Chapter 1

"It's almost time."

Sasuke Uchiha remained kneeling, eyes fixed steadfastly on the unadorned ground before him. The Hokage had a volatile temper on the best of days; the cracks in the walls were a testament to that. Even the rough stone floor before him was stained with dried blood, remnants of the last guest who had answered incorrectly, or perhaps just too slowly. To him, though, that was rapidly becoming irrelevant. If the plan was almost complete, that meant his time was running out.

Is it worth trying to run? he wondered.

"You may leave," the Hokage said a moment later, in a tone that suggested irritation at Sasuke's continued presence. As though speaking to a servant, he added without so much as a glance, "Get your affairs in order. I'll come for you when everything is ready."

Sasuke allowed himself a bitter smile. How gracious.

"Yes, Lord Hokage," he said quietly. Not daring to look up, he turned and left the room, closing the door silently behind him.

Ino Yamanaka was waiting for him outside, fingers fidgeting nervously with her ponytail.

"Is everything okay?" the blonde asked softly, so as not to incur the Hokage's wrath. Not that it mattered how low her voice was; the man's senses were unparalleled in their acuity. Still, the door remained closed and intact, and she allowed herself an internal sigh of relief.

"Fine," Sasuke answered curtly, already moving away from the office, anxious to get home. Ino followed in his wake, a mere step behind the brooding shinobi. The few stragglers in the halls hurried to make a path for him. Everyone in Konoha knew of his connection to the Hokage, and none dared to challenge him. He plowed through the main exit, not bothering to hold it open for his follower. With some annoyance, he noted that she hadn't taken the hint as her lithe form slipped through, tailing him without drawing attention. He whipped around to face her.

"Stop following me," he snapped. Ino's hands clasped together instinctively before her chest at the sharp rebuke.

"I-I just thought you could use the company since... since... you know," she trailed off, averting her cerulean gaze.

"Since I'm going to be a corpse soon?" Sasuke finished for her brusquely. Ino said nothing.

Why not? She's enough for a bit of fun before I decide what to do. He took a moment to drink in her shapely figure, his Sharingan reading the subtleties of her posture that spoke volumes of her intentions. Sasuke grunted and resumed his course.

"Come, then," he said. Ino hurried to catch up. Her pliancy gave him a twisted sort of satisfaction. She wanted him, and he knew it.

Occupied as he was with schemes of escape and resulting eventualities, the walk back to his accommodations went by quickly. No one tried to stop him or initiate conversation. Perhaps they sensed his darker-than-usual mood, or perhaps they were just carrying on with life as usual. Sasuke was not the most gregarious occupant of Konoha, to say the least.

He didn't bother locking his door as he passed through the entryway. The Uchiha complex was still as deserted as ever, a jarring contrast from the afternoon hustle and bustle of the rest of the village, and it was unlikely that anyone would choose today to visit him, when no one ever had done so before. Ino closed the door behind her, meekly stepping into his house for the first time. It was spartan, at best, sporting only the essentials. The walls were blue and unadorned and the shutters perpetually shut, giving the interior a constant oeuvre of moody darkness. She looked nervously at the lone couch in his bare living room, worrying at her lip.

"I'm going to shower," he announced, relishing her discomfort, "Wait here." As an afterthought, he added, "Make yourself comfortable." He pushed the bathroom door shut. Might as well keep up appearances, he thought, Won't hurt to keep her waiting.

The shower head roared to life, filling the room with steam before he was finished undressing. One of the perks of living in an abandoned area, he mused, No one else using the hot water. His eyes caught a glimpse of his bare form in the mirror, and he paused to lean closer to it, staring deep into his own onyx eyes before appraising his body. Not a single scar showed on his pale skin; proof of his hard-earned skill. Am I really going to let myself die for someone else's cause?

There was a noise outside his door. He smirked.

"Couldn't wait?" he asked sardonically, not bothering to cover himself, "Well, come in, then."

There was no answer. He rolled his eyes. Is she playing coy now, or is she suddenly getting cold feet? Well, it doesn't make a difference. We both know what's going to happen. He reached for the doorknob.

The door exploded in a shower of wooden shards as something smashed into his chest hard enough to drive the air from his lungs. His back hit the glass walls of his shower, shattering it and drawing blood from numerous lacerations before slamming hard into the tiled wall. He heard cracks – was that the wall or his ribs? – and struggled to get his bearings through the water and mist.

His assailant loomed out of the fog, masked and cloaked in black. Sasuke tried to move, but he was pinned against the wall by an unyielding hand of iron. Basic instinct kicked in and he aimed a strike at the attacker's face. He found himself unable to even make a fist, paralyzed by some unseen force.

An illusion? You're a fool to try that on an Uchiha. He reached inward for the activation of his clan's heirloom, the prized eyes that could break any shinobi technique.

Nothing.

The power stayed horrifyingly out of his reach, nullified by the same puissance that held him fast.

"What are you?" he rasped, "What have you done to me?"

"I have no breath to waste on a dead man," a cold voice answered him, robotic through the porcelain of the mask. The masked figure reached forward, sinking gloved fingers into the rims of Sasuke's orbitals.

"W-Wait!" Sasuke screamed. His words fell on deaf ears.

The water ran red with his blood.

o

Sakura Haruno stepped gingerly over Ino's corpse, grimacing as she saw the unnatural angle her neck had been bent at. They had been friends once, before differing ambitions had driven a wedge between the two. Or perhaps it was because their ambitions were too similar. Well, no matter. One of them was dead and, with her, any chance of reconciliation. In any case, the Hokage was waiting in the next room, and he was neither a man who liked to be kept waiting, nor one to be concerned about long-severed bonds of friendship. She made her way through what was left of the bathroom door.

Sasuke.

The smell of blood was nothing new to her, nor was the sight of death. Hell, even the hollow eye sockets that gaped at her had long since become mundane for her; her medical training had been nothing if not complete. But this was different. This was Sasuke's body, the body of the man she had longed for for so long. Even naked and bloody, he looked agelessly beautiful.

She was the one who was supposed to take his eyes. A morbid and perhaps twisted way to get close to someone, but she had always thought fortune smiled upon her when she was found to fit the profile and requisites to become Konoha's only medic. In some corner of her mind, she had hoped that he would finally notice her as she took a position near him as one of the few considered in the Hokage's inner circle. He resented her, though, hated her for the inevitable end that she came to represent. The unfairness of it all had cost her more than one night of sleep, and now he, too, was dead. Another thread cut.

"You try my patience with your sentimentality," came the quiet words of the Hokage.

Madara Uchiha.

The man looked surreal standing in the small bathroom, filling it with his voluminous raven hair and red, lacquered armor. Sakura wiped her expression clean of the tiny frown that she had previously worn, now acutely aware of his crimson eyes boring into her. She knew why she was here; with Sasuke dead, there was only one use for a medic, and it was time to get to work.

She knelt, drawing her fuchsia tresses back into a utilitarian ponytail, to examine the body. It was no longer Sasuke she was looking at, just another subject. His eyes had been removed, that much was clear. From the bruising around them, it seemed that that particular operation had been carried out when he was alive. Clearly, whoever had done this had wanted to preserve their condition. The cause of death was blunt force trauma to the back of the skull, causing massive brain damage. From the looks of the cracks in the wall and the clumps of hair strewn about, this had been achieved when the killer had slammed Sasuke's head into the wall. It was fast, efficient and, most importantly, anonymous.

"Whoever did this caught him by surprise," she summarized, "He didn't get a chance to fight back at all. Most likely the work of an experienced assassin." These were all facts that Madara could have discerned himself, she knew. "The killer definitely has Sasuke's blood on him. Kiba will be able to track him."

"Take him, then," Madara said, breezing past her as she stood, "And whomever else you need to get those eyes back." He paused, blocking off the doorway. "I don't need to tell you how much less useful you've become to me with Sasuke's death. Fail me, and you will join him."

Like smoke dissipating through air, he vanished.

Sakura waited a heartbeat, then left the residence. Someone would be along soon enough to dispose of Sasuke's body. Perhaps later, there would be time for her to grieve. For now, she had to take care of the living.

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