize fight. Sakura spared him a withering glare before rounding on Sasuke again. Apparently their truce didn't guarantee that she was going to be as sweet to him as she used to be.
"Don't bitch out when we have a chance to fix things around here," she said hotly. His hackles rose and he was on his feet, but Sakura wasn't done. "Getting Gaara is the only shot we have. Even Oto and Konoha together isn't gonna be enough and even if we can put up a fight, we're both gonna lose a ton of people and frankly, I'm not going to bury anymore of my friends."
"So you think that…"
"I think," she interrupted, "that what we're going to tell him is going to sound threatening if we're both packing and if we both bring an entourage of armed gangsters with us. But going there peacefully, essentially at his mercy, is an integrity move. It shows that we trust him."
"I do not trust him," Sasuke said harshly, even though he was starting to see her point. "We go in there, me running The Hawk and you second-in-line for the Ringers, we're sitting ducks. He decides to fuck whatever unspoken treaty you guys have and whack us, that's it, game over."
"Sakura's right," Naruto said, predictably siding with his lieutenant. "It's an integrity move."
Annoyed that he was outnumbered, Sasuke ground out, "If you can spell integrity, I'll…"
"Sasuke take off your gun," Sakura demanded, unwilling to hear a Naruto-Sasuke argument. She pinched the bridge of her nose in annoyance. "We have a long drive ahead of us and I'm not gonna waste anymore time. We need Gaara. Bottom line. And if you don't go, I'll go by myself, which would defeat the whole purpose of explaining to Suna that we're allies now, and…"
"I'm going," Sasuke bit out, furious that she was manipulating him, and doing it successfully. But like hell would he just permit her to waltz into enemy territory like a civilian, with her high-profile status as a Ringer hanging over her head. Age-old protective instincts that had never really died out over the years came roaring back to life; he had not forgotten his last interaction with Gaara, and what it had nearly cost him. "But why isn't Naruto? Since they're such good friends and all."
Naruto laughed at Sasuke's sarcasm. "I would if I could, man. But I can't leave things here right now. 'Sides, if Suigetsu sticks around here with me, it shows teamwork and shit."
"Great," Suigetsu drawled, toweling his hair off. "'Course, I did just use the shampoo/conditioner of the leader of my Family's biggest enemy gang…guess there's somethin' to be said for buryin' the hatchet."
Sakura laughed. Immediately, Sasuke was annoyed, especially when Suigetsu flashed her a sharp-toothed grin in response.
It seemed that his previous supposition was right, and that Sakura Haruno would be the death of him. She was leading him straight into the firefight, without a gun.
"It is a risk," Sakura conceded a moment later, studying him as he plunged his hand into his jacket and removed his gun. "You know it and I know it. Just because we go there doesn't mean he'll honor the peace treaty he has with Naruto…and it would be a great opportunity to take out two high-ranking members of different gangs."
Sasuke's angry gaze spurred her on.
"But times have changed, and Gaara's…weird but he can't ignore cold hard facts," she finished. "So…let's just do this."
Sasuke had never felt so vulnerable in all his life.
Driving a car that didn't belong to him, with no weapons – not even a knife – at his disposal, into Suna, with only his bitter, reckless ex-girlfriend as an ally…
She hadn't said a word to him since she'd gotten into the passenger's seat of the car they were borrowing from Tenten. It was less ostentatious than the other cars, and their goal was to blend in as much as possible, and avoid unnecessary attention. But it was slower than he would have preferred, in case things went south and they needed to make a hasty getaway.
Another thing that concerned him was his partner's temperament.
Sakura, even at her best, had a volatile temper. She was very, very smart and logical, but all of that flew out the window when she was angered. And nothing pissed her off more than someone backing out of a debt; if Gaara did not immediately agree to help out the tenuous Ringer/Hawk alliance, she would see it as a betrayal of the debt he owed Naruto and he couldn't risk her losing her cool. Doubtlessly, if she flew off the handle in front of Gaara, he'd blow them both to hell on the spot without a second thought.
"Keep your head," he told her, one hand on the steering wheel, the other on the gearshift. He kept his eyes on the road, not really dying to see whatever scandalized expression took place on her face. "When we get there."
"Keep my head," she echoed, her voice calm and frosty. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her hands, folded amicably in her lap, clench into fists. "Keep my head."
"And your mouth shut, if you lose control of yourself," he went on.
"I swear to God Sasuke, I swear to God if we didn't need you, I'd shoot you myself."
"With what gun?" he sniped. "You had us leave those at home."
Sasuke realized his mistake when Sakura's tone changed from angry to curious. He hadn't meant to call Konoha home, and he damn sure didn't consider it such, either. It was the damn effect of being back here, among people he'd grown up with, and lived with, and loved…
"Konoha," he corrected sharply. He saw the exit sign for Suna coming up and exhaled a little in relief. The sooner this drive was over, the better. "Remember. Gaara is…"
"Shut up, Sasuke," she snapped, irritated that he was covering up his Freudian slip instead of just owning it. She folded her sweater-covered arms in annoyance and stared out her window instead. "You haven't even seen Gaara since that day the whole thing with Shikamaru and Temari went down. You don't know what he's like nowadays. Quit acting like he's gonna fly off the handle."
Sasuke had had enough. Sakura might have grown up some compared to the wide-eyed girl he'd loved, but she still had one fatal flaw: her refusal to distrust people who deserved it. A half-mile away from the exit, he swerved the car sharply, pulling over to the side of the desert road.
"What the hell are you doing?" she demanded, when he'd thrown the car into Park. "It's almost nightfall, you have any idea how cold it gets out in the desert at night?"
"Listen to me," Sasuke said sharply. She looked at him with narrowed eyes, but he knew he had her undivided attention, which was what she needed. "Gaara might be on decent terms with you guys. You're right. I don't know what happened over the years that could've changed shit. But what you need to realize is that there's a fuckin' reason he didn't immediately come help Konoha when y'all asked him to."
Sakura blinked, absorbing what he was telling her.
"Maybe you guys aren't enemies," he went on, "but you sure as hell aren't friends. So you need to be careful. Understand?"
He expected Sakura to bristle with anger at his lecture, call him a few names, maybe take a swing at him. Sakura did not like to be spoken to like a rebellious child, even if sometimes, that was exactly what she was. He'd been on the receiving end of her waspish temper before. But this was something she needed to hear.
Instead of flying off the handle, however, Sakura's face went completely blank, and then she smiled beautifully at him. The effect was disarming – she had the prettiest smile he'd ever seen on a girl before, and he was entirely unprepared for it.
"I have a better handle on my emotions than I used to, Sasuke," she said sweetly. "Don't worry. I'm not gonna lose my cool."
Sasuke frowned, taken aback by her sudden composure. Finally deciding that they'd wasted enough time on this drive in silence and arguments, he turned the key in the ignition and pulled out onto the road again.
"You freaked the hell out on me," he remarked, a bit sullenly. "When you first saw me. Where was all this composure then?"
Sakura giggled a little, but the sound from the passenger's seat was humorless. He'd never known a giggle to be sad, but suddenly Tenten's Camaro was filled to bursting with despondency so thick he was almost choking on it.
"Maybe I should clarify," she conceded. "Nowadays I have perfect self-control, I keep it together, and I never lose myself…
"Except when it comes to you."
Sasuke didn't answer. What do you say to something like that anyway?
Maybe the truth:
Same here, Sakura.
note.. gonna get into what happened with gaara and shikamaru and temari and sasuke and sakura next chapter, so that should be fun. hope you liked this lame transition chapter! if you did let me know. for god and glory and the holy trinity.
xoxo daisy :)