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Fandom Redemption [Closed] [Graverobber141/arbus]


[Insert Clever Line Here]

For years it had been a constant, looming shadow, a space in which he could only fill the thoughts that ran throughout his head like ghosts, and how desperately did he try to grasp them, anything, like mist slipping between his fingers, to justify his existence. Emptiness that birthed resentment, and in that void, that resentment was forged into the sharp edge of hatred.

Yet this silence was starkly different. In a way, more difficult. His mind was no longer consumed by that raged-fueled, incessant need to act—to do something, because doing nothing meant he was a victim—that narrowed his existence to a finite, singular point: vengeance. At least then, blinded by his own reality, he had known his purpose, had forced the world to make sense, and from that sense, had known which step to take forward. In his delusion, he had possessed certainty.

And now freedom from that delusion hardly felt like enlightenment; it left the taste of ash on his tongue, bitter and regretful, and in its wake, he found he was lost, searching once more so desperately for absolution. For certainty.

This silence was nothing if not the manifestation of uncertainty.

Consciously aware of how long it had been since he'd last spoken, Sasuke came to a stop, his sandals padding softly against the dirt-composed road. Out of the corner of his sharp eyes, he had occasionally been glimpsing the river their path followed, the calm, dark waters which currently reflected the low-hanging moon, but mostly he had been subtly watching her.


Occasionally, the cool night breeze had danced through her hair, and in those moments, he found himself taking in little details that had evaded him before: things he hadn't allowed himself to notice. The urge to break the persistent silence, which he himself had fostered, scratched underneath his surface, yet he simply did not know how, and that barrier haunted him more than perhaps he was capable of fully realizing. In the end, he merely, distantly stated, "We'll rest here for the night." Turning his dark eyes onto hers, one of the first times he'd let himself meet her gaze since they set off this morning, he tilted his head in the direction of the small inn nestled against a backdrop of trees further along the road and continued walking.

Part of him wondered why she was here, traveling at his side, and it was the most consistent, coherent thought circling around in his head, and yet, even still, it left him confused, unable to understand. When it came to counting his sins, she was perhaps one he was most indebted to. Anger. Scorn. Hate. Fear. Reactions he had expected, things he could understand. Yet this, her walking alongside him, did not make sense. But then again, hardly anything made sense to him anymore.

This was supposed to be his journey to redemption--that was why she was here--and yet he found himself lost in the silence, searching for what he could say. Because there were no words that could erase his sins, nothing on the tip of his tongue, expect for an unshakable feeling that he should say something, if only to break the silence that strangled the air between them. Perhaps inviting her had been a childish idea to begin with: a desperate want to find an easy way to rebuild ties he had tried so hard to sever completely.

If only it were so simple. But the point was to try, and this was hardly about him.

Nearing the destination, all these things eating away at the edge of his consciousness, he stopped abruptly. And even though it was pointless, shallow in consideration of how deeply he had fallen, he spoke in an attempt to offer her something: "Thank you, Sakura."

For being here.


Sakura felt sick. Not in that abrasive, all-consuming way she had come to know when her training with Tsunade had started in earnest, from a body and mind tired to the point of exhaustion. When she sometimes dry-heaved from hunger and the cool touch of Tsunade’s fingers on the back of her neck had been soothing her. Then, through the sickness and muscle spasms she had felt proud. Of use.

But the sickness she felt now was a low-flame simmering, nestled somewhere between her stomach and her sternum, a feeling like the steady thrum of her heart, the unwavering rhythm of her footsteps on hard ground.

She suspected it might be nerves that made her feel that way, but it rendered her unable to break the ice, an attempt she’d surely made if not for that steady pounding in her head. But had she thought it would be that hard, when she departed from Konoha, its gates and Naruto’s hopeful gaze in her back and a long, empty road ahead of her?

Now she was here, now she finally, finally walked by his side, and all she felt was a strain like electricity cursing through her veins, coiling her body tight. She wanted to raise her eyes, wanted to open her mouth, but she was afraid her words would tumble shakily into a silence so vast it would just gulp them up, and then her, too.

When, after a long time, it was Sasuke’s voice that broke that silence, her head snapped up. Almost surprised to find him there, in flesh and blood and not just a ghost inside her own head, she nodded dumbly, staring at him and feeling like a deer in the headlights.

She was glad to follow his movement towards the inn, settle her eyes onto the narrow building instead. It stood lonely amongst those trees, an outpost for wary travelers like them, inviting in its cosy serenity with the lights a bright welcome in the night.

She was glad for an opportunity to unwind, to maybe take a breath from that unfathomable weight that seemed to hang over them and made the air thick between them. She stared at her feet as she moved on, so when Sasuke came to a halt, it took her another three steps before she even realized.

She turned, and a distant part of her could sense how her eyes grew almost comically wide. After so much of nothing, the words, as soon as they were spoken, carried meaning beyond simple platitudes, and as she looked into his dark eyes, she thought she caught a glimpse of something. An unnamed thing, there and gone.

Yet, for all its volatility, it seemed to lift some of the weight off her shoulders. The smile she gave was small, but sincere.

„Let’s see if they still offer tea. I know it’s late, but maybe we’re lucky.“

She didn't hesitate to turn and enter the building, because his gaze was forever heavy, and she was not sure if she was able to bear the weight of it. Maybe this was it, when it came down to it. All she had ever wanted was to be by his side, but now, she realized almost softly as she slipped off her sandals, her toes crusted with layers of dirt from the road, she wasn't sure if this held true any longer.


[Insert Clever Line Here]
She smiled and, even if it was small, Sasuke felt something indescribable, besides the conscious thought that he had missed that expression of hers, and the times when she had don it more often, when things had been simpler; it left him with a faint idea that perhaps this quest of his wasn't hopeless. Following her lead and tugging off his sandals, he followed her inside, more resolved to see this through.

The day had taken them far from Konoha, and much further into their travels, between the stretch leading them into the next settlement, roadside inns like this would become more scarce. Some tea and a hot meal or two before setting off once more in the morning would be welcomed; such things had to be taken when they could be while on the road. What Sasuke was dreading was the downtime, because he was still trying to grasp what exactly it was he wanted to say, needed to say. Talking had never been his strong suit. In fact he had often found it pointless, but he had a feeling she needed it, and that simple fact drove him to search for something.

Speaking to the innkeep bought him some time. Claiming that new roads cutting the traveling time to the next village had deprived her inn of traffic lately, the establishment's owner seemed more than happy to fix them some tea, along with something to eat at Sasuke's request, if only to have some others to converse with for a little while. The irony. Sasuke's mostly single worded, rarely single sentenced, answers to her questions didn't seem to bring her any dismay, however, during their short exchange, and it wasn't long before he was able to escape to a corner table in the inn's quaint lobby.

It was a relief to be seated away from their host, and not wanting to be interrupted, or perhaps it was simply an excuse to procrastinate, he found himself glancing out the window at nothing in particular, waiting for their order to be brought out. Even with the extra time, he made little progress in sorting out how to begin, vexed by how even if he somehow managed to put everything he felt into words, it wouldn't change anything. How could it? His sins stained seamlessly into his very being, tainting his very existence.

For a moment he closed his eyes. He could hear the innkeeper approaching, the clatter of plates being placed before them, and her well-meaning chatter before her departure. Letting out a breath of air, he slowly re-opened his eyes, shifting his gaze onto Sakura.

"Listen--" He began without thought, raw and unscripted, hoping that without calculation, he'd stumble into something true. "I know I can't undo my mistakes." Mistakes. The word felt too dull for the sharpness of his sins, and his mouth twisted as it fell from his lips. Yet he kept going. "And that in comparison, these words mean nothing, but for what I did, Sakura, I am sorry." A pause. He intended to end it there, but something compelled him to keep going. "I hope--" What right did he have to hope? Yet he found himself reaching deeper, pulling at the subconscious strings that had urged him to take this journey. "--we can find a way to reconcile."

He felt a mixture of exposure and relief, like he had both left himself vulnerable to attack, yet shed a weight from his shoulders. Reaching for his cup of tea, he finished with, "I'm not asking for forgiveness, but redemption."


As soon as they entered the inn, Sakura felt an almost irrational sense of relief bubbling up in her. The warmth of four walls and a roof over their heads, of warm light and the sounds of domesticity eased the spiraling of her thoughts further. A faint aroma of wood polish and cooked rice hung in the air. There was nothing in particular that reminded her of home, of her parents’ apartment or Konoha’s streets, but the accumulation of all these sensory impressions still brought it back to her, and there was a faint sense of homesickness.

When she slipped off her backpack, and the pressure of the straps eased, she thought how ironic it was to feel that way. She hadn’t wanted to stay in Konoha - the unfamiliar restlessness that had settled in her bones after the war had hampered any kind of settling-in, even though all the world seemed to rebuild itself. Naruto and Hinata and their newly-wedded bliss, another form of domestic life Sakura had watched unfold, quite disbelievingly at first but happy for them all the same.

And there she had been, always thinking it would be her that’d be married and complacent, doing laundry and dinner and her husband’s bento. A little, cynical voice in her whispered its contempt at this play at husband and wife, and Sakura was aware enough that this voice was jealousy, or maybe even just a profound disappointment from an eight-year-old-version of herself with a bow in her hair and the most unrealistic notions of adult life.

She let Sasuke do the talking. He was good at giving orders, good at asking for what he needed. His voice never seemed to waver in doubt (she had realized this very quickly), and his stance and gaze and even the economical movements of his limbs spoke of a sense of entitlement she found fascinating. Even as a little girl, she was drawn to that. She wondered if it was because she was so insecure in everything she did, always doubting, and always afraid to speak up for herself.

Always lacking.

Some of that feeling of inadequacy had eased after the war, of course. She watched Sasuke withdraw into a corner of the room, had known he’d chose that spot for the round-up view it granted towards all entrances and windows. Before she joined him, she carried the conversation with the inn keeper a bit further, not because she was particularly interested in the reflux of customers but because it was nice to talk to another human being without inhibition, without the feeling of threat hanging over her head like a nasty kunai.

Half an hour or so must have passed when they finally were served dinner, and Sakura felt her mouth water despite herself. She hadn’t eaten much all day, had felt sick to her stomach most of the time. Her hand twitched, and then Sasuke spoke, and the moment he opened his mouth she felt her heart beat hard against her ribcage - from one second to the next, her appetite was gone.

All she could do was stare at him, not quite sure if she heard him right as he so hesitatingly brought forth his apology. It came so unexpected, so out of the blue she hardly knew what to think, let alone what to say.

And then, a knee-jerk reaction: It’s alright, Sasuke-kun. I understand. I know you didn’t mean it. Please don’t think about it anymore.

But she knew that this wasn’t true. He had meant every word he uttered, every step he’d taken, every cut that drove deeper into their bond, until it was nothing but a thread not thicker than a hair’s breadth. He’d meant it when he came in for the killing strike. Unlike her, he didn’t hesitate, didn’t pull back at the very last moment.

If it weren’t for Naruto, she would be dead by his hands.

She hadn’t realized that she was holding her breath, and now she released it in a low stream. Her hands were knuckle-white fists in her lap as she looked at them. No tears, and when she spoke, she didn’t look at him, but her voice was even:


There was no more she could offer. Because the moment he had spoken of redemption, she knew it was true. She came to forgive Sasuke, maybe came to try to make him whole, but she now knew that none of this was in her power. That, in fact, it was not her that owed him anything.

Her hands shook only insignificantly as she poured tea first in his cup, than in hers. It was all she could do, a smallest of gestures to make him see that she was still here, despite everything. That she didn't intend to go anywhere, for the time being.


[Insert Clever Line Here]

He had steadily been watching for her reaction, studying her features and movements, trying to decode her body language. Like a statue, she hadn't faltered. Something had changed about her, Sasuke realized, as he watched her pour the tea, gaze drifting down to note the subtle uncertainty in which she handled the kettle, and her short response caught him off guard. Part of him had expected more from her; not that he had expected this to be easy, nor did he think it should be so simple, but the Sakura he knew as a genin would have been quick to jump to his defense. While the singular word was far from aggressive, it left so much in the air, hardly serving as a quick bridge built to heal the gap he had created between them. Perhaps it was just him, but he thought he heard a subtle implication held within it: show me.

He felt a sudden compulsion to ask how, because that one word somehow left him off-center, but he repressed the urge. Instead, he reminisced about how it used to be him leaving her with a lot less than what she wanted; the fact that the tables had turned did not escape him, and he found himself welcoming this change. She was stronger now. Both emotionally and as a shinobi. And she was here; not because she needed him or his approval, but because she wanted to be.

Those thoughts caused the side of his mouth to tilt upward ever so slightly, subtly. The expression could have been easily missed, along with the exhalation of air that escaped his lips, filled with a small humor tinged by sadness, but it was genuine.

Good for her, he thought, and he was honestly happy for her personal development, even if it tasted bittersweet. Watching them all move forward--Naruto finding happiness with Hinata, so close to fulfilling his dream of becoming Hokage, Sakura having come into her own as a ninja--he was reminded of how he had been stuck in the past, how he had robbed himself of a future. Now there was little left besides his stumbling for redemption, like a child in the dark.

Taking a moment to merely watch her closely, an indecipherable, heavy expression hidden behind his dark gaze, he could not help but wonder what could have been, if only he hadn't fallen so far. If only he had stayed. But hindsight was always so clear, and he once more was haunted by burdensome uncertainty. Yet it wasn't supposed to be easy, was it? And, again, this was hardly about him. Small steps, he reminded himself. Nodding her a thanks for the tea, he took a sip, thankful just for the chance to be in her company.

"You've come a long way, into your own," he spoke softly, the sentence born of a desire to somehow communicate his thoughts with her. It was like chipping away at a boulder, but bit by bit, with each utterance, he was finding it easier to break the silence. Setting his cup beside his bowl of ramen, he picked up his pair of chopsticks, situating them between his fingers; he hoped the gesture would encourage her to begin eating as well, as they'd been traveling for most of the day, and she would need the energy.


Sakura, perhaps stupidly, hardly dared to lift her gaze to his face. Because old habits die hard and it was easy to feel the power he still held over her, or part of her, and she feared to give herself away - or worse, to fall back into those patterns that seem to come so naturally to her. Fighting for agency in the shinobi world had always been a battle against herself, against some intrinsic part of her of which she didn't know if it was inherent or picked up along the way, like the flowers she used to arrange to make Ino proud.

When her eyes flickered up - and act of defiance directed against herself - she thought she caught a flicker of something on Sasuke's face, akin to amusement, or perhaps satisfaction. For all those years she had studied his features, when her eyes had forever searched for him in a crowd, she still had yet to learn to decipher the minuscule muscle movements that often where the only indicators of his emotions. So often had she thought that she understood him, only to be proofed wrong by his actions as well as his words - time and time again. Therefore, she no longer trusted her intuition, the way her own features lightened up in some sort of primal response to his mood. It sacred her, how easily that urge to reach out still came to her, hiding beneath an apparently insufficient layer of distrust and wariness.

Ino had called her naive to go, that last night before she commenced her travels to join Sasuke. She hadn't said much more, but her eyes held a truth Sakura could hardly deny: This isn't healthy. I have moved on. Maybe you should, too.

Sasuke's eyes, forever dark and indecipherable, watched her, and she didn't now how to react to a gaze like that. It would haunt her into the small hours of the night, she knew, until she finally fell into an uneasy sleep. A dreamless sleep, mercifully, but -

"W-what ..." Sasuke had spoken softly, assuredly, and even before the words fully registered, she felt her eyebrows rise in the same instant her face grew hot. Indignation and pleasure pulled at her with the same insistence. She knew she had spluttered, lost a little of the composure she worked so hard to keep in his presence. She blinked hastily, the heat in her cheeks making her vision blurry. "We all did, though", she heard herself say. She watched him eat, glad for the distraction. She followed his motions automatically, but didn't taste the heavy broth in her mouth, and it only made the heat building in her face more distinct. She was determined to ignore the conflicting emotions roiling inside her.

Did he think she still needed his approval like a blessing?

And did her reaction not speak for itself, she scolded herself, angry and frustrated with the way she still anticipated each of his reactions like a gauge to her behavior. How every little flicker of the eyes and tilt of the mouth could impact her so profoundly.

Maybe she was reading too much into this.

She ate her ramen because she knew she would need the nourishment. They were keeping a hard pace, and the terrain would only get harder to maneuver. Oh, why were they eating steaming ramen and drinking hot tea, of all things? She hated the way her face gave away her inner turmoil. She didn't fool herself with the hope that Sasuke wouldn't notice. She had felt his unfamiliar scrutiny since their paths joined. After all those years being practically invisible to him, his gaze now made her uncomfortable, to aware of her gangly limbs, insecure where to put her hands. Like a deer in the headlights.

"Do you think we will cross Fire Country's border soon?" she asked, stubbornly pretending nothing was odd about her behavior at all. She wouldn't indulge in her own insecurity any longer. Instead, she was desperate to stir the topic away from muddy waters, for once, seeking respite in the mundane.


[Insert Clever Line Here]
It wasn't that Sasuke meant to stare, far be it his intention to make her uncomfortable, but with so much distance that separated them and so few words shared between them, her motions and expressions, every slight shift of her body, every twitch of her mouth, were the only things he could use to judge where he currently stood with her. He was fully aware that he was navigating stormy waters, that his sins had left the shadow of the Reaper looming over them, ready to sever the thin thread remaining of their connection completely, that he himself had nurtured this distrust and uncertainty; he didn't want to overstep boundaries, because he perfectly understood if she had a need to keep them firmly intact, to keep this distance that stretched before them a comfortable width and depth.

Perhaps it was for the best, considering what he had done to her, but this journey was about her. She owed him nothing, and he owed her everything. He only wanted to repay that debt with whatever interest he could muster. He would make no assumptions about where he stood with her; after all, it was solely her decision to accept or dismiss his attempts to reconcile. All the while, he supposed it was fair punishment to be haunted by the thought of what could have been.

Before they had left the village, Kakashi had given him a look. A warning. As if he didn't entirely trust Sasuke's motivations. His former sensei had a way of showing such emotion with just one eye, while he himself was crippled to display just a fraction of the same amount with his whole body. Yet Kakashi had no cause to worry, because Sasuke had no illusions about his own future.

Fair punishment.

Yet even with his carefully chosen words, observing her in his covert way as he ate, he noticed that he had accidentally caused her to fluster, which had certainly not been his intention. He had just wanted to say what he never knew how to say to her, and mulling over her reaction, he realized he obviously still didn't know how to communicate his thoughts. Still, her reddened cheeks made memories of when things had been simpler rise to the front of his mind, that glimpse of what could have been, and if it hadn't been for her response--We all did, though--hitting him with the strength she now possessed, he might've offered her a sad, small smile.

Instead, his eyes drifted up to search her face, pausing in his meal. "Not all of us." It escaped his lips without plan or thought, tinged with remorse, regret, guilt, and pain, all woven into a quiet voice caught off-guard. There was one significant difference between himself and his former team-members: Naruto and Sakura had grown, not only as ninja, but as people. He was proud of both of them, in what little capacity he had the right to be proud. But he had chosen a different path; the price of his power was one he could never repay, even as he attempted to do so now. They had moved forward, and he had done nothing but remain frozen.

Internally, he chastised himself for the remark, because, once more, this wasn't about him, and shifted his gaze away. Thankful for the chance to change subjects, he took her lead, and set his chopsticks down, pushing his nearly empty bowl to the side. Withdrawing a scroll from the backpack at his side, he used his teeth to undo the string keeping it rolled together; having turned down the offer of a replacement arm, he was becoming used to living with only one. Placing the paper onto the cleared space on the table, he revealed a map of the nations, and placed his finger against the spot he estimated them to be. With a bit of chakra expelled, a small red mark appeared underneath where he touched. "Depending on our pace, I suspect we'll cross the border within the next day or two. I'll send a few hawks out tonight to scout ahead, pick up some intel to decide the precise direction we should take."

Something ate at him as he finished his last sentence, compelling him move his gaze back onto her in consideration. He felt an urge to elucidate what he meant earlier, expand upon the phrase that caused her to blush, yet he judged that she wanted to move on. Taking a silent moment to think it over, he finally exhaled, before stating, "I only meant that you're our equal, Sakura: Naruto's and mine." A pause followed, in which his lips parted just so in another small, barely noticeable smile. "Well, technically you outrank us now, considering you're the only one to become a Jonin."


It pulled at her in the back of her mind, a nagging intuition like the word no but unspoken. Not all of us, he had said, in a tone that made something in Sakura’s stomach drop unpleasantly. It was a strong, sorrowful, empathetic feeling; a thing smoothed like a pebble in the stream of the Naka, worn by time and sorrow and patience, but still there, still solid and steady and undeniable in its corporeality. This bang of sympathy she felt was no surprise, but his words were, the tone of his voice. Her eyes flickered up to him for that small moment, there and gone, but the no remained like a steady thrum: No. You are wrong. You have changed. I see it here, with my own eyes.

Right there, in your eyes. I hear it in every syllable you utter.

It was such a profound truth, yet it dawned on her so uneventfully. A moment ago, she hadn’t known it. An utterance, four simple words later, she had.

Another truth, this one more surprising: It didn’t change how she felt. No epiphany, no joy. But a constant low-key sadness for a boy that wasn’t quite a man: For the first time in her life, Sasuke looked lost even to her obscured gaze. Insecure, even. Smaller than she was used to.

But the fleeting moment was gone already, and in the next she studied the map as per her own request. She leaned on her elbows a bit to get a better view, smelled the faint ozone of his chakra, ignored the little tilt in her heart that was akin to panic and the thrill of a fight and the comfort of early genin days on the training grounds, and nodded. “That sounds like a reasonable plan.”

Not once, she had asked him were they were headed to. It just came to her, and she wondered if she was supposed to ask, or if it didn’t matter anyway. For her, it didn’t. The road she was traveling was not covered in dirt or sand or snow, but in metaphors of blood and violence and a tenderness she didn’t quite understand.

When she felt his eyes on her once again, she met his gaze without thinking about it, somewhat comforted by the map between them, the shift in topic. Talking strategy, taking the pragmatic approach, it was something she had learned both from Tsunade-shishou and Kakashi-sensei, in her time at the hospital and the sort-of-apprenticeship she did in the Hokage Tower. So his words came as a surprise, like a lapse back into the topic she thought she had successfully determined.
Again, she felt her face grow hot. This time, indignation won over the faint feeling of being flattered, of being pleased by his …

By his what? What did he think to accomplish, talking down to her like that? Telling her about equality, when it was simply not true – a title was nothing, a honorific was nothing compared to what they were. Their power overwrote laws of nature, and he talked about her, being his equal.

Something stung in her eyes, like tears that she wouldn’t allow to come.

She nodded curtly, her lips pressed into a tight line, unable to say anything. Was she overreacting? The tremble in her hands was more pronounced when she lifted the cup to her mouth, drinking the last sip of tea. The dull thonk of clay on wood when she put it down again. She felt the childish urge to get up and leave him there. She wanted cool sheets beneath her cheek and moonlight as her only companion. She wanted to know, most of all, why this was so hard.

“I guess I do”, she said. She didn’t want to argue. She didn’t trust her own feelings, the way it spun stories and twisted intentions. She wanted to tell him how this made her feel, but he wasn’t Naruto. She couldn’t trust him with her feelings. “As a fellow Konoha shinobi, does this mean you’re at my command?” There, a bridge. She felt a stream of relief to have found it, to have something to offer other than an anger that resided in a dark corner of her heart. And he had smiled, hadn’t he. Had it been condescending, or was she reading into it?

Was this his way of reaching out?

Ridiculous, how little she knew of him, how bad she was at reading him. Naruto would have known what to do.

She poured them more tea. “You’d have to carry my backpack, of course”, she continued in the same vein, making light of it. A Kakashi-technique, she suddenly registered. How odd. “And I would let you do all the work, just like sensei taught us.” At this, she looked up, and dared a little smile herself. It made her feel utterly vulnerable.


[Insert Clever Line Here]
Sasuke's smile faded from his lips, leaving little trace behind, the only proof of its existence being a complex, melancholic look behind his dark eyes, born from its remnants. His actions, his intentions being misconstrued was something he had come to expect, something he was rather accustomed to, but seeing how his attempts to try to express what he was so incapable of doing so sent her into a frenzy of emotion and insecurity--it tasted metallic and heavy, like blood on his tongue, it felt sharp and violent, like a blade piercing his skin, and it rung hollow in his head, like a bell destroying his skull to remind him of what he was. It brought to surface faint reminders of inadequacy, of always being one step behind...Itachi. Naruto.

And the idea he had caused her pain again shook him more than he could fully realize. His incapability to move forward, to communicate--he couldn't understand how it was so difficult to say these things. These things he wanted to tell her, he wanted her to know:

Don't you remember? Memories with that bitter taste of ash, remnants of all he had burnt and left behind. Their first real mission, how they'd been so unprepared. Naruto and him, struggling for days on end to climb a tree, while she had made it to the top in a matter of minutes. 'What did she tell you?' he had asked Naruto, desperate to know the advice she had given him, but Naruto had cheekily declined.

During the Chunin exams, in the Forest of Death, the first time he had lost himself completely, and only her touch had been able to bring him back from that brink. Only that time, only for an instant, but it had happened.

In the aftermath of the destruction, at the end of the world, laying side by side with Naruto, she was there between them, putting the pieces back together.

Don't you realize? It was never about strength, power, or ability. Those things led to nothing but ruin and pain. It was about something far great, something that Sasuke was only beginning to understand, but she and Naruto had known all along.

Don't you know? These thoughts, they drifted throughout his mind like snow, pure yet unrefined; he couldn't catch the flakes, for grasping them caused them to melt within his hands, but he could feel them, their presence, like warmth in the dark.

Her soul, her being; don't you know you're far more beautiful than you realize?

His gaze drifted downward, breaking contact: an instilled, instinctual habit. It wasn't until she spoke, that small offer, that he was able lift his eyes. Her question took him off-guard, because it was one that had escaped his consideration, and that singular assertion--that he was a fellow Konoha shinobi--stirred something within him. Maybe, just maybe home could still mean something. Perhaps there was still a chance that his future wan't already set, but part of him couldn't allow himself to believe that, because that same part knew it was far more than he deserved.

Yet he was grateful for the bridge, for the chance, and it was the perfect opportunity to put this into her hands, where it belonged. This journey was meant to be about her, after all, and he would gladly follow her lead.

Unable to help the small exhalation of air, the small tilt of his mouth, both tinged with bittersweet humor, at her next declarations, as they reminded him keenly of Kakashi, of mornings spent waiting for his arrival, feeling his own patience be tested to its limit, he slid the map across the table, so that it was entirely in her court. "Wherever you decide to take us, I'll follow."


Wherever you decide to take us, I'll follow.

The map rustled under Sasuke’s fingertips. It carried the faint aroma of woodsmoke, like all his possessions did. A life lived on the road, on the run, but she realized now what she had not been able to see cleary before: That he wasn’t running from the village, or Naruto, or his home. He was running towards it, but for him, it was a mirage far away, an abstract concept he couldn’t grasp. For her, it was the warmth of her mother’s touch and screaming in exasperation at her father, it was knocking Naruto over the head for a dumb comment, bonding with Sai over his art and meeting with Ino for dango and tea. It was Tsunade who always took time to answer all of her questions, Shizune who smiled at her in the hallways, and Kakashi and Yamato arguing without words in the Hokage’s office.

But what did Sasuke know of home? A skeleton of a district, and she had never realized how empty it must have been to live there, and even that gone now, the last trace of his ancestry extinguished in Pein’s attack on the village. There was simply nothing he could positively call his own, nothing despite some memories maybe from his genin days, and he had been so cold back then, had seemed so mature in her young eyes – she could hardly believe he thought with fondness of those days. Ever frustrated with their sensei and angry at Naruto, irritated at her lurking, overbearing attention. And he had barely been thirteen when he had left the village for good.

Sakura worked around a lump in her throat as she lifted her hand, hesitatingly at first, but when her fingers touched the map to draw it a little nearer still, they didn’t tremble any longer.

Before she could say anything, their host interrupted them by clearing their table. Her chatter, so welcome only an hour ago, now seemed a crude intrusion into their little bubble – Sakura realized with a start that something had changed, a subtle shift in their dynamic like static in the air. She wondered if she was sensing his chakra, that tightly controlled buzz she felt trickling against the skin of her arms. She managed a polite smile at their host, thanked her for the meal. They were informed about the rooms being ready; unfortunately, they would have to share with other travelers for the inn was small, but strictly separated by gender, of course, the bathrooms, too.

When they had the table to themselves again, Sakura leaned back a little, and conducted a small, private experiment: Instead of allowing herself to get flustered all over again – and it would have been so easy, not more than a glance from him would have sufficed – she calmly drank her tea, studying the map without haste.

She thought of Sai. What had he once told he? Fake it until you make it.

It almost made her giggle.

“To Wind, for now”, she informed him as if she had always known. She brushed the tip of her finger over the continent separating Fire Country from Wind, and added: “We’ll be traveling through Rain, provided your intel gives confirmation on a save passage. It would be nice to visit Amegakure under its new leadership. Don’t you think?”


[Insert Clever Line Here]
Watching, ever observant, Sasuke felt a slight tension in his shoulders, one he hadn't notice building, relax, as the waters between them seemed to calm, like dark clouds passing by overhead, the threat of a storm becoming nothing more than a small scent of rain left behind in the air. Relief washed over him, and languidly, he let his eyelids drift to be half-closed--a gesture abnormal for him, because it meant letting his guard down--as he took in just how comfortable he felt with the decision. So much had changed, something he already knew, yet he was slowly coming to realize that those changes weren't all necessarily bad. Especially when it meant watching her become so much more.

He barely paid the innkeeper any mind, and the slight irritation he felt at her intrusion, for drawing them out of their own little world, was only shown in his silence. Letting Sakura offer a thanks, what little interaction he partook in was helping to gather and stack the plates, making it easier for them to be ushered off, though that gesture was hardly purely innocent; he wanted to see her off as quickly as possible.

Left alone once more, waiting patiently, a unique stretch of time in which there was no urgency, Sasuke reached for his cup of tea, and gradually nursed it as Sakura came to a conclusion. Their destination was unimportant. In his travels on his own, he simply had followed intel that suggested trouble had been brewing, trying to find redemption in putting his skills to use, anything from the mundane, chasing down thieves, to the more severe, such as preventing assassinations. Now it was about something more defined, something somehow both simple and complex. And as he stated before, he would follow her wherever she lead him, no matter what awaited them. Right now, however, he was merely content to await her direction by sharing in her presence.

At the sound of her voice, his gaze slowly drifted back to her own, and he gently placed his cup down. Once more, he was stricken by how far she had come, and it did not escape him how the dynamics between them were changing. The Land of Wind. She seemed confident, sure of herself. That alone made him smile his smile that could barely be called such, yet it was an expression he had hardly ever wore, and that thought hummed underneath his subconscious.

He agreed with a hm and small nod. "I'll send out a few hawks. They'll be back by sunrise. And if you're ready..." He drug his backpack closer, making the sword tied across its side clatter in its sheath, and slung a strap over his shoulder. Standing, he reached over the table to carefully gather her belongings, mindful of her, and after settling back on his side, held the bag within his hand. The slightest trace of amusement shone within his dark eyes, yet their was intention behind the gesture, a declaration of sorts. "I suggest we get some rest."


Sakura rose from her seat. She had watched Sasuke gather her things with something akin to wonder, and for a moment they just stood in the room, the low table between them, looking at each other.

For a person watching them from the outside, that scene must have looked peculiar - a stale mate, of sorts, the air heavy with implications that went unsaid but lingered, even as Sakura shifted her weight, raising a hand to cover her mouth as a delighted laugh escaped her.

Such an everyday action, one would think, but for Sasuke it was so very outlandish, so sweet, and it stirred an irrational fondness in her, woven with relief and amusement. They hadn’t needed that many words, after all; at least for now, it seemed that respite lay in their gestures, the words that went unsaid and that she, strangely enough, began to form in her head regardless.

„Yes, I think we should.“

She didn’t trust herself to say more, but then the innkeeper stepped up to them once again, and with some short instructions she lead them to the quarters, separated by a whole floor.

Later in the night, after she had watched Sasuke climb the stairs to his room, after she had bathed to wash the road from her skin, luxuriating in the opportunity to wash her hair and rub her ankles clean, she lay in the bedspread among three others, eyes wide open and glistening in the moonlight that fell through a crack in the gliding door.

Of all the things, she thought of his hand and its grip on the handle of her backpack. He had slim fingers and pale knuckles, tiny pale scars like art on even paler skin. He had become a myth to her, somewhere along the way, a creature as elusive as the moonlight, cool and untouchable. To observe him, see the struggle of his own emotions flicker across his face, to see humor of all things in his eyes … to see him taking care of her, or something that belonged to her …

Sakura’s eyes fell closed at some point, but the fluttering, quickened beat of her heart followed her into sleep, until her breaths evened out. When she woke the next morning, the sickness she had felt for days had vanished, and she stepped out into the chill of dawn, dew catching on her toes. Her backpack stood in the entrance way, ready to be laden with the bentos the innkeeper was currently preparing. They could take a quick breakfast here, and then head out before the sun had fully risen.

Her eyes travelled the horizon for a sign of Sasuke’s messengers. She couldn’t wait for them to be on their way.


[Insert Clever Line Here]
Sleep never came naturally to Sasuke, ever elusive like a ghost in his peripheral, haunting and overbearing. Trapped in the small room among strangers, it became difficult for him to will himself to drift off, a part of his mind wary to make himself vulnerable. Yet as drowsiness won over, his conscious slipping over into another world of his own making, he found he was able to rest with a rare peacefulness; the shadows that were a common invader to his dreams dispersed, for once, longer than a time he could remember, letting the surface of the waters of his mind remain calm and still.

He awoke before dawn broke with the faint memory of soft green eyes lingering behind his half-open lids. It took more effort than he expected to force himself to his feet, shaking off lingering remnants from the dreamworld, and prepare himself for the day. After dressing and gathering up his belongings, he slipped downstairs, footsteps kept habitually silent from years of training. His intention had been to check to see if his scouts had yet to return--he had sent them out before retiring for the night, after a quick bath to wash away the day's grime--but before he could step outside, the innkeep, apparently still possessing keen perception in her old age, halted him before he could do so.

A quick and quite one-sided conversation later, during which the only word Sasuke offered was a "thanks" near the end, he had retrieved the bentos she had prepared for them, along with a small breakfast to set them off. With these items piled onto a tray balanced precisely on his arm, he was forced to slide the door leading out onto the porch open with his foot.

The air was cool and smelled distinctly of morning, buzzing with the quiet, harmonic sounds of nature slowly stretching its arms to greet the new day. Spotting Sakura, he kneeled down next to her to carefully place the tray between them, an obvious expression of relief that he didn't drop anything flashing across his features, before shrugging off his backpack and taking a seat.

"Sleep well?" His eyes drifted slowly from her to look into the distance, being drawn by the sound of a caw. He spotted the hawk quickly, its wings carrying the first rays of sunlight, and held out his arm as it neared. One of three. Two had been sent to scout out the main paths leading into the Land of Rain; the third was headed further into the Land of Wind. The first of his messengers landed squarely on his arm, large wings tucked into its side.

He tilted his head in her direction, a clear indication that he was listening for her answer, even as he closed his eyes. Glimpses of the hawk's flight flashed before him within his mind, and just as he had expected, the way was calm, nothing out of the ordinary. Opening his eyes once more, he gently tossed his arm up, and the bird fluttered its wings as it jumped into the air, flying overhead for a few moments before disappearing into a cloud of smoke upon its dismissal.


When Sasuke approached, he did so almost without a sound. His footsteps were silent, there was no distinct rustling of clothes. Naruto never bothered to conceal his presence, neither did most of the other shinobi inside the walls of Konoha. But her senses were trained on her companion, and a fine tingle of china gave him away in the end. When he reached her, she moved her head from the distant mountain range bathed in golden sunlight, to look up at him. The sight of Sasuke, balancing the tray with his eyebrows drawn in concentration, brought a smile to her face.

Adorable, she thought and immediately knew she could never, under no circumstances, share this information with him - or anybody else, for that matter. Slightly flushed but smiling, she dropped her gaze to the bowls of rice and miso soup. Looking too long at that unguarded expression on his face, that made him look young and vulnerable, was not a good idea. It confused her when she wanted to be clear-headed.

The arrival of the bird, landing so majestically on Sasuke's arm, provided a suitable distraction. She waited a moment to gauge his level of concentration, then answered easily in the affirmative, voice light but a little sleep-rough. She busied herself by managing the servings of breakfast, readying chopsticks for them and pouring cups of strong, steaming black tea. She took one of the cups at the rim, blowing away the steam before taking a sip.

Birdsong from the nearby tree accompanied the rustling of leaves in the light wind. It promised to be a pleasant day. She said: "You're up later than usual. Does this mean you got some sleep, too?"


[Insert Clever Line Here]
Her question was simple.

Sasuke inhaled to take in the scent of the morning, to share in a tranquilness that had been missing from his life for such a long, undefinable stretch of time. How long had it been since he'd simply had a moment to stop, to take in the world around him, to just rest? His dark eyes traveled over the mountain range, following the path his bird had flown in, before drifting to take in her expression, the soft features of her face that drew him in more deeply than the serene landscape before him.

So simple.

On the exhale, he gave her a simple, small 'mm' in affirmation, not being able to help how his lips twitched upwards for the briefest of moments.

The last days he had slept in, he expected, were when he was less than a year-old, before time became a luxury he could not waste, before his memories were tainted by regret and pain. To think he had managed to do so now, in unknown territory, among strangers, simply because--Even Naruto could've realized what, who, was the cause.

The second hawk appeared on the horizon, soaring toward its master. As he had done for the first, Sasuke once more held out his arm, refraining from flinching as talons dug into his sleeve, so used to the sensation he was. After retrieving the bird's memories, which were much the same as the first, he released it into the air, before reaching over to retrieve a portion of breakfast, balancing the bowl on his leg. Expecting the last to take longer to return, he figured he had time to eat.

"The roads to Amegakure are clear," he relayed the information to her. "The last I sent ahead into Wind."


How easy it was to sit beside him right now. She didn't know if this was caused by their exchange of the previous evening, or the fresh air that stung a little when she drew in deep breaths into her nose, with a chill causing goose-bumps on the exposed skin of her arms and legs. Or maybe it was the sweet sound of rustling leaves, whispering of home, of peace. Maybe it was the way Sasuke was eating beside her, the set of his shoulders lacking a tension she only knew had been there now it was gone.

Maybe it was the strong tea that also woke her spirits, the rice she devoured with much more appetite than she did the ramen the night before.

She nodded, her eyes scanning the horizon for the last of the hawks. She made a motion as if to turn herself more fully to him. For a moment, though, hesitation pulled at the strings of her resolve, dreading to shutter the ease of her responses. She pushes past it, for now, and asked, the clear tilt of curiosity in her tone: "How do you do it? Communicating with them, I mean."

She moved her head to the spot where both hawk's had vanished. She wouldn't have dared to ask him this question only a few hours ago. Yesterday morning, she had woken up to a feeling of dread, apparent in every one of her movements and the stolen glimpses of his face. But she had the map under her fingertips now, and somehow, it made everything easier.


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Sasuke noticed her shift toward him out of the corner of his eye, the hesitation that came before, as if it had first been a subconscious action, then, having caught herself in the motion, part of her wanted to stop it completely. It was to be expected, he told himself, even as a feeling of guilt drifted coldly down his spine like a harsh call to reality. She shouldn't be at ease around him, not when he had tried to--

He closed his eyes, full stopping his thoughts before they could fully take form. Perhaps it was selfish, but he didn't want to deprive himself of this fleeting frame of time, during which he wasn't thinking about the past, but simply enjoying her presence now, in the moment.

At her question, he slowly lifted his lids, turning his gaze back toward her to study her face. It took a second to register what she had asked, and the look behind his eyes become a bit softer as he mulled over a way to explain the jutsu.

"Images," he said at last, and he found the invitation to conversation welcoming, while, as the poor innkeeper knew all too well, he would've found anyone else's to be but an annoyance. "Due to our contract, when one lands on me, I'm able to draw out their chakra, accessing memories of what they've seen. If I need to give a command, I transfer images to them, to guide them along their way."

He paused, searching her face with consideration, before making the offer, "I can show you, if you'd like."
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She listened to him with a look of concentration, searching her mind for the jutsu he was describing. She had read a great amount of books, had always been naturally studious when her head hadn't been in the clouds, and continued to do so now. Tsunado-shishou always commended her extra efforts, which had spurred her own even more. While Naruto had steeled his body, she had expanded her horizon. Knowledge, she had figured, would be her tool to carving a way towards Sasuke, and it was only after the war she began to concentrate her efforts fully to the medical field.

Yet, she had never heard of a jutsu like that. A mind-transferring technique like the Yamanka used, but that was a kekkei genkai, nothing that could be learned. And it was itemized for interrogation purposes, not the communication with animals.

At his offer, her eyes grew wide. For a moment she forgot her inhibitions, and the childlike need to learn, a skill in its own right that she had deliberately honed in her years with Tsunade, won over. "I- I would like that very much."

For a moment, she looked down on the bowl of rice in her hand, not entirely sure if he would welcome more words. She had learned that her propensity for chatter - a useless mechanism with the intention to engage him in their genin days - was overbearing to him, and it made her vulnerable to sharp words, left her open for his sarcasm to cut deep. But the outlook of learning about such an intriguing jutsu was too great as to let her anxiety take the better of her.

"It sounds amazing. The jutsu works on grounds of telepathy, right? Is it linked to your summoning contract?" Her eyes grew wide at the prospect. "Or can you use it on other living organisms, too?"


[Insert Clever Line Here]
That look of attentiveness drawn across her face, so ready to absorb any drop of knowledge she could gather, made Sasuke's own expression soften. While he had always solely been focused on getting stronger--he supposed Naruto, to an extent, as well-- with little time to waste, in his opinion, on pointless theory, she had always wanted to expand her her horizons, to understand how a jutsu worked instead of just concentrating on trying to make it work. He found there was something pure in that desire of hers, and with a slight tilt of his chin, a small smile tugging at the edge of his lips, he gave her a nod in confirmation.

Setting his bowl aside, he first stood to travel to his bag. Rummaging through it for a moment, he retrieved a wristguard before returning, this time taking a seat facing her, without the tray between them. With deliberate movements, he reached out to gently extend her arm toward him, so that he could place the guard against her wrist, and with dexterity, strap it into place. While he was at this point used to his birds' talons, he often ended up with deep scratches due to miscalculated landings, and certainly didn't want to risk hurting her.

A simple 'Mm' was the answer to her first question, mostly because, since he had always been focused on practice, the theory escaped him. "The images are like suggestions, so the contract obliges the hawks to obey. The transferring of those images: it helps that they're rather--" He paused, searching for the word. "--simple. I doubt I'd ever be able pull it off with a human, or even a summoning animal with distinct, conscious thought." Another pause. He couldn't stop the slight spread of a grin across his lips, or the amusement that sparked against the dark flint of his eyes. "Perhaps it'd work with Naruto."

The expression faded slowly, however, as he became aware that the last of his messengers had yet to arrive. Throwing a quick look over his shoulder to scan the skies, he felt the first tinge of a warning at the back of his mind, before he turned his attention back onto her.

"Here." Biting into his thumb to draw a drip of blood, he quickly made a few one-handed seals, before placing his palm against the porch. A cloud of smoke appeared, and as he removed his hand, one of his birds was left in its place. Being the one to have just been dismissed, it seemingly looked at them both in confusion, letting out a questioning caw. Yet at the snap of Sasuke's fingers and a tap against the wristguard, the hawk followed direction, jumping onto Sakura's arm with a small flutter of its wings. "Try it."


Sakura watched his face as he applied the wristguard. His movements were confident. She could not remember the last time she had been so close to him. Under his brushing fingertips was the odd sensation of fizzling chakra. This time she was sure that she didn't imagine it.

She listened attentively, storing away the information for later consideration. She would have to consult a library, and maybe talk to Ino about it.

At his slight at Naruto she stared a moment, than burst out into a soft giggle, that was as much amusement as it was a release of some inner tension. The feeling wasn't necessarily a bad one, more like anticipation and stage fright rolled into one. His attention of her was such a foreign sensation, hard to handle and even harder now that he seemed so invested, so open to the idea to share with her one of his abilities.

Haruno, you can't mess this up.

The little voice in her head sounded eerily like Ino. She could just see her, expression one of angry determination, cheering from the sidelines.

She closed her eyes for a moment, holding up her arm in expectation. She breathed through her nose. Get a grip, she told herself. You have nothing to proof.

Her eyes flew open as the hawk landed on her outstretched forearm, and she blinked at the shiny plumage so close to her face. It was beautiful, as was the bend of its imposing peak and the black round eye that was watching her.

She threw Sasuke an uncertain look. How? it asked, her attention back on the animal a moment later. It sat docile and patient on her arm. Carefully, she gathered a bit of chakra, pulled from her reserves and formed it into a steady stream, channeling it into her arm like a suggestion to the bird. Is that how it works?, it seemed to say. Sasuke had spoken about images, so she pictured it, the tree on the other end of the veranda, with it's green leafs that reminded her of home. She closed her eyes again to picture it in her mind, rather than just to look at it. She pushed the picture outward, not knowing at all if what she was doing was nonsense or not.

That thick branch near the crown, it must be inviting for any kind of bird. Wouldn't it be a joy to snatch some of the tofu on Sasuke's half-eaten rice bowl and then fly over there to sit, and watch, and enjoy the tranquility of the morning, the knowledge of a job very well done? The chakra in her arm pulsed in the tiniest of pushes, not a command by far but rather a suggestion, an if you may and an I would be grateful. In the meantime, her heart hammered away in her chest, but she kept her nervous energy at bay for the bird's sake. She was determined to come across as polite but assertive. She just hoped with all her heart that she wasn't making a fool of herself.


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Sasuke watched and waited patiently, studying Sakura with a calm gaze. There was no doubt in his mind that she would be able to grasp the technique quickly; most of it revolved around precise chakra control, and time after time again she had proven to be the most capable of their team in regards to directing her energy flow. Again, he was reminded of their first real mission together, and the distant memory brought that mixture of sadness tinged with reminiscent longing to the surface of his eyes, before it drifted into the depths of his subconscious.

At first, he showed no surprise as the hawk jumped into the air. No, he was busy smirking with approval, confident in her ability to learn how to execute this jutsu quickly, yet then he realized that the bird wasn't exactly taking flight; it was diving. His messenger hopped across his lap so suddenly it wiped the smirk completely from his lips, and in its wake, it firmly broke his composure, leaving a look of disbelief painted across his face.

The hawk continued to skid across the tray, knocking over a cup of tea as it came to a stop that could almost be heard in the screeching of its talons against the metal. Cawing, as if to mock him, Sasuke thought bitterly, it stole a piece of tofu, tucking the food away in its beak, before it flapped its wings once more. A breath later, the bird was in the air, soaring across the veranda to perch comfortably upon a branch. The hawk seemingly watched its master with intent as it gulped down the bit of tofu it had so ungraciously claimed.

Sasuke stared at it with his eyes narrowed, considering how quickly he could throw a shuriken, and if the little shit would have just enough time to get out of the way. An exhalation of air later, he let it go.

Turning his attention back to Sakura, he offered her a small, proud smile. "It's useful for scouting, as it's also possible to draw from the creature's memories in the same fashion."

He felt the air around him shift, heard the rustling of feathers behind him, just to his left.

Quickly, he extended his arm, blocking the hawk, who had apparently returned for more tofu, from its path to the tray. The bird pulled its wings back, retreating to hover in the air, before landing back on Sakura's arm. As if for protection. With an almost daring and smug look in its beady eyes. Sasuke swore it was enjoying this.

"Mm. And it seems that one has taken a liking to you."


Sakura was delighted when the execution of the jutsu not only turned out to be much easier than expected, but worked much more smoothly than she could have hoped. She gave a little cheer as the hawk landed on the designated branch, and another one when it came back to her, talons buried so deep into her wristguard that she wondered how Sasuke could stand this on bare skin.

She extended her index finger, careful to communicate her intention before she stroke the bird's tiny head. Joy thrummed through her like the chakra she had summoned for the jutsu - thank you.

She turned to Sasuke with her cheeks aching from the big smile on her face. A hint of mischief sparkled in her eyes. She found it hard not to laugh at the memory of the stunned look on his face when the hawk went for the food, so her voice quivered slightly when she said: "He is very well trained." Like a praise, because it had been Sasuke's idea for her to try the jutsu, after all, and his leadership that made the bird so docile.

She reached out to clear up the mess on the tray. She had the tiny urge to reward the hawk's good behaviour with another bite of tofu it so clearly wanted, but hadn't missed Sasuke's clear rebuttal a minute ago. She didn't want to overstep her boundaries, well aware that the euphoria of the success and the lightness between them would diminish, that this was not like spending time with her friends back in Konoha, were every slip-up and jest was in good humor and easily forgotten. It took a moment to bring this back to the forefront of her mind; Sasuke didn't appreciate exuberance. Sasuke wasn't like Ino, or Naruto or even Sai.

Her smile diminished. She was glad. She needed to keep a cool head. Above all, she needed to never forget the line between them, like a hard border that, even if she wanted it gone, would never vanish.

She raised her eyes. The sun had risen quite a bit further. Behind them, other tenants began to rise - from their spot they could hear the clatter of chopsticks, the quiet conversations of strangers.

"The other hawk ...", she began, suddenly worried. "Isn't it supposed to be back by now?"


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That smile. Something about it pulled at him like he was attached to strings, unable to help himself from returning the expression, even if it was just a shadow of the original. Watching as the hawk nuzzled its beak against her finger, Sasuke gave his head a small shake, exhaling a huff of air that might've been a chuckle with more effort. "Heh, he certainly acts that way, doesn't he?" About as well trained as Naruto.

It was hard for him to miss the subtle change in the atmosphere between them, how that ever present storm cloud that seemed to haunt their conversations, shrouding their interactions with doubt and uncertainty, loomed overhead. As her smile faded, so did his own. There was a natural tension in his body that followed, from another sharp dose of reality that ran through his blood like shrapnels of ice, serving a reminder of what he was, and he couldn't shake it. Then that instilled, memorized, all-consuming compulsion to break contact with his downcast eyes forced him to look downward, and as a reaction, he busied himself with gathering up the tray.

The other hawk...isn't it supposed to be back by now?

Standing, he stole a look in the distance, eyes trailing over the horizon. Another warning went off in the back of his mind, making his jaw tighten.

"Could be nothing," he said. Delayed by a sandstorm, maybe. Perhaps even lost to a predator. Yet the tension in his shoulders only became more intense, and his senses were already becoming hypervigilant.

Carrying the tray back inside the inn, his return outside saw him kneeling down next to his backpack. "I suggest we continue on, but we should be aware of our surroundings as we near the Land of Wind. If that is still your wish." With aid from his teeth, he untied his sword from his bag, and fastened the sheath around his back, underneath his cloak. With a small grunt, he slung his pack over his shoulder, before looking at hers.

Blinking, he felt the tension tearing at his muscles weaken just so, as he reminded himself what this journey was about. Small steps. Another grunt saw him tossing her bag over his own, onto his back. While he would need to ditch the extra weight if anything were to happen, he was determined to show her he had meant it when he had put that map into her hands.


As Sasuke returned the tray, Sakura dismissed the hawk with a last gentle stroke. She unzipped the wristguard, holding it out to him when he returned.

"Sure. I just hope your summons is al .... right ..." She trailed off as she watched him shouldering her backpack. With sudden heat in her cheeks, she felt a weird concoction of contradicting feelings rise. The most pronounced was warmth like a healing jutsu applied to her stomach, curling its way up into her sternum. Her heart pounded heavier, all of a sudden, as if the muscle shrouded in such emotion had become more distinct, more profound - a living metaphor fluttering away in her heart.

She turned around, hard, hands clenched into fists as she stared at her feet. Forcing herself to breath through the nose, she stood like that for a moment, allowing only a single thought in her head: no.

A string of no's that were to stomp this inkling of her treacherous heart. She would not allow herself to feel that way in his presence, would not resort to old follies. Instead, as the only means for rescue, she let anger wash over her, as it was near at hand, easy to grasp like a lifebelt. She spun around, hands on her hips.

"I won't have you carry my backpack", she said, but her voice wasn't aggressive, not exactly. It came as a surprise to even herself to hear the only half-serious indignation in it, the scolding tone in which she might have talked to Naruto - but never to Sasuke. "You know that it's unpractical and unreasonable when I'm perfectly capable of carrying it myself. If I'm in charge on our journey to Wind, I won't accept such behavior." With a huff, a sideways glance, she added: "I'm not Kakashi."
Referring to that one mission they did, months before the chunin exams but weeks after Wave: Providing protection for a group of merchants and, after the mules gave out on their way up the steepest mountain twelve-year-old Sakura had ever climbed, finding themselves laden with pack upon pack, item upon item of stuff - furs, parcels, carpets. Naruto had actually carried an armchair. All the while Kakashi had been strolling along beside them, nose buried in his perverted book, muttering something about character building exercise.

So she held out her hand, gaze still averted. And in a voice barely above a whisper: "But thank you."


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That stance. That tone.

Sasuke felt an odd sensation, like an alarm ringing suddenly in his head. What was this feeling slowly creeping down his spine? Panic? Fear? He recognized that posture; her fingers curling inward to bare her knuckles, as if she was readying to—

Was that a bead of sweat dripping down his neck?

--punch something.

Or someone.

He was suddenly, distinctly reminded of the times she had clocked Naruto; images of the knucklehead ninja flying through the sky flashed before his eyes, followed by ones of craters left behind by Sakura’s punch, thanks to her training with Tsunade. Overlaying those images, like sound from a radio bursting with occasional static, was a conversation he had with Naruto before their departure from Konoha: ‘Just don’t make her mad. Her new record for slugging me is 387 meters.’

Another oddity: a lump was beginning to form in the back of his throat.

He stood locked in his place, trying to keep his gaze expressionless, as he internally raced for a way to diffuse the situation. Would forcing a smile help, or just make things worse? He supposed he could just hand the pack over. In the background, he was also formulating an escape plan. He could expend a mass of his chakra to use the Rinnegan’s teleportation; if only the troublesome hawk was still around, he could kill two birds with one stone, so to speak. Yet there was also the inn to consider; while the innkeeper had irked him with her inability to take a hint, he didn’t want her livelihood to suddenly be ruined with a smash of a fist.

She held out her hand, and he couldn’t help but flinch; the slight shove of his right foot backwards, the tensing of his shoulders from the brief sense of sudden doom, the way his brows twitched for the shortest of moments: all were subtle and easily missed, but they were there.

An exhalation of air that he hadn’t noticed he was holding was automatically released at her thanks, and he felt relief wash over him like a welcomed summer shower. With a clear mind, he was able to appreciate her words, and as a gesture of good faith, lowered his head. “No, I’m sorry.” Shrugging off her backpack, he offered it to her, before readjusting his own, and gently swung out his arm in a gesture that invited her to lead the way.

Though they had sailed through the stormy waters, part of her words still resonated.

I’m not Kakashi.

It started as a thought, a curiosity. Tilting his head just so in consideration, he studied her with contemplation. She was now a Jonin and had certainly earned the rank. She also possessed an uncanny capability for tactics, had become a formable shinobi, was unmatched in medical ninjutsu, and she was a genuinely good-natured individual, selfless in her actions.

“Have you considered it?” He found himself asking the question without realization that he was doing so. Too far in to retreat, he settled on clarifying, “Becoming a sensei, I mean.”

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