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Sticks and leaves burst over the spillway, carried by the force of the water behind. Sun was strong today: it was probably the last of the snow melting on the cold mountains up north. Once the wind turned cold, there was no going back to the hot summer. Summer would come again next year—an eternal cycle.

Judging by the bitterness of the wind, autumn had come early and winter would be harsh this time. Konoha higher ups would have their work cut out for them. Crops died, some wilted, and the rice produced no grain. The fields they made to sustain themselves if the burden of war and famine was upon them—that was a dead end.

They would just have to beg before the Daimyō to give them funds for more supplies. Tsunade's reign was going smoothly, but it was not as if she could control weather.

He found it hard to stand still against the wind, his feet firm on the ground. The wind turned so cold at night and gained speed and muscle. Leaves blew and shushed and swayed; it created such a loud dissonance of sounds around him.

Dark clouds divided, wind lost its strength suddenly, and a glare of the half-moon bathed the lake. Choppy combers on the silent surface rolled in and made a dull sound that came throbbing through the trees. He could barely hear it. Standing before the meadow, he gazed, mesmerized, at the delicate stems that burrowed out of the ground. The petals opened. There were so many. He took out his Sharingan, but it was impossible to count them all.

They shone like chariots, trying desperately to catch the slivers of white light. Above them fluttered those autumn moths: they were purple, too, with circular black lines painted by nature to create an odd eye-shape upon their wings.

He moved his head back and caught sight of one fluttering just overhead. He moved swiftly; it tried to flutter away on a current with such haste, but he was too fast. With a single leap, he grabbed it out of the air. It struggled with near futile attempts to get out from between his fingers. He stared down at it with a curious disposition as though it aroused something in him, something long forgotten and old.

"Still chasing moths, huh?" Naruto asked as he appeared from the shadows of the trees to the right. "They're waiting ahead for the mission."

Sasuke let the moth go, face as cold as the wind. He did not say anything and started walking ahead.

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Incense and mist laden air . . . that was all he could see and smell. Without his Clan's gift, it was a vulgar suasion to entice the flesh. He did not enjoy coming here, not unless it became a necessity for his own flesh: it was a slave to few things; he never denied that. He fed it when it was starved and bore the bouts of a delightful sensation, an itch, as he trained it daily to wait for the melody to rise within him to a crescendo. Then the release was . . . almost sweet.

He felt pride in the fact that he had conquered his flesh, his worst enemy, tamed it on his own terms; and the man struck the gong, a wordless song blasting in their direction. Harlots swathed in red decadence glided over to the centre, their hair inky in the white light spilling from overhead.

The drum pounded. Louder. Louder. Then the sound vanished, absorbed by the walls that drank it greedily. They just could not wear the blush of a drunkard upon their facades. They stood silent, watching, listening, sleeping.

The harlots leant over, and their pliant backs formed an arch like a taut bow. Runnels of sweat ran between their breasts, squeezed together, spilling over from between the collars of their kimonos. They folded into a sudden dance: hips swaying, hair whipping, patient feet kicking up the small amount of earth there; and then they stamped it down and sank to their ankles in the soft ground. It was a cheap trick of the Doton users in the near vicinity. A Genin could produce the same results, but this was not about the child soldiers: it was about moulding the flesh into the demanding form of desire.

Men sat idle upon the mats all around, eyes watching the rippling young flesh, mouth slavering at the corners. Their wait was a test of patience, their pockets full of coins—buyers and chattel. As long as there was a buyer, every willing body was bought. It just had to yield to their demands, cringe with servility.

A soft sigh passed his lips, and the mist parted in the exhalation. Next to him, his shy subordinate was sitting with his head bowed. He did not want to lay his eyes upon the enticing temptation. He was married with a child, and his vows mattered to him, though the vulgar moans spilling unabated from plump lips were testing his resolve and loins.

The women turned on their heels fluidly, and their shadows ran about the room. Bits of earth floated up and went away. Water rose up in its place and soaked through the silk garments; their sartorial brilliance was rendered almost obscene. Cheap. You would not need a Sharingan to see their inviting miens, the sweet sheen of their skin, and the flare of their thighs and tight buttocks. That drew such excited groans from a few men. They had already decided to spill between their thighs tonight.

With arms held loose along their sides, they let the Kimonos fall down to their waists, revealing pretty, corpulent breasts and flushed skins—tight crests beaded with pearly drops of sweat and water. It was such a show for wanting eyes and heated groins that throbbed with anticipation. Then they jerked their heads back, and the hair flew behind them, lashing their spines like whips and propelling the water away from their red prints—red against white. And now his Sharingan flickered to life and counted the drops in the lull only his eyes could grant him.

They floated there around the blushing skin, falling slowly . . . slowly down through the mist, making little holes in the faint light from the lantern that had suddenly turned purple and then light grey around the edges. Mist fluttered there like the wings of an autumn moth. Stone-cold chill went through his skin and rippled there the way the air was disturbed by their chaotic dance; it overpowered the red, cooled it down, and it went to sleep again, enjoying its slumber.

The drums beat louder and louder and louder, reaching a frenzied crescendo of music. The distorted voices from men sounded as though they were chanting in a choir. His head was pounding, and he rose the glass to the lips and took a little sip to cool his temple. He sighed and the drumming sound rose in answer; and the dancers' song reached a high wail and then sank back to a low moan. The music ebbed away into a kind of comforting silence he welcomed.

The girls-in-red scampered away laughing into the shadows behind the partition screens, and the light overhead turned white again. A drunkard tried to grab one girl's leg but missed and fell face first to the wooden floor. The floor stopped moving and the music rose with an exquisite and resonant chord again.

He took another sip. The spectacle was over. Mist cleared the area, and the good aristocrats showed approval in a politely efficient manner, with faint gestures of their soft hands and well-mannered smiles. Clever raconteurs.

A woman clad in such a dazzling kimono emerged from behind the richly painted partition-screen: it had a scene of battle upon one corner and a wild storm upon the other. He thought it looked so odd for such a place. It was probably a gift from a wealthy customer. Shadows of girls and men slithered cross its rippling surface.

The woman daintily crossed the room, a fan held tightly in her right hand. Bowing lowly, she settled herself down before him and pulled out a scroll from her sleeve. A smile forced itself onto her red-painted lips; they were like a stain of blood upon her powdered face.

"Uchiha-Sama," she spoke in a lilting voice, "they used the caves."

She held out the scroll and he took it from her hand. This would do. He rose to his feet, and his subordinate scrambled to stand up as though he had been knocked over by a heavy blow.

She bowed again and placed her forehead and hands on the floor. "You aren't staying, Uchiha-Sama?" she asked, but when no reply came from him, she spoke again, more sweetly this time, "I shall give the money to Hanakoto-San. Have a safe journey."

She wore his shadow for a few seconds as it got dragged off her body. Finally, it disappeared from upon her, and she raised her head and shoulders, breathing in such a loud sigh as if an impossible burthen had been lifted from her body . . .

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It was raining cats and dogs, the sounds so loud that she could not even hear herself think. Rain cascaded down and spun a grey veil across the vast forest. Rain fell off the rocks and trees in sheets, like a gauzy curtain. Her young muscles rippled as she ran behind her team, green eyes barely able to keep track of them in front.

Sasuke stopped suddenly and took refuge behind the thick tree-bark—its texture was rough and wet—that scraped against his bare right hand. His Sharingan was out, glowing like danger on his face. The branches overhead had reached out and intertwined into a tangled mess, but Sakura could still feel the cool lash of rain on her skin. Heavy rain and wind pushed at her from behind as if trying to get her flat down. She pressed herself flat against the tree and hid behind it when she saw Sasuke flick his fingers to signal Neji to go right.

It was a race against time to catch the Rock spies before they took off with the stolen scrolls. Tired and exhausted, they had hidden in a cave ahead. It was now or never. Chakra fizzled around Sasuke's right hand and turned into Chidori: it stretched out five meters ahead of him, and a bloodcurdling scream tore through the misty morn and shot out of the mouth of the cave. The sound progressed into a gruesome shriek and, suddenly, died out. The man was probably dead.

Standing stiff and alert behind the tree, Sakura could see nothing—she did not have Sasuke's unmatched foresight or Neji's ability to cover a vast span of distance in a heartbeat. She was ordinary. Her skills were something she had made for herself. She was not born privileged. Little by little, she had honed herself into an exceptional Medic, but it was difficult to please Sasuke . . . he always nitpicked about everything she did. It was almost childish, this odd side of his character to demand perfection in the tasks he gave her. He was never fair, not to her.

Steps, so many of them, sloshed through water, and she shrank into the ground to avoid any attack sent her way. She was a medic. Sasuke had asked her to stay hidden. She was going to listen this time and avoid the lash of his scathing tongue. Rain filled her green eyes and ears. She had one hand in the mud to keep herself steady as she wiped her eyes and face on the back of her hand. The noises, the screams . . . they were drowned out by the wind and rain.

Sakura's eyes skittered across the area and then to Sasuke as he casually clashed with seven ninjas. Blood flew into the air and quickly disappeared under the heavy rain. The men screamed. A few more cuts, a few deep slashes through the sides, tearing through muscles, and they were dead—all of them. He did not even have his Sharingan out. A smug expression was on his face. Something she was so familiar with. Something she intimately resented.

A loud sound distracted her, and she twisted her neck to look back at the noise Naruto was making; he had gotten so well at making Rasengan with a single hand over the past few months. It took him years to amass enough experience out of his clones to manage that. He shouted silly things, sounded off so many childish obscenities as he slammed it into the gut of the unsuspecting ninja in front. It drilled into his skin and sent him flying back.

Two of his clones grabbed one of their injured fellow teammates and carried him out of the fray. Sakura looked on through the sheets of rain to Sasuke clashing with another ninja in a manner as if he was playing with him. He could be so cruel, so sadistic sometimes. Her eyes were unable to see his face clearly; it was enshrouded by dim shadows of the trees and the heavy fall of rain between them.

Slowly, Sakura raised herself to her shaky feet. Biting cold was pressing in on her body; a cool wave raced through her, and her heart deliciously fluttered in response to warm her body. Harsh sounds of metal against metal were jarring—the motions of the Shinobis' sword dance slow. Sasuke was just playing around. He cut here and there and then flashed to the back and kicked the man forward, sending him crashing into the mud.

The man was livid. Embarrassed. He clenched his teeth, raised that sword high, and charged, only to be shown the same courtesy again. His face was flat in the mud this time. Sasuke placed his sandal on his back and slammed him back down as he tried to get up. He was too weak to get away as he helplessly wriggled there like a fish out of water. It was a bit odd to see Sasuke draw amusement out of something so silly.

Her eyes roamed to the left to gaze upon Neji. He was a skilled shinobi. His swiftness and speed always amazed her. He was no Sasuke, but he was the second fastest shinobi on all the squads. His fingers jabbed into the joints like bolts of lightning and felled the ninjas one after another. He sent the men sprawling to the muddy ground, and few crashed helplessly into the trees around him.

Sakura was still looking when muddy hands grabbed at her throat and lifted her off the ground. Her eyes opened wide and turned to terror; her feet shook violently, unable to find purchase on the ground. The pressure was building around her throat. Sakura's eyes rolled back into her head and her throat spasmed violently. Her lungs burnt. She reached up and grabbed the man's wrist, and releasing chakra into her hand, she crushed it completely. He let out a choked scream and faltered, and she slipped down from his death-hold. That was all she needed. She pushed back, slamming her back against the tree to dislodge her attacker.

His powerful grip slackened and Sakura twisted away and spun around. Her fist flew in his direction. He was still quite fast as he ducked and avoided her attack. The tight, trembling fist slammed into the tree and tore clean through. The broken bark crackled, swayed, and then toppled over to the left. She jumped back when his sword slashed through the air. He suddenly stopped. There was a glint in his eyes. He opened his hand and the sword fell down. With such inhuman swiftness, he opened his jacket and terror washed over her: so many explosive tags were stuck to his breast and they were about to explode!

Sakura flashed back but it was not enough. Her mouth opened wide to let out a loud scream. That was when she felt someone grab her and flash away. The tags exploded; she could not see a thing, just a flash of blinding light. She got knocked out of the air and crashed into the mud, rolling on the ground and hugging her hand to her chest. Mud was on her face, her head, and matted on her hair and her entire left side.

Slowly, she pulled her head up and saw Sasuke standing before her, with his wispy Susanoo out. Its rib-cage took the force of the explosion and cracked a little, pushing him back as his sandals slipped in the mud; but he held his ground, with his hands raised high, as the aura swirled before him and expanded wide to stop the heat of the fire.

Her breaths were loud and quick, and her heart beat madly. She was sweating despite the chill of the rain. She straightened her torso and lifted herself up on her elbows and looked back. Neji stood with Naruto and two other ninjas behind her. His jacket was in tatters, and he held onto an injured Naruto.

Sakura looked back to Sasuke again, and her eyes travelled over his back and the bleeding arm. A thin, spiky rock was stuck in his lower arm, and fresh blood was flowing down his white elbow. At last, the shockwave passed and the spray of rain returned. The heat was gone. Rain cooled the hot air around them. He pulled his hands down, and the Susanoo disappeared like a ghost before him.

His expression was guarded as he turned around and pulled the rock out, leaving a deep hole in his arm. He looked down and his face changed his time. "I thought I told you to keep watch. What were you doing? You could've gotten everyone killed," he said, his voice venomous and sharp.

Sakura coughed, and her fingers reached up to touch her bruised throat. "Someone grabbed me from behind. I didn't—"

"You better pray it doesn't happen again, Sakura. I will send you home for disobeying me next time," he said in anger and walked away just like that.

Warm blood rose to her cheeks and she felt humiliated. She slowly rose to her feet and watched as he left all of them standing in the rain. She pulled her eyes away, distraught.

Night came and stars wheeled across the sky. The mission was over, but Sasuke's work was far from done. He sat alone in his office, skimming through the details of the mission. They had to chase Rock spies disguised as bandits and retrieve an official scroll in their possession. They stole it straight from the office by making a network of tunnels underneath the heavily guarded security department.

They were right under their noses the whole time, and no one saw it coming. If Neji's Byakugan had not rent through the ground and detected a subtle crack in the lower pillar, the crafty crooks would have gotten away. Still, it took so much effort. Sasuke did not even have time to form a proper team: he just took the men still in the office. And only the great Sage knew that he never wanted to take Sakura with him after that last mishap.

Sasuke could still see how desperate and hysterical she was in her mad chase of him. He hardly had any nice things on his mind about her. She was still the same: hopelessly infatuated and stubbornly childish. Years had given her no wisdom. He had tried to get her off his team many times, but it was hardly that easy. Naruto was infatuated with her, and Tsunade loved her. She threw her in his face because she was probably—in her very humble opinion—the best Medic-Nin on all teams, and Naruto just wanted to put his prized Naruto-Chan in her girly place and be ecstatic about it all day long.

The things he did to please her, to keep her close—his stupidity was limitless. Naruto still could not understand [that] she was only using him to stay on his team and try her hand at persuading him to bed her. Her frustrations had only inflamed her obsessions. He had tried to pass subtle hints through Naruto's thick-head, but his ears remained clogged up with her passionate night-time warbles; and despite Naruto's precious stamina and interesting talents, he was rethinking this absurd arrangement.

He created the final letter on the scroll, watched it dry out, and rolled it up. Today's task was done. He got to his feet and took a few steps, the scroll still in his hand. He looked outside the office window, and then he turned his eyes slightly to look at the clock: it was just three minutes past midnight.

He pressed his forehead against the cool glass, looking at the clear night. The rain had stopped hours ago. He moved a little and pushed the scroll into the large fancy-looking cupboard—courtesy of his own family. He wrinkled his nose as a familiar smell wafted to him from just beyond the door. Not a second later, the door clicked open and someone entered his office.

"Why are you still here?" he asked, frowning. "Go home. We have an important mission tomorrow."

When no sound came from her, he turned around and looked at her, as she stood in the dim light of the bulb. Sakura had washed her dirty hair. Her fair face, framed in pink hair, was filled with a little desire; her cheeks, a little pink; and she breathed a deep sigh. She was holding a scroll in her hand. Her eyes were upon his face, and he felt as though she wanted to say something intimate—and very unbecoming—to him.

"I—" Sakura began and coughed, her fingers brushing against her bandaged throat, "I came here to give you my report." She took three long steps and put the scroll on the table.

Sakura kept looking at him and the red in his eyes, holding her gaze as if she wanted to trap him against the wall and have her way with him. There was a slight tremble in her pink lips (she was on the verge of speech), but she mashed her lips together to swallow her words. His eyebrows went up, and then a slow, slow smile graced his face, the look in his eyes like that of a wolf staring at a carcass he wanted nothing to do with.

"What do you want, Sakura? I hope you haven't come here in hopes of playing like last time," he whispered in the voice of a lover, and his face turned mischievous—that mouth curled in an exquisite smile.

Shock passed over her face and then it hardened in anger. "I just came here to see if you were all right. That's all," she said and turned her eyes away, her cheeks red with repressed anger.

Sasuke raised his arm and turned it around a little with his other hand; it was bandaged, and the wound was almost healed. "Looks fine to me," he said and returned his eyes to her face. "Is that all?"

Sakura gulped down the big lump in her throat, her heart tripping; hot blood raced through her veins as her own arousal pushed her towards him. She did not know when she closed the gap between them. She grabbed his hand, placed it on her cheek, and turned her face to kiss his palm and bit the tip of his finger. Her eyes darkened and she pressed her body against him. The heat was unbearable: it made her head spin. She just wanted him to melt into her. It was such an honest thought, and she was not ashamed of it.

Moving her hand up, she pulled the jacket's zip down the length of his body. She only made it halfway when he grabbed her wrist, his lips an inch away from hers. His hot breath blew across her sweaty face and a shiver ran through her. "Stop it!" he let out a low hiss and pushed her back. He looked angry now, his Sharingan out and dangerous, warning her to back off.

Hot breath hissed in and out from between Sakura's teeth, and her face mimicked the expression on his with the same intensity. "You're so heartless! All I desire is a bit of your time. You don't even have anything to lose, but you torment me because you can," she choked out, shaking and balling her fingers into fists.

"Aren't you used to this treatment by now?" he mocked, and his mouth pulled into a half-smile despite himself. "You're such a masochist, Sakura. If I were you, I would've given up on me a long time ago. I don't know why you even keep coming back just to experience rejection over and over again. Do you take satisfaction out of this arrangement?"

Colour flew from her lips, and then it suddenly deepened in her cheeks and lips. There was an angry glint in her ferocious green eyes, and the muscles in her face worked in nasty fury. "Don't mock me because I love you. You have no right. All I ever asked of you was to love me back. Even for a few moments. But you're so selfish. You only care about yourself," she said in a deep voice that wavered with the usual desperation.

"Why don't you love Naruto?" came the quick reply.

Her dark eyes flashed hatred and she felt singed by his words. "That's none of your concern," she said through clenched teeth and backed away.

"Of course it's not," he began and fixed her with an amused look, "why should I be concerned when you are just using him to try and get in my bed?" He flashed her a meaningful smile and then turned his eyes away in a playful manner.

"T-That's not true." Emotions garbled her words as she stifled the sob that burnt her throat now. She felt humiliated. Stung. "I'm not in this team to seduce you. Don't mock me. I just want to prove my worth as a shinobi to my parents. You wouldn't understand . . ."

He smiled and it was a cold smile that mocked her still. "Of course you are. That would explain your irritating habit of coming here, begging for a romantic tryst. Even your dodgy mouth has become so boring now," he said coldly and held his stern, unflinching gaze.

Sasuke's words struck her and they struck her deep and they struck her raw. The sting was shameful. "You were never this cruel, Sasuke," she breathed out, took in a long breath afterwards, and went on, "you were never this cruel. I've loved you since I was a child. Why are you so hateful? You're never fair to me. You always hurt me. Why, Sasuke? Don't do this. Don't hurt me . . ."

Sakura's head was bent now. Her eyes misted over and streamed out fresh tears. She raised her hand and wiped at her eyes and tried to even out her breathing. When she raised her head, her eyes were so red. He did not seem moved. He was cold—so cold and cruel. His eyes slightly turned and he looked at the door. A smile danced on his lips and he spoke coldy: "your lover is here. Want to continue? He may love this free spectacle!"

She drew in a sharp breath. Anger flickered across her face, and she spun away and left the room. He heard Naruto call out to her, but she took swift steps to leave the building. A few seconds passed and Naruto entered the room. He was not wearing his usual grin that stretched his lips from ear to ear. There was an annoyed look on his face as he looked at him in an accusatory manner.

"You scolded her again?" Naruto asked with hands on his hips. "You can be so mean, Sasuke."

"Nothing that would concern you," Sasuke said and turned around to pull out a scroll from the deep corner of the cupboard. "Why are you here? If you came here for Sakura, then she already left a playtime invitation for you. Go and play with her and stop bothering me."

Naruto's face flushed in embarrassment and he looked away. "That's not what I asked," he said in a huff and crossed his arms. "Why are you up so late?"

"Office work," he droned and slowly opened the scroll. "You know, I don't care how you play with her, just keep her restrained. She's out of your control." He turned around and eyed him with annoyance in his face.

"You don't have to be so grumpy all the time," Naruto mumbled and looked up at the still fan. It had been shined to perfection: an odd Uchiha habit to keep things disturbingly clean. Itachi was even worse. He could have sworn he saw his own reflection in that fan's blade last time he went to that cold-tomb Sasuke enthusiastically called his Nii-Sama's lovely office; or it could've just been his mind playing tricks on him. Itachi, in his humble opinion, was creepy.

"It comes with the heritage and responsibility. You wouldn't understand," Sasuke said with a smile. "How's your wife? She probably knows about your little affair. The whole team probably knows. I don't think it's a big secret, really. Soon, your parents will start breathing down your neck, and then you'll start weeping before me. It's an endless cycle, and it's really tiring."

Naruto's eyes grew wide. He looked a little confused. "I don't think she knows. I don't think even my parents are certain of it. They just like making guesses to shame me," he said, looking a bit alarmed. It was obvious that he wasn't sure of his own thoughts. The look faded from his face; he blinked and moved a little to face Sasuke. "I intend to end it anyway—I just need the rank."

"Ah, the rank," Sasuke paused to widen the smile, "aren't you working so hard for it? Playing with Sakura and all that. But I am a terrible friend. Why would you need my advice? You could do without them."

"I love Sakura. You know that!" Naruto said, breathing heavily as he worked himself into anger. His cheeks and nose were red now. "Do you always have to mock me?"

"I'm not mocking you. It's not as if you listen to me anyway," he said and placed the scroll on the table, his red eyes meeting his. "Hinata is your wife. Her family, your family, will only make things worse for you. Go near her from time to time. That's all I'm suggesting. She isn't contagious."

His words silenced Naruto. He appeared to be lost in thought as if he did not know what to say. "How long has it been since you last touched her? Sooner or later, this will escalate, two clans will get involved, and she might just give in to her natural desires. It would be so amusing that you're the one who pushed her to look for a lover . . . something interesting to look forward to rather than cleaning gardens and painting terrible lamps all day long, you know?" His countenance was sarcastic now.

"Hinata would never do that, she—" Naruto broke off, and his expression in such moments was always a confused one. Sasuke could see a bit of anger stir in his deep blue eyes—that familiar male ego was still there.

"Oh? I didn't know she was a temple-nun living through her rigid oath of yearly celibacy in your absence," he said. "Your idealistic view of her is very amusing. She is human. She has desires—needs. Don't be a fool. I'm not asking you to drop Sakura. I'm asking you not to make things worse for yourself."

His words were met with astonished silence. Naruto had dropped his gaze to the floor. His eyes roamed here and there aimlessly. He was caught up in his own little world. He was always indecisive, naïve, and foolish—always had been.

"You can leave and play with your wicked lover. I have work to do," Sasuke said and resumed his office chair to write down the final report. It would take him a good one hour to review every detail; and by that time, Naruto was already at Sakura's place, thinking about Hinata, his parents, and their betrayal. Somehow, it was pushing him over to the edge, and he felt something familiar stir deep within him, and he did not know why . . .

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She sat alone. It was a routine. Shadows were laid on thick by the evening sky. A dull sort of somberness had permeated the air of the moors. The wind was cool, a little cold. Autumn was upon her.

Getting up slowly, she snatched a quick breath, and a listless sigh began to rise from inside her, coming out as a small shallow breath that clouded her face. Beyond the window, beyond the trees, and beyond the walls of mist, there was nothing but darkness.

There was a dull reddish hue a few moments ago that lingered around the subtle-bend of the darkening horizon; it was gone now. She took two slow steps and slid shut the window. A smell of grass had snuck in. She remembered that she would have to work on another patch tomorrow.

The house was a little creaky and always made odd sounds, fighting against the assault of mild winds and gentle rains. It was as though it tried to make itself steel, bear the burthen Nature wrought.

She slowly backed away and turned around to face a pallid shaft of light pouring out of her room at the end of a quiet corridor. The house was steeped in dark, and it sobbed often in such a melancholic voice—cold had frozen its veins. She could turn light lanterns, but it did not matter today.

Her steady footfalls creaked on the floor and it protested in its old age. She remembered that this house was a gift from her father-in-law: one of the many things he had given her in dowry several moons past. This house had become such a lonely place now. Years had made it weary like a man; some of the beams were cracked and bent (old bones left fragile through the years).

But she was still young: a white blossom in the cracked mound of dirt. How long did a flower last under the uncaring sky? She drew a sharp sigh that moved her breast and walked into the room. A wave of warmth and light washed over her. The fire was still hot in the hearth and spilt a red glow over the paintings she had abandoned a few hours ago.

A lit yellow lantern sat quietly next to a few brushes scattered upon the white scroll. A flower that lay tucked under one of the pages; fire had made it so dry now, and its leaves had shrivelled, looking as if it had lived through the scorching heat of summer—a pinkish one and the fire had drained it dry.

She dragged in a warm breath, almost smelling the burnt scent of the flower's petals in her breath. Looking around, she found the room in shadows. It got that way when she did not light any more lanterns. She looked at the large shadow that lay like a sleeping figure on one side of the bed: it was Naruto's side.

He often slept on his left side, with his back to her. His snoring was an intermittent affair. He always let out whistling breaths when it got too cold; and then he would flop onto his belly with a sudden, convulsive movement and emit gurgling sounds into the makura . . . till she was forced to get up, make haste towards their small kitchen, and prepare a warm herbal tea to ease his suffering.

Its smell always wafted to him faster than the workings of her unsure and creaky steps. When she would step into the room, sloshing tea upon the floor in her hurried state, his warm grin always greeted her, along with the ponderous upward movement of the hand to scratch the prickly blond hair. Then he wrinkled his nose, face coming alight with soft delight.

Those were the good old days—early months of her marriage. With time, the shadows just became thicker. There was no form to them afterwards, and they just lay there like large shapeless things across the futon. Sometimes, the white sheets bore stains of red, but that did not happen often. Her body was cold; it did not enjoy ceding to the act that brought her misery . . . shame, too.

Blood roared in her breast, and she stopped her ears to listen. It was the sound of shame, her world crumbling around her and flying away in vapours. Her vision was invaded with something wet, white eyes brimming with fears. She took one step, then two, and sat down upon a cushion before the hearth.

Its heat went through her skin, and the pores involved expelling out beads of sweat brought about by a different kind of longing. She put her chalk-white hands upon her thighs and watched them tremble through a watery film. From somewhere, and she did not know where, wind had let itself in to touch the sluggish trails of her shame and honour. They were still busy tracing her changing contours.

Blush spread beneath the tingly skin in the heat, and she did not know how to feel. Her fearful eyes, which welcomed the invasion of a new feeling, fell upon the red coals burning in the hearth; so many of them had turned so black, soot-like around the edges. They were crumbling away. So was she. So was her honour. It had died brutally in the hands of her desire and under the spears of her lust. They had glided through the flesh, embedding themselves cruelly into her soul, and it was remorseless.

Outside, a storm raged on. Hours passed by and she sat blinking away the signs of her shame, not caring about gazing upon them quivering there like little pearls on her guilty hands. The flame guttered in the lantern, and the coals turned cold. Her breaths came out white, but her eyes could not leave the red there. It was soothing, enchanting, bewitching . . .

# # # # # #

Quiet steps followed a long unrelenting form of a shadow that lay undisturbed on the floor. As he drew near the dark door, the wood gave out a subtle creak with every step. It was a ponderous place now that had stood the test of time through many generations. He stopped for a moment before the closed door to pull in a quick little breath. The exhalation came out louder than he had expected.

Bunching his fingers into a soft fist, he raised his hand to knock upon the door. A voice came from the room before his fist could collide with the wood there. "Come in, Sasuke," it said in a manner he always found a little foreboding.

Sasuke breathed in and out once, rather resolutely, and slid open the door. A subtle smell of incense crawled up his nostrils, and they flared in response. The room was fortified by vicious bright lights from several lanterns and had waged a war against shadows’ encroaching steps.

Gold lanterns sat on the desks and in the alcoves. A few scroll paintings still wore broken shadows of the thick beam overhead, but the light was bright enough to highlight their beautiful patterns: Kirin danced in the dull colours of autumn, and a few crows sat cawing in a dry tree. He never understood why his brother was so fascinated by such odd displays of melancholy. It was just one of those things . . .

His thoughts were cut short by the jagged blade of silence. This room was so quiet. One would imagine that the flames would make a noise on the wicks, but it was not so. The brush was loud; it had conquered the struggle and was mighty in his brother's long fingers. A dry sound of its movement rose into the air, and he was almost forced to shut the door behind himself to break the excited vibrations it produced in the air. Everything was just so eerie about him.

He had raised his shadow-eyes briefly to look upon Sasuke's curious countenance, only to go back to the mundane task of writing—whatever leisurely task he was preoccupied with before. Sometimes, Sasuke just wished his brother would turn on his Sharingan to make his eyes seem apparent to his, but he was the secretive type.

He approached him, a little cautiously, shoving his sweaty, unwilling hand into his pocket to pull out the official report on the messy Rock-Spies’ affair. Then his feet stopped of their own volition, his eyes looking to his brother's hazy face: he could not see it clearly. He was sitting crossed legged behind the small table. His spine was straight like steel; his eyes were only subtly downcast to look at his fingers as they drew words on the scroll.

Tonight, his brother wore traditional clothes. A black haori was thrown over his shoulders with such delicate, meticulous care that he could have sworn there was no difference between the lengths of the sleeves' tips dangling above his knees. Everything was arranged neatly on his desk. There was not a scroll, not a shadow out of place . . . and it made him feel a little unnerved, suddenly sapped of courage.

A loud pop from the fireplace distracted him for a second, but his brother's voice drew his eyes back to his face again. "Sit down," he said and Sasuke obeyed.

The scroll was clutched tight in his hand like a weapon. Itachi was still writing, eyes moving with the smooth and slow movement of his fingers. The dry sounds were louder up close. It was as though something small was being dragged across the rough surface, but the sounds were muffled through the winds.

"You should know how to manage your team," Itachi spoke almost suddenly, and Sasuke dropped his eyes in an apologetic manner to look at a dry brush that lay abandoned next to a scroll: an inky shadow was clinging to its smooth wooden form. His eyes seemed to like the momentary distraction.

"An inquiry is a terrible affair," Itachi paused and so did his hand in its smoothing movement, "if your team had died, it would have been so dreadful for you, Sasuke."

"I'm—" Sasuke barely choked out, eyes eluding him, "forgive me, Nii-Sama. I was—”

"Why do you want to take on this Hyūga matter?" Itachi asked and the dry invasive sounds stopped. "It is not wise. Is it because of Neji?" There was a trace of curiosity in his brother's voice, and that compelled Sasuke to steal a quick glance at his face that was still cast in grey shadows invading his mien, as if he enjoyed their company. Then Sasuke lowered his head and nodded.

"How fortunate for Neji that you want the best for him, even though it is not your place to meddle in his affairs," Itachi spoke, a little coldly, and something inside Sasuke rose in ferocity to defend himself.

"He's a good man," Sasuke said, raising his eyes to look to where his brother's should have been. "As a Captain, I—"

"It is not wise," Itachi cut across him, his voice heavy, commanding.

Sasuke could not see his face still, and it was so bothersome. He lowered his eyes immediately, and his face fell into a look of child-like worry and anger.

Sasuke heard him breathe out a sigh but did not have the courage—nor the audacity—to look him in the eye. "But knowing how you cause trouble when you cannot have your way, I am allowing you to see the evidence—nothing more." The soft sound of Itachi's clothes invaded the space as he placed the scroll on the table.

He did not say anything more, and Sasuke saw this as a sign of approval. Sasuke put the scroll he had in his grasp upon the table and grabbed the other one with a rather quick movement of his hand.

His brother was still silent. Thinking that this was enough, he rose to his feet, gave a little customary bow, and turned around before his brother's words stopped him. "I want no trouble from this, Sasuke," he said and those same dry sounds began anew.

Sasuke did not turn around to look at him and left the room with sure, quiet steps . . .

# # # # # #

Chapter Text

# # # # # #

Naruto sat quietly in the chair and fiddled impatiently with the buttons on his green jacket as though they demanded his full attention. His mind raced untamed. His hands shook, palms slick with sweat. Downcast blue eyes began to glaze over with a cool film of sweat coming down his forehead; he could not see anything on his hands. His vision was lost to suspicions that bred in his mind like cattle.

His thoughts kept going back to Hinata. It was true, he had never touched her in a way a lover would . . . he felt that it was almost wrong. The few times he ever tried, it was just to fulfill his parents' wishes for a son—an heir for the families. Naruto married her for it was everyone's wish. He did not love her, and he was sure she felt the same.

If it was not true, then she could have asked him to love her, to be intimate with her . . .  she did not care about his needs. All she ever did was busy herself with her farm and paint small lamps for her sister's shop. He always came last. Deep lines creased his forehead in resentment, and he moved his shaky fingers through the wet hair. He was just a dead-last to her!

Whenever he came home late at night, she would be crouched in the corner of the small storeroom behind the Kimono stand. A dirty light of the candle would pass through the thin fabric of her night kimono, lighting up the small space she loved so much. There Naruto would find her, nose buried in some book whilst she desperately tried to replicate the drawing patterns on thick, homemade papers to make colourful lamps. Her hands were too unsure; they did not possess the expert fingers of an artist.

Naruto would try and coax her to come to bed, but she would refuse, looking repulsed. Then she would busy herself again, almost resolutely, with the old paint bottles—which smelt awful—by her feet.

His features suddenly contorted, and he grabbed a fistful of the greasy yellow hair, quelling his burning rage. She did not like him at all . . . just like how this village threw his family aside over that petty daemon incident. His father was shamed, and he had left the Hokage seat in disgrace.

Naruto had to bear the brunt of their hate. They looked down upon him, hated him for a faultless crime of birth. They talked as he passed by, and their venomous whispers wafted to his ears. They were filled with loathing that he even existed. He gritted his teeth, put his head between his knees, and felt that fearful heart (of a boy) pound in his ears.

"You are not worthless, Naruto," the voice rang loudly in his mind. It had a sinister ring to it, and it suddenly made every bone in his body shudder like a diabolical instrument. He was going crazy again!

His hands quivered, and he desperately tugged at his hair as if he was holding onto them for his dear life. His breaths left him quickly, and he opened his mouth wide to suck in some air. "Leave me alone," he said as his voice wavered like a drunken man's, who limped along the lonely road under night's dark mantle.

Suddenly, glass bells clinked against the front door and fresh Sakura blossoms' fragrance snuck inside the empty room: it was Sakura. Her presence calmed his internal struggles, and he was a whole man again. No longer dulled by the chaos of fear, his heartbeats sprang to life, thundering in his ears. If it was not for Sakura, he would have been lost to his own daemons so long ago. Naruto loved her, and she loved him . . . that was all that mattered.

Blood flushed in his face, and his cheeks burnt crimson. Even though he was well past his teenage, he still felt like a boy in her presence, a lovesick, naïve fool. There was such a thrill in their meetings, a rush of feelings and lust; his marriage was destitute of things he felt for her. She was the only one who made him reminisce about their days in the academy.

Sakura took off her slippers and came into the living room. A broad smile disturbed her features when her eyes met his. He had been waiting for her. "Naruto, you came early?" she asked and put fresh flowers into the empty vase filled with clear water.

It was a habit of hers. She bought fresh flowers from Ino's shop daily after the team's training with Sasuke, just before the sun came up. They were purple lilies—Sasuke's favourite. Naruto did not know, and she had no intention of telling him. Naruto scratched his head and looked at the flowers quivering in the morning draft that came in through the half-open window.

"Are those purple lilies?" he asked, smiling. "Sasuke likes 'em, too."

"Really?" she said, feigning surprise. "They are pretty flowers, I guess. A lot of people buy them." She let out a soft laugh and arranged the stems a bit absentmindedly.

"Yeah," Naruto leant back. "I wanted to talk to you about something."

Sakura turned around, her heart racing. Sasuke could not have said something to him? Her mouth went dry, but she kept up the pretense of mild surprise. "What is it?" she asked slowly, not letting her voice get swayed by emotions.

Naruto dropped his blue eyes to the wooden floor. "It's Hinata," he sighed out, "I think . . . I think she has a lover."

Sakura closed her eyes and let out a loud sigh, relieved. "Hinata?" she asked and looked at him intently.

He slowly lifted his blue eyes, meeting the green ones that always calmed his senses. "Sasuke . . ." he trailed off, averting her gaze and missing the look of dread hovering over her wide

eyes, " . . . he thinks she might look for one as I hardly go near her. Can you imagine the mess?"

"Hinata—does she?" Sakura asked, looking surprised.

"I don't think she knows about us, about any of this. But Sasuke thinks I don't give her enough time, so she might—" he broke off again, and clenched the fingers of his right hand, "—resort to an affair. It's only fair, no?" He looked up and grimaced as though he was in pain, blue eyes deepening with sorrow and anger. "I'm not kind to her. I asked father to end this, but—but he's so stubborn. It's not like it even matters what I say  . . . " He turned his head away and gazed out of the window. She thought he wanted to say more, but he was silent now.

Sakura did not know what to say. A part of her felt Sasuke's stinging words forever bruise her ego, and a part of her felt strange. Were they not guilty of this, too? Sasuke was hinting at the worst possible scenario for Naruto. This would only put more burden on his father's sullied name; but she needed him now, more than ever. He would not understand . . .

She walked towards him and planted herself on the sofa by his side. She clamped her hand on his shoulder and squeezed. "I'm sure Sasuke was just being irritating," Sakura assured, looking at his bowed head with a smile on her face. "You know how he likes to think he's always right. Hinata would never do this. You know how her family is."

Naruto looked up at her and schooled his tense countenance into a calm expression. "You're right," he breathed out, looking sure of himself, "Sasuke can be quite the prick sometimes. He's just trying to scare me." Then he let out a hearty laugh and breathed in the fresh morning air, deeply.

"You always take his words to heart," she said, ruffled his hair playfully, and kissed him on the tip of his freckle-covered nose. "You must be hungry. I was about to make rice-balls. We have to get ready for the long mission today. You haven't forgotten about that, have you? Sasuke said to come to his office before seven a.m., and it's already six."

Naruto's head snapped in the direction of the wall-clock. Then he nodded and created a soft smile in agreement.

# # # # # #

Warm sunrays were cast over the forest’s vastness in the first morning hours. The mist was gone and the air was cool. There was a disordered cacophony of rowdy masses at the gates of Konoha: refugees; but he had left it behind to attend to his own business.

Sasuke stood on Naruto's doorstep now. His eyes wandered off into the distance, and he looked at the small portion of the moors: tall grass was cut off close by the roots and cultivated to yield crops. Sun was just rising above the horizon, sloshing red over grey. He had to get to his office before the clock struck seven.

In his hand was a scroll he received from Itachi last night. He fisted his hand and rapped on the thick wooden door—this time more forcefully. Something told him Naruto never came home last night. It seemed that luck was on his side. He wanted to discuss the matter alone with Hinata and having Naruto around would have only spurred him on to say angry nonsense.

A cool puff of air threw the crystals to the door, and they clinked loudly. He looked through the crystals worn thin by having been left outside for so long. Just beyond its dirtied surface was Hinata's silhouette. He leant his head to one side and found her emerging from behind the tall trees. She had a bucket in one hand and a sickle in the other.

Sasuke almost felt sorry for her ordeal. When she lifted her downcast eyes, she froze. Warmth whipped through her and reddened her pale cheeks; and her gaze beheld him without straying. She put down the bucket and sickle and toddled across the muddy field like a lost child.

"S-Sasuke-Sama," Hinata spoke, a bit breathlessly, "Naruto is not here." She looked away, embarrassed.

"Good," Sasuke said and looked down to her hands caked with bits of grass and mud, "I wanted to talk to you."

Hinata's head snapped up in shock, and her whole face turned red. "T-Talk to me?" she asked with hesitation.

"Yes," he said and adjusted the tall collar of Jacket. "I have to get to the office by seven, so I suggest you invite me inside to discuss this." He gave her a lopsided smile.

She hurriedly moved around him and nervously fumbled with the door latch before sliding it open. Sasuke stepped inside and smelt the fresh aroma of rice-balls sitting on the table untouched. She had prepared them for Naruto. "This way." She gestured Sasuke to the living room right across the hall.

"It's all right," he said and turned around to face her as she closed the door behind them. "We can discuss it here."

"What do you want to talk about?" she asked and put her hand to her breast. Her heart was racing—something did not feel right.

"I have received a letter of inquiry this morning," he began, carefully opening the scroll in his hand, "it's about your clan's involvement in an elaborate conspiracy taking place in the Mist village."

Hinata's eyes popped out in fear. Her mouth fell open but nothing came out. Surely, he was mistaken?

"One of the assistants of the current Mizukage has a Byakugan as his left eye. I know for sure that the eyes seal themselves as soon as any member of the Branch Family dies. How did he come to have a Head Clan's Byakugan in his possession?" he asked and cast her an accusatory look.

Red colour flew from her face, and she looked deathly pale now. She did not know what to say. "I . . . I don't know," she whispered and hung her head in shame.

"I could've conducted the investigation myself, but being the daughter of the clan's Head, I wanted to ask you first," he said, holding his gaze. "I don't want to bring this matter out into the open, considering your clan's present circumstances."

Hinata looked up, her lower lip trembling with emotions. Her eyes left the sharp sword on his back and found his exceedingly handsome face, which was shrouded by the last remaining shadows of early morning. He was still clad in his office clothes, and the letter in his hand was open; and right at its end was an Anbu stamp from his clan's acting Head to conduct an investigation into the matter.

"I know my clan isn't as prestigious as yours, nor are we that wealthy or influential, but," she stopped and struggled to hold back tears of shame, "w-we have our pride! I can assure you, it's impossible that my clan is in any way involved in the matter."

"I could take your word for it and even believe it word for word," Sasuke said and rolled up the letter, "but the council surely won't. The only reason I came here is for you to arrange a meeting with your father. Tell him I know about the matter and ask him to have some solid evidence in his defense."

"I could ask Naruto to help me. Minato-Sama might help—"

"Minato relinquished his seat over the daemon vessel mess, and Naruto?" he scoffed and took a long intake of breath, "he's too busy with Sakura. But I am sure you know that already. There’s no use playing dumb anymore."

"Sasuke-Sama," Hinata protested, raising her voice, "i-it's a private matter. You shouldn't interfere!"

"He's getting slack," he said through clenched teeth, "it is my business, Hyūga Hinata." His red eyes sparked with anger, and his features slightly twisted to show his discontent.

Hinata fell back against the door like the house of cards in a gentle breeze, her whole body shuddering with defeat. She had not accepted for so long that Naruto discarded her like a toy for a better one.

"It's about time you accepted your clan's place in Konoha and your own in Naruto's family. Minato only used you to wash away the stain from his own reputation."

"You—you're wrong," her words tumbled out of her lips. "Naruto may have left me, but he isn’t that heartless. He won't let his father do that. And my clan is still—it's still respected."

Sasuke towered over her and placed his hand upon the door behind her. "It is, but if they don't come clean, you know where this will lead. Uzumaki and Namikaze will take Hyūga down to the depths of dishonour, painting them as criminals. The sooner you realize this, the better." His warm breath fanned out across her features, feathery light.

"Why are you telling me this?" she finally asked, looking up to locate solace in his red eyes. They were the coals in the hearth: warm and comforting. Why was he changing that now?

"I’m telling you this—" Sasuke broke off and narrowed his red eyes dangerously, "—to make you understand the gravity of the situation." He smiled suddenly, his face growing so mischievous. She looked back, and her heart tripped with confusion.

"I’ll help you," he whispered, "just make sure you give your father my message. He would know what to do. Just be a good girl and do as I say." He backed away and opened the door to let the cold air in.

The cool draft tickled Hinata's warm bosom. She heard the door close but did not move to look his away. Her eyes finally darted around the room and found the letter left on the shoe-rack for her . . .

# # # # # #

Sasuke sat on the tatami-mat spread over the wooden floor. It was getting dark, and a large shadow beneath the roof was gradually making its way down to the floor. He turned his red eyes to the window and watched smoke come out of the chimney of an infirmary at the heart of Konoha’s headquarter.

Cold winds were blowing inland, so the furnace was kept hot with fresh coal from the mountains to the south, to keep the sick and wounded warm. Sakura was in charge of the ward that fell under his command. One of his injured men was lying under warm sheets. He was a Rookie medic who nearly got himself killed trying to shield another man.

That gave him an opportunity to send Neji off for an investigation. It was a surprise attack during a regular training session—the attacker fled after throwing a few smoke bombs filled with poisonous gas at the team. They were lucky Neji was around; otherwise, he would have lost his entire team. Sakura was leading the Medic division  . . . Lord Sage, his life was becoming so hard!

He skittered his eyes across the room and paused them on Hinata's fingers, which fumbled quite pointlessly with a single button on the obi, and then her father, who intently looked at the scroll Sasuke had brought for this clandestine meeting. Two unknown Hyūga ninjas sat behind the two, their faces shrouded by the evening.

The grim atmosphere was permeable to heavy tension. Hiashi's usual cold grey Byakugan eyes were stern, and a harsh frown creased his smooth forehead. Sasuke could see smooth lines of sweat on his cheek, glistening in the candle's flickering light. He did not look pleased, nor did he seem confident.

Sasuke's lips were sealed. He did not know why he even intervened so soon. Now was not the time; but he had to do something for Neji. He was his best man. If Neji was to get tangled in a political conspiracy—no matter how paper-thin it was for now—it would surely mess up the repute of his clan and his well-founded team.

So he waited and listened to the teasing ticks of the clock and watched the shadows play around the room under the sparse light of a few waning candles. Soon, a cascade of questions would follow this letter of inquiry, and then he would have to play the role of a reconciler. It was irksome and time-consuming, but he had to avert this crisis . . . for now.

Shame was something he always feared. Even the thought of it made his skin and bones shudder like a dry old leaf. Shame—something he never wanted to face or feel. His ears pricked up, and he wrinkled his nose like a cunning, wild fox. The clouds overhead had begun to let go of rain, and an earthy smell rushed into the large room as first drops of autumn rain fell down.

Sasuke brought his gaze back to Hiashi who had just rolled up the scroll and stretched his arm to place it on the small table put between them. Sasuke's cup was still untouched, and it seemed that the evening weather had left the tea cold. Hiashi picked up his own cup to take a small noiseless sip. His eyes tried to mask the seriousness of the situation, but to Sasuke's cunning gaze, his helplessness was laid bare.

"I," Hiashi began, his eyes glowing with their usual near-white colour, "I thank the Uchiha clan for giving us a chance to explain ourselves. We will be forever indebted to you." He placed the cup back on the table, and as a forced gesture of formality, slowly bent his head down.

"The Uchiha Elders are unaware of this," Sasuke said, watching Hiashi's features crumple and crack that calm mask.

"What do you mean?" Hiashi asked, uncertain where the young Uchiha prodigy was taking the matter.

Thunder roared in the sky, and a sudden blast of wind blew out the candles; but it could not subdue the flames burning with a new light in Sasuke's eyes. Hinata did not need to use her Byakugan to see them. They were visible from a few feet away, burning like embers. She could have sworn they looked different than usual—more intense, almost alive.

Sasuke moved his hand across his face to wipe away a few stray drops of rain. "I didn't want this issue to escalate, so I decided to investigate the matter myself. Once the matter reaches Root division, it will be out of my hands. I need you to present something convincing to stall this matter or bury it altogether. You know what I mean, don't you?" he said and leant forward on his left knee.

Hiashi narrowed his eyes on Sasuke and folded his arms across his breast. "I have taken the corpse out of the grave, and the seal records have been brought out of the storage as well," he said, lowering his eyes to the frayed parts of the tatami-mat. It appeared old compared to the beautiful, new wooden-veneer on the table, the cabinet in the corner, and the newly dug well in the garden. Even the bonsai trees were new. He felt so ashamed of that small old part of the mat.

"Can I see the sealing records?" Sasuke asked and stretched out his hand. His fingertips trembled slightly under the sudden spray of rain. He turned his head to the window forcefully opened by the wind. Then he squeezed his right eye shut as rain splashed the side of his face and neck.

Hiashi looked livid that the servants were still sitting, looking intently at Sasuke's eyes for some strange reason. "Why are you two sitting comfortably?" he said in a heavy voice, and they scrambled to their feet to close the wooden window that was colliding repeatedly into the fragile window-pane.

Sasuke dried his face on his sleeve and lit up the candles with a small Katon Jutsu. "It comes in handy when we are out of light supplies during training—or when such circumstances are simulated," he explained to Hiashi, looking at the puddle of water under the window. "I try my best to keep my team in form. It's tough being a squad leader, and Neji is an invaluable asset. You must understand, I can't lose him to such a baseless acquisition. Unless I don't see anything significant here, I won't take this matter to the higher-ups."

Sasuke's assurance made Hiashi heave a long sigh. He seemed relieved that the matter was under control. He closed his eyes for a moment in thought and opened them to meet Sasuke's gaze. The young man's solid, odd mask terrified him a little. "I understand," he sighed out with an air of relief and stood up. "Please, this way." He gestured with an airy sort of grace.

Sasuke got to his feet and adjusted the handle of a strange looking, long Kunai that rested in a holster tied down to his right thigh. It was made out of Tamahagane with gold carved into it. White and red Uchiha markings were etched in its sharp edge on both sides. It was a gift from Itachi when he got selected as an Espionage Squad leader about two years ago. He never used it, but kept it as a good-luck charm from his brother.

Hinata walked ahead at a slow pace and held an old lantern in her hands. The corridor was narrow, and dozens of scrolls were hung on the walls. Their paints had faded away. They looked so dull now.

"The lights are out because of the storm," Hiashi explained and moved his head round to look at the light bulbs screwed inside a few traditional lanterns. They were out.

The corridor was wide enough for two people to walk side by side; but Sasuke kept his distance. He scrunched his fingers together and placed them gently on the holster. It was foolish to trust this man. He could be involved in that conspiracy by aiding the new Mizukage.

Sasuke narrowed his eyes to tiny pinpricks of red, walking slowly behind them inside the shadows cast by their dark bodies. The light from the lantern was cut into two beams, landing on each side of the corridor, hitting the old Sumi-e scroll paintings on the walls. His desultory mind jumped from Root's involvement in the matter to the possible truth behind Hiashi and Hinata's justifications.

He was already closing in on Danzo, and his involvement in his clan's Police Branch massacre. He just needed a little push, and the man's head was his. He would revel in the feeling from seeing his old, wrinkled face frozen in agony on a stick. It was a joy he so wanted to relish. Sasuke tightened his hold on the hilt, and his eyes formed patterns of the never-ending light of Eternal Mangekyō Sharingan.

Hinata stopped before a large door and slid it open. A slight putrid smell escaped the room. This was where they probably kept the bodies before burial. It should have been filled with smells of incense and white wreaths of smoke, but the freshly dug body's odour was overpowering. Few tendrils of white reached out of the room and disappeared quickly in the still air.

"This way," Hiashi said and gestured Sasuke to step inside the room.

Sasuke took in a large intake of breath, as if he was readying himself for a plunge, and stepped inside. The room was fairly large: scrolls filled the large cabinets in the corners, and incense burnt around the body draped with a white cloth. He was unsure what he would even see in a man dead for more than a decade. This was a hopeless endeavour.

Two Medic-nins stood close to the head. It appeared they had tried their best to rejuvenate the body to an extent that it was, at least, recognizable. It took a while for ninjas' bodies to rot. The chakra in their systems kept the body fresh for a couple of years before it fell prey to Nature's cruel mechanisms. If the chakra was potent, the decaying process was much slower. It was a gift for the dead who would not care what became of their bodies, which had no mind nor a soul.

Sasuke turned his eyes to Hiashi. "Why didn't you cremate this man?" he asked and pulled away the cloth to gaze at the man's grey face. Dark veins were bulging out in his face and neck: death, somehow, repulsed him.

Hiashi hung his head. "It was his family's request," he replied and pushed his hands into his long sleeves again. Next to him, Hinata stood tight-lipped, still holding the lantern in her small hands.

Sasuke pulled a scroll out of his pocket and handed it over to one of the medic-nins. They were from his own clan, people he could trust. Both of them were half-Uchihas by blood and never developed Sharingans, so they were put into the Medic-Squad instead. They were good at their jobs; and he was hoping that, one of these days when he would oust Sakura (and that day was not far), he would put one of his own in charge of the small medic team in his Squad.

The medic-nin already had another scroll spread open before him. He opened the scroll Sasuke gave him and placed it next to the other one. Then he made several hand-seals and analyzed the results from the residual chakra glowing on the man's forehead.

He rolled up the scroll and raised his head to look at Sasuke. "It’s the same man, Sasuke-Sama," he began and touched the body's head to stop the flow of chakra. "I just analyzed the Chakra and DNA. It appears that he did belong to the Branch family, but a seal was not printed on his forehead."

"Good. Take everything with you and head back to my home-office," Sasuke said, cupping his chin. The men bowed before him, rolled up their scrolls, and left silently. "Why didn't you place a sealing-mark on this man?"

Hiashi remained silent for a few moments to gather his wits. "It was my father's decision. I am completely unaware of it," he said and brought his attention to Sasuke's eyes that were focused on the man's frozen face. He was thinking about something, and it was beginning to upset the Hyūga clan's leader. "He was my father's nephew. Perhaps he grew soft."

"Perhaps," Sasuke said with a smile, "but who knows—I’m not taking this matter to any higher-ups. But I will take Nii-Sama into confidence. He might know something about your father's decision. It was a time of war after all.

“Consider this matter dismissed from my side, but it isn't completely out of the way yet. You should try and look closely into your clan's matters during the previous Great War. It will benefit you more than me." He stretched his hand and covered the man's naked face again, hiding it from the living.

"I cannot thank you enough," Hiashi said with utmost gratitude. His face looked tired. The accusation had taken such a toll on him overnight.

"Hinata," Sasuke said, diverting his attention to her, "you should come with me. Naruto might be back already. I don't want him to know about this. It's dark outside, and it's dangerous to go alone through the woods."

"F-Father, I—" Hinata stuttered in a childish voice and placed the lantern on the table, "—I should head back now."

Hiashi placed his hand on his daughter's head. He could see how the rosy colour in her youthful cheeks had faded a little. He did not want to press her, but he was sure she was not happy. He watched her with a rueful countenance as she shyly followed Sasuke out of the room. He looked at the waning candle that dribbled wax on the white cloth. Half of its wick was under the melted wax, subduing the intensity of the light. Somehow, the candle reminded him of his daughter's waning youth.

Sasuke and Hinata walked on the small trail strewn with yellow leaves, to her home. For the first time since her marriage, she realized how far her house was from her father's sanctuary. She looked at her feet and the slippers dirtied by the mud. The rain had almost stopped, and a few drops still fell down upon them from the leaves overhead. It appeared that the wind had slackened off as well and rain was letting up.

Sasuke walked quietly beside her. In one hand, he carried a strong flame. The light radiating from it hit the trail ahead, and she could see very clearly now. Her feet were getting numb, as unlike Sasuke, her toes were muddy and wet; but she did not complain. He had lent them a helping hand, even if it was because of Neji, she was still grateful.

Finally, after walking in silence for quite some time, her lonely house loomed into view. The overgrown grass on the field, and the portion she had cultivated, swayed in the slow wind under the sparse light of the moon. The lights were on, but she was sure Naruto was not home. It was an instinct she had developed over these years, but it never failed her.

They walked on the twisting trail and reached the front door. Sasuke took out the letter of inquiry and changed his eyes to a different pattern. Hinata watched in amazement as he opened his left eye wide. Blood trailed down the eye, and before she could even blink, a very small black flame converged on the scroll and it turned to ash there and then. It happened so fast!

"The letter of Inquiry is gone," Sasuke said, his voice breaking into her thoughts, "that solves one matter. Keep this a secret from Naruto. Don't tell him anything. Don't make him think there is anything wrong with your clan. Do you understand?"

Hinata nodded absentmindedly. He looked at her, huffed out a short breath, and mumbled, "Nii-Sama would kill me . . . "

And then he walked away from her at a slow pace. He disappeared behind the woods—just like he always did—and left her standing outside the door on the wet porch. Naruto was still not home. It was starting to feel like a habit . . .

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Chapter Text


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Rain dripped from the branches of a tall old tree, soaked through his shirt, and trickled down his back. Thick vines hung down like hair, wispy and long. At the base of the tree was a natural cave. Its bark was so thick that, looking around, Sasuke imagined it would be equal to several large trees. Low thumping sounds filled the hollow space, and beyond the sparse curtain of vines, stood Hinata with her husband.

He had asked her to accompany him to support Neji. He was still in the dark, so he needed her make sure that things remained the same; but he had to admit that she was really weak for someone from the Head family with a superior Byakugan.

Her Taijutsu was truly abysmal, and her Kekkai-Genkai Jutsus were not any better. He was sure that any novice Chūnin in his team would swat her like a fly with his eyes closed. To top it off, she was still so sloppy with the Thirty-Two palms. Neji knew Eight Trigrams Sixty-Four Palms since his Genin days in the academy. Her Lion Fists were just barely decent . . . he frowned, thinking that this would be an irksome trip.

He knew the scroll he had burnt would lead to nothing but trouble with his brother. It was just another problem he had to worry about. It would take a lot to pacify Itachi this time. He knew . . .

The crescendo of babble and rain suddenly stopped with a loud rumble of thunder. The rainy season was here, and earthy smell of Konoha's soil permeated the space. Cold rains would continue for the whole season. Sasuke looked southwards, peering through the mist at the dense forest. Just beyond that were the vast moors, now wet with rain.

Hinata toddled her way to Sasuke and lifted the curtain of vines. "S-Sasuke-Sama," she stuttered and fiddled with her Genin jacket's zipper, "Neji-Nii went ahead to look for bandits in the a-area before us?" Then she said nothing and kept moving her eyes all over the place—anywhere but Sasuke's face.

"I sent him to scout out the area. He left Konoha a day before us," Sasuke said, not meeting her eyes.

Hinata bit her lower lip and said nothing. Sasuke felt a slight wisp of rain and wind across his face and shuddered a little. His hair whipped across his cheeks. He fetched a sigh and looked at Hinata's veins popping out around her eyes: she was using Byakugan.

"Just make sure he stays out of the way," he said and breathed in the soothing smell of the tree bark. "When we reach Mist, his job is to stay outside with Sakura and keep a look-out for any rogues. Clear?"

She nodded absentmindedly and lowered her head to hide her flushed cheeks. Her Byakugan could see the monstrous and intense chakra rushing through his body like wild tidal waves; it was unlike anything she had ever seen before. She could almost feel it move through her own body—something palpable, alive—another hungry parasite living and breathing like tiny million bits inside his body.

But . . . it was also different, a fatal cyclone that sought to drown her sensuously, delicately, sweetly to her death. She raised her eyes ever so slightly as if she could not see it clearly. The more she looked at it, the more intense it felt. It was not like parasites; no, it was like something magnificent and beautiful and deadly, caressing her skin from under the flesh and bones and blood and soul … blent and intricately woven together through natural mechanisms inside his body: a lusty and mischievous daemon, living and breathing right under his skin.

She had seen Uchiha Chakra before. It was always far more intense than what the other clans possessed. They were known for their potent, powerful chakra. It was no secret. It was this chakra that made their eyes special, made them dangerous, made them formidable and alluring; but not like this. Nothing like this.

She felt as though his chakra was sucking the last threads of her thoughts into a black abyss, and a mere look into that maw left her breathless and needy for more—a delightful blend of intense fear and raw lust to see more and feel more gripped her.

Was his chakra always like this? She could not remember. This was, probably, the first time she had seen it with Byakugan and experienced a sensuous feeling from looking at his denuded spiritual energy. Suddenly, sounds of Sakura's soft laugh broke her thoughts. She turned her head to her and saw her ruffling up Naruto's messy, wet hair.

Naruto was blushing and he looked happy. Hinata turned her eyes away and began to gaze beyond the wet leaves at the Water Country. It was surrounded by lakes and rivers that opened up into the sea. It would take them another day to reach it. Sasuke had already sent a small hawk to Mizukage's guard Ao. He had returned Sasuke's message that the meeting was approved along with the time and number of people he could bring into the hidden village with himself. It was still being treated as a clandestine affair by both parties.

Sasuke looked down at her, and a small frown crept over his face and lips. He watched as she flinched in a silly manner at Sakura's peals of laughter. Her shoulders heaved with anxiety, and she began fumbling with those damned buttons on her jacket again. She did not want to leave them alone. It looked as though she was about to pass out. Sasuke palmed his face; this three-way drama was getting on his nerves. He could not believe he would have to play the role of a reconciler in this absurd relationship for the time being.

"Hinata," he began and watched as she slowly turned her sweaty face and saucer-like eyes to him in slow motion, "go and ask Naruto to make some Kage Bunshins to scout the area and meet ahead with Neji. What's taking him so long? He should've met up with us by now. You should go with him. Use your Byakugan and find him quickly. We need to look for a place to set-up camp for the night. I don't think the rain will stop."

Hinata slouched and picked her way daintily across the muddy grass. She nearly slipped a few times before she finally stopped to talk to Naruto. Naruto sprang to his feet with a huge grin on his face and shouted, "boss!" He made three Kage Bunshins and jumped up onto the tree branches with Hinata—all of them disappeared quickly behind the dense drape of leaves.

A small male hawk flapped his wings and landed on a branch just at the mouth of the cave. It fluffed out its wet feathers, scraped its beak against the rough bark, and let out a melodious sound to let Sasuke know that it had made it back to him. It was very small in size and white as snow with faint gray spots around his eyes—so small that, sometimes, Sasuke carried it to his Clan's bird sanctuary inside his jacket. It was one of the many his Clan kept, but this one was his own. It was very rare and very small—a gift from his brother.

He moved the vines out of the way and held out his arm; it hopped onto it, stared into his eyes, and then slightly fluttered its wings to sit on his shoulder. Sasuke removed the tiny tube carrying the message from under its right claw and took out the rolled message. All arrangements were complete, and the Mizukage had agreed to share the details of war with him given the circumstances. The peace treaty was in effect and neither side wanted to turn this matter into flames of war.

The hawk nipped at Sasuke's earlobe playfully: it wanted a treat from him. Sasuke smiled and took out a few small dried-out meat chunks from his pocket. "You've become so diplomatic, eh, Kirin?" he said and stroked it lovingly with his fingers.

"So you do have a bit of love in you?" Sakura asked in a mocking tone from a few feet away. She was leaning against a frail tree; the storms had not been kind to it.

Sasuke shoved his hand into his pocket and took out another message. "Make yourself useful and stop wasting time," he said in a heavy voice and slightly raised his eyes to look at three other men busy with their own tasks. He rolled up the message and slipped it inside the tube. Then, twisting his arm a little, he tied the tube around its claw.

"Still as cold as ever—I wonder if you even feel desire," she scoffed, almost childishly, at the bird he was treating with such love and kindness.

Sasuke did not say anything in response and carefully plucked a leaf from one of the branches poking out of the lower end of the bark. The leaf was quite large and had clear rain water on its surface. Its mid-section was almost like a smooth round cup with water slopping around. He moved it towards Kirin; it tipped its head down and drank to its heart's content.

These hawks were trained to drink only from their masters or from streams or brooks. Sasuke used it to send messages to his brother when he went out hunting up north. It was an effective way of keeping his whereabouts a secret, and the language he used in the messages to his clan could only be decoded by a Sharingan.

This was why he brought it along: it would take messages to his brother, and he would be aware of the whole situation. Sasuke raised his hand, and the bird eagerly jumped onto his two fingers. He could barely feel its weight. He nuzzled his nose against its breast playfully and stroked it again. Kirin was a good companion.

"Off you go," he said, and the bird flew off towards his brother's office. He would get the message in less than fifteen minutes; Kirin was lightning fast.

Sasuke scrunched up Ao's message and burnt it with a very small Katon Jutsu. It turned to ash by his feet. He looked over his shoulder with a knitted brow. Sakura was still standing there, looking at him for no apparent reason. "Do you want to go home, Sakura?" he asked and turned around.

Sakura opened her lips to protest, but he cut her off swiftly, "I'm warning you to drop this sass. It's getting on my nerves. Go and do your job," he said with irritation on his face. She wanted to say something, but did not, and walked off to one of the team members to look over their supplies.

Neji landed not a moment later with Naruto and his three boisterous Bunshins in tow. Hinata landed on her feet a couple of seconds later. Neji's veins were popped out on his face. He relaxed them by turning off Byakugan.

"I'm back, boss!" Naruto pointed out the obvious and ended the technique. The three Bunshins disappeared, leaving loud sounds of cackles behind.

Sasuke looked at Neji and spoke, "you took quite a while," and started walking away from others.

"I apologize, Sasuke-Sama," Neji replied, walking in his wake. "It took a little while to check the entire lake for any secret entrances."

"There should definitely be one according to the records. Did you find it?" Sasuke stopped under the dripping leaves and desperately tried to hide that ghostly smile.

"Yes," Neji said and lowered his voice even further, "there is one right beneath the Buddha Statues underwater. It would be difficult to notice it with Dōjutsus as it's covered with an invisible Chakra. Not even Ao would be able to see it."

"Do you think he's aware that his eye doesn't function like yours or Hinata's?" Sasuke plucked another large leaf with cool water in it. He moved his head back, parted his lips, and tipped the water down his throat; then he gave a satisfied sigh.

"No, not a chance. They would need a Pure-Blooded Hyūga for that," he explained and took the leaf from Sasuke's hands and drank water from its tip. "Sasuke-Sama, if you don't mind me asking, what's this really about? I thought we were here for Chūnin Exams' preparations?"

"We are," Sasuke broke off and rested his back against the tree, "but there’s another matter, too. I don't want you to concern yourself with it just yet. I'll tell you when the time is right. You have to trust me on this."

He nodded but still looked worried.

"Just make sure no one else gets a wind of this. We're only here for the Chūnin exams and nothing else. Leave the rest to me," Sasuke said and made his way to the two ninjas that came out from behind the tall bushes. They had found a decent place to camp for the night.

# # # # # #

Sasuke tossed a dry twig in the fire. It crackled and the flames rose just a little. The rain had finally stopped. It took them a while to set up camp: the ground was muddy, and that made it impossible to hammer pegs deep into the ground. He sat with Naruto on a dry strip of grass. The tree branches overhead were so thick that he doubted rain ever made it to the ground.

When he tossed another one in from a pile next to him, Naruto spoke, "just use your damn Jutsu, man! At this rate, I'll freeze my balls off before I finish chewing this rubber-crap you brought along." He raised the bowl high and created an ugly, sarcastic grin on his face.

"Those are the usual mission rations. You're not getting the fine restaurant treatment out here," Sasuke shot back, annoyed. "And why would I use my Jutsu for no reason at all? What is it, some sort of circus act? You damn well know how missions work. Don't be foolish."

"You know, leave that to me," he spoke with his mouth full, nodding, "I'll treat everyone to good meals when we're out on missions."

"What? Your ten different types of pork ramen? Yes, everybody would love that," he said and twisted his lips into a scowl.

"Better than this sandal-rubber, you grouch," he said and tore at the rubbery meat with an expression as if it was the worst thing he had ever eaten.

"You know, when you finally shed your milk teeth and develop a bit of lowbrow brains, it might dawn on you that the ration money is limited for every team," he said and stretched his lips into an acidic smile, "but your amazing skills in mathematics and economics have it all figured out. Go ahead and have at it. If we last one day on those supplies, I'll weep tears of joy before the entire team without shame."

"So it's going to be like this today, huh?" Naruto said and wiped the grease off his lips, "you, bullying me over something stupid? Did you fight with Sakura-Chan again?" He leant his head forward to meet his eyes.

"Yes, your cheap bond is so special that I can't help myself from assuming the role of a villain to tear you two apart," he said, feigning mild shock and remorse.

"What did you eat today? Your Nii-Sama's crows?" he asked with wide eyes, looking surprised and a little angry.

"Naruto, I've told you many times not to talk about Nii-Sama like that," he said, getting angry. He got to his feet and brushed away bits of dry grass from his pants.

"A'right, it's a touchy subject for you, I know—just sit back down, damn it!" he said and grabbed his hand to pull him back down.

"How far off you on that Fūton-Rasenshuriken?" Sasuke asked suddenly and sat back down.

"What do you mean?" Naruto asked and put the empty bowl down on the grass. He crammed down a few mouthfuls of bread and wiped at his mouth again.

"Are you able to throw the damned thing or not?" he asked and threw another branch into the crackling fire.

Naruto tapped his finger on his lips as if he was deep in thought. Then he scratched his head and parted his lips in a huge grin. "Not there yet," he said and quickly turned his nervous laugh into a cough at the sight of Sasuke's blood-shot eyes.

"You know what, Naruto, I've just about had it with your flippant attitude," he said and held up one finger, "you have about one month to learn how to throw your spinning ball of chakra, or you are off my team. Do I make myself clear?" Sasuke created a wry smile on his face and got to his feet.

"Sasuke –wait, I can—" Naruto began and his face broke out in cold, "you can't be serious?" He slowly raised himself to his feet and created a nervous grin on his wrecked face.

"You think I'm joking around?" Sasuke asked and met Naruto's rueful eyes with a cool expression on his face. "I guess you don't seem to see the gravity of the situation. Shikamaru's team is already so close to filling our spot. And here you are, dropping down the repute of my team even further with your silly trysts. I just read your mission reports and you haven't improved one bit." He turned his eyes very slightly and saw Sakura standing under the soft drape of shadows some forty feet away; her face was tense, and it seemed as though she could hear his voice.

Naruto was quiet, his head hanging in shame. He did not know what to say. "Nii-Sama is already angry with me over your progress. You know how difficult it was for me to get you on my team? I had to beg before him. You don't even seem to care. What about that rank you keep prattling on about to break free from your family?" he asked in a rugged voice and moved a little closer so that they were face to face. "Is that not important anymore? Nothing matters to you beyond your persistent stupidity to play with her?"

Silence was Naruto's only answer. Sasuke inched in a little closer and whispered, "you will destroy yourself over this affair of yours. Her family and yours will eat you alive. Don't say I didn't warn you." He backed away and turned around. He stopped when he found Hinata standing a few feet away from them. Her eyes were a little wide, but it was hard to read her face. He did not say anything and walked off to his own tent.

The mist was rising and becoming quite thick. Hinata walked up to Naruto and clamped her hand on his shoulder. Neji had already gone off to sleep. The rest of the five ninjas had left the area about an hour ago. Naruto jerked his head up and looked at her. For a moment, the softness in his blue eyes swayed her heart.

"Na-Naruto-Kun, you should come with—I—" she broke off, unable to complete her sentence—something held her back.

"You should go to sleep, Hinata," Naruto said and looked away. It seemed as though he was expecting her to say something. "I'm going over to the lake to practice. You shouldn't stay up too late." With that, he left and disappeared behind the wall of mist, leaving her confused . . .

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Chapter Text

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Morning light had yet to break the night sky completely when Sasuke and his team reached the borders of Hidden Mist Village. Owls hooted on treetops behind the dense leaves, the low slanting branches were touching one of the brooks that ran out of the village. Sasuke dropped his gaze and looked around his feet. The mist was quite thick and seemed to spread out from around his sandals.

He turned on his Sharingan and scanned the area: three people stood vigilant at the gates, and one of them had Byakugan in his left eye. He cracked his cold knuckles and made his way to the gate. The man who had his Byakugan out and ready immediately recognized the red in Sasuke's eyes. He walked beyond the safe boundary of the gate flanked with two clear streams on both sides and loomed into view, breaking the thickening mist around him.

"Welcome, Sasuke-Sama," he said and bowed. His eyes wandered slightly towards the crinkles around Hinata's white eyes and back again to look at Sasuke's eyes. "I hope your journey was comfortable. I am Ao."

"It was as comfortable as it could've been given the rising mist," Sasuke said and took out a small scroll from his pocket. "Take this to the Mizukage. I hope everything is arranged?" He shoved his hands into his pockets; it was quite cold here.

"Yes," Ao said and looked over his shoulder. He threw the scroll over to a much younger man carrying a very large sword on his back. It was hard to imagine that man standing stiff on two thin legs, but he made a long leap and disappeared out of sight—an impossible feat for a man of his short stature. "I have arranged the rooms for your stay and the breakfast. I think it would be—"

"No need," Sasuke interrupted, "most of my team members would stay outside the village for everyone's safety. Matters have been quite delicate with other villages. I think it's in everyone's interest if things went along smoothly here." He blinked and turned off his Sharingan—now his eyes looked murky black in the mist.

"I understand," Ao said, gazing at the other members and narrowing his eyes. He pulled the patch over the eye that had the stolen Byakugan and looked to Sasuke. "I will arrange for proper tents and food for the rest of your team."

Sasuke turned around. "Neji, you stay behind with Sakura and the rest. I'll send Hinata out if I need anyone else," he ordered and moved his eyes over everyone. He stopped them momentarily on Sakura's pink face. It seemed as though she had not forgiven him for his sharp tongue. Her face relentlessly worked with anger; it was accustomed to such mechanisms. He created a small, playful smile on his face. Leaving them behind, he followed Ao into the mist with Hinata.

His eyes had not deceived him; the inside of the village was beautiful: bubbling brooks and small streams moved over slick stones and mossy boulders stuck deep in the rough bed; an assortment of the watery tricks of nature made everything sound almost musical; sun was sluggishly climbing up to the horizon (its rays shimmered on twisting streams, so much so that everything around him danced like pearls); even the mist shone as it broke away under the assault of the rising sun.

They stopped at the open iron-gate of a large house. Two burly guards stood outside the large double door. "These are your guestrooms," Ao said and gestured the guard to open the heavy door. "I have arranged for breakfast and warm water. The other rooms are still available if any other member of your team decides to stay here."

Sasuke looked up at the Kage's office: it overlooked the entire village and stood tall between two waterfalls. Dense fog piled up around its pillars—it looked as if it was floating on clouds.

"The time of the meeting?" Sasuke asked, keeping the fatigue buried under his calm countenance. "We need to get it out of the way as soon as possible before we can discuss the Chūnin exams."

"It has all been arranged. I will send over Chōjūrō at noon. He will escort you to the Mizukage's office," Ao explained and adjusted his thick patch as if revealing it before a Hyūga could be taken as a sign of shame.

Sasuke did not say anything and made his way inside the house. Hinata walked behind him. The inside was spacious and beautiful—warm and cozy. This house must have been used for political guests. Hinata scanned the entire area for anything unusual but found nothing. "Sasuke-Sama, I have—" she whispered, puffing from the long haul to this house, "there i-is nothing here."

Sasuke raised his hand to silence her. "Go and rest. I think they'll call us by noon," he said and left her standing there in the hallway. One of the guards stood outside his room. He stepped inside and closed the sliding door. It was a warm room, spacious and lavishly decorated. Sasuke felt as though he was transported to his family house in the northern part of the Fire Country.

A traditional water-colour painting hung inside the alcove, and a warm brazier was placed on a beautiful mat. He looked over to the paper-screen and the sunlight spreading shadows of trees on the wooden walls. A large breakfast was set out on a small table right next to the sunken fireplace. A plume of mist rose from the pot's mouth—the tea was still warm.

Sasuke closed his eyes and sat down on the cushions. It would be quite a while before the Mizukage would call him for the meeting. These were just the perks of being a dictator of the village. He smiled to himself and poured out tea.

Noon came quite fast; sun hung low over the village. Most of the mist was gone and left behind little traces of white that still hovered around the buildings. Sasuke sat inside the Mizukage's personal office with Hinata. The room was large and it opened into a traditional garden. A well stood behind the tall grass. Whenever wind blew, a whistling sound escaped its mouth. It led somewhere or, perhaps, it was just empty? He could not really say for sure.

Voices travelled into the sitting room, and a moment later, a woman in a blue dress made her way into the room. She had very long reddish hair and green eyes. She was young, around her early to mid-thirties, he imagined, and quite pleasing on the eyes. Sasuke gathered himself to his feet when her mischievous green eyes met his.

"Ah, Uchiha Sasuke," she said with a musical lilt to her voice. "You of the Uchiha have such handsome faces." She laughed and tapped her finger on the painted lips. She was being needlessly flirtatious.

Her comment was so odd for an official, but Sasuke managed a smile in reply. "Your village is quite beautiful," he said and glanced at the sparse mist's drape over the straggling town that spread out north where a large river began.

"Perhaps we should keep you here as well, because I do not think this village is as beautiful as you," she said in such a seductive voice, eliciting a small laugh from Sasuke and a frown from Hinata.

Next to her, Ao and Chōjūrō looked quite embarrassed at their Kage's brazen attempts at flirting with an official guest. Ao cleared his throat loudly and began, "Mei-Sama, this man is here to discuss that grave Hyūga matter."

"Do not interrupt—I am aware," she said sternly with a wave of her hand and sat down on the fluffed out cushion. Seeing her knit forehead, Ao bit his own tongue and silenced himself. It was for the best as Mei's temper flowed faster from her pretty mouth than the Lava.

"So the Hyūga matter? You do not think it is a little too late to dig up old skeletons, Sasuke-Kun?" She licked her lips and wiped away the small lipstick smudge that wandered just outside her luscious lips. She was such a beautiful woman.

"Old Skeletons . . ." Sasuke repeated and settled himself down opposite Mei. "Was this matter handled by Yagura-Sama?" His expression hardened when that blush faded from her lovely face. She looked away for a fleeting moment and then returned her eyes to his face again, looking impatient.

"Yagura-Sama . . ." she paused and gathered her courage to speak, ". . . he was made a Mizukage at a very young age. A lot of poor decisions came from being sidelined as a young man that housed the daemonic essence. I'm sure this matter is no secret to Konoha that we meddled with it, as well." She cupped her chin, thinking over what to say next on this delicate matter.

Sasuke's lips were sealed tight. He listened intently. Could it be that Root was involved in this matter, too? It was too early to tighten the noose around Danzō’s neck. He needed more, so he remained quiet in hopes of finding something from Mei as words, delicate words, tumbled from her lips.

"During war," Mei continued and kept her gaze locked on Sasuke, "many died, and to shore up our defenses, we took what we could from scenes of carnage. That Byakugan was one such gift left in the wake of the last Great War. Konoha has many, too." A ghostly smile played about her lips as she waited for Sasuke to say something.

"Are you justifying something that could escalate into a political conspiracy and spark an unwanted war between the two Villages?" Sasuke asked, and his expression hardened at the riddle weaved by her.

"Of course not," she said quickly and placed her hand on the small table before her. "I am just telling you the reason why the eye was even kept. There is nothing suspicious behind it. Your officials worry without a reason."

"Someone like me can’t afford reasons that border on such lofty ideals no matter how much I want it. All of us are tethered to systems. Even you," Sasuke said and immediately narrowed his eyes. "All I need is some proof that the Clan from my village was never involved. I don't see any reason to lend my ears to your political matters. It would only worsen the situation and tangle matters even further. I doubt even you want that."

"Uchiha Sasuke," Ao broke in with a harsh accent, "you're speaking to the Mizukage. Show some—"

"It is all right," Mei said, silencing him. "You are honest and quite flexible. I love lissome men. I will help you." She ran her teeth across her lower lip playfully and put up one finger. "But on one condition. You will not ask for any matter concerning the exploits of war that go beyond Ao's prized possession. Those do not concern you as you said yourself. You can only concern yourself with proving the Hyūga Clan's innocence. Do we have a deal?"

"Your conditions are quite steep," Sasuke said in a low voice, thinking. If she did not say anything else, then there was little room to get something out of her about Root. It was a dead end—for now. "But it seems like a fair bargain. As long as the Clan is saved from shame, the rest doesn't concern me."

"Then it is settled," Mei said and threw a smile that was somewhere between shy and lustful. "You two can stay here in my house to see documents from the previous Great War, and the rest of your team can stay in the other house. We have many guard ninjas that prowl at night. You needn't worry about unwanted unpleasantness."

Sasuke nodded and got to his feet when Mei stood up. "I have some official matters to attend. I suggest you wait till nightfall for anything else on the matter. You are aware that very few people know about this situation. I do not want this to be a public affair. I am sure you must have treated it in the same manner."

"It was the wish of the Clan's head. I’m just honouring it," Sasuke said and turned his eyes just a little to look at Hinata who was twiddling her thumbs—again.

Mei smiled and left the sitting room with her guards. Sasuke turned on his Sharingan to look through the walls. It was safe for them to talk. "Make sure you go through everything thoroughly. We won't get another chance. Make this count if you want your reputation to remain unblemished," he whispered and walked out of the sitting room.

Hinata's eyes followed his every step till they could no more. She looked outside at the garden and then lifted her gaze skyward. Sun was red in the sky. It was strange how she was thrown in the midst of this all. What if nothing came out of this meeting? Her heart skipped several beats, and she felt tears go down her cheeks. She stifled a sob and clutched at her breast . . . the thought pained her.

# # # # # #

Hinata blinked and stared at the scrolls with tired eyes. There was a deep stoop to her back as she examined a large pile of official scrolls arranged before her: exploits of war, the obituaries, the number of lost men; the equipment used; the medics who aided in many ways—it was all here. The three candles on the table before her waned, their flames rising high on the blackened wicks. She would have to change them again soon.

She inhaled sharply, feeling helpless. She had rummaged and rifled through more than half of them. Sasuke helped decipher most of the important scrolls written on political matters concerning Byakugan. She checked all of them word for word—the dates, the people killed, and the people who died in her Clan at the hands of Mist ninjas. Her precious clan. It was a feeling of emptiness that engulfed her. This was when her Clan lost its strength and, perhaps, even its honour.

Hinata's nimble fingers moved over each line of another long scroll spread out on the large table. She shifted in the chair, her legs dangling over the floor; she was not that tall a woman. There was a strange insignia next to the Byakugan symbol on the scroll she was reading now. She did not quite recognize it. Perhaps it was something the Mist Village's coders used for secret messages.

A tall shadow loomed from behind, and she instinctively turned her head to look over her shoulder. It was Sasuke. He stepped into the light of the candles; half of his face was covered by the room's overwhelming darkness. He looked to the sky beyond the window and then steered his gaze towards the clock. His hazy lips moved to speak: "you are still here?"

Hinata looked ahead and rolled up the scroll. She had read through it. "I—" she fumbled for words as usual and then held the scroll firmly between her hands, "I w-was going through this one, Sasuke-Sama. It has this strange symbol I don't recognize. P-Perhaps you know what it is." She stretched her arm and gave the scroll to Sasuke.

Sasuke unrolled it, not caring that the long paper fell down to his feet. He ran his eyes quickly over the page and caught sight of the symbol. A familiar look of realization flickered in his eyes before it disappeared. He rolled it up again and gazed down to Hinata. "I don't think it's of any concern. You can check the remaining ones tomorrow," he said and threw the scroll on the pile that lost its shape as some of them fell down to the floor. "I'll call in Yuu. He will copy the important ones. If necessary, Neji can—"

"No," Hinata cut him off in a loud voice, quickly getting to her feet. "Don't tell anything to Neji-Nii. He—shouldn't k-know anything about this. Please, I-I beg of you." She clasped her hands together and hunched her shoulders pleadingly.

A few thin lines momentarily creased Sasuke's forehead. He kneaded his brow silently for a few fleeting moments and opened his deep black eyes to meet hers again. His entire visage had marked itself permanently in her eyes: the soulful eyes, that handsome face—they made embers of desire smoulder within her. She remembered again . . . in the darkness of so many nights, the burning coals, and the wild, young blood in her began to boil under her skin without shame.

"Look," he began in a mellow voice and placed his hand on the table, "I understand you don't want Neji to know anything about his family's involvement, but if this escalates, Neji and everyone in your clan would be shamed. You should understand that. I'm not too thrilled to include Neji in this mess, but if it can't be handled by me alone, then I would have no choice but to take him into confidence. This isn't a game, Hinata."

That sudden flare of desire died quickly. Hinata lifted her eyes a little, peering through her hair, head bowed. She did not want him to see her face that was streaming with tears. She remained quiet and fought back the sobs and nodded slowly when she felt that he was looking at her to say something in response.

"Take these scrolls to your room. Never mind," Sasuke said and shook his head, "I'll ask Yuu to carry them for you. Sleep tight—don't let anyone bite." He pushed his hands into his pockets and left the room. The large door remained open, its steel catching the light of full moon—it was a beautiful night.

Hinata wiped her face on her sleeves and gestured Yuu to take the scrolls to the room upstairs. He grabbed all the important ones, curled his arms around them, and made his way out. She was staying there for the night, but she wanted to meet Naruto. Maybe . . . maybe he would sleep in the same bed with her tonight (the way husband and wife did). He had been training tirelessly for the whole day.

She looked at the clock hanging on the wall in front; it was just past one a.m. An optimistic smile forced itself to her lips, and she ran out of the room. She was being a fool. She strode past the front door, playfully jumped over the large stones that made the pathway, and stepped onto the small bridge over a stream. Naruto was standing there, his elbows on the handrails as he looked down to the clear water just below the bridge.

She held her breath and took a few slow steps over to him. The wooden bridge creaked under her timid steps. She put her hand on the cold steel handrail and looked at Naruto's blank face. He was lost in thought, staring down into the darkness hanging over the water beneath them. The lamppost close to them flickered, and a swarm of insects flew around it; its light had grown dull.

The wind was light, and she could only hear a whispery shush of leaves now. She moved her white hand a little closer and tilted her head to look into his blue eyes, which gazed into the empty space before him.

"N-Naruto-Kun, are you all right?" she asked and watched as he turned with a start; a grin broke out on his sober face, and he scratched his head the way he always did when he was nervous.

"What're you doing out here?" he asked, patting her head as though she was a child. "It's cold out here. Look at the mist—it's rising. I can't even see my own hand!" He raised his hand and waved it a little, breaking the mist into a zig-zag pattern.

She put her hand to her breast and her heart fluttered. A blush appeared on her white cheeks, and she turned her head a little to hide her shyness. "I-I came to check on you," she said and lowered her eyes to look at the clear water, too.

Naruto took in a loud intake of breath, puffed out his chest, and exhaled loudly. Beneath the broken light of the lamp, she saw his blue eyes so clearly. He had such deep ocean-blue eyes. It brought out a different kind of feeling from her. Sasuke's eyes were dark, foreboding, chilly—almost sinister, almost lusty. They drew such curiosity out of the other to peel away that veil of pretend-play from them. She did not think she was ever successful. His eyes were so beautiful and deliciously seductive, but they were also so cold and dangerous—they were a lure to draw someone in . . .

Naruto was different. His eyes were warm. He was not a good looking man, but she loved him for he was a thoughtless, blundering man full of hope. He was almost twenty-five but still so innocent. She remembered Sasuke often mocked him for being too naïve when he came by their home. Naruto would only laugh in response. He was a simple man and he had simple desires. Hinata clenched the fingers of her right hand—his desires simply did not have enough room for her.

"I came to talk to Sasuke," he said, breaking into her thoughts, "but Ao said he had already gone to bed. So I guess—I guess I came here. I just wanted to get a little fresh air." He raised his hand and took a whiff of a Sakura flower held delicately between his thumb and forefinger. He breathed in deep and closed his eyes as he relished the soft smell of the delicate petals.

Naruto turned to her and his eyes twinkled in the light. There was a broad smile on his face. He looked happy now. That flower calmed his senses. He did not seem to see the shock appear on her face. "I'll see you tomorrow, Hinata," he said, still smiling, and walked away from her.

He took a few slow steps, and the darkness swallowed him. The light of the lamp was not strong and bright enough to cut the dark fog. Hinata pulled her eyes away. She had no desire to turn on her Byakugan to look at him and see if he really was as naïve and innocent as Sasuke believed him to be.

She clamped her lips together and swallowed the sob rumbling painfully in her throat. She knew he did not love her, but to see him carry around the flower that constantly reminded him of her was like a dagger through her heart. There was nothing left to see. She put her hand upon her mouth, her eyes burning, and before she knew it, she was running up the stone pathway to the house on the small cliff.

Hinata slipped and grazed her knee badly. Blood oozed out of the broken skin. It burnt, but she did not care and scrambled to her feet as though she was being chased down by a madman. Finally, she stopped running and breathed in loudly a few times to even out her breathing. She slumped exhausted over the small fountain and made a scoop of her shivering hands.

She splashed her face repeatedly and finally caught her wind. The last sob shook her like a child deep in sleep before the chill of fresh water made it feel like a passing daydream. The feeling vanished, and she felt that she had completely died inside. Naruto did not love her—the thought finally made a shaky home in her breast, and her heart beat no more even if she thought of the memory again.

Lifelessly, Hinata dragged her feet inside the house and closed the heavy door behind her. She squashed her back against the closed door for a few minutes and breathed in the aroma of incense in the sitting room. A few grey swirls still lingered around her. She found her senses and breathed in and out ritualistically, trying to throw the thought out of her system; but the memory clung to her mind like a swollen leech, drinking her sanity, emptying her of the last bits of honour left in her.

Her head spun around, an impassioned dervish, and she flung herself to her right to break her fall. She sank down to her knees and then pulled herself stubbornly back up again. Her ears rang with Sakura's laugh and Naruto's chuckles in the forest yesterday, the harsh sounds of his breaths on the bridge when he had sniffed at the flower. He had betrayed her, shamed her, dashed her honour to pieces. Their marriage was nothing but a prison for her.

There was a menacing silence all around her, but her ears pricked up at the faint sounds. Her mind loved the distraction and she chased them. Sasuke . . . that was all that whirled in her mind. She wanted to find him. Her eyes searched for him, and her body yearned for his touch. It was so foolish to think this way, but she did not care. It was just desire—a silly, silly desire—to feel the heat of his body. (Hot coals burnt bright in her mind tonight.)

She stopped next to the large door that led to Mei's room. It was slightly ajar. She hid herself behind it like a child and peered at the back of the room. It was a small sitting room attached to the bedroom. Faint sounds wafted to her through the half-open sliding door. There stood Sasuke in black trousers without anything covering his torso. The sleek lines of his body were punctuated by the glowing orange lantern sitting on the side-table.

He was roughly pushed against the wall by Mei who stretched on tiptoes to place a kiss upon his neck. He buried his fingers in her red hair and bent down his head to cover her lips with his. She responded eagerly and pulled him close as though he was a toy, biting his lip hard enough to make him taste blood. He pulled down the net-dress she wore and helped her step out of her gown that crumpled by her feet.

Mei stood almost naked, gripping Sasuke's shoulders. He buried his face into the soft flesh of her neck and moved his hand up between her shivering thighs to cup her genitals through her underwear. Hinata's heart raced, her fingers gripping the cold door’s handle tightly—palms slick with sweat, breath catching in her throat. She pressed her hand to her breast and kept looking, unburdening herself of Naruto and his memories—their empty memories.

It was so shameful to look at this free-show, this exhibition of lust, but the desire she felt for him made it easier to throw away her honor and enjoy the spectacle before her; it was as though he had arranged it just for her, asking her to join him in the old, old dance just for the sake of decadence and pleasure.

So she watched as Mei lay on her back on the large bed, naked. Her body covered with sweat. Sasuke kissed her breasts and his hands played with her thighs. He moved lower and lower. Hinata felt the sticky wetness at the junction of her own legs. She was getting warm. Her face was red and blood pounded in her veins. Her heart was so loud that she thought someone would hear it beat—that it would burst if it beat any faster.

Hinata clenched her fingers into a firm fist, shaking, watching as he kissed her wet core. A moist flood appeared on her inner thighs. She was getting a vicarious thrill out of watching him pleasure another woman. She wanted him to do this to her, make her feel desire, pleasure . . . unbridled and without end.

Mei's lips parted with a moan, her back arching off the mattress, as Sasuke continued to kiss her between the thighs. She stretched her arm and played with his messy hair that was spread out over her white thighs. Hinata shook all over and her vision blurred and her ears filled with a static sound; her whole body was numb with desire now.

Something ached between her legs and it hurt, and she thought that the only thing that would end it was to be filled by him so completely. She pressed her hand down hard on her lips and stifled the sounds, eyes enjoying the scene, thinking that she was there beneath him, waiting for him to complete her. The dull pain there was intensifying in such an odd manner that it felt as though it was steadily rising to a crescendo, waiting for something to overwhelm it.

Sasuke pushed himself inside of her and moved roughly. The last bit of will left Hinata as she watched Mei wrap her legs around his waist. She moved back silently and ran to her room. She did not stop till she made it safely inside. She closed the door and locked it securely, fearing that someone saw her standing outside the door.

She fell down on her bed and buried her red face in the folds of the new bed sheets. Her heart continued to beat loudly before it finally found its right pace again—that silly mind continued to play everything over and over again. No matter how hard she tried, she could not bring up Naruto's memory: it got buried underneath the new one her body had grown so fond of.

Minutes passed, and when her body finally felt the chill coming in from the window upon itself, she rolled onto her back. Her eyes looked to the ceiling, and she moved her hand over her genitals and pressed it down a little. It was still throbbing there, but the pain was gone. She gulped down the cold air in the room and closed her eyes; and as if something had exhausted her, sleep had her in its clasp almost immediately.

# # # # # #

Sasuke lay under the warm sheets with Mei rolled up into a ball right next to him. He opened his eyes, the red in them tearing away the darkness in the room. His Sharingan had fooled her so badly . . .

# # # # # #

Chapter Text

# # # # # #

Without any thought in mind, Sasuke's eyes opened. The red there refused to accept defeat before the surging darkness in the room. Turning his gaze, he espied an owl hooting behind the weighty branches covered in the most delicate, fresh green leaves. He saw its life force very clearly.

Next to him, Mei was curled up like a caterpillar in a cocoon, sleeping peacefully with heavy sheets lying over her naked body. A map of glistening sweat, along with the bite marks he had left, covered her freckles-dotted pink-ish skin. Just next to the bed, a small flame guttered desperately on the thin wick. The oil in the lantern was nearly gone and so was the magnificent splash of blue light in the room. It would die away within a few minutes. He knew it.

Sasuke inhaled the odour of their conjoining, still heavy in the warm air, getting a little hard at the prospect of going for another round. There will be another time, he thought and smiled to himself. He would not lie: Mei was the most beautiful woman he had ever slept with. It would be such a waste to taste her just once.

It was easy to conquer her. All he had to do was give into her silly seductions, and there she was, not a moment later, vulnerable and pliant in his arms—so fragile before the horrific illusions of his daemonic eyes.

Down and down she went, trapped in the narcotic land of dreams he wove. He needed to be close to the well. It was too obvious: Hidden Mist Village was ruled by a foolish coquette. Sasuke pushed the sheets back and got out of bed. He skittered his gaze around the misty area beyond the room. The halls were empty, Hinata was fast asleep in her room, and two guards were right outside by the brook off yonder. That was too easy—almost too easy?

He bent down and wore his sandals and picked up the jacket he had taken off a few hours ago. All the tools he needed were still inside. He checked them one last time and opened the window. A wave of silver light filled the room. Overhead, the sky flashed a few times. It would rain again, and this time, it would come down as a mighty storm.

Sasuke placed his hand on the window pane and jumped out. He closed the window behind and flashed up to the empty well. Its mouth was gaping open, and a whistling sound rose up from its dry depths. It was not a very long drop. He scanned the area quickly and leapt down to the stone-covered bottom. He landed smoothly on the gritty ground and ran south, following the tortuous path ahead of him. It was dark, but the flame he carried on his palm was enough to light the way.

The path under his feet was mostly dry, but thin trickles of water ran down the narrow roof that was nothing but rocks and gnarled roots overhead. It was dark, cramped, and smelt earthy. Sasuke's ears pricked up at the sounds of rushing water. Just as he had thought: the well led straight out of the village. It was probably a safe passage to hide the Kage and important officials when all was lost.

When the sound of water rose to a melodious crescendo, he knew he was close as he drew near the white and foggy mouth of the long cavern. Light came in through the twisting roots, and a large lake lay quiet beyond them. Its surface was slightly ruffled by the wind—the rolling waves, calm and pristine.

Sasuke moved the roots out of the way and stepped into the light. He bent his head and looked down into the depths of the lake, his eyes tearing through the murky layer easily. There it was, the secret entrance to the hidden underground hideout. He stepped onto the water, looking up, feeling the cool wind in his face.

He stopped the chakra supply to his feet and plunged down. A powerful shudder ran through him. The surface above him rippled, carrying frothy white foam and a few bubbles; and the darkness underneath was a watery abyss that waited to swallow him whole. He swam downwards and kept his gaze locked on the two large Buddha statues and a big sacred stone wedged between them.

Sasuke stopped, floating alone midst the darkness. He leant his head back and watched as the silver light of the moon gave way to the powerful darkness, which rose from the depths below him. The last shaft barely caught the side of his face—silver moonlight in his right eye. He moved his hands and feet and swam ahead, looking at the chakra threads that guarded the entrance like an intricate web of a spider.

He swam upwards and went through the space between the chakra wires. It was enough for one lean man to swim through (probably for the guards who brought the necessary scrolls and items here). Soon, he found himself in another cavern system. These were underground caves. He could hold his breath for thirty minutes, but this was a bit risky. He had to be careful; otherwise, he would drown in here, leaving a mess for his clan to clean up. The shame would haunt him after death.

Mist was a village full of fools. His Sharingan could see the residual chakra left by the ninjas. It was like a trail of breadcrumbs—far too easy to see and track for his eyes. He saw the guards standing over the well late at night. They must have come here for the Hyūga scrolls; otherwise, the trail would have been lost in the water. Wisps of chakra swirled around him and glowed in the water like puffy little jellyfish.

He looked at the space around him: it was illuminated by luminescent stones set deep in the pathways. The bubbles shone were like fine jewels when the light passed through them. He doubted this was something done by the village; they must have found this place somehow . . . an underground shrine, he imagined, defiled by the greedy men of this village. It was heretical.

After swimming for a good ten minutes, he finally found the mouth midst the labyrinth of caves. Any man without his eyes would have been lost here. He rose up slowly, his face touching the surface and breaking the still water. He breathed in a lungful of air that was redolent of incense. He focused his chakra and pulled his body up and stood on the surface. Beneath him were the same paths and the light blue glow of smooth stones.

Everything seemed ordinary and decrepit here. Many statues had crumbled to dust and few others were missing various parts. Sasuke built up massive chakra and released a large wall of Katon around him. It dried him off instantly; it was not wise to leave behind muddy sandal-prints for the Intelligence Division. They were fools but no one was that foolish!

A few stray drops trickled down his wet hair, but it was not enough to create a trail. He placed his feet on the stone entrance and made a long leap straight for another large stone, covering the entire distance with ease. He did not want to leave anything behind.

After the third jump, he landed in a room with a few chambers. One of them was open. The guards must have left in a hurry when he demanded the scrolls and made those accusations. Was it that easy to galvanize Mei into action and make her spread those lovely, lovely legs wide for him? A smile twisted his face, and a haughty look flashed across his countenance. Women were such an easy game . . .

He stepped in, never leaving the anchor of confidence his eyes assured. There were chakra prints all over the trunk by his feet. The chakra was disappearing fast, evanescent like a fleeting scent. He squatted down and opened the chest and looked inside. It was strange—the chest was almost empty save for a few scrolls stamped with a Hidden Leaf symbol. Did she really divulge all to avoid a possible war with Konoha? He was convincing!

He looked through the scrolls and finally found something that interested him. The scroll bore Root division's stamp: Danzō! He found a few more stamps on the scrolls piled neatly inside the old shelf. It was made up of dried bamboo. That was all he needed to build something up. The gears were turning in his head fast. Suddenly, like the forking branches of ink that grew in the paper from a single drop, a whole scheme emerged from the depths of his thoughts, winding and twisting into a ripening plan that carried the tidings of Danzō’s cruel fate—a succulent summer’s fruit that awaited the autumn’s sun to fill it with a rotting sweetness and grant it vengeance's ripe shade. All he needed were a few more pieces and that man's heart, his black heart, was his.

Sasuke took out a few empty scrolls from his pocket and made quick hand-seals, copying the words on the blank paper. They got covered with intricate patterns, and Danzō’s fate was prematurely sealed. It would not be long before Mei woke up; he wanted to leave her in a pleasant illusion without the nuisance of paralysis. Such tricks left bouts of mental and physical pain in its wake. He placed the scrolls exactly where they were before; then he rearranged them meticulously and left the exact way he came.

When Mei woke up a few minutes later, her hand landed on Sasuke's breast. The trip back to the well was easy. It took him less than half the time to make it back before she woke up and the guards came back to check up on him and Hinata. She moved closer to him and pressed her lips to his, kissing him, her tongue eager in his mouth. He clasped his arms around the small of her back and pulled her close. Feeling her breasts press against his flared his youthful loins almost instantly.

He pushed Mei onto her back and pried her legs open for another round. It did not take her body long to allow him to enter her again. When he touched her genitals, he felt the delightful seep of her moisture. He needed this more than she, so he enjoyed her thoroughly . . .

# # # # # #

When morning came, it was business as usual—just another day in his life that demanded that little change, that little excitement he always craved. Mei provided it this time, but soon, she would begin to bore him. He was this way with sake, too. When he tasted it once, he always liked something new to touch his lips next time. Swilling down the same thing every day simply made it trivial. But she was different. She was a feisty beauty, and he always enjoyed tasting unique, strong sake from time to time.

Mei lumbered around rather awkwardly in her office: her beautiful legs had a mind of their own. Her guards seemed to know a little too much, but that was a matter of her own. Her political affairs were none of his affairs. He looked around when Mei sat down cautiously on the mat opposite . . . Hinata was not here. Perhaps she overslept?

"Naruto and others are waiting  . . . " Ao's voice trailed off as he stole an embarrassed glance at his Mizukage, " . . . outside the village. The supplies are ready."

"Thank you," Sasuke said and looked at Mei whose face was whipped with worry and a delightful blush. "I've given the Chūnin exams' scrolls to Ao. He said you're content with the arrangements?"

"Yes," Mei said, cleared her throat, and covered her neck with a delicate shawl, which hid the marks of her adventurous night. "I would like for your Hokage to consider two more officials from the Water country. They have given funding for the Ninja Academy's improvement. It's only fair that they are invited." She held her gaze, her face scrunching into a scowl . . . and he did not know why.

"I'm afraid it's not in my power to give permission or disallow this. You can give me the official letter, and I'll hand it over to the Hokage myself. Then it's up to her to decide," he explained, looking at her blushing face. She was trying to search for something in his face, but his veneer was too thick to break under a woman's prying eyes.

Mei cupped her chin and considered it for a moment. "It seems appropriate," she said, her voice laced with a hidden desire only he could whiff out. When she would come to Leaf during the Chūnin exams, he would make sure to invite her to warm his bed. "I have asked Ao to arrange for the letter. It should be ready any minute."

Sasuke got to his feet. "I've got to check up on Hinata. She has been rather feverish . . . since last night," he said with a pregnant pause.

"Yes, yes of course," Mei said hastily and rose up to get to her shaky feet. Her genitals were aching dully since last night. "Would you like to stay here for dinner?"

"I'm afraid not," Sasuke said and averted her gaze to look outside, "I have to hand over the report to the Hokage as soon as possible. She gets pretty sore—otherwise." With that, he left Mei standing in the living room.

The sun rays were bright and strong when he reached Hinata's room. He made a firm fist and knocked. Silence. She was still sleeping. He knocked again and spoke, "Hinata, it's time to leave. Unless you plan on staying here?"

Hinata's eyes opened suddenly, and her whole body convulsed with a strange excitement that still lingered inside her. His voice stole its way over to her, and she knew she desired him—it was befooled by the spectacle she saw last night. She was trembling from the chill in the room. She had fallen fast asleep and remembered nothing other than his aloof passions.

"Hinata," came the voice from beyond the door, and it sounded so eerie now, "are you awake? If you aren't feeling well, I can send in a Medic. Sage knows I can't handle these monthly female troubles."

"Y-Yes," Hinata said weakly and wrapped her arms around herself. The room was under the mantle of morning cold. She looked at the fireplace; only the last coal was burning in the entire pile. The smouldering flames would go out soon. "I'm fine. I—" She slapped her feet onto the cold wooden floor and swayed a little, balancing herself by gripping the bedpost. She reached out a trembling hand towards the door and opened it quite unwillingly. Sasuke's stoic face greeted her tired morning gaze.

"You slept in?" Sasuke said as if talking to himself. "Strange, how a woman that plays in the moors forgets to wake up." He turned around and gave the door a little push and closed it behind him.

Hinata's body felt the burden of truth. His gaze was boring into her. She backed away and stood with her back against the wall. "I-I was a little tired," she finally said and dropped her gaze to her feet at the sight of Sasuke's eyes and a delightful arrogance that hovered over them.

"Where were you last night?" he suddenly asked, looking at Hinata's face that was sweaty despite the chill in the room. "I told you to stay in your room. But you wandered off—and even peeped at things. How naughty."

Hinata jerked her head up, her eyes widening. Pink colour flew from her cheeks and lips. She looked numb, almost dead under the weight of embarrassment. "I didn't mean to. I-I'm sorry, S-Sasuke-Sama. It won't happen again," she said, fumbling for words. Her lips trembled—tears finally broke through and went down her cheeks.

Sasuke towered over her and placed his hand on the wall behind her. "Don't tell anyone," he whispered and contorted his features into a more serious and deadly look. "I mean it. What you saw, doesn't concern you. There will be terrible consequences—for me and for you, if you did. Bury it deep in your heart and forget it. You will do us both good. Your family's honour depends on it." Then he moved back and stared down at her as though he was waiting for her to say something.

Hinata's nose was red, and she absentmindedly fiddled with the bracelet around her wrist. "You—" she broke off and stifled a noisy sob, "—that day, you told me to do exactly as you a-asked. Why?"

Sasuke narrowed his red eyes and turned his gaze slightly to look at Ao walking up the path with a letter in his hand. "Yes," he said after a long consideration, "you're easy to tease. To see . . . if you actually felt anything underneath this foolish, aloof wife act despite the whole discarded daughter affair, and the obvious embarrassment it has brought you. What did you find when you rushed off to see Naruto?" He smiled, looking at Hinata's defeated eyes. She could not speak at all . . .

"Your silence is enough. Play the cards yourself. This is your chance to wash away the stain left on your Clan’s reputation by the Namikaze. What better way than to string the arrow of shame and drive it through Minato's heart who arranged for this whole unfortunate marriage to save himself and his sullied name," he went on, his voice heavy in the small room, "whether you choose to remain foolish or not is within your grasp." Then he left the room without another word.

Hinata remained silent, and her eyes travelled around her feet. Her ears buzzed with Sasuke's words even after he had left her alone in the room amid the corroding silence. She was too easy to play with. Sasuke was right: Minato had poured this poison into her life—she had to fight back!

# # # # # #

Chapter Text

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A berry fell down from the tree in a cascade of dry leaves. It was rotten to its core; the seed was useless (it was not a good seed) as it would never be able to sprout roots and grow into a tree and bear fruit—in summer. It fell close to Sasuke's feet, who paid it no mind and continued to look at Naruto trying his hardest to carry out a seemingly impossible task.

Naruto clapped his hands together and made the usual sign that had become a regular cliché for him. He created two Kage Bunshins. In less than half a second, another equally confused Naruto popped into Sasuke's field of vision and smiled from ear to ear—it was always the same spectacle.

But Sasuke was patient. He leant his head into his hands, and his eyes drooped under the burden of yesterday's journey. It was the wee hour of the morning, and the sky was just beginning to show a magnificent red colour on the horizon. The forest was still under the mantle of mist. It was a sombre sight, almost pristine. He pulled his head back and held his gaze, waiting for Naruto to show him something—anything. It was, sometimes, a great struggle to take the man seriously.

"Oh, wait!" the original Naruto exclaimed and slapped his own forehead, "I've got to make another one," and then he proceeded to create another clone.

"Naturally," Sasuke droned in a sleepy voice. He intended to view this talent-show in the evening but Naruto insisted. Sometimes, he wondered: were there any perks of being the Head Jōnin of a team? The whole matter was a children's story—more myth, less fact.

Finally, what felt like eons to Sasuke, Naruto held out his hands and faced his palms out; and his clones began making spinning gestures over his palms. First, a Rasengan swirled into view, and then a new elemental chakra whirled around it. Both of them melded and conflated into a spinning, blade-like chakra formation.

Sasuke craned his neck and tried to look interested. Naruto had done this before, but he never could maintain it for long, let alone throw it in any direction at whim. His noisy clones jumped back, and Naruto took a cautious stance, hunching his shoulders and moving his arm back to throw the spinning chakra at the rocks in front.

Sasuke stood straight with a start, unfolding his arms. His eyes glinted with curiosity. Naruto threw his arm forward, and the chakra detached itself from his hand; it whirled forward and cut clean through the rocks in front. Sasuke's Sharingan switched on automatically and peered through the misty forest to look at the Rasen-Shuriken cleaving the mist and tall trees before disappearing into thin wisps some fifty feet to the North.

A subtle expression scurried across his face, and he brought his gaze back to Naruto. He was impressed. "Not bad," he said and slapped the side of his thighs to rid his pants of small dry leaves. "Still, a bit late, don't you think?"

"You're never impressed!" Naruto said in a happy voice, wearing his trademark happy-go-lucky expression. "How do you like that? Impressed, huh?" He widened his eyes and kept that smile impeccably pasted on his face.

"Terribly," Sasuke returned and ceased his hearty smile. "That doesn't mean this wasn't long overdue. Stop slacking—that's all." He turned around and started walking out of the open field he had reserved for his team's training.

Naruto jogged behind him and then slowed down his pace. "I'm—never mind. You look grumpier than usual. What's eating ya?" he asked, scratching his head.

"Nothing that would concern you." Sasuke halted in his steps and returned Naruto's warm gaze with ferocious calm. "You need to drop Sakura. She may get released from my service soon. I don't want you weeping on my doorstep like last time."

Naruto's smile sagged, and his eyes swam with the usual concern. He looked desolate and desperate already. "Why—why are you doing this? She might get transferred to another village in the Fire Country. You know I won't be able to see her that way! How can you do this?" he pleaded, and his faced convulsed with the burden of longing and distance. His emotions were almost palpable for him to bear.

Sasuke closed his eyes, sighing. "How long do you want me to entertain your little romance?" he asked, meeting Naruto's clear blue eyes with heavy intensity. "This isn't a game anymore. You're not a child and neither is she. She failed her medical trials last week. I got the results just last night. On what grounds should I keep her? That you—you simply can't get enough of her? You know this isn't a good enough for me."

Naruto bowed his head and clenched his teeth. "You . . . you know I love Sakura. You let her go and what's left for me? You just don't understand. You never have," he said and turned his head away, his voice laced with defiance and anger.

Sasuke put his hands upon his face and breathed heavily behind his sweaty palms. "When will you grow up? When?" he asked in a heavy voice and pulled his hands down. "You know this matter is big. Your family's repute is at stake—your repute is at stake here. I don't need to tell you this over and over again. Why don't you understand? I don't want to let you off my team at the cost of Sakura. Nii-Sama is just looking for a reason to discharge you. Don't make this more difficult for me."

Naruto peered through the haze of resolve hovering over his eyes. His ears did not want to hear reason. "I care about you, Sasuke. You are like a brother I never had. And—" he broke off and stifled the burning surge of emotion in his breast, "—no one can ever take your place, not even Sakura. But I know you have never thought about me that way. But Sakura . . . she sees me. You just can't understand my feelings." Then he stared off into the distance.

Sasuke remained silent, looking at the man sagging at his knees. He did not know how to answer. Naruto was infatuated with Sakura and felt this strange sort of . . . pure love for him that he never understood. Naruto's confession always left him without words. He searched for them tirelessly, but when the moment came to let them spill forth from his lips, he lost them to uncertainty and cutting silence.

Nothing broke Sasuke's expression. He simply turned and said, "go home to your wife. Tell her I want to talk to her about joining the team. I'll drop by in the evening. We'll talk some other time." Then he walked away and left Naruto behind in the clearing—midst the huddle of trees to fumble for words and thoughts. He had gone through this so many times. Naruto's words and his eyes broke his resolve. He did not know how to get rid of Sakura without breaking Naruto. It had to be done. Something had to be done!

# # # # # #

"I could always do without the extra distractions," Sasuke said, standing straight before the leader of the Hidden Leaf Village.

Tsunade looked up from the scroll on her table. A large stack lay untouched next to her sake cup. She rolled it up gently and clasped her hands together. "You don't seem to like her," she spoke in an accusatory tone that did not seem to break Sasuke's ready-made expression. "I don't think this is just about the test."

Sasuke let out an audible 'humph' and sharply turned his head away, not trying to hide the scornful smile that broke his expressionless face. "Is that what she told you?" he asked, letting his red eyes burden her body and mind. "I'm fully aware that she's your student. Perhaps your feelings are affecting your judgment."

"Don't be so direct, boy," Tsunade retorted and her features contorted in anger.

"You want diplomacy instead when only a moment ago you asked me to be candid?" he asked slowly, grasping this small moment of candour. "I'm not too fond of the quaint customs of the Hokages and the ready-made conveniences they offer, but I'm well aware of my own rights as a Head Jōnin. You forced her on me when it was my choice to select any Medic as I saw fit. Why?"

Tsunade breathed in sharply, her jaws went tense, and her eyes remained transfixed on the red in his. They pulled her gaze towards them—so enchanting and mesmerizing. They were like two spectres within the reality of reason with their endless red lust and allure. Uchihas—the ugly mystery of this world.

"What are you trying to say?" Tsunade finally asked and found herself straining to break completely free of the powerful eyes that almost swam in the darkness of the room. "I made her stay with you because you had already appointed Naruto. A team that worked together as Chūnins would only strengthen itself as Jōnins. What other reason could I possibly have?"

"Is that all?" Sasuke asked and brought out that flare of anger on Tsunade's face. She could be read so easily. "Whatever the reasons, I don't want her on my team anymore. She is clouding Naruto's judgment and his performance is falling apart because of her expensive paramour status. Didn't she tell you?" Sasuke feigned innocence and watched her with wicked sarcasm on his face.

"What is this?" Tsunade stood up slowly, looking livid. "You would go this far?"

"I have no reason to slur on her tiny reputation. It's Naruto I am worried about. Whatever happens to her is none of my concern. If this matter gets out, Naruto would be ruined. The burden of Namikaze has already sullied his reputation. When will you stop her—when he drowns in all of this? Would that make you happy? I doubt you don't know about her little trysts."

"Enough!" Tsunade shouted and slammed her hands down on the table. It cracked at the legs and started wobbling. She buried her face in her hands and stood still for a moment to get her wind. A few seconds passed, and she finally moved them to look at him staring at her impassively. "This isn't about Naruto. It's about you, isn't it? You're worried about your own reputation. Sakura would never go this far. I know her."

"You can never know another. And I don't care what you think of me. Honour is not made overnight nor can it be bought. It's something precious and irreplaceable. You may not understand this, but I do. More than half of my family was murdered for this village's sake. I wouldn't let Sakura smear her adulterous antics all over it. Either you put an end to this, or I will. This is the last time I've come to your office for this," he said heavily and walked out, not waiting for Tsunade to speak out in Sakura's defense.

Tsunade slumped down in the chair. His accusations shook her body. Her fingers trembled as she closed them around the sake cup. She brought it to her lips and took a few sips absentmindedly. She was lost for words and had so few thoughts to spare. She had brought up Sakura as if she was her own. She would never betray her this way . . .

Sasuke gently closed the door behind him, and his eyes immediately caught sight of Sakura standing next to the pillar a couple of feet away. For a few fleeting moments, he held his gaze and poured out the malice in his eyes. He did not say anything and left the corridor with stiff long steps. Sakura's eyes followed his steps till he disappeared behind the door; then she closed them and tears poured down her face.

# # # # # #

Naruto stood on his doorstep under the dark sky. It was spitting, and the stone-trail that left the front-door was covered in wet. The small stream's stone-bed by his house was scoured out by cold water that came down from the mountains. These stones were once carved out by the finest Konoha's craftsmen for his father. They used to live here. Now their outlines had diminished beyond recognition, worn thin . . . like his father's reputation.

He bowed his head and his face trembled. He fell forward suddenly and hit his head on the hard wooden door. "It's her fault. She did all of this," the cunning voice echoed in his mind. "If she wasn't here, you could have been free—free to do whatever you desired." Naruto clutched at the handle feebly, his slick fingers slipping on the door.

"Look how she abandoned you today. Didn't let you play with her. Get rid of her. Then you can have Sasuke. You love him, don't you? He's so dear to you—a brother you always wished for. A family you never had. Your mother and father have only made you miserable, haven't they?" the voice resonated as if in an empty room and bounced off the walls of his consciousness. "Kill her. Kill this bitch. She's just a whore who is using you. You know this. She always loved Sasuke, never you. You were useless, you dead-last." It laughed and the eyes glowed, serpentine in the darkness that spread and spread in his mind, rising from the bottom like a filthy sludge.

"Leave me a-alone," Naruto's voice wobbled as it tore from his lips. He trembled all over. An icy chill scurried up his spine, freezing him to the bones. It was that voice—he was going mad again. He clutched at his heart as if it would stop beating if he did not. It pained him. Even his breaths burdened him greatly. He was being suffocated to death.

Naruto parted his lips with an animalistic snarl, baring his teeth. His hands flew to his mouth. He tasted blood as new teeth moved inside his mouth. Long canine teeth jutted out of his gums, and his eyes turned to slits.

"Get outta my head," he hissed, feeling detached from his human self. His backbone twisted underneath his skin, and he fell down on his knees, cringing before a more powerful master.

"Run . . . run . . . run," the voice said deviously, tempting him, "run . . . run . . . run . . . but you can't hide." Then it burst out into a hideous laugh and suddenly went silent.

Naruto's vision focused on his hands caked in dirt. His head was bowed, and he was on all fours on the stone-path. Cold wind blew up his shirt from behind. The strange chill left him again; he was at its mercy. He mustered up the courage and wiped his dripping face on his sleeve. Putting his fingers in the sliding door's handle, he hitched himself up and rapped on the door.

He did not hear anything before the door slid open and revealed Hinata. She looked shocked to see him home at night—tonight of all the nights. "Naruto-Kun," she said as if questioning him and held the door open as he stepped inside. He did not say anything and silently took off his sandals and marched off to their bedroom.

Hinata slid the door shut and locked it from inside. She traced his steps and found him sitting beside the lamp on the floor with the same lamp-paintings scattered about it. The room was dimly lit and used paint brushes were in the glass-battle filled with water. She had finished painting one before Naruto's knock came upon the door. This felt like something completely different from their usual routine. She kept looking at him, and he returned her gaze with the same empty eyes . . . not saying anything.

Feeling that she should say something, Hinata breathed in and parted her lips to speak: "would you like some tea, N-Naruto-Kun?"

Naruto's eyes remained the same, but he moved his hand and tapped it lightly on the mat. She looked at him absentmindedly, moving her gaze to and fro like a pendulum between the spot he touched and him. When he did not say anything, she moved her feet and slowly sat down beside him. There was nothing but silence between them, broken and sawed by the rumbling sounds of thunder and the wind that hissed like a thousand feverish snakes, their vibrating coils snarled up in a decadent frenzy of an old ritual.

Suddenly, Naruto moved his hand and wrapped his arm around Hinata's waist and buried his face in her neck. At first, he breathed heavily, nuzzling against her neck, but then he opened his mouth and kissed her. His lips were parched despite the rain outside as he gently kissed her shoulder and moved his hand to touch her breast.

He squeezed it gently and pulled her closer. Hinata felt disgusted. Her fingers trembled. His lips left a searing pain of betrayal on her skin and it burnt; it hurt so much. To think that she was something he would entertain himself with when Sakura abandoned him. She was nothing but a toy in his arms, and she was through being his second plaything.

When Naruto moved his hand between her legs, Hinata pushed him back. Startled, as if some sort of haze had cleared from his mind, he moved back, wearing a hurt expression on his face. He was still quiet, lips clamped shut as though sealing so many of his secrets. His fingers clenched on the mat, and he turned his head away, his countenance warped by shame and humiliation.

"Do I . . . " he said with an air of defeat, " . . . disgust you that much that you won't even let me come near you?"

"I'm just tired . . . " Hinata's voice trailed off, and she looked towards the paintings, pulling her Kimono up to her neck as though to hide her skin from a man that was not her husband. "I bled the last time you tried. It just hurts. M-Maybe, maybe there is something wrong with me. I would see Shizune-San about this."

Both of them remained silent. Naruto's head was hanging in defeat. He clenched and unclenched his fingers, feeling repulsed that she had rejected him—again. Sakura did not want him and his own wife did not want his touch. Maybe it was right—that thing festering inside him like a tumour. It was eating away at his soul, his resolve, and his Self. He was getting empty day by day. How long would it be before he would lose himself before its evil?

The thought frightened Naruto, but that insidious malice unfurled again—he let it leak and consume him this time. It held him in its clutches and entranced him. With extreme sluggishness, Naruto got to his feet. He staggered, limping a little to the left like a drunken man before regaining his balance. He moved his hand through his hair and looked down. His eyes had lost that emptiness, and, now, they were filled to the brim with loathing. His lips twitched oddly as he looked at Hinata with contempt. His eyes were beginning to terrify her.

"Sasuke wants to talk to you," he said with infinite calm, keeping the lid of resolve on his emotions that began to bubble and boil to the surface as if in an aged cauldron.

Hinata's eyes darted all around the room, her gaze elusive. "What does he—"

"I don't know and I don't care. Who knows what he wants with the likes of you," he cut her off sharply and left the room without saying anything else.

Hinata scrambled to her feet and ran behind him. "Naruto-Kun," she called out and stopped close to the main door. "Where are you going? I-It's late and—still raining. You should stay here. At least, until the storm lets up."

Naruto wore his sandals and threw open the door angrily. He stood there for a few moments in the wind, gritting his teeth. "Your purpose is to give me an heir for my family," he began after gulping in a deep breath, "that's the only reason I married you. You and I both know that. The sooner you accept it, the better. Unless you want to shame your father that you can't even bear me children."

"N-Naruto-Kun," Hinata breathed out and stared at him in disbelief. No matter how aloof he got, he never talked to her in this manner—he had never hurt her with words. Sakura had poisoned him, and she could not turn to her father for help as long as the dagger of conspiracy was hanging over her head. She was left swaying between the daemon and the deep blue sea. Her lips trembled, and a sob shook her before she suppressed the rest completely.

"I don't want you to refuse me my right next time," he spoke from the door, his gruff voice carrying itself over the noise of the wind. "No one would accept a barren woman if I left you." He cast a hateful smile at her and closed the door behind him.

The light burning in the room dimmed as the wind rushed in. "A barren w-woman?" Her voice shook her as she fell back and hit the wall behind her. She stood there for several long minutes before her feet moved in a sluggish manner. They met the floor as if having a mind of their own. Soon, her eyes found the same familiar room and the same paintings and the same brushes.

Her pride finally crumbled under Naruto's hateful words. Their truth rang loudly in her ears. Yes, her father had cast her away to save his name. Did he know about the conspiracy? Did he marry her off to save their families' name? She slumped down to the floor, and slapping her hands against her cheeks, she cried hoarsely. She was trapped in a limbo with a man who did not love her and there was nowhere out. She could not leave . . . where would she go? Who would claim her? Where would she find solace?

Hinata's sobs convulsed her as she desperately tried to regain control, breathing in and out loudly to calm her breaths; but the tears kept coming, shaming and humiliating her that she was no better than a woman cast out from a clan to bear an heir for another. She put her head between her knees and let out all the grief behind the shattered wall of innocence. She had nothing left and no one to save her from drowning in this unforgivable abyss of solitude. She was just a tool to save the names of two clans . . .

"Hinata?" said a voice that came from beyond the room, followed by soft steps on the mat. The voice carried itself to her on cold wind rushing in and out of the house from underneath the doors and little spaces around the windows.

Hinata flicked her head up and wiped her face clean on the long sleeve. The voice began to tear away at the cold clinging to her like a leech. Slowly, it scraped off the icy feeling of loneliness from her body and filled her with such warmth that her nearly still heart raced. She would recognize his voice anywhere.

"Sasuke . . . " she whispered without the barrier of honorific, throwing off the burden of Naruto's hurtful words from her body with stubborn haste and looked towards his shadow, which stretched long just beyond the door. Within seconds, Sasuke loomed into view—a silhouette against the bright light in the hall.

He turned his head and stepped into the room and stopped just a step short of her. "You're sitting here?" he asked, moving his head around to look at the empty room and stopping his gaze just for a moment on the small paintings spread out on the matted floor. "Naruto’s sleeping at the Academy for the night. Honestly, I don't know why. But that's not why I'm here. He didn't tell you?"

Hinata kept staring at him and wrapped her arms around herself. "No," she said in a tiny voice, not averting his gaze.

"I want you to join my team. I think another Byakugan user would be a good. That would take the burden off Neji as well, and I would get a new helping hand. I don't want to press you on this, but—"

"I accept!" Hinata said loudly and jumped to her feet to look at his face clouded by mild confusion. "I accept, Sasuke!"

Sasuke tilted his head to one side, slightly taken aback by such a direct use of his name, especially from Hinata, but he did not say anything after taking a good look at her ruined face: she had been crying. "All right," he said and ran his eyes over the dry streaks of tears, "you can come tomorrow morning to my office to join. I'll personally train you to control your chakra. You told me it was your weakness."

"Yes," she said through the haze on her mind, her countenance slowly taking on the look of a paramour. She wanted Naruto to suffer, her father to pay for his coldness. It was always Hanabi, never her. Why should she anchor the name of their families alone? She defiantly threw away the leech of innocence within her. She would feel love, passion, and freedom; she would taste them like Naruto and her family.

"I'll see you tomorrow. Get some rest—you look tired," he said and turned for the door when Hinata grabbed his hand. Sasuke looked back with a start. He saw the hard resolve on her face, and then lowered his eyes to her fingers that gripped his hand. He closed his eyes and threw a bold, meaningful smile at her. "This is a mistake. I don't think this is the way to get back at Naruto."

"Stay here . . . with me," Hinata said in an even voice that surprised even her. Her bold expression remained plastered over her face. She did not waver as she kept looking into his eyes in the darkness of the room, gripped by the need for passion. He would be the new leaf in her life's empty book.

Sasuke remained silent, meeting her nearly white eyes with a subtle expression of lust. He felt as though he was being fooled. He never expected Hinata to let those words slip from her lips. Naruto really had pushed her to her limit. It was almost pitiful—it was almost too easy . . .

"I don't want you . . . to leave . . . " she said in a deep voice laced with such passion that he felt that familiar itch of arousal. She moved her hand up and touched the zip and pulled it down gently. Her timid demeanour, corrupted by lust, was quite the sight to behold that he bent his head down and took her lips, and she welcomed them without hesitation . . .

# # # # # #

Chapter Text

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Mistakes—what were they like? How many had she made to twist away from the grasp of fate? A terrible sound cut through her lust, but it was not enough to break free of it completely. She was helpless. She wanted him. She desired him. His touch made streaks of heat travel straight to her shuddering heart, and it shuddered still more . . . deliciously more.

That moist flood of craving increased between her legs as her questing tongue traced his lips, and as he parted his mouth, she tasted his; it was so warm, wet, and hot against hers that her eyes fluttered like a small butterfly caught in a sandy whirlwind. There was a fleeting taste of sake on his tongue, and she drank the breath from his body. So sweet it was. She wanted more. So much more.

That dull ache intensified to a sharper pain, and she just wanted to be filled by him so completely. Every barrier of shame was gone. Every memory was forgotten behind the rise of heat. Her body was fettered only by desire. Her sluggish heart was stirred so violently to a hot fever of desire. The veins throbbed with a heavy pulse; blood pounded in her ears like loud drums. Her skin was so warm and sweaty, and when the cool draft of wind slid across it, it became another sensation that whirled her blood and mind.

Hinata was helpless. She finally realized that she was . . . helpless. With trembling hands, she had slid off his office jacket. It lay somewhere by her feet. She did not care where it was. Her unsure hands struggled again with the buttons in his shirt. She had opened just two when he pulled it over his head and threw it away. A thin film of sweat covered his white skin; she felt it tingle with arousal underneath her fingers.

It was not a slow dance she had imagined. No, Sasuke was hot and fiery, his touch demanding, forceful, and quick, his teeth grating on her lips. His breaths came fast and heavy. When they blew across her slick skin, all the unwanted wants, unfinished pleasures, and unnamed dreams mingled into a single sensation that rang through her ears like a loud shriek and shuddered through her body like a clawing fire—lust.

At that moment, nothing mattered—no one mattered. She just wanted him to complete her and shatter the deep chill in her body; break her like a toy and make her whole again with nothing but strings and threads of pleasures; stitch that doll back up again and rip its soul out with one shattering, pleasurable jab of a sharp needle that would bleed her completely.

The shuddering sensation would not ease. She wanted those lips back on her, but when they met his, she knew that hers were clumsy like her tongue. His answer was a rough, hard, feverish kiss. He was not gentle. He nipped at her lips and let out a deep, breathy sound that rushed across her skin. His hands moved down, and he hastily undid the obi tied around her waist. He yanked at her kimono and it slid down in a heap by her feet—her underwear followed.

Her hand was tight in his hair, her teeth at his earlobe as he lay upon her and wedged his hips between her legs. She arched up against him, chest heaving, eyes swirling with desire. She moved her fingers around his heaving ribs, into the dip of his sweaty spine, and the contours of his arms—and that face. He was beautiful, amazing, mesmerizing. That heated expression on his face gave him such an intense look.

Hinata did not need any words. She did not think she even had them. It was all wordless lust and wonder. Her timid gestures to draw him close matched the expressions on her face. She felt his heart through her palm; it was loud and wild and quick. The aching pain increased. It was unbearable, and she felt it clench repeatedly against nothing.

She pressed into him and smelt him and the heady musk of his body. In her confused mind, she listened to the crashing sounds of his heart as if it was made of something heavy and metallic that was repeatedly thrown against the wall—an assortment of dull sounds that rose from the depths, becoming louder and louder till they would become unendurable.

Her whole body felt as though it was violently crashing against the rocks—only without the pain, only without the unpleasant sensations. The feeling . . . it was just breaking her apart. She wanted it to begin, let it start somewhere, and consume her with violence. She was ready. She had surrendered. Her body, now, was just a hopeless meld of lust and desire.

He entered her in one ruthless shove. A cry burnt in her throat. She parted her lips to utter it, but nothing came out other than a whimpering sound. It hurt . . . a little. It was all so sudden. She felt full, almost wanton when he moved. His thrusts were quick, deep, and powerful, and then they were hard and ruthless. She went into a frenzy, undulating with the rhythm he had to offer—pleasure jolting through her body and swirling in her chest, her walls pulsing around him.

Hinata did not want him to stop. She wanted him to break her completely and burn her soul with all the violence he could manage, let nothing of her old self remain, let it rot somewhere in the deep reaches of her mind, and consume her completely—leave her helpless, breathy, and wanting. It was such a carnal thought, but she was not afraid to admit it.

She felt herself edging close to the abyss from their mating vibrations as he unkindly propelled her body forward on the bed. She tightened her walls with each stroke, and he made a pained sound—his head bent and his eyes shut as braced himself over her. His breaths frantic, hot and ragged, against her ear . . . his thrust so deep that her calm shattered. Her breath got knocked out of her. Her eyes went wide, and her lips shuddered like a thirsty traveller's looking at the brink of a well filled with such sweet water; and she erupted, tightening painfully around him. His neck strained in response, his face twisted in pleasure, and he stroked one last time and pulled out, spraying his semen over her belly.

Whatever that feeling was, it speared through her and she was spent. It was such pleasure she had never felt before. It tingled her skin and burnt her lungs with a cool fire. Every breath that filled her lungs sent a spark through her body. She wanted to feel more, more of him, more of this pleasure. Her thoughts were cut short when he pulled back. He did not look her way; he simply rolled off her, zipped himself up, and got to his feet.

Hinata watched as he bent down to pick up the jacket and shirt and left the room in silence. She sat up, confused. She heard faint scraping sounds, and suddenly, the door opened and then closed a moment later. And just like that, he was gone; she felt tears welling up, and as a single shuddering breath moved her, they burnt her cheeks. Her fingers clenched on the sheets. He was . . . so cold.

When the sadness wore off, Hinata slept peacefully. It was a strange peace. Her body was simply not used to such pleasures. When she woke up, she felt an unwanted soreness between her legs. It was expected. She sat on her bed silently, but her mind was elsewhere: misgivings and fears rolled in like cool waves, chilling her flesh and bones.

She did not know what to think. A part of her wanted pleasure and a part, felt ashamed and feared her Clan's wrath. Had she become too weak? She touched her red lips and they ached with a dull throbbing of desire. If they found out, they would banish her, disinherit her, or worse, kill her in the name of honour. There were stories in her Clan of people being killed to preserve honour in the past. She had committed a terrible mistake when she invited Sasuke to her bed. She had defiled the institution of marriage—a marriage not just between Naruto and her, but two clans. She would be accused of whoredom and there would be no absolution for her.

Not long had passed since Hinata felt pleasure, but now, she could feel the arduous challenge of overcoming the thoughts that were beginning to frighten her. It was difficult to escape this torment of hers. She looked down and noticed that his semen had dried up on her belly. It was time to clean her body of him.

She stood up and looked at her naked body and face in the mirror—a face with a confused expression stared back at her from the mirror. His cold attitude hurt her, but the mirror told no lies: she wanted this, so it was . . . all right? Then a ghostly smile crept across her tender lips. Sasuke was cold, but he had delighted her immensely. He made her happy, and even if was something fleeting and evanescent, she enjoyed the experience that gave her nothing but contentment.

She would see him again and invite him to taste the same pleasure. If Naruto could have Sakura, then why could she not have him? It was a stubborn thought, but she believed it to be right and just. He did not refuse her—he was a man, after all. She looked away, embarrassed by her reflection smiling girlishly back at her without any guilt. And then, like a child, she lifted her eyes slightly to gaze at the woman grinning like a small girl who had received her first awkward kiss on the mouth.

Hinata moved her hand up to touch her lips; Sasuke had kissed them and they were still red and swollen despite the night that had sated her passions. She stood straight, passion flickering across her pasty face, her cheeks bright red. Boldly, as if to feel herself to be real, she covered her breasts with her own hands. She squeezed them slightly, closing her eyes, and tilting her head back to let out an impassioned sigh . . . remembering the night as though she had taken a sip of such an intoxicating and redolent sake.

Naruto had never pleasured her this way. She repulsed him. Every inch of her was a blight of a disease-filled reminder that he loved another. She was a scar, a terrible wound on his life that reeked of duty and loveless marriage. How she hated this marriage now, his betrayal, when only a few years back he could abate the mounting sadness within her with just a warm smile!

Hinata opened her eyes and looked at the ceiling fan and a single tear traced an irregular path down her cheek. She felt nothing for him now and it made her happy. She moved her hand down, brushing it on her nipples before tracing the round curve of her supple breasts, retracing the paths Sasuke had touched with his hands. Her lashes trembled—wounded wings of a butterfly that experienced the bouts of death: it was an enormous feeling of lust that came over her.

She desired him so much that, every time her hand moved a little lower, her tiny, muted sobs shook her like a babe being denied its repose. Finally, she touched her genitals, and her clumsy fingers tangled in the rough hair. It was beginning to ache again, and she felt empty. She moved her finger across her lips and collected slippery mucus from between the folds on her forefinger. She bit down on the lower lip, swaying like a somnambulist standing alone in a room, surrounded by the fumes of a self-created passion.

She closed her eyes and enjoyed the feeling of her warm finger against her genitals. But it was not enough . . . Hinata let out a loud sigh and unburdened herself of the onus of her clan, her husband, and faithfulness. She withdrew her fingers and stared at herself and tucked a few strands of hair behind the ear. She just did not care for them anymore. She would find a way to break free; she would let them conquer her no longer!

# # # # # #

Sasuke had left a hasty note on the rack. It instructed her to be on the training grounds before the sun came up. She obliged, even if she was angry with him.

She stood under the clear sky on the training grounds, wearing that old Genin outfit she had tucked away in one of the trunks she brought with herself from home. She never expected to use it again, but fates were smiling on her today. Everyone was here, even Naruto, standing with their heads bowed. Naruto looked tired and weary, his eyes surrounded by dark circles. To his right was Sakura. She was patting his back; an expression of sympathy remained pasted on her face.

Neji stood opposite her, his eyes white. He was a loving man: the only man from her clan who opposed her marriage. He visited her home once a week, but due to the recent burden of missions, she had not seen him for two months. He had apologized to her profusely at the Hidden Mist Village that he would find more time for her. She loved him for his honesty and his perseverance to hold his own on Sasuke's team. He smiled when she looked to him. They stood at a little distance from the rest of the team; Neji was the assistant Jōnin, after all.

She moved her head a little to look at the two lines of twenty Chūnins that stood in an orderly manner (a few feet away from each other). She was curious to see who else was on the team, but she recognized no one. Other than Sasuke and Neji, all of them were Chūnins. Naruto and Sakura were contenders for the third and fourth Jōnins on the team, but Sasuke had not offered a letter of recommendation to the Anbu-Division Head, so they remained at the same posts.

Presently, Sasuke was pacing in between the two rows, lecturing on the merits of being on top of the Jōnin Teams in Konoha and how it would shame him if they slumped down to the second spot. Hinata stood erect when she heard him scream at a man she did not recognize.

"Do I look like a fool to you?" Sasuke asked and pointed his hand at himself. The man in front was sweating by the buckets.

"S-Sasuke-Sama—I-I mean, no, Sasuke-Sama," he sputtered out in a loud voice, puffing out his chest; he looked constipated as if he was about to lay a very large egg.

"Shut up, you fool!" Sasuke spat in his face and took one step back. "Pay attention when I'm talking to you, you hear me?" Sasuke stretched his hand and poked at his temple with his fingers and pushed him back.

The man staggered back, still nodding as if his head was a part of an automatic mechanism. He stepped forward with lightning speed, took the exact same spot, and stood still with his eyes bulging out. Sasuke cast once last hateful glance his way and resumed his back and forth march.

"Exams are approaching, and if anyone of you fails," he paused and held up a single finger, and his face contorted in anger, "I'll destroy your lives. Understand, you miserable pile of old rocks?" Loud 'yes, Sasuke-Sama' sounds rose up from all the Chūnins. Even Hinata muttered a squeaky 'yes' and dropped her gaze when she saw Sasuke flick her an expressionless glance.

When no one said anything more, Sasuke created a surprised look on his face and said, "what the fuck are you people looking at me for? Get lost and carry out the team exercise we discussed yesterday." They all scrambled at his command, even Hinata began with a start, not sure what she was supposed to do. "Not you, Hinata. You're coming with me," Sasuke said and stopped her in her tracks. "Neji, oversee the practice, and if someone doesn't perform well, send him home. This isn't a support team for freeloaders."

Neji nodded and marched off in the team's direction. Hinata's eyes kept following him, and then she tore her gaze away and brought it on Sasuke. He leant against the tree a few feet away and looked at her. His eyes and face were without heat and passion. His aloofness surprised her. "Focus your chakra in your hands and create a small, sharp spear," he commanded and folded his arms.

Hinata gulped and felt the burden of his eyes on her. He was so cold. It was strange that they were so intimate with each other not that long ago. She clenched her fingers and cracked her knuckles a few times before she held out her palms and focused chakra into them. It looked nothing like a spear but more along the lines of an irregular jagged pattern. It was . . . very embarrassing.

When she stopped the flow and lowered her eyes again, Sasuke made a small 'hmm' sound. He did not seem impressed. "You've been out of practice for five years. I didn't expect you to accomplish anything," he said and looked up at the birds sitting in a big tree opposite. "But that doesn't mean you shouldn't work hard to improve it. There are a few simple ways to improve Chakra control." He pushed himself off the tree's rough bark and walked to her.

Hinata stepped back a little and felt her face get warm again when Sasuke stopped only a few inches from her. "There is the long and hard way, and then there is a short-cut. If I chose the hard way, you'll be stuck in the Genin rut for Sage knows how long. I doubt even you want that. So I'll teach it to you through a different method. Hold out your hand," he said and held out his.

Hinata looked at him and slowly moved her hand. He took it in his grasp and ran a bit of his chakra through it. His chakra was extremely powerful, and it made her heady. "This is a very small amount of my Chakra. You won't be able to handle anything more from an Uchiha," he said, holding her hand tightly. "My chakra has a certain pattern, but it's tamed and regular. It won't be able to perfectly regulate yours, but it would give it a slight push to regulate itself. I used this method to teach Yuu how to perfect it for his Medical Jutsus."

"How w-will I . . . ?" Hinata asked and looked at his red eyes.

"You'll keep trying to form a perfect spear." He loosened his grip. "And—" he broke off when he saw how quickly she pulled her hand back and gazed around to make sure no one was looking at them. There was urgency in her actions, and he did not like it. He frowned. "What are you doing?"

Hinata jerked her head up and put her hand to her breast. Her face looked hot and confused. She still had to detach herself from that experience, and this small distance between them was making her feel awkward and embarrassed. "N-Nothing," she muttered and held her left hand tightly in the other.

"Listen," he said and inched a little closer and leant down his head to meet her eyes, "whatever happened between us doesn't make it outside the confines of your bedroom. Do you understand me? Grow up. Unless you want to remain locked up in your house forever, I suggest you stop this and toughen up. Otherwise, you're just another meal for Namikaze." Hinata moved her head a little and gazed up at his stern face and that cold expression.

Sasuke backed away and wiped his sweaty face on his sleeve; it was getting warm. "Go over to Yuu and cut through twenty Chakra stakes in an hour, and then come back to me again. Don't just try and cut through them—turn off your chakra every time and try to meld it with mine to smooth it out. Go," he ordered in a flat tone and shoved his right hand into his pant's pocket.

Hinata turned around and jogged off in Yuu's direction—he stood with Sakura and two other medics. As she walked past Sakura, she met her green eyes for a fleeting moment. She saw a strange look in them that she could not quite understand. She stood at the far end with Yuu and closed her eyes to mix Sasuke's chakra with hers. It jolted through her like a spark, delighting her senses.

Hinata opened her eyes and gathered chakra into her hands again, and when it materialized, it was a little less irregular. She thrust it forward when Yuu created a thick chakra block. It did not even dent it. She cut off the supply and tried again. This time, a small nick in the block made her feel happy. She looked over her shoulder and saw Naruto create a large spinning Rasengan and add Futon to it. He threw it forward, cutting all three large stones in front. A ninja who stood with him slapped his hands onto the ground and three thick stones jutted out again.

She looked ahead, and even if a small part of her felt remorse, it was too little, too late. She stopped the chakra flow and gathered it again when Sakura interrupted her: "when did you decide to join the team, Hinata?"

Hinata turned around, and her focused chakra disappeared in wisps on her hands. "Yesterday," she said in a low voice, smouldering the flames of her distaste for this woman—a woman who had aided Naruto in making her life miserable.

"Ah, I see," she spoke in an artificial and unconvincing voice as though she was forcing herself to speak and wheeled around to fully face her. "I heard Sasuke personally invited you to join the team. Is that right? He never extended us this courtesy. Isn't he whimsical?"

"Sakura, Sasuke-Sama will get angry again. Complete your work and let her practice. She has a lot to do before she reports back to him," Yuu said in a firm voice, created another block, and urged Hinata to resume her training.

"I know, you don't have to remind me," Sakura returned with a calm smile and went back to the other two medics. An odd expression was hovering over her features like a phantom. She kept moving her eyes back and forth between the Medic in front of her and Sasuke.

Hinata felt the first tremors of fear. This woman was strange. Hinata started gathering chakra into her hands and kept looking out of the corner of her eyes at that fair face warping and contorting under the weight of an intense feeling. Something about her made her spine tingle with nothing but fear. There was just something about her, and Hinata could not quite understand what . . .

# # # # # #

Chapter Text

# # # # # #

A whole day had passed by in training. Hinata thought it would be easy but it was not. She remembered when she and Miyuki first cut a swathe along the small pathway that led to her new home. Her fingers had hurt, and the bones felt brittle beneath the skin. A deep ache had set in. But this was . . . much more difficult!

She sat in a large wooden chair in Sasuke's office and looked down to her deeply bruised palms. They were green with swollen veins popping out of the soft skin. When she tried to curl her fingers, a sharp pain ran through her whole arm. Sasuke had given her a very hard time. She did not understand him at all. It was as if he had a different face for everything—a new façade for all occasions, and she could only hope to peel it away completely before a new one resurfaced in its place.

Hinata sighed and slumped over the table, gazing down at her dirty nails now. Her white eyes wandered off left and right and outside the window, which was left slightly open across from the large table. A cool and gentle breeze lightly touched her face and moved the yellow leaves outside. Sun had dipped below the horizon, and a red hue was beginning to spread across the sky.

Sasuke had told her to wait in the office, and she had been sitting here obediently for the past fifteen minutes. The rest of the team completed tough exercises one after another; she was glad this was her first day. Today, she felt a pang of guilt for Naruto's daily routine. Sasuke had denied him his Jōnin position because he was falling behind; his family had forced her upon him, and Sakura probably added to his worries.

Hinata did not know what to feel for him. Maybe these thoughts were the last dregs of her love for him that made her feel unwanted remorse. She was slowly letting go of it, steeling herself for what was to come. The quietness of her thoughts was constantly disturbed by the noises outside, but there would always be the comfort and loneliness of her home—it was her sanctuary and her prison.

She sat up straight when she heard the soft sounds of steps on the wooden floor outside, and within seconds, Sasuke entered the room, leaving the same vague smell of something fragrant and musky in his wake. It lingered there, persistent, not ready to leave despite the steady draft pouring into the warm room.

He put the scroll on the table and pulled down the zip on his jacket, taking it off and throwing it on the back of his chair. His shirt was unbuttoned at his throat. It was glistening and sweaty, drying in the warmth the fireplace exuded. He pulled the heavy chair back and sat down. Not a second passed when he raised his hand and took off his headband and threw it onto the table. It clanked on the hard veneer there. After that quick ritual, he leant back into his chair and closed his eyes as he took in a long intake of breath. He looked tired.

Hinata kept looking at Sasuke's calm face covered with a thin film of sweat. The dark hair around his face clung to the skin. He just sat there, eyes closed, arms resting on the armrests, not looking at her or anything—he was just quiet as if sleeping in the big chair. Moments passed and he finally opened his eyes, bringing his gaze upon her curious face. There was a sweet bloom in her cheeks. He held his gaze for a moment and watched as her cheeks began to redden.

"How was your first day?" he asked and leant his head back to look up at a few cobwebs hanging from the side of the still ceiling fan. A look of displeasure flickered across his face, but he quickly schooled his features.

"I-It was good," she said in a very small voice and fiddled with the button on her jacket in nervousness.

Sasuke let out a soft laugh and sat up straight. "You don't have to lie. There isn't a single shinobi on my team whose first day was ever good with me," he said with a playful expression on his face and grabbed the scroll from the table. "So how was it?"

"I . . . " she paused and mustered up a bit of courage to speak again, "it was a very d-difficult day. My hands are bruised and I can't feel my fingers." She quickly looked away when she saw Sasuke smiling at her confession with his eyes on the scroll.

"Get used to it. You've been out of practice for so long. This was bound to happen." He looked up for a fleeting moment and then dropped his eyes to the scroll again. "I'll tell Yuu to heal you before you leave. Your performance was barely adequate for a newcomer. You need to step up your game if you want to stay in the team. Right now, you're just in the trial slot."

"Trial slot?" Hinata asked and quickly wiped her sweaty hands on her pants.

"Yes, a trial slot," Sasuke replied and rolled up the scroll and met her eyes. "I plan on throwing one free-loader off the team. He's been getting on my nerves for quite a while. The bastard didn't even perform well today. So better you, a new chick I can guide than an old cock that has outgrown its warranty."

Hinata did not say anything and bent her head to look at her hands again.

Sasuke tapped the table a few times with his knuckle. "Pay attention, Hinata. You'll keep on repeating the same exercise every day until you learn something. Clear?" he asked and slapped on the table lightly.

Hinata nodded and rubbed her palms on her dirty pants again. They were starting to itch now. "I will have to come d-daily?" she asked, keeping her voice low.

Sasuke looked at her with an incredulous expression as if that was not obvious enough. "Of course," he paused, stood up, and made his way around the table towards her chair, "you won't get any special treatment . . . just because of the nice time we had together." He looked down at her, wearing a wisp of a smile on his handsome face.

Hinata averted his heavy gaze upon her and looked outside the window again. There, on a supple tree branch, sat that tiny hawk Sasuke called Kirin. It was sitting there obediently, cocking its head and craning its neck to look left and right as Sasuke walked around in the office to get another scroll. Hinata thought it looked lovable! She had this urge to grab it in her fist and stroke its flecked feathers.

"Your bird," she said and pointed at the window.

Sasuke walked to the window and looked outside. It let out a melodious sound and flew to him when he made a small hand gesture. It landed on his shoulder and bounced excitedly as he reached into his pocket and fed him.

"I told Nii-Sama not to send you here so early," he said in a gentle voice and stroked his feathers lightly. "But I guess he knows that I get so lonely without you." He let out a little laugh and leant against the table.

Hinata smiled, admiring the softness of Sasuke's features. He looked happy today—his countenance serene, undisturbed by any burden. A small part of her envied him so. He did not know remorse the way she did . . . tasting it every day like a poison that ate her insides and made her façade crumble to reveal a telling, wistful smile that hid nothing.

But Sasuke always knew how to hide his heart. Perhaps, staying close to him, she would end up learning the art of secrecy—something she could never learn in her home. Her eyes were still transfixed on his face that she did not realize when he had started looking back at her. "Something wrong?" he asked, breaking her out of her quiet thoughts.

"N-No," she said quickly and turned her gaze slightly to look to the hawk again that had hidden well behind Sasuke's jaw-length hair. "I—what are my chances to clear the trial period?"

"That's up to you. If you work hard, nothing is impossible. I can ask Neji to help you out because I'll have my hands full with a few missions for a week. I won't be around anyway," he explained.

Hinata's heart began to beat with longing, and her untrained, honest lips moved before she could stop them, and she whispered, "when will . . . I-I see you again?"

A subtle, playful expression scurried across his face before it disappeared behind his well-guarded countenance. "If you want, I can come see you tonight," he said in a deep, husky voice and leant down to meet her passion-filled eyes. "Naruto will stay at the academy again. Aren't you naughty, Hinata?" He backed away and left behind that same lingering scent in the air.

Hinata bent her head down and peered through the curtain of hair over her eyes at her shivering hands again. What was she doing? This was not right. Out of the corner of her shy eyes, she gazed at his face again. The allure in his eyes was gone, vanished behind the same mask he always wore. His eyes took on that ferocious red colour and turned to look at the door. Three perfect Tomoes moved in a circle before coming to a halt. "Go home," he said in a low voice, and his eyes locked on the door. "I'll come by after I'm done here."

"Yes," Hinata said and stood up, moving her aching fingers a bit. They still hurt, but, at least, the itchiness was gone.

"Yuu should be done with his work by now. Ask him to heal you," he said and folded his arms across his breast when he heard the knock on the door. "Come in, Sakura."

The door opened and revealed the pink-haired woman who wore that same odd expression on her sweaty red face. It lost its intensity almost suddenly as her green eyes turned to Sasuke; her tight expression softened and eased. Hinata did not understand her. She made her way quietly out of the office and closed the door behind her.

"Office hours are over," Sasuke said and watched her as she made her way around the table and stopped close to him—too close. "Leave, unless you have something important to tell me."

"I came to give you this," Sakura said and produced a scroll out of her jacket's pocket. She was smiling heartily.

Sasuke took the scroll from her hand and unrolled it. A subtle 'hmm' sound escaped his lips before he rolled it up again and threw it onto the table. "I don't approve of these results," he said, and his features hardened into a look of irritation.

"What are you saying? Hokage-Sama took the test. You have to accept these," she protested, looking helpless.

"No, I don't," Sasuke replied with a hard look plastered on his face. "I'm the team's Head Jōnin, and it's up to me to accept your results or reject them. That's what the rules say anyway. And guess what? I don't trust your mentor."

Sakura backed away a little, impatient. "What do you mean?" she asked and bit her lower lip in anxiety.

"I don't know, maybe, because you're her student that she feels the need to throw you in the best team in Konoha? You know, to exalt her own reputation and that of your clan's, as well. After all, Haruno Clan is unheard of," he said, his voice full of reproach.

"That's not true!" Sakura denied, raising her voice.

"Lower your voice—this is my office," Sasuke said with a heavy accent and clenched his teeth in a way as though he wanted to say more.

"I've worked hard to get here and stay on this team. You know how good my chakra control is. It's the same as Yuu's. I have good Taijutsu and tailing skills. You just—don't see it," Sakura accused, her voice shaking with emotion now.

"You take me for a fool?" he asked and pushed himself off the table to tower over her, his expression contorting with a large flare of anger. "You know damn well how you got here. Your parents pleaded before the Hokage, and she practically told you the Jōnin Team test—you sly little cheater. I had to give you countless extensions, work around the test timings, group you up with Yuu, and send you off to that damned woman's office almost daily so that you could make up for your training. Don't you dare mock my intelligence." He breathed heavily, seething with rage.

Sakura fell silent. She knew he would never fall for her denials. It was no use, and she could not tell him the truth. It was better to lie for now. "It's true," she began another lie and looked down to her feet, "I didn't come here on hard-work alone. It was Hokage-Sama's love for me and my parents' prayers that I am where I am today. But that's also true that I've worked hard since then. I've done everything you have ever asked of me. I passed all the exams! Sasuke, I have done whatever you asked. Don't be so cold-hearted." Her breath caught in her throat came out as a few sobs. She moved her hand up and wiped her tear-filled eyes vehemently as if to push her burdens down.

Sasuke's expressions softened just a bit. "What do you want? I'm tired of coddling you," he said and kneaded his brow. "I don't care what your reasons are to stay here. I won't accept your test results. The Team Exams will take place a week from now, and Yuu will oversee the Medical Divisions' Tests with a few other Ninjas from my Clan. If you fail those, then I don't care what you do, I'll throw you out faster than you can grovel before your persuasive mentor. That's my final word."

"I will have to give the tests again? And Yuu is a Chūnin—he can't oversee anything!" she said with an accusatory expression.

"You damn well will if you want to stay on the team. And Yuu gave Jōnin Exams two weeks ago. I sent his letter of recommendation to the Anbu Division. The approval letter just came in today," Sasuke said and there was a clear note of triumph in his sly voice. "Is that all? If it is, then you can leave. I have work to do."

Sakura inched closer and leant up to press her cold cheek against his jaw. "You know—you know I didn't just stay to preserve my Clan's honour. I stayed here for you, too," she whispered in his ear and then left the office in silence . . .

# # # # # #

Hinata sat in the shadows of the room. A lone candle sat on the table; its flame danced on the wick, threatening to go out any second as the wind outside picked up pace. She had just made it home when Miyuki gave her the message from Minato. She did not even have time to rest. Next to her sat her husband—his head bowed and his face tense. He was silent, unable to answer his father's questions.

"Naruto, your father has asked you something," Kushina said and adjusted the shawl draped around her small shoulders with delicate hands. Her long red hair hung down her back like a smooth curtain. They were spread on the floor behind her, wispy and numerous on the shiny wooden floor. She was an uncannily young looking woman—pretty with a sprite-like appearance.

Naruto raised his head up sluggishly, his eyes tired and weary. He looked very ill. "I . . . I don't have anything else to say. I already told you, it's—it's just not working," he said in a weary voice and raised his hand to palm his face.

"Perhaps you are not trying hard enough," Minato said heavily and turned his blue eyes just a little bit to look at Hinata. He was still very youthful and handsome for someone just a few years shy of fifty like his wife. "You will turn twenty-five soon. I married you off five years ago in hopes of preserving our Clan through you. The Hyūga Clan wanted the same, and yet, here you are, sitting before me with nothing but excuses."

"Father, I—" Naruto protested but clamped his lips tightly together when Minato raised his hand.

"I do not want to hear anything more. How hard is it to impregnate a healthy woman," Minato said, his voice heavier than before, laced with authority despite what had become of his Clan, but his wife was enough to anchor his name. She was an Uzumaki, and despite the mass-slaughter of her clan a few decades ago, they were still many in number, living in Eddy Village under the protection of Konoha. They were famous for their sealing techniques and medicinal herbs—an asset for Konoha's growing military might.

"Did you go to Shizune, Hinata?" Kushina asked, clearing her throat. "I made an appointment for you yesterday, but she told me you never came. Why?" Her greenish eyes were dark and inquisitive in the shadows.

Hinata looked up at her and avoided Minato's crystal blue eyes. She could see a bit of Naruto in him. "I-I joined Sasuke-Sama's team. I just forgot. It's not like I haven't gone there before m-many times. She doesn't have anything new to say to me anyway," Hinata said and drew in a deep sigh.

"You joined that Uchiha's team? Why?" Minato asked, looking stern now.

But before Hinata could say something in her defence, Naruto forestalled her loudly, "and what's wrong with that? It's not like Sasuke would ruin her family's name or anything. He just wanted a new hand for his team with Neji. It would benefit Hyūga Clan to be under the Uchiha anyway." He looked away, huffing.

"I know Sasuke means a lot to you, Naruto. But your wife needs to be home if she is to raise a child," Kushina reasoned and looked calmly from Naruto to the quiet Hinata.

"Not to mention that daemon incident. Sage knows what these Uchihas are planning," Minato accused with a slow shake of his head.

"Have you invited me here to accuse and insult Sasuke?" Naruto asked, his temper flaring. "If it wasn't for Sasuke, I was done for. No one would take me into their teams. It was Sasuke who looked out for me. No thanks to you, father."

"Naruto, behave yourself. You are talking to your father. Apologise, now!" Kushina said in a disapproving voice and placed her hand tenderly on Minato's shoulder.

"And you, mother? You didn't stop being a ninja when you married father, and even after you had me. Are all your rules for me—to make my life even more miserable?" Naruto said in a loud voice, not backing down.

"No one is making your life miserable, Naruto," Minato said in a calm voice and closed his eyes, his countenance weary. He looked hurt by his son's honesty. "But you know how the Uchihas are and how Hinata would suffer if she failed to bear us and her own family an heir. Neji would have been an apt match, but he is from the Branch family. You know how it is. The Head family's few sons are already betrothed or wedded off within the Head family. Hiashi had little choice in the matter. His own family line was dying. Try to understand things. You are not a child."

The thought of Neji came suddenly to Hinata's mind. That was true—she desired Neji so long ago. It was just a girlish desire. He was a kind and handsome man—sober, loving. If her father had wedded her off to him, she would not have been plagued by such a lonely and shameful life. Just today, when she saw him looking at her again, she felt a sudden jolt of that old longing rise within her with such vehemence that only the thought of Sasuke quelled it.

"There you go again. You just can't stop accusing the one person I care about the most, don't you?" Naruto said and leant forward, the whiskers on his face standing on ends. He looked livid. "Your accusation got half of his clan killed. Don't deny it. As for an heir, then you'll get it when I feel like going near her!" He hastily got to his feet and glanced down at Hinata for a fleeting moment.

"Naruto, do not shy away from your responsibilities and do not forget the hardships faced by your parents. Do not be . . . selfish. This is not just about you—it is about us as well. Think about it," Minato said in a heavy voice, holding Kushina's hand in his.

"I'm going over to the academy. I've got to prepare for the Jōnin and Team Tests in the coming weeks. I really don't have time for this," he said without turning around and left all of them silent in the living room.

"He has grown into such a spiteful child," Minato said aloud and heaved a painfully long sigh. Then he raised his eyes to look at Hinata still staring down at her healed-hands. "If he does not come near you, then you as a wife can do so. You are a woman and the daughter of a respectable Clan. It is not just Naruto's responsibility to shoulder his own Clan's honour. It is yours as well."

"Minato is right. Think about your Clan and the shame your father will face if people find out that Naruto does not care for you. Or Sage forbid, they start thinking that you are a barren woman. You have no idea what that would do to your father," Kushina said with an air of her Clan's superiority over hers. Hinata did not like her tone, but she stayed quiet.

"I will ask a servant to escort you back to your home," Minato said and rose to his feet. In the light, Hinata's eyes fell upon his Hakama that still bore the red patterns of his Clan since his Hokage days.

"It's all right—I-I'll manage," Hinata replied and stood up, too. "Thank you for the dinner." She bowed down and turned around to leave the mansion.

It took her a good thirty minutes to make it back to the familiar verges of the forest that marked the start of the moors. The night was quiet today, broken just a little by the wind. Somewhere an owl hooted, and a few crickets made a little noise, but because of the light rains, the forest fell asleep so soon before the moon even had a chance to shine down upon it properly.

Minato's and Kushina's words hurt her deeply. Naruto did not want her, even they could see that much. How could she ever pursue him to bed her? He never made love to her. It was always a responsibility, a ritual for him, which he tried to complete without leaving his seed inside of her. He wanted his parents to break off this marriage. This was not the first time they were called before them. They were always the same questions and the same answers that always left her humiliated.

Hinata walked slowly along the snaking brook that led to her house. Her eyes were downcast, looking to the vegetables poking out of the scraped soil. She had planted new seeds a few weeks ago and small buds were reaching out above the ground now. The recent rains had been beneficial. It would just be Miyuki now as she would be working hard to gain that spot on the team. When she would get it, she would try and break free. She just needed that little reassurance.

With that thought, she raised her eyes to look to the door. She stopped in her tracks, and her cheeks flushed: Sasuke was standing on her doorstep, gazing at her with a soft smile on his face. He had not forgotten that she had invited him to her place. After that gruelling humiliation at Minato's home, the thought of making love to him filled her with such profound happiness!

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Chapter Text

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Summer was gone and rains came cold and hard. A gentle downpour chilled the air, and a light pattering sound filled the space around them. A dull noise of wind seeped from between the dense foliage, and they rustled madly as it rushed past them. A deathly cold heralded the coming of autumn. It would not be long before these frail leaves, desperately clinging onto the trees' weak branches, died and withered away.

A trail made by the dexterous ninjas from Konoha had worn away and lay forgotten under the assaults of recent storms. It was covered thickly with grime and moss, indistinguishable from the green and muddy ground.

Only a week had passed and the path marking the outskirts of the village was covered in rotten green and yellow leaves. Hinata looked to the north. Low storm clouds draped the village sky in grey. A blue flash danced amidst that darkening storm, and seconds later, the whole place rumbled.

Hinata's hand started for her feet to wipe away the dirt covering her toenails—she stopped. Then she slumped back against the bark of the tree. Ten hours had gone by without sleep and nothing but a hopeless search. She did not understand why Sasuke had dragged her out here: she was still in training. She wrapped her arms around herself and looked from between the wet hair flopping over her eyes.

Sasuke stood in his Jōnin clothes a good twenty feet away from her. For some reason, he did not look happy. He had been irritable all day. Presently, he stood over a few tree roots, with one foot resting on the thickest one poking out of the soggy ground like a ghastly hand.

He had a kunai in his grasp with a silver string tied to its smooth handle. He had the fine string wrapped around his finger. Throwing the kunai straight down at a sharp angle, he created a deep and clean cut in the root. Then he pulled it back and grabbed it as it flew up into the air and repeated the same process all over again. He had been engaged in this quite pointlessly for the last ten minutes that now the root was about to be cut in half.

Hinata's lips trembled, and her deeply flushed cheeks were just like fresh tomatoes. She could not form words the way she wanted; she felt that she had lost her voice again. She was thirsty. Despite the cold biting at her cheeks, her tongue was dry. She had not tasted water for quite some time. Looking around, she made a scoop of her hands and collected cool drops of rainwater. They tingled on her skin.

She raised her hands and drank it at a draught. She had put a small pitcher by her side on the ground. A musical and metallic sound rose into the air as rain droplets collided with its surface. It was half-full. Thankfully, Sasuke had not said anything about the dull noises, which broke the gentle rhythm of the falling rain.

Sasuke looked over his shoulder at her, his eyes haughty—the character of his features slightly marred by irritation. She knew what she had to do! She raised her hands and pointed two fingers upwards, curling the rest of her fingers into firm fists. Then she pressed her knuckles together before her face and turned on her Byakugan.

Hinata felt her chakra reaching its limit. She looked around . . . and, for a few kilometres, as far as her eyes could see, she did not find anyone. She turned off her Byakugan, breathing heavily, her eyes downcast as she slumped over her knees. She would not be able to use Byakugan for quite some time without messing with her sight.

She raised her head a little to catch a glimpse of his face. His face was slightly turned, and he was looking out into the distance with cold red eyes. Rain droplets stood on his cheeks and neck, glistening under the weak sun. His lips were red from cold, and his tar-black hair clung to the side of his face, wet with rain.

Sasuke was cold . . . again. His moods changed almost erratically. Sometimes, she felt that he was, perhaps, an aberration of her mind. Only a few nights ago, he had made love to her. She remembered it almost vividly—a phantasmagoria of her dull dreams during such monotonous days.

Hinata remembered intense desire when he stood over her, his eyes catching sight of something beyond the window. She had turned her head then and looked to the blackness of the night and a faint outline of the trees; their branches shook in the gentle drafts of wind. The Sharingan in his right eye turned on automatically . . . in rhythm with the intense impulses from something. He kept looking outside and listened to the flaps of a lone black bird as its wings beat the air ferociously; and then it was gone!

It flew far away, beyond the distance his eyes could measure, and suddenly, his right eye lost that intensity. Sweat oozed out of the pores in his forehead, but his face did not betray him—completely. He quickly masked that mild anxiety with passion and took off his jacket, looking down at her with nothing but lust hovering in and out of his eyes.

Her eyes traced a familiar path across his white skin and the wonderful contours of his lean body. Blood rushed in torrents upon her heart and it raced in her. Her heart skipped beats as he kissed her and skimmed his fingers over her breasts and moved his hands down her sides to grip her hips.

He took her roughly again, his thrusts hard and quick; it did not seem as if he knew how to be gentle, but she always felt ready for him: how he completed her, and how she wanted to meet an end in the light of his sinister eyes, as he stared down at her and met the helpless gaze of a betrayer with a ferocious, keen will to bend and break and dominate her.

Never in her wildest dreams had she imagined to throw away her honour and lie beneath a man she was not wedded to, but there was such passion, such thrill in this betrayal. She had discarded everything she was taught. But she loved it—loved it as he breathed heavily against her ear, shuddered in every limb as he touched her in ways foreign to her skin, and felt nothing but such deep pleasure as he plunged into her repeatedly. Within him, she had found this solace she did not think was even possible, and she was not ready to give it up just yet.

Raindrops fell on her lashes and blurred her vision. She wiped her eyes with her fingers and looked ahead. Sasuke was still diligently trying to cut that root. He did not want to bring her along, but one of the elite Root members had gone missing two days ago, and a large search party was organized to scour the outskirts of Konoha where he was thought to have disappeared.

Sasuke was called back from his mission and instructed by Itachi to search an area of about fifty miles within a day. He divided the party into two teams: Neji led Naruto and Sakura and five other Chūnins. Since he was blessed with a Sharingan, he did not mind taking the less privileged Dōjutsu user, Hinata, whose eyes could use a lot of work to even touch the verges of Neji's skill!

Hinata breathed a sigh of relief when Sasuke turned towards her with his Sharingan on but looked away with irritation on his face a second later—his Sharingan could tell that she did not have much in her now. Two ninjas were digging a large square-shaped hole in the ground to set-up traps. They stood knee-deep in the hole, their uniforms muddy. They needed to set up camp to rest for a few hours.

"Is this enough, S-Sasuke-Sama?" one of the men sputtered with an awkward grin on his face. He drove the spade's tip into the ground and leant on it. He was exhausted.

Sasuke looked down into the hole and then brought his hard eyes back to him. "That's barely touching five feet," he said and grabbed that accursed kunai again before throwing it down at the exact same spot. "Dig deeper, make it ten feet, and then set traps. Get to work."

"But—isn't this enough?" he protested and looked to the other man for support, who did not respond back and continued digging.

"Start digging or I'll smash open your skull with that spade," Sasuke rasped, watching as he quickly pulled out the spade and started digging with immense speed.

Hinata looked at the pitcher. Rain had mellowed quite a bit, and cold began to fade away. Only a few drops fell down from the trees now—the strength of rain was not enough to make it past the leaves overhead. She grabbed the pitcher and tipped it. When the last drop went down her throat, she looked guiltily at Sasuke . . . he had not taken a drop of water since they left camp.

She put it down and hoped that the rain would pour down again. Her thoughts were suddenly broken into when Yuu jumped down from the trees with two other ninjas. He had a few supplies with him. He handed a water bottle over to Sasuke and began, "Sasuke-Sama, I've checked the area up south, but I didn't find anything. Perhaps we should wait for Neji."

Sasuke cast an annoyed glance his way and leant against the tree, taking a few sips of water. "Give her a few soldier pills. I need her eyes, but she's almost out of chakra—after only six Byakugan uses. She needs more training," he said with an air of annoyance and handed the bottle over to Yuu.

His words bore through her and hurt her pride. She dropped her eyes down to her sandals and the mushrooms dotting the tree's foot round her. Raindrops clung to their tops like pearly dews. Sasuke was only passionate in bed: his tongue was sharp, and he knew how to push everyone's buttons and wound their emotions. Today, he angered her!

She looked up and took a sickly, blue pill (which was quite big, too!) from Yuu's hand. His face was soft and kind. He gave her a small loaf of dry bread and a water bottle. "You should ask for supplies next time," he said and sat down beside her; he touched her wrists and ankles to check her chakra points. "Sasuke-Sama doesn't indulge anyone, and it's your own responsibility to take the necessary supplies with you or ask me for them."

"I-I'm sorry. I didn't know," she said in a small voice and took a small bite out of the milky bread. She was so hungry and thirsty. How could she have not known about something so important? She felt a bit ashamed . . . and even angry at Sasuke's typical annoyed indifference.

"It's all right. We all make mistakes. Besides, Sasuke-Sama is quite strict. It's no surprise he didn't tell you," Yuu said in a kind voice, touching her wrists and ankles again to calm her tense muscles. "Your stomach is not empty now. Take the pill and tell me if chakra flows smoothly through these points."

Hinata swallowed the pill and gulped down the water. The pill was tasteless. She closed her eyes and felt it give her energy almost instantly and sensed her chakra flow smoothly through her key-points. Yuu was a good medic. "Thank you, I feel better now," she said and got to her feet.

Yuu smiled in response and raised himself up to his feet, too. He turned around sharply when Sasuke spoke before Neji jumped down. "Well?" he asked and knitted his brow, "I hope you found something important on this fool's errand."

Neji jumped down, followed by Naruto and then Sakura. His sandals squelched on the muddy ground. Hinata averted Naruto's deep blue eyes guiltily. His sun-darkened skin was covered with a thin film of sweat. But Hinata looked away, not meeting his eyes that were still looking her way, though she did not understand why.

"I've found some bodies. They could be theirs," Neji said and turned off his Byakugan to save some chakra. His lips were parched and he looked tired. "I left two Naruto clones with the other ninjas, but . . . "

"Let's go," Sasuke said and turned his head to Hinata. "You, come with me and don't turn off your Byakugan even for a second. The other two are waiting at a safe distance?"

Hinata took quick but timid strides and stopped next to Sasuke.

"Yes—but, Sasuke-Sama, it might be a trap," Neji protested and stood before Sasuke to block his path.

"So?" Sasuke asked him, feigning ignorance, "let's just kill the spies and be on our merry way. Do I make myself clear?"

Neji bowed down his head, looking defeated. Hinata did not like Sasuke's tone. She loved Neji and seeing his hurt countenance wrenched at her heart. "You two, stay here with Yuu," Sasuke said to Naruto and Sakura; Sakura nodded in reply.

"But I can help with Bunshins," Naruto said and grabbed hold of Sasuke's arm. "You don't have to go alone, you know. You could get hurt. Hinata won't be of much use. She's still in training."

"That's why I am asking you to stay behind. If things get hairy, I'll inform your clone and you can come as back-up. I'm only taking Neji and Hinata with me. The rest of you, prepare the traps here—just in case," he said and turned around before Naruto grabbed his arm again.

"Here, let me tie it around your wrist!" Naruto said in an excited voice, his eyes shining, and produced a weird charm out of his pocket.

Sasuke gritted his teeth and slapped it away. "Hey! It's from my mother, you grouchy jerk!" Naruto squatted and picked it up from the mud.

"Superstitious fool," Sasuke grumbled and jumped up—followed by Neji and Hinata. They left Naruto behind as he waved the charm in the air and begged Sasuke to take it inside his pocket, at least, for protection.

It took them roughly fifteen minutes to arrive at the spot where the other two ninjas were. Naruto's clones grinned happily when they saw Sasuke. "Boss, they're lying only about forty meters away from here," one of them whispered as the other poked his head out of the thick bush and took a gander at the space between two big trees where the bodies lay.

Sasuke turned on his Sharingan. He could not see anything out of the ordinary. "Keep your Byakugans active. I'll go first and then Hinata can follow you two," he said in a low voice and curled his fingers around the hilt of the katana. "One of you stays here, Naruto. The other comes with me. Let's go."

One of the Bunshins' stood behind him and readied himself to flash-step out. Sasuke used body flicker and stopped right next to the bodies, with Naruto about twenty meters behind. He immediately hid behind a tree and readied himself with two smoke bombs in his tight fists. Sasuke looked around and did not find any trap next to the bodies. He signalled Naruto who gestured Neji and Hinata to make their way out of their hiding places.

Neji turned on his Byakugan, but his sight was quite blurry. He had been using Byakugan for the entire day and without any respite from the arduous task—he understood now why Sasuke had decided to bring Hinata along. He flickered up the tree and scanned the area, but his eyes failed him. He could not see very far, so he immediately took a soldier pill he had stashed away inside his pocket.

The pill eased up the burden on his vision but only just. His eyes were strained for the day. Now, it was up to Hinata's Byakugan to scan the area; but Hinata's heartbeats were like the sounds from a beating drum in her breast. She shook with the pressure mounting in her veins. This was too much for her. Why did Sasuke bring her along—today of all the days? She felt a strange sense of resentment towards him. He was supposed to . . . help her, even just a little! He was not being fair!

She jerked her head up when she felt Naruto's hand on her shoulder. "Don't worry! Sasuke has his Sharingan on. You'll be all right," the clone assured her with a warm smile. Hinata looked at him, almost taken aback by the loving smile on his face. Her eyes burnt with tears, but she looked away before he could see her resolve crumble before him.

Wiping her eyes on her sleeve, she stepped out of the bushes. She started for the other tree about twenty meters away from where Neji was. She only made it midway when Sasuke's ears wriggled and his eyes widened. Her foot sank into something, and it twisted her ankle almost painfully.

A barrage of Senbons flew towards her. She could not even react. It happened so fast! She saw a bright sliver of something and a brighter spray of red. The trees whooshed past her eyes like a raging torrent, and she squeezed her eyes shut from the searing pain in her ankle. She got thrown to the right and hit the ground hard. She opened her eyes and looked at Sasuke through a blurry vision. The ache in her body was replaced by the warmth of Naruto's engulfing arms.

"Are you all right, Hinata?" he asked, worried, but she kept looking forward, hair flowing in the gentle wind, a single tear clinging desperately to the tip of her nose.

Sasuke stood upside down on a thick tree branch now, a sardonic smile dancing about his lips. "Not very classy, targeting a weak girl like that," Sasuke said with a smile in his voice and bent his legs slightly to jump off the tree.

He landed smoothly on the ground and watched with satisfaction as the man had yet to realize that he had been cut open at eight different places. A spray of blood jutted out of his deep wounds, and he thudded to the ground—dead!

"Sasuke-Sama," Neji rushed to Sasuke and then looked at Hinata for a fleeting moment, "are you all right? Hinata . . . "

Hinata was breathing heavily, her eyes vacant. Fear had her in its clasp. She had never come this close to death before. Her heart was racing with such madness, unable to find that right rhythm. "She stepped on a trap. I told her to keep her Byakugan on," Sasuke said without looking at her, his eyes locked on the dwarfish shrubs a few meters away.

"Sasuke-Sama, we have to—" Neji began and focused his vision on the purple skin on her ankle: it had been bruised and stretched taught.

"There's no use hiding. Come out, or I'll just kill you where you're hiding. I don't like playing hide and seek," Sasuke cut him off, holding his gaze.

A sharp and bright electrical current went up and stabbed through the bark overhead. Not a second later, a dribble of blood plopped on Neji's cheek. It was as if colours washed over the man and he materialized! His eyes popped out of his sockets as Sasuke's Chidori blade's tip had run through his left lung.

He made a hand seal and started something with a loud sizzling sound. "He's still conscious!" Neji yelled and held his palm out to use Air Palm, but before he could try anything, several sword-like Raiton blades speared out of his body like a bright star. His torso exploded in a shower of red. He died violently, and, as soon as Sasuke stopped the flow of Raiton, he fell down onto the grassy ground.

"He isn't now," Sasuke said and clenched and unclenched his fizzing hand. Then he looked at Naruto. "Her ankle is probably broken. Take her to the infirmary. She's done for the day." He walked for the bodies lying beneath a tattered cloth, not looking behind towards Hinata who was still clutched by mortal fear.

"Now, will you look at that," Sasuke said, chuckling, as he lifted up the clean corner of the bloody cloth and revealed clumps of blond hair matted in blood and mud. The man's face was frozen in mid-scream and intense agony.

"Is that . . . ?" Neji said with an incredulous expression. "This isn't good. Root never told us that one of Danzō's guards had gone missing. They'll have a field day with this."

"They won't have a field day with anything. Just write down a few consolatory lines and slap it in their faces. This was never our problem. They just dragged us needlessly into this. Let Yamanaka Clan handle their own troubles," Sasuke said distastefully and stood up.

Neji nodded in reply. Sasuke was right—it was not their problem. He looked back to Naruto as he carried Hinata away from the area. Her face was still deathly pale. He did not know how to feel about this. But, perhaps, Sasuke had made the right call. If she wanted to stay, she would have to face this sooner or later—better now than never!

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When night hit, the wind became rough. Old wooden windows rattled, and the lantern's flame flickered. It was dark inside Itachi's office, and the noise outside nearly drowned out his calm voice. Sasuke sat across the table from his brother on the tatami mat. Fire blazed in the hearth and warmed the office.

"Is this all of it?" Itachi asked and ran his eyes down the medical report compiled by Sakura.

"Yes, Nii-Sama," Sasuke paused and pursed his lips, "though I'm sure Yuu could have done a better job."

A ghostly smile crossed Itachi's lips. "She is a lot more talented than you give her credit for. You just do not seem to enjoy her company, that is all," he said gently, getting a little amused by the formation of a frown on Sasuke's face. "So the neck was almost completely severed? This was done so cleanly. Whoever did this is an exceptional swordsman."

Sasuke did not say anything. He looked to his brother as he placed the scroll next to the weakly glowing lantern and locked his eyes with his. Red rose from deep inside his black eyes and spread like a vivid stain there—a wound. Then they took on the carefully crafted shuriken patterns of Mangekyō Sharingan. Not desiring to meet his brother's eyes, Sasuke looked down, bowing respectfully. "Can I take my leave, Nii-Sama?" he asked, not looking up.

Itachi took in a deep breath and said, "look at me, Sasuke."

Despite not wanting to, Sasuke raised his eyes slowly and they came alive like a pulsing red heart. The colours disappeared in the world around them, and he found himself in a monochromatic realm, sitting on his brother's lap . . . in the form of a small child.

The child buried his face into Itachi's breast, feeling the slow and loud thumps of his heart vibrate through his fingers and limbs. He could hear it—he could actually hear the beats of his brother's young heart!

Itachi had turned into a twelve-year-old boy. He smiled and touched Sasuke's soft round cheek tenderly. "Sasuke," Itachi said in the voice of a boy and held his tiny hand in his, "did you . . . kill ?" Itachi's expression changed and an innocent kind of curiosity enveloped his young face, his eyes a little wide as he looked at the small and anxious face of his younger brother.

The world around them quivered like something alive and restless, and black rain descended down heavily. The mist roiled everywhere as Itachi's soft words seem to echo endlessly. Sasuke, still in the form of a four-year-old child, kept looking down at the broken toy by his feet. Suddenly, his lips quivered into a smile . . .

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Chapter Text

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It was night and the mission was done. Sasuke's ears picked up the sound of a night owl from a distance. It was hooting behind the naked branches that could barely withstand the cold now. Large yellow eyes stared at him for a second before the owl flew off south. Wind whistled through the gaps now, disturbing the layer of frost upon the branches. Dissonant sounds of night crickets rose up into the air from within the dwarfish myrtles. A few sparse flowers still adorned their branches despite the biting chill of autumn.

Sasuke walked for a few more minutes, nearly hidden under the mantle of thick mist, when a small village slowly loomed into view. Two large fires waxed and waned in the distance. He was wearing a hood, his face hidden perfectly. He was there on a personal errand, well beyond the confines of Konoha life and his duty as a Shinobi.

Two large fires were burning by the gate. It was not really a gate, just an entrance created with two large logs put into the damp ground. These people were gypsies—or that's what people in the powerful Hidden Villages called them; a fancy term for the misfits. They set up shop wherever they felt like and sent off pigeons to their customers; it was a place for prostitution and gambling.

A scraggy looking man with a bushy moustache stretched his arm to stop him. He was holding a large rusty sickle in his hand. Sasuke's eyes caught sight of a thick black glob clinging to its jagged tip. It was poisoned with night flower: the deadliest poison in the entire realm. Even a slight whiff of its perfumy scent was enough to give one an excruciating, painful fever and a pain that did not abate for weeks. Any direct contact with the blood vessels meant a sure shot trip to the other side. These people grew them in pots. Maybe that's why it was called the Hidden Night Flower Village?

The scruffy man puckered his lips and threw greenish spittle into the bushes in front. When he opened his mouth, Sasuke saw only five black teeth. His breath was so foul that he could smell it from five feet away.

"The token, young'un," he asked and wore a mean look on his messy face ruined by time and bad hygiene.

Sasuke reached into his pocket and produced a gold token. He did not say anything and watched as the man grinned, showing off his rotten gums and pulling the sickle back. "Ah, that rich customer," he said with a smile and looked over his shoulder at a small woman. "Yoshino, make sure he stays comfortable." He twirled the sickle's handle between his fingers encrusted with blood and dirt. His fingernails were long and black—he was (probably) the dirtiest looking man Sasuke had ever seen.

As she approached them, her powdered face came into the light: she was wearing a traditional dancer's makeup, and her long hair was gathered into a fancy bun. "Why don't you pull that hood back? I can bet you're really beautiful," she simpered and strained her neck to take a good look at his eyes. The sight of gold had just made her greedy. When Sasuke remained silent, she smiled and turned around. "This way."

Sasuke followed her and walked past the large flames that stood as tall as monsters on the oil. As he passed through the gate, he noticed it had been secured with a powerful protection barrier. A few Uzumaki women lived as prostitutes here and were famous for their sealing techniques. The barrier probably paralyzed anyone who tried to enter the village without the token.

Sasuke gave a sideways glance to the tents scattered about the large area. They were made out of thick rugs so that only a little light escaped the tiny holes and frayed edges. Yoshino stopped by a large ridge-tent and gestured Sasuke to proceed inside. He did not give her another glance and lifted the heavy cloth to go in.

It was quite spacious, and the inside was luxuriously decorated with the finest rugs and small wooden furniture. He gazed back, his eyes looking beyond the fabric of the tent to see that Yoshino was gone. A red-haired woman sat next to a small table with quite an expensive mahogany veneer. Her cheeks were rosy red, and she kept staring at him with a slack mouth.

Finally, after a few seconds, she gasped and smiled lovingly. "Sasuke!" she exclaimed and scrambled to her feet to clasp her arms around his waist. "I haven't seen you in ages. I've missed you!"

"You know I can't come here on your whim, Karin," he said with irritation in his voice and pulled back his hood.

Karin strained her neck and tip-toed to give him a peck on the lips. Sasuke's countenance did not change. "You used to love fucking me," she teased and wore a gloomy expression on her sly countenance.

"I don't remember ever saying that," Sasuke said and pushed her back slightly to shrug off the large scruffy-looking robe. It had no pockets or a proper collar, and it looked like a dirty rag a poor farmer would wear. His plain grey kimono and black hakama would not have made him stand out, either.

"So cold," Karin said in a musical voice, playfully sat back down on the rug, and opened her legs suggestively.

"Is that why you have called me here?" Sasuke asked with the flick of his hand, looking down as she pulled at her kimono's collar a little to reveal a pert nipple. "I have better things to do. Don't waste my time. If you have nothing, then I’m leaving."

Karin sat up straight and let out a childish, breathy sound. "Sasuke, don't—stay with me," she said aloud and pulled a small scroll from inside the vase that was sitting on the table. "I do have something." She held up the scroll with a seductive smile dancing on her lips.

Sasuke threw the robe aside and sat down, taking the scroll from Karin's hand. "This better be worth my time—and money," he said with a heavy accent. He stopped for a moment and looked at the whorls on the rug in front and bathed his eyes in red.

"I've checked—there’s no one around," Karin assured and sat down behind him. "Open it. I've been gathering Intel on . He comes here often—the limp bastard. I keep telling him that thickness isn't everything. But only the Sage knows, he cries until I don't give him herbs. The tiny thing just doesn't stand up, otherwise." She laughed, nuzzling his neck and slipping her hand under the collar of his kimono.

Sasuke stopped halfway and turned his head to look at her and then proceeded to unroll it again. "I hope you've gathered more than your discovery that he's almost a eunuch," he said in an offhanded manner and ran his eyes down the scroll.

Karin broke into a loud laugh and propped herself on her knees. "Oh, Sasuke, you can be so funny!" she broke off and ran her fingers through his windblown hair, "I did everything you told me."

"I didn't ask you to sleep with him," Sasuke said and stopped to read the part that made his lips go dry.

"I didn't have to, but I did it for you," she gasped out and planted kisses along his neck and clung to him tighter. "Aren't you proud of me, Sasuke?"

"He doesn't know anything," he said in a low dull voice, his face warping suddenly, his eyes filling to the brim with a delightful malice that seemed to make his lips quiver with excitement.

Karin laughed softly into his ear, her hair tickling his face and neck. "I used a Fuin-Jutsu seal on him. No one can see it but me. He wrote this himself. Minato and your precious Hyūga clan? Not so innocent," she said and crawled her way around to straddle his waist and sit down on his lap. "You're proud of me, right? I would've done it for you without the money. You know I love you, don't you?"

Sasuke wore a sly smile and ran his fingers down her neck to remove the pendant she wore. "I need more information on the Hyūgas. He couldn't have known the entire truth," he said in a soft voice and watched her gasp as he teasingly pushed the silky fabric of her kimono aside to stroke the smooth skin around her hard nipple with his thumb.

"Only if you stay and lend me your night," Karin cooed and pulled her kimono down to her waist to reveal her sweaty breasts.

"He's still here, isn't he? Spending the night with another whore?" Sasuke asked without kindness and pulled out the sheath from under his belt—it still had his most trusted sword. "I wonder if he even remembers you. Your seals can make people so forgetful." He emitted a soft, raspy laugh and pulled her closer.

"You asked me to make it that way. So mean, Sasuke. Poor thing, it'll only disappear when he dies," Karin said with a smile on her face. She knew Sasuke was staying for the night.

Sasuke did not say anything and leant forward to claim her lips that were parted with a hungry desperation and longing for easy and quick passions.

It was like a ritual to him—a dull and routine ritual. His newfound revenge had consumed him so much that even the warmth of a woman's body did not calm his anger. Sasuke lay naked with Karin beside him under the sheets. He half arose from the floor-bed and cast a quick look around the tent and beyond. His Sharingan never lied to him—it laid bare the deceit.

He gathered himself to a sitting position and grabbed the discarded kimono and hakama when he heard an owl hoot loudly outside. His whole body was sweaty and hot. He felt a little feverish. Karin always liked to fool around a lot, and it took too much of his time. After carrying out team exercises and two missions today, this long, long physical session with her was hurting his back like hell!

He never liked women to take the lead in bed, but it was always impossible to play with Karin after a long day's work and not suffer for a day afterwards. The woman was crazy—body and mind. He vaguely guessed it to be a blessing of their distinct life forces, but he was not too sure of this wild guess.

With an enormous effort, he got to his feet, feeling a persistent twinge right at the base of his spine. He ignored it defiantly, buried it deep under the blaze of his pride, and put on his clothes. When he reached down to grab his sword, for a moment, the pain made him feel that his spine might break in half. He did not let it express itself on his face, albeit his blood-shot eyes looked miserable. Never again would he come here on busy days—never!

"Sasuke," said Karin dreamily from behind him, "don't go. I want to play some more." She sat up and pushed down the sheets to reveal her naked body.

"You're not tired, but I am," he said in an irritated tone and frowned to make a point. "It would be day soon. I've put gold coins in the vase. I have to go."

"You lie down—I'll ride you myself," she purred, licking her soft lips that still bore the pink hue of sweet, angry kisses.

Her beautiful red hair draped over her shoulders shone in the dim light of the tent, and her naked body glistened with sweat. On a normal day, this would have aroused him, but now, the whole feeling disappeared like footprints in the sand. He looked at her with a cold, impassive face and heaved a sigh before picking up that dirty robe.

"I want to join your team," she suddenly said and stood up, looking at him with a shy expression that was quite unbecoming of her. "You said I can."

Sasuke stood in silence, his mind racing, his heart delightfully thumping out a new tune in his breast. He could kill so many birds with so few stones. He drew the incense-filled air into his lungs and breathed out loudly. "Not until you leave this place," he said and kept his emotions trapped firmly underneath his skin that tingled with the formation of a nice and clever mind-game.

"But you know it's not that easy. I’ve got—"

"That's not my worry. I can't keep a harlot on my team. No one would allow it," he said in a less gentle tone, and wore the robe and pulled the hood over his head. "You can reach me if you change your mind." He pulled the mask up to cover half of his face and left the tent in silence.

When he stepped out, the darkness of night was still thick around him. He looked to his left and found talking to the guard. Karin had not lied to him: always left when the owl hooted thrice outside his tent; the fool's animal alarm-clock to finish himself off quickly. Sasuke kept his distance, wearing the talisman with a Fuin-Jutsu mark that sealed the scent and strength of his chakra for some time.

looked his way; he was kneading his chakra to sense trouble. Sasuke's chakra was suppressed to a large degree, his scent gone. He must have appeared to be an ordinary man to him. A calm smile graced face as he walked out of the gate beyond the secure barrier of the village.

Sasuke did not hesitate and followed him beyond the gates; the darkness of night consumed his form whole. Sasuke's steps were firm and unrelenting, his resolve made—this forest would be grave! Sasuke's path was flanked by the dark forest, his eyes losing before the overwhelming darkness, but a spark of light flashed in the sky and briefly illuminated his way. The moon was safely hidden, trapped under the heavy drape of clouds.

He could not see a thing now and relied on his ninja senses. was walking about fifty feet ahead. He had turned off his long-ranged sensing. The dry leaves crackled beneath his sandals as he took quick steps towards the lights of a small village about a mile away. He suddenly stopped dead in his tracks when he sensed a strong, familiar chakra growing dangerously close to him.

Sasuke’s chakra was too strong, and the seal was failing to keep it suppressed; it was disappearing fast! If Sasuke did not make his move now, all was lost. suddenly turned around and made a seal with his fingers to use Body-Transfer technique. It travelled in the direction of a hooded figure, Sasuke, standing still under the luminescent throng of insects. He disappeared suddenly, leaving alone for a mere second.

The seal completely vanished and released the monstrously potent chakra trapped underneath it, and it flared out with full force. Cold sweat broke out on face that, when the autumn wind caressed his skin, it left a stabbing pain all over his body. 

"Sasuke . . ." a tiny whisper escaped his lips and then his back crashed into the thick tree.

Sasuke's had his throat in his hand. He tightened his grip, making gasp for air. "What did Minato find out about the demon?" Sasuke hissed and pulled out the sharp sword from its sheath. His eyes burnt with a distinct red colour that was alive, pulsing and whirling in the midst of the white pools.

"I bet you paid some woman—to get that out of me. Those Flower Village whores and their wretched seals. You won't get away with co-cornering me like this," he barely managed between grunts.

Sasuke lifted him up and tightened his grip again around his throat. He slammed ’s head thrice against the bark till his body almost went limp and watched with cold eyes as blood trailed down the back of his neck, staining his blond hair red. "I won't ask you again," he warned, inching closer until the warm breath from his lips blew over ’s face, "what did he find out?"

strained himself to look down. He moved his hand quickly to make that same seal again. He was slower this time, slow enough not to see Sasuke move the tip of his sword and drive it straight into his hand, pinning it to the tree. A miserable grunt rose from ’s throat as he tried to reach his pinned hand in vain.

He stopped moving and gulped, realizing that the Fuin-Jutsu used by someone on him had removed the Root seal on his tongue. Sasuke had someone strong and talented working for him: an Uzumaki woman! But he could not remember her for the life of him. He closed his eyes; his fate was sealed. It was either this or the Sharingan Genjutsu.

"That—some Uchiha's eyes were involved in the essence leaking out," he said from between his clenched teeth and stared down into the bewitching red eyes looking at him from under the hood.

"Bullshit—don't fuck with me!" Sasuke spat at him, his fingers trembling with rage.

"I-It's the truth," Fuu gasped out and stopped to catch his breath, "Danzō gave Minato the evidence. He didn't question it. N-Not once. I don't know anything else other than the one Mangekyō Sharingan he took from somewhere. Why he did it? I-I don't know. I'm just a servant."

"He took a Mangekyō Sharingan . . . " Sasuke said incredulously as if talking to himself. "I don't understand. Who did he take it from?" His grip slackened and his mind raced to make sense of it all.

"I don't know. I-I swear it," sputtered and moved his free hand up to try and loosen Sasuke's death grip again.

"Stop lying. You know I can get it out of you easily. Do you have no dignity?" Sasuke asked and gazed at him with an expression of disgust upon his countenance, mingled with something of a cool smile.

laughed in reply and coughed afterwards to pull in a bit of air. "You Uchihas, so prideful. You're nothing but a dying clan. You would follow the Senju to your graves soon. It's only a matter of time when clans like ours—who have done nothing but serve you for decades, earn their right to rule. You can't even rid yourself of the dog you keep dragging along—a poor dog whose reins are pulled by Minato. He would be the d-death of you—if you survive this night!" he said with hatred flashing in his eyes as he turned his gaze around to peer into the darkness.

"Who're you looking for?" Sasuke asked and pulled down his mask and hood to reveal his bloodstained face. "Your little company has perished."

’s eyes frantically searched around, and when lightning scurried across the sky, they found two of his guards dead next to a tree about fifteen feet away. That heart was in a sudden grip of delicious, mortal fear, weakly slamming against his rib-cage as if in protest.

"You think I'm some fool?" Sasuke mocked and curled his lips to show him his sneer in the intermittent flashes. "You're exactly where you belong, feeding off the scraps of my clan. I'll make sure they shame themselves openly and die out, starving and unwanted on the verges of Fire country—just like your clan did with my people!"

"No—wait!" protested, but Sasuke's red eyes had already snared his senses, revealing all of his most vile secrets. His memories could not scurry far enough; they could not hide from his clairvoyant eyes.

He stood in a black and white world, shamed and humiliated before Sasuke. "I don't need you anymore," Sasuke said in a resonating voice, contorting his face in a cruel smile that spelt his fate. "Don't worry, Danzō will follow you soon."

’s eyes rolled back into his head, his scream unable to make it past his throat as Sasuke clove his neck through with a single, clean stroke of his blade. Blood exploded out of his neck and splashed the side of Sasuke's face. He thudded to the ground, his whole body convulsing with the last dregs of life left within him. Suddenly, he went still. He was dead.

Fresh, warm blood bubbled out of his nearly severed neck and pooled around him. The seals he had placed on his guards would wipe their memories clean. He bent down and slapped one on ’s forehead as well. It disappeared and rid his mind of any memories of Sasuke and his chakra.

Sasuke just stood there, holding his sword, his face emotionless and his fingers curled firmly around the hilt. ’s blood rolled down the sharp edge of the blade, which let nothing cling to its smooth surface. The next moment, rain came pouring down hard; he leant his head back and closed his eyes to relish the water that would cleanse this necessary sin.

He stood there for several minutes in silence, feeling the heavy rain lash his face and drench his clothes. ’s blood had washed away from his face and old clothes, lost in the ground. He would be forgotten in a few days, replaced by another Yamanaka lapdog for Danzō. But it did not matter to him. Danzō’s grave was dug . . .  and he would be the last one to stand over his defeated corpse. He smiled to himself and walked away and left his venial sin behind.

# # # # # #

"Sasuke," Itachi asked tenderly and stroked Sasuke's messy hair, "did you . . . kill ?"

Sasuke twiddled his thumbs as though he was upset and then lifted his head to look up at his brother's kind face. His big innocent eyes, filled with such emptiness, wrenched at Itachi's heart. "What if I did?" he said in a small voice, and his cheeks grew red with a child's fury.

"Why did you do it? You know it's not right," Itachi said and produced a small sparrow origami from his pocket, his tall menacing body flickering towards him in the real world.

Sasuke took it from his hand and placed it in his lap. "I don't like him. He got our clan killed. He deserved to die!" he said aloud in rhythm with his quivering lips in the real world that were muted by a cold wash of illusions.

Itachi intensified the Genjutsu to pacify his fear and anger when he forcefully tried to jump out of it. A little gasp escaped Sasuke's lips that were as dry as dust now. The weight of Itachi's tricks was taking its toll on his mind—so much so that blood rose in his clear eyes.

"Nii-San, let me out!" Sasuke pleaded with panic scurrying across his small face that had the innocence of an ignorant child. He clung to Itachi and looked around with fearful eyes as the darkness spread to approach him with soundless steps . . . waiting to swallow them whole. His real body defiantly tried to evoke the slumbering Eternal Mangekyō Sharingan to his eyes, making them bleed profusely.

"Sasuke, calm your heart. I will not hurt you," Itachi assured with the eloquence of a man from a boy's mouth and quickly created crows out of the darkness that flew all around them. "I just want to know. There has to be more to this. Just tell me. Why did you do this?" And then he came closer and the vision became unbearable for his mind and body. His small form shuddered, a dry leaf in the keen autumn's wind.

"Nii-Sama, will you kill me? Are you going to kill me?" Sasuke asked in a shaky voice, his clear tears changing in the illusion, his small white face soaked red with blood like a soft and porous cloth; he was ghastly!

Sasuke was not backing down and it was hurting him. Itachi stopped the illusion and sighed heavily at the sight of bloody tears trailing down Sasuke's cheeks. His eyes trembled, and a moment later, darkness fell over them. He slumped down to his knees, exhausted, head bowed low before Itachi, as he sat shivering in his shadow.

He looked up when he felt Itachi's hand on his head. "So stubborn," he spoke as if he was whispering, "look what you have done now—gone off and made a little mess for your brother. Tell me this time . . . will you?" He stroked his hair very slowly, gazing down at him. There was a soft, fleeting look in his hard red eyes. It was fleeting but it was there.

Sasuke did not say anything. He lowered his head again and pulled in a shaky breath. The room felt cold, sinister. His eyes roamed around in frantic search of something, as though he was actually waiting for the crows to cross the weak barrier of his vision and come flying out of the slithering darkness in the room.

"Clean your face," Itachi said in a manner as though a command and left the room with slow steps.

Sasuke shuddered, his spine tingling. The shadow was gone . . .

# # # # # #

Night was always a cruel mistress to Hinata. She lay alone in her bed. Sasuke had treated her so coldly today. He did not even say farewell. Naruto was not home—even Neji had to write reports. She felt so miserable tonight.

The open window in the sitting room slammed against the wall repeatedly in the wind, but she did not close it. She was too tired. Her ankle was better, but why was Sasuke so aloof? It saddened her, and without much of a reason, tears pricked her eyes. She wept silently, looking up at the empty ceiling covered with the shadows of crooked trees crafted by the moonlight.

Her eyes wandered aimlessly. She lay there for hours, finally exhausting herself to sleep. She did not even have an hour of peace when a warm breath on her face roused her out of slumber. She jerked her head up, frightened at the sight of Naruto staring down at her with a red glow in his eyes. She could not see his face clearly, but his eyes—they were scaring the life out of her!

"N-Naruto-Kun?" she asked with hesitation and pulled the sheets up to cover her bosom.

Naruto lowered his head and sniffed her face and bosom. He violently pulled the sheets off her and took a long and thoughtful whiff of a scent lingering on her body. Hinata tried to move back, but Naruto grabbed hold of her wrist suddenly.

He leant his head forward and stretched his neck out; his hard face came into view in the clear moonlight, marred by an animal hunger she had never seen before. "What's this scent on you?" he asked in a voice that made a chill crawl up her spine.

She was alone, and Naruto did not look happy . . .

# # # # # #

Chapter Text

# # # # # #

That animal hunger moved towards his glassy blue eyes and slowly took them under the cover of a cruel redness, the way a weary old man moves the boat through the rough sand to the waters of a tranquil lake. Unreal. Ominous. Hinata's heart and body felt enervated by the palpable aura his virile body radiated. Amidst the darkness of the room, his eyes appeared red as if set ablaze inside a furnace.

His face played hide and seek, disappearing and reappearing with the bright flashes in the sky; rain was heralding something different this time. But she did not care; her eyes desperately tried to trace the contours of his warped features hidden cleverly under the swirling red aura oozing out of his pores like an odious surprise—it was a chilly scene.

Hinata's wrist was still in his grasp. She twisted it a little, but despite the wetness of his palm, she still could not quite break it free. Her breath burnt her throat dry and cold sweat drops stood quivering on her face. Cold wind, loading her face with chilly caresses, left her in pain. She remained silent and watched as Naruto sat still, his eyes fixed on her, her face drenched in nothing but carnal fear.

What was happening to him? She wanted to call out to Sasuke, scream out to him, whisper his name in the hope that he would hear her tiny voice, but it was such a silly thought that a part of her sneered at her foolishness.

She wanted to be brave, but her eyes, those silly, silly eyes, began to give in to the usual helplessness she always felt. They pricked and burnt, and before she could stop them from revealing her weakness, small tears began to trace the lines of her miserable face. Then a powerful sob shook her whole body, but she clamped her lips shut; she did not want him to know that she was so afraid of him and this new ugly side of his.

Naruto was still quiet, his ragged breaths nearly drowning out the sharp hiss of the wind. Hinata did not know what to say, what to do, except look through the haze in her eyes and try and meet his burning gaze. Those eyes, which trickled nothing but fear into her mortal breast, felt as if they were slitting the fabric of her soul in two.

Only seconds had passed since Hinata woke up in this menacing hour of the night, but the drag of time was making her feel almost old and weary. The pendulum of the clock moved slowly for her, and its sluggish back-and-forth motions were taking a toll on her mind. Suddenly, she realized that she was all alone: Sasuke was not here; Neji was not beside her; and she never could count on her own family . . .

Hinata was truly alone and at the mercy of a man who was a complete mystery to her—a mystery she did not want to unravel. Her breaths came out quicker than before, and she realized something as a sharp pain began to throb in her wrist: Naruto was slowly increasing the force of his grip!

"N-Naruto-Kun . . . " she paused and puffed out her breast as she sucked in a few breaths, "w-what's wrong? Are you all right?" she asked with hesitation and peered into the darkness to see his face clearly. Only silence greeted her.

The heavy drape of darkness had made Hinata nearly blind. The wind from outside snuffed out the last flickering flame in the lantern that was placed close to the window. A thin line of smoke rose up from it, only to disappear in the drafts of wind. She leant a little closer when Naruto remained in the same state. She was chilled to the bone by his feral expression.

"I asked, what's this scent on you?" his voice rumbled deep in his throat, throbbing with emotions she had never seen him feel before—envy and rage.

"I don't know what y-you’re talking about," Hinata stuttered like she always did, but this time, a sense of humiliation enveloped her. She felt ashamed how fearful she sounded, sitting alone with Naruto on her bed in the darkness—a dream she had always wished to come true.

But this reality had crushed the soft visage of that innocent dream that now it lay weeping somewhere in her mind. It needed the light touch of illusion; she needed it to keep her sane. She wanted to hide Sasuke and his scent deep within her and never let it leave her skin. If it left her, then it would remain but an evanescent memory, devoid of the love she secretly asked of him. How cruel this was and how rueful she felt at the thought that Sasuke was that last thin string of web keeping her happy.

How desperate had Hinata truly become? Only now she fully grasped the depths of her life's emptiness. She would not let Naruto win, not this time; she would not let him snatch that last bit of joy away from her. So she remained silent like a little child, fearful but stubborn in its denial. Seconds passed slowly again, and she felt Naruto inch closer to take a long thoughtful whiff of the scent she exuded.

"There is something on you. Why—why won't you tell me?" he asked, his voice shaking and becoming louder and louder as though a machine running without oil, grating and annoying.

"Naruto-Kun, I-I don't—" Hinata's words got lost behind the scream that forced its way out of her throat. Naruto had twisted her hand around, and the liquid-like aura, trickling out of his body, was like acid on her tender skin. She heard her own skin sizzle and burn the way a juicy piece of meat was roasted on hot coals!

A foul stench of her roasting flesh crept into her nostrils and another hoarse cry rent through the still air of the room. "Why are you screaming?" Naruto asked in a voice that had a strong note of amusement. "I can smell something, and you are still—lying. Hinata, you're such a liar!"

Naruto inched closer, and the film of darkness between them disappeared. The redness glowed, like a fire around him, and spread beyond the shadow of his body but halted just a few inches around the contours of his body. The red aura was alive. Evil. He was evil. Hinata bit her lower lip, drawing blood, her vision blurring as she looked on in terror at his contorted face.

The skin above Naruto's upper lip twitched with pleasure. He drew his lips back, gave a crazed cackle, and dug his nails into the tissues that were steadily burning under his touch. Hinata threw her head back; she hit it on the headboard and turned her scream into a miserably stifled yelp.

"Liar liar liar—" he broke off to let out another grating laugh, "liar liar liar. Hinata is a liar. Hinata is a liar."

She whimpered and struggled as her hand slowly turned to coal in his death-grip. "N-Naruto—" she choked out and desperately scrambled to get away from him. Her tear streaked face showed nothing but misery.

Naruto, still wearing that hard smile, leant his head down. His alcohol-soaked breath was a stinging acidic fog on her skin. He had been drinking again; but the foul odour of his breaths and whatever rueful tale lay behind them did not even cross her mind. She just wanted to get away and run into the forest. This man was going to kill her!

The wind had slackened a bit that now only a dull whistling sound came in through the window. The room was now glowing with a distinct red aura. Had it been any other night, Hinata would have found it lovely and soothing. Now, it just looked dreadful to her. Her ordeal was not over. The searing pain was not abating, and Naruto had become this vile monster in the dark who was taking perverse pleasure in tormenting her.

"Tell me, Hi-na-ta," Naruto hissed, twisted her arm around, and rolled her onto her stomach. A loud crack resonated in the room. Hinata screamed into the sheets—the scream came out as pitiful gurgling sounds. Her spittle clung to her cheek, and the mucus crawling down her nose slipped between her lips. She looked beyond the thick haze over her eyes at the fresh, warm blood leaking profusely from her wounds.

Naruto had completely snapped her wrist, yet it did not stop him from twisting her arm even more. The skin cleaving to the burnt tissues peeled off like old wallpaper, falling on the heavily stained bed in a ghastly manner. The pain . . . it was unlike she had ever experienced before. It burnt like fire through her fragile, tiny body.

Her loud screams were muffled by the sheets, drying her aching throat and parched lips as though stray leaves under a scorching sun. It was not as if anyone would have heard her cries that must have been stifled by a vast swathe of cultivated land and thick forest; they died miserably against the wails of strong winds. There was just no solace for her, and the thought hit her hard.

It pained and angered Hinata. This man, his family, and even her own kith and kin, had taken everything from her. She would not see herself break anymore. She would not tell him anything; and with that small glimmer of courage left in her, she bit back Sasuke's name she was about to whisper. She cried out 'Byakugan' between the screams and, with a quick whisk of her free hand, tried to hit one of Naruto's main chakra points.

Naruto let out an angry growl and jerked Hinata's arm. She went sprawling down and fell face-first on the wooden floor. She tried to stand up, but her left hand pained her entire left half. So she feebly moved her arms and legs in vain to stand up. She looked like a fish that wriggled weakly to make it to the water to save its life.

"Are you running, Hinata? You won't tell me?" Naruto asked with a smile in his frightening voice.

He hopped off the bed and slammed his foot down on her ankle. Hinata groaned in pain and kicked him with the other leg. She planted her foot into his stomach. Naruto staggered back a little, but before he could recover, she quickly rolled onto her back and hit the core chakra-point in his stomach. The snarl contorting his features hideously, disappeared. He stood erect, and his head bobbed like a marionette's in a children's puppet-show.

Naruto grabbed his own head, and his grip tightened in his blond hair. Thin lines of blood appeared under his nostrils. His eyes rolled back into his head, and he let out a loud scream that made every bone in Hinata's body vibrate.

"Leave . . . me . . . get . . . out . . . " he grunted incoherently, his voice shaking as the aura overwhelmed his mind and body. Then he reeled off more gibberish she could not understand.

Naruto spun around and hit his head against the wall. He smashed his forehead repeatedly into the wall till the skin there cracked and started to bleed. Then he lurched sideways, breathing heavily, stretching out his arm to touch Hinata who shrunk away from his touch. He looked lost as he fumbled for something in the dark. It was almost pitiful to watch him search in the empty space around him.

Suddenly, he charged at the window and jumped out and disappeared behind the tall grass. Hinata did not force herself to look outside. Her whole body was battered and bruised. Her arm was badly burnt. She did not even have the strength to gather herself up into a sitting position. Rusty smell of her blood permeated the air, overpowered by the stench of her burnt flesh. It made her sick . . .

She heard the last faint sounds of the owl outside before she lost consciousness . . . lying alone in the house as Naruto’s madness drove him deeper into the forest to fight his daemons.

Naruto prowled like a creature of the night in the forest, sniffing and whiffing the scents the trees exuded. He was out to hunt—a predator in search of a lost prey at night. His body hurtled itself to the right, and he smashed his head against the bark. The thick skin on his forehead broke open and blood sputtered out of the new wound.

Naruto hissed between clenched teeth, his flesh sizzling and closing up in the fraction of a second. He rammed his head into the tree again and again and again . . . till his entire forehead was red. (Blood flowed down the side of his face in a cascade.) Warm trickles of it crept into his eyes and made a film over his sharp gaze; he stumbled back.

"Let me go," he said hoarsely and struggled with feeble attempts to stay in control.

His legs gave way and he slumped down to his knees. His body gave itself over to the fit of convulsions. He trembled all over and dug his nails into the sodden ground—his fingers caked with dirt. The wounds kept closing up, but the pain in his head throbbed, intensifying. He felt the blistering hot chakra spread under his muscles, roiling and moving up to creep over his skin.

Naruto fell forward and pressed his face into the muddy ground. He screamed out as the chakra bubbled up, flaking off his skin, creating a thick film over his entire body. He thought he was going to die! He did not know where he was as he howled in pain—all alone in the darkness of the night. Blood rose up from his fresh wounds and got trapped under the thick mantle. It was a ghastly show . . . only there was no audience for it this time!

Naruto crawled across the muddy ground, his trousers getting frayed at the knees. He looked from side to side as the skin around the corner of his eyes chipped off. He shrieked and the pain overwhelmed him and pierced his body. He felt pinned down by a thousand hot knives—sacrificed under the torrid sun; but there was no escaping his invisible tormentor.

Naruto slammed his back against the tree and looked around, frantic, as if someone was chasing him. "Where are you?" he screamed, his voice hard and raw, "leave me alone."

"How you romp and yelp like a little whelp," the voice echoed in the dark forest. "I can't leave you alone, you little bastard. I'm tied to you. Don't you see? You can't run away from me. Run run little doggie—run run—" The harsh voice laughed, and Naruto jumped and scrambled to his feet.

But he fell forward again and quickly gathered himself up to sit straight. His backbone wriggled and pushed the muscles forward that held it securely in place. He let out a loud scream, feeling every fibre in his body getting torn apart by something he could not even see. He felt rage rise up in torrents from inside him. He was angry. There was no one who understood and cared for him. They all abandoned him—left him to rot.

The more these thoughts poured out, the more vulnerable he felt. The chakra kept pouring out, leaking from the wounds and spreading grotesquely over his entire body. He did not need anyone; he only needed this thing growing and germinating inside him. He agreed with himself and slumped against a tree to let it take over him whilst he continued to emit hoarse cries in pain. He felt like a child—punished brutally for a mistake he never committed.

"S-Sasuke—" he said in a dry voice and sniffed the scent of his chakra drawing near. In a second, Sasuke landed close to him, his eyes glowing red, taming the wild beast raging inside of him.

"Naruto," Sasuke said in a soft voice and gazed upon Naruto's miserable condition as he fell face-down on the grass, writhing in pain, scratching off the skin from his face with his claws. "Calm down. Come with me." He extended his hand to him and took a few steps forward; Naruto sat upright with lightning fast speed.

Naruto's nails, still stuck deep in his face, did not seem to bother him anymore. He let out a warm, acidic breath that turned the white flowers quivering in the dry grass to ash. He crouched, sat still, and locked his demonic eyes with the Sharingan that glowed on Sasuke's face.

"You'll just lock me up," Naruto said in a voice that vibrated deep inside his throat, "you're a terrible, mean bastard, Sasuke."

"You really don't want me to do that, do you?" Sasuke asked and shoved his hands into his pockets in a manner as though this was a business arrangement. He stood close to Naruto and looked down at him as he created a hideous smile; he watched the skin around Naruto’s lips crack in an ugly manner that left nothing but exposed flesh behind. He was miserable and lost—Sasuke pitied him. He was his friend, and even though he hated to admit it, but somewhere in that small corner of his mind, he knew he loved and cared for him.

"Sasuke, h-help me," Naruto's voice wobbled in such fear, "something is after me. It will get me. It wants to kill me." He shrunk away from Sasuke and hid his face in his hands as he cried. The tears humiliated him . . .

He peered at Sasuke from between his reddened fingers and felt something recede back into the maw of insanity that lay dormant inside him. The red in Sasuke's eyes disciplined it, threw it back that, when his skin healed, he felt relieved as if the burdens of his spirit were lightened forever.

Freed of the sensations, Naruto stood up and took one step before he lost his energy. Sasuke quickly grabbed him when he fell forward and hugged him to keep him from falling. "Sasuke . . . " he whispered in his ear, " . . . everyone has abandoned me. I don't have anyone but you now. They all left me to rot. They all—" And he lost consciousness, breathing softly like an exhausted child against his throat.

Sasuke stood quietly for a few fleeting seconds, holding Naruto and looking up. He reached down and hooked his arm underneath Naruto's knees and picked him up. He looked down with remorse on his face. Naruto had healed all of his injuries, but his torment was not over. If this continued to happen, he would let loose the tempest of his anger and desire . . . and die.

He would not let that happen. He did not know why this was happening, but someone was using Naruto to stir up trouble. He would find out. It had happened before, and that time, he lost so many of his kith and kin; but back then he was just a child, unaware of the darkness that lay behind the Will of Fire. He was old and wise now—wise beyond his years.

Sasuke turned his eyes and gazed at the crow sitting behind the branches of an old tree. It cawed loudly and grated its coarse beak against the bark. Sasuke leant his head down and smiled behind the soft cover of darkness.

"Nothing misses you, does it?" he said in a low voice and jumped up.

# # # # # #

Hinata woke up when the sun-rays burnt on her skin. She opened her eyes—Sasuke's face greeted her. He looked beautiful, his white skin touched so tenderly by the morning sun! A smile ghosted over his chiselled lips as he cupped his chin, looking at Hinata with mischievous eyes that always made him look so desirable.

"Had a little kitchen accident?" he asked and pressed his index finger playfully on the tip of her nose. "I'm glad I found you. You could've bled to death."

Memories of last night came rushing back. It felt unreal. Did Naruto really do that to her? She did not know what kind of man she shared a bed with—on the nights he did bother himself to sleep beside her anyway. She did not have the courage to tell Sasuke. He would never believe her. What would she tell him? That Naruto was taken over by a daemon . . . and that he hurt her? It was a nightmare, a bad and vivid dream that made her feel ashamed.

"I—" she stopped, avoiding his eyes, "I don't remember." She closed her eyes and placed her hands on her breast. Her hands did not hurt much, but the pain she felt in showing her vulnerability before Naruto last night was something she would never be able to recover from.

Sasuke narrowed his eyes and tried to see beyond the little mask she wore today. She was lying. He knew! But it was all well and good if she decided to keep this to herself. He would handle Naruto, but if she came out screaming that Naruto was not normal but something unreal, it would make things too difficult for him—even Naruto.

He had a small amount of pity to spare for her. He would not lie. It was an honest thought, but it had to be done. "You should get some rest," he said, watching as her eyes flew open in panic. He watched every tiny nuance of her features that were drenched in mortal fear. She gave the impression of a helpless rabbit caught in a trap—the way she usually did when he took her to bed; and if she had not been bruised so badly, it might even have stirred his loins.

Sasuke smiled to himself, loving the amusement that private joke provided. He started to get up when Hinata grabbed his arm; her fingers trembled helplessly. Her eyes ran around the room, darting frantically from corner to corner as if someone was hiding, waiting for Sasuke to leave.

"You—y-you're leaving?" she asked in a voice that did not seem tamed by her tongue. Naruto could come back. He could kill her. She just needed some time to recover, and then she would ask Neji to let her stay with him for a few days. Just a few more days and she would be free . . . she would never tell anyone that Naruto humiliated her in this manner. She would kill herself before the world found out that the man who abandoned her, raised his hand against her as well, leaving her broken and disgraced. It was a secret she would carry to her grave. She would not give him the satisfaction.

"I can't stay here. You know I have duties these days, don't you?" he said almost lovingly and smoothed her hair away from her damp cheeks. She was hot and tired. "I'll leave Yuu here. If you need anything, you can call for me."

"B-But—" Hinata protested weakly and bit back the truth about Naruto. Her body yearned for a sanctuary where it could just hide and heal for a few more days. She had the courage to accept this mortal weakness today. Live and fight another day . . . that was what she thought, and that was what she would do today!

Sasuke's eyes coolly appraised her face. He had her hand clutched in his. It would be better if she did not stay here. If someone came running from Root to ask for her, they would know. He did not want them to find out that he knew someone was pulling Naruto's strings.

"You don't want to stay here?" he asked in a soft tone as if he was talking to a wee girl.

Hinata shook her head a little, breathing loudly. Her fever was spiking. Sasuke placed his palm on her forehead. She was burning and not from lust this time. "All right." He looked at the door and called out to Yuu. Within a moment, Yuu came running into the room. He bowed and nervously looked at Sasuke.

"Call a few men from the manor and take her to the guest room," Sasuke ordered and stood up.

"But, Sasuke-Sama, she is Naruto's wife. You can't—"

"That's none of your concern," he rasped in mild anger, his eyes glowing as he held Hinata's frail hand in his. "Why do you ask for reasons when they don't concern you?"

Yuu flinched at his harsh tone. "Please, forgive me, but Itachi-Sama has not left for his mission yet," he said in a tiny voice and lowered his eyes.

"Nii-Sama is still home?" he asked and clenched his jaws.

"Yes, his mission was delayed. He would leave late at night," he explained.

Sasuke heaved a sigh, and his eyes turned back to normal. "Take her to the Uchiha Infirmary for now and shift her to one of the guest rooms later. Make sure no one knows she was here. If anyone asks, tell them I sent her on a mission with one of my men," he said in a cool, measured voice. He looked back to Hinata who was barely conscious and placed her hand on her bosom.

"Get it done," he said and left the room. Hinata's eyes could not follow him anymore. She felt so weak, and after taking a few heavy breaths, she fell unconscious.

# # # # # #

There was a mantle of silence over the room as Itachi stared into Sasuke's eyes and weighed his brother's secrets. Despite Sasuke's efforts, his brother found out about Hinata; but, thankfully, he was not angry.

"Why did you bring her here? That was not very wise. What if the Hyūga clan finds out? This would humiliate you as well," Itachi spoke calmly and rolled up the scroll. The matters in the Intelligence-Division seemed to be piling up.

"No one will find out. She wanted to come here. It's not as if I forced this decision upon her," Sasuke said and looked from his brother's eyes to a faint smile on his lips—he was very slightly amused.

"Just the way you indulged her twice?" he asked suddenly and watched with a glint in his eyes as Sasuke's face burnt red with shame. "I am sure that was with her consent, too. But just because she is being so foolish, you should not stop to entertain her every whim."

Sasuke was silent. He lowered his head, feeling humiliated that he was being interrogated for his amorous escapades with the married Hyūga girl.

Itachi placed the scroll aside and rested his hands on his thighs. "Sasuke, do not use her to start something against Hiashi. She is an unreliable girl. She does not possess the strength to go against her father. She was already too weak to keep herself from giving into her desires. She is undisciplined, unfaithful, and . . . undependable," Itachi said by stressing on the last word.

"What do you mean?" Sasuke asked and gulped dryly—his Adam's apple quivered.

"You know what I mean," he said and locked his bewitching eyes with his. "Hiashi will not relinquish any information about that night. Let this go."

"I'm not—"

"Why must you waste your youth on such matters?" Itachi cut him off, looking calm. "Why must you always test me?"

Sasuke looked up, and he felt snared by those too-knowing eyes. "Do you intend to abandon me if I go too far, Nii-Sama," he asked, and he was smiling and there was a touch of anger, bitterness in his smile—he was challenging him.

Itachi considered him for a moment with an air of calm. It was always impossible to tell what he was thinking. "You already know the answer. Why ask me this every time?" he said in a cool voice, and the expression on Sasuke's face softened. "This matter runs deep. Do you really want to keep digging till you find something that may mortify you?"

When Sasuke did not say anything, he spoke again, "send her off to her home tomorrow. I do not want her around when I return. Do you understand me, Sasuke?"

Sasuke stood up silently and bowed before him. When he left the room, Itachi wondered, what did he hope to find by digging into the past? Did he find something in Mist? Outside, there was a birth of the new and frightening storm . . .

# # # # # #

Chapter Text

# # # # # #

He had exculpated himself from his own unintentional, forgotten sins for he was an innocent. The visceral rhythms of his soul vacillated between sin and innocence, ashes and lust, life and worms . . . what had he truly become? Yet, it festered, slumbering deep within but growing ever so slowly, crawling over his soul, and leaving a trail of small and ugly black blots that would, in time, become bigger and deeper, cutting up his empyreal substance to bits.

He resented himself and he did not know why. The water before his knees was still like a murky mirror. His eyes, crystal blue, did not seem to belie his pitiful state of confusion. He curled his lips back over the white teeth and watched as his own image in water mimicked the features with natural perfection. A drop of blood from his dry lips fell down and created a single ripple. The reddish hue disappeared in the water that must have been vast for its tiny existence.

When the water stilled, the surface became clear again. His lips trembled as he looked down at the man burdened by Time. He felt it on his back and it drooped under its weight; he had grown decrepit before his own time.

At his back, he could hear that eerie Death-cum-Time custodian of heaven . . . heaven? Would he ever taste the cool drafts of its promised immortality? No, hell was a place reserved for him—that deep pit that was forlorn and destitute of the repose he sought. He would be left alone there to rot for yet another eternity. For this life and its fetters did not seem to hold his desire for peace sway. It left him over and over again, brought back the zest for its mortal taste that was so fleeting and surreal to him, and a reminder that it was all but a dream of a boy in the past years of boyhood.

A sob burnt his throat, but he satisfied his sadness by biting his lip fiercely, letting it bleed in a comedic sacrifice, thinking that it would overpower the emotion that rose inside him with a mighty force: uncontrolled, unfettered, untamed. A whimper finally forced itself out of his mouth, yet it shook him so fiercely that his whole body trembled with the coming shame that would not let him hide.

It overcame him, his vision blurred by the. Yes, he felt shame. He bowed his head and looked deep into his own eyes through the haze. He could not see his face anymore—it had become a mystery to him. He had become nothing but a mystery to himself, for he could not remember how he got here.

He could not remember his days or his nights that tempted him like a warm seductress to remember their gentle caresses; he had grown weary of her touch, perhaps. After all, it was not as though she was ever kind to him. He whimpered pitifully now and leant further down till the veins bulged out in his neck from exertion.

His lips touched the surface of water, and before he could even think of his pride, he let his thirsty tongue leave the soft trap of his lips to taste it. It was cool and stagnant. He could not even taste the dirt he swallowed down with it. His lashes touched the water that claimed his tears like a selfless mother. He wanted to drown inside . . . the shame was too much to bear.

"Naruto, stop," Sasuke said, sitting under the heavy drape of shadows. He moved his hand and tapped Naruto's shoulder. He shuddered under his touch, like a beaten down animal.

Naruto craned his neck, his eyes red from the tears he just shed. His swollen lip did not heal the way it should have. The misery on his face was made more picturesque by the countless tear lines on his dry features. He twisted his left arm and heard the loud clank of chains that tethered him like an undisciplined dog to the wall. His fingers twitched, but he did not fight it this time.

He curled his fingers firmly around the cold chain that held his freedom. It was a judgment placed upon him: a forgetful prisoner. Why was he here? "Sasuke—" he asked pitifully and let out a harsh sound with a gob of spit that sluggishly trailed down and then firmly clung to his chin, "wh-why am I here? Why wouldn't you let me go?"

Sasuke leant forward and wiped the spit from under Naruto's chin and then brushed his hand on his own clean pants. It left a whitish stain there, but that did not concern him. He felt nothing but pity for him. What would he tell him? "You ran off into the night from your home. You don't remember?" Sasuke asked and bent his gaze on Naruto and watched as the thing inside Naruto made him recoil from Sasuke's tall shadow.

Naruto looked around absentmindedly and tried to recall the fragments of that night's memory from within the chaotic blackness that sat upon the face of his past. His eyes betrayed the confusion in him. He tried and tried but nothing came to his mind. He remembered going to the academy, and after that, he could remember nothing.

The gossamer beauty of the intricately woven omamori, which always shook in the evening wind, truly failed him. Kushina had made it for him when he got married. What bad fortunes did it halt? It was meant to hold his happiness, but even the incubus that climbed his bed, a terrible omen, did not get caught between its threads. He could have found solace in the fact that he, at least, dreamt—like all people! It was just a useless gift: one of the many his mother had thrown his way over the past few years.

He could not believe himself when a feeling of such hatred for her came over his heart. But it was all right. His mother and father . . . no, no one could see inside him to truly tell how he felt. It was not as though they could tear open his breast and look inside his heart. Those mysteries were his to relish and bear—the gift of solace in the realm of his heart.

Naruto closed his eyes and let out a peaceful sigh. The character of his features was soft with the calm that resonated inside him. He had found a momentary peace in the thought that he still had his heart to himself . . . and his friend, his brother, Sasuke. He opened his blue eyes and peered deep into the red that comforted him today.

He would lie to himself if he did not find Sasuke's eyes frightening sometimes, but not today; today was his day to drown in the blood of his eyes and find peace in the martyrdom that awaited him right at their deepest depths. He would sink down to the bloody depths of them, but he would be happy. "No," he said calmly this time and felt a slight tremor creep into his voice from weakness.

The last light of the evening shone on the roof above him before today's sun’s death. Sasuke looked up as if the light disturbed the deep shadows that stood around him. He brought his eyes down and held his hard gaze. He breathed out softly and got to his feet. "Try to recall the night before. Where were you the previous night?"

Naruto looked up as Sasuke stood over him and looked down at him as if he had done something horrible. "Why are you . . . ? I do . . . " his voice trailed off. He could not remember anything. The thought shattered the frail peace of his mind he thought was going to hold a while longer. "I-I don't remember." He leant his head down and began to look at himself again as though that would give him the answers he sought.

"And the night before?" Sasuke asked and took out a dagger from the small leather sheath. He moved its tip underneath Naruto's bloodied shirt's neckline and tore it from the back to expose his skin. He had reddish freckles dotting the area around his neck and shoulders, but the rest of his back was clear and slick with sweat. He had been feverish the whole time!

Sasuke moved his torn shirt over the sweat to wipe clean the area around his spine. "Do you remember anything else?" he asked kindly and ran the sharp end of his dagger under his fore and middle fingers, wounding them. Blood oozed out of his wounds and fell on Naruto's back.

"I don't remember anything," Naruto spoke in sadness, not feeling anything on his back—the chase he gave to his scrambled thoughts had limited his senses.

Sasuke sat down and moved his cut fingers on Naruto's back. He quickly made small symbols along Naruto's spine to create a Fuin-Jutsu seal on him that he had learnt from Karin. It was passed down only to her family; even Kushina would not know anything about it. When he completed the seal, he saw Naruto's spine tremble in a ghastly manner under the tip of his bloodied fingers.

Naruto winced from pain and gripped the chains harder that bound both his arms to the wall. But the pain ended quickly, quietly retreating back to from whence it came. His grip slackened, and he uncurled his fingers and felt a burning sensation from the metal that abraded his wrists from the struggle. He exhaled loudly as if a burden had been lifted from his mind and raised his eyes to look up when Sasuke got to his feet.

"Don't leave the manor unless I say so," Sasuke said in a firm voice and unlocked the chains. They clanked to the ground. Naruto felt freer than he had ever before. Feeling the sweetness of freedom, he hastily got to his feet only to succumb to his weakness. He fell forward but Sasuke grabbed him. "Relax, you’re still feverish."

"You didn't have to tie me up like that. I would never attack you. You know that!" Naruto said, sounding tired.

"You don't even trust your memories. Was it really wise to leave you to your own devices?" Sasuke asked but no reply came from Naruto. Sasuke curled his arm around Naruto's waist and then placed his limp arm over his own shoulder. Naruto weighed lighter than last time. He did not know what to think about this. He brushed it aside and opened the door to get out of the suffocating cell.

Sasuke walked silently through the corridors of the small prison in the Uchiha manor. He was just dragging Naruto; he could barely move his feet. Quietly, he mounted the stairs and walked through the small garden and listened to Naruto puff and blow close to his ear. "Almost there," he assured him and opened a sturdy looking door to a beautiful room.

Naruto's tired eyes took comfort inside the walls of the luxurious room. He was so happy to finally get out of the cell where Sasuke sat with him for ten straight hours. Sasuke gave the door a slight push with his foot, and it closed behind him. "Drink that," he said and nodded towards a bowl full of green-ish liquid. He loosened his grip and Naruto fell back on the bed.

"What's that?" Naruto asked, sat up, and picked up the bowl. Then he smelt it and made an awful face.

"It's a medicine mixed with the necessary nutrients. Take it. It’ll ease your fever, and hopefully, put you to sleep," he said, watching as Naruto frowned childishly.

"Your hospitality stinks!" he said and drank all of it at a draught.

"Just shut up and go to sleep." Sasuke snatched the bowl from Naruto's hand, as if he was a little unruly child who would break it, and placed it on the table again. "You need rest. I'll lock the door from outside, so no use banging on the walls like the idiot that you are."

"Do you want me to die in here?" Naruto asked incredulously as if killing him was actually a prospect. "I haven't eaten anything since Sage knows when. I feel this—thing in my stomach."

"What? Gas?" Sasuke shot back, getting a little irritated.

"You asshole! You’ve got no heart. Sometimes, I feel like you're this soulless armour-decoration with such ridiculous good looks. Take away your looks, your money, and those little fancy coins you keep, what's left? I wonder what all the women see in you!" he said loudly and pulled the sheets over himself and shook them vehemently as if the debate was won.

"Are you done?" Sasuke asked and folded his arms.

"Yes, I’m done," Naruto returned and made a scholarly face.

"Good, because you sound like someone's bickering wife who is on the verge of taking that one-way trip out of the house—for good," Sasuke replied and walked out of the room, not sticking around to listen to Naruto's uncultured insults he started reeling off after "yeah, your wife, you asshole!" At least, he was himself again—even if it was irritating.

# # # # # #

Fire was hot in the hearth and the room, warm. Hinata shuddered when a loud sound woke her up. She closed her eyes and listened to the soft sounds of rain drumming on the roof. Slowly, she opened her eyes and raised her arms. Her burnt arm was not hurting anymore; it was swathed in fresh bandages. Yuu must have changed them again.

Hinata had slept through the whole day and had not seen Sasuke in her few moments of consciousness. Lost in thought, she touched the bandage and tried to pull it away to look at her skin. "Don't do that," came Sasuke's voice from behind the dull shadows in the room.

She jerked her head in that direction and found Sasuke sitting on the chair with an office scroll in his hand. "If you remove it, it’ll start to itch and hurt again. Then you will complain in your sleep. And it might even leave a mark. I'm sure you wouldn't want that?" Sasuke asked in a manner as though the whole thing was so obvious to her.

"I-I was just—" she began absentmindedly, watching Sasuke as he placed the scroll on the table and walked up to her bed, "I wanted to look." Her eyes did not leave Sasuke's face as he sat down on the bed and grabbed her arm.

He turned it a little. "Does it hurt?" he asked and brushed his finger on the bandage. Hinata shook her head slightly and ran her eyes over the bandage, and then looked from Sasuke's hand to his face. He looked exhausted. His brow was marked with thin frown lines—something was bothering him.

He turned her arm again—gently this time. When he got no reaction from her, he let her pull it back. "It should be fully healed by tomorrow," he said and ran his fingers across the delicate seams of the sheets without any reason. "I will ask Neji to stay with you in your home after you recover—if being alone still scares you. You still don't want to tell me what happened?"

"I d-don't remember," she lied again and narrowed her lying eyes away. Sasuke saw through her untruthfulness, but he chose not to make her realize it. It was in his interests, after all. He wanted to see how far she would bury this inside herself—how long she would keep this little act up. Her lies were poor. It was a game best left to the professionals, but so far, he was quite impressed with her persistence.

"If you say so," he said and hid a smile as he turned his head away and pretended to be distracted by the rain.

Hinata put her hand on his, grabbing his attention. "But I-I'm telling you the truth. You don't believe me?" she asked as her hand trembled over his. There was desperation in her voice. She tried to mask it, but it was easy for him to sniff it out.

"I didn't say you were lying," he stopped and narrowed his eyes on her, "I know you're a terrible liar. It just depends on how well you lie. The rest is your business. Your concern. The better you hide your lies, the more successful your life will be. If you want to leave Konoha, that is. Am I not right, Hinata?" He still wore that sly smile on his face that was nearly impassive save for that ghostly emotion scurrying across his features.

"W-What?" Hinata barely managed, taken aback by his honesty. How true he was. A shocked expression froze on her white face, and her fingers dug into the skin of his hand. Sasuke's meaningful gaze did not flit from her face to his hand. He held it, overpowering the weak strength of her gaze with his own; it conquered it quickly and made her eyes lose the intensity of her emotions till they blinked and gladly admitted defeat.

Hinata lowered her eyes and gazed at the white skin of her bosom. A few drops of sweat had burst from her pores. They were cool on her skin, nothing but reminders of her fear. For a few moments, they remained silent. The rain outside harshly pressed against the wooden walls and filled the whole room with many sounds from outside; but they were still dull and weak, unable to fully make it through the walls to disturb her thoughts.

"You seem ashamed. I don't know what's there to be ashamed of. You want freedom. I can understand that. Where is the harm is that?" Sasuke asked in a voice that exhorted her to give him a true answer, and she played right into his hands.

Hinata raised her eyes and tried hard not to expose herself completely before him. She had willingly ruined a part of her honour by being intimate with him—he did not need to know everything. But how much would I be able to hide? she thought as she saw her unmasked face in Sasuke's clear eyes. "I don't want to talk about it," she said after a long and thoughtful intake of breath.

"A’right," he said in a breathy voice, knowing that his suspicions about her were true. He was satisfied with her answer for now. With so little, she told him so much. "You don't want to talk. It's your personal life. But I'm glad, because if you keep lying like this, you might actually make it." He smiled and leant down to brush his lips against hers.

Blood rushed to Hinata's face when she felt Sasuke's tongue slip into her mouth. She did not protest, because after her painful ordeal, this felt tender and sweet. She wanted to make love to him again, even if it was after a lie—a lie she could not hide behind her honesty. She moved her arm and buried her hand in his hair, pulling him close till his skin touched hers, setting it deliciously on fire.

He pulled back and turned his head away. She thought he would lean back down, but he stood up suddenly and walked away. He stood before the door and spoke without turning around: "you wouldn't need anything, but my room is at the end of the corridor. I would recommend that you use that bell instead. I'm quite tired today." Then he walked out of the room and left her desire burning.

Hinata's lower lip trembled. It ached between her legs. She did not think he would tease and taunt her like this today—today of all the days when she actually needed him to soothe her pain. "It isn't fair," she whispered to herself and trembled with a burning shame of need. She breathed loudly and looked up to the ceiling and parted her lips to say the same words all over again: "it isn't fair!"

She was being obdurate, but she did not care. How easy it was for them to feel pleasure when they needed it. She grunted loudly and sensed her desire bother her entire body. Slowly, she snaked her fingers down and brushed them gently on her stomach. Then she slipped them under the smooth fabric of the underwear and felt her fingers get tangled in the mass of black curls. She did not stop and moved them between her lips and touched the engorged bud that did not hide her own arousal from herself.

Hinata's eyes trembled and twitched as she felt that familiar rhythm of pleasure invade her body like a mad tormentor. It was strange, and when she moved her finger around her entrance, her desire for him came rushing back. It was as though he was the only thing familiar to her flesh now. She could not even elicit pleasure out of her own body without his thoughts racing through her mind and the fleeting fires from his touch coursing through her veins.

Hinata did not stop—she could not. She slipped a finger inside and sensed her body respond to her own inexperienced touch, fooled that it was that familiar lover who had come back to play again! She arched her back and moved her warm finger slowly and steadily at a pace that always delighted her. Her lips parted in a needy moan, red and swollen with a heady pleasure that was probably the next best thing for her . . . and her body.

The delightful scent of her arousal went in vapours up his nostrils. His keen ears stood up and wriggled when her heavy breaths could not be overpowered by the harsh rain. They were too keen for these little distractions. Its head rose in him just like a stubborn little snake, rousing with her moans and her strong scent. It goaded him on again, and that same hatred came back with full force.

Naruto's eyes opened on their own as if a clock chimed right next to him—that beckoned him for his morning rituals. His face trembled, and he kept blinking his eyes without a reason, already feeling lost amidst the heavy blackness that had settled itself firmly upon his mind. He was lost again, and the only desire that crawled up to his lips as a breathy sigh was that hatred: "I hate you . . . "

He rose from his bed, falling down on his knees but getting back up the next second. His back burnt as the daemon inside him could not make it completely past the powerful barrier. So it itched and ached deep underneath his spine, a nasty flowing burn; but it found his eyes and glowed like an eerie menace through them. The more she sighed, the more restless he got till he could not quite contain it. He launched himself at the door and slammed his fists against it as many times as it took to break it apart. He ran outside into the open, guided by her sounds and scents.

The loud noise of the heavy door being broken to pieces did not carry itself over to anyone, not even Sasuke, who slept peacefully in his bed, exhausted from the day's ordeal. The rain drowned out Hinata's moans and Naruto's grunts as he stood under the heavy downpour, looking at her please herself without any shame. She could not even hear herself when thunder roared, opening her jaws wide to let out a loud, heated sigh, but he could—so clearly that it felt as if this spectacle was created just to taunt and humiliate him.

She turned her head and blinked in her moment of passion; she found darkness in the room as the flames in the hearth had burnt themselves out. Even the flame on the wick inside the lantern was out, leaving a thin line of smoke rising upwards into the darkness. She grabbed the sheets when her eyes saw two reds glowing beyond the grey smoke. The window was too tiny for any person to enter: Sasuke chose this room for her own safety.

Then Hinata saw a hand make its way in, the same hand that was cruel to her that day, and she found herself running out of the room. She turned the corner and ran towards the room at the far end of the corridor. Naruto was here, and this time, he would kill her! She could not fight him last time, and she did not expect anything miraculous from herself this time. So, she ran, looking behind as though the man had somehow moved through the walls and was chasing her down through the misty corridors of the manor now.

Light shone through the wooden bars in the corridor as lightning flashed in the sky, but that did not halt her steps. She stopped close to Sasuke's door but did not knock. She slid it open and thanked her lucky stars that he had not locked his door. The inside was warm, and the fire in the hearth there was not as cruel here as it was to her in the other room. The whole room glowed with a beautiful orange light that pushed back the night's shadows into nooks and corners. There they loomed, standing tall behind the cupboard and futon.

Gently, Hinata closed the door behind her as her eyes found Sasuke sleeping peacefully. It was strange for the keen ninja to be so helpless in his sleep. His face bore the signs of his calm as he slept without a care—not worried about what monster lay in wait beyond his door. She kept standing still, not knowing what to do. She moved her lips but nothing came out—fear had stolen her voice.

She took a few steps and gazed around in fear. Then she leant down and fearfully climbed into his futon, stealing glances at the closed door. She stretched her hand and moved her fingers to touch his face to wake him up. She had not quite touched the stray tips of the hair when Sasuke threw her onto her back and grabbed her by the throat, with his dagger's tip digging into her skin. He had that fierce, resolute look on his face, and his eyes burnt with a need to take a life.

He breathed heavily and suddenly that look disappeared from his sweaty face. His grip slackened, and he pulled his hand back. Hinata drew in a loud breath and sensed her heart beat at the right pace again. He shoved the dagger back into his pocket and backed away, looking livid. "Are you crazy?" he hissed and bent forward to meet her gaze. "I could've killed you! I told you to knock, didn't I? Don't you pay attention, Hinata?"

Hinata curled her fingers around her throat and coughed. "I . . . I-I was—" she fumbled with words, unable to give voice to her thoughts.

Sasuke rubbed his temple, annoyed by her foray into his room. "Why are you here?" he asked and moved back to rest his back against the wall. He looked irritated by her audacity; never had any woman had the privilege to sit on his futon. If he wanted lovers, he indulged them in the guestrooms. This was his own private place. No one was allowed here other than his beloved brother and a few servants.

"I-I saw—" Hinata's voice trembled as she struggled to sit upright.

"Are you going to say something, or will my whole night be wasted by your half-completed—"

"I saw someone outside my window," she cut him off and pointed a trembling finger at his door as if he could actually see beyond it without his Sharingan, "out in the rain—next to my window. Big, r-red eyes. I didn't know what to do, so I came here." She hugged herself and bowed her head to hide her tear-filled eyes.

Sasuke's Sharingan turned on automatically. This is bad, he thought, not sharing his secret with Hinata. He grabbed his sword that was propped against his side-table and got out of the futon. "Stay here and don't come out. You understand me?" he said with a heavy accent, looking back at her.

Hinata moved on the futon and twisted her back a little to look at him. She wanted to stop him, but she knew that only the Sharingan was known to tame the wildest of beasts. She crawled back and pulled the sheets over herself when she heard Sasuke lock the door from outside. She pulled them up as if they might hide her from Naruto and his wrath. (It was an innocent reaction!)

Sasuke used Body-Flicker to reach the door before his heart could fully beat once. He stopped, turned his eyes around, and swept his gaze wide. He could see no aura. Yuu was standing by the door, his face enveloped by a thin film of water and fear. "Sasuke-Sama, he's—" he broke off, not knowing how to explain this.

Sasuke's lip twitched and a look of murderous rage flashed into his eyes, but he did not say anything. He turned around and walked out of the narrow corridor. He stood still and tried to pick up any sound, any trace of Naruto, but he was gone; he had disappeared into the arms of night. He stepped out into the rain, letting it lash his face and bare torso. "I need Karin on my team," he whispered to himself, and the tasteless rainwater slipped into his mouth. He gulped it down and looked around with an overbearing sense of futility to find something when he knew that Naruto was lost for the night.

He stood there quietly for several seconds and then finally spoke, "clean up that mess. Nii-Sama will be angry with me if he found out. I don't want it around in the morning." Then he left Yuu standing under the rain.

When he unlocked the door and stepped back into the room, he found Hinata sitting behind a wall of sheets, with just her eyes visible above her hands. She lowered them when she saw Sasuke lock the door from inside. "You had a bad dream. There was nothing outside," he said in a calm voice and walked to the futon. He placed his sword next to the side table and climbed into his futon again, not caring that his pants were still wet.

"But I—" she stopped, not sure whether she really did see Naruto or was it just a figment of her imagination.

"You know what, Hinata, I'm too exhausted to pander to your foolish whims at this hour of the night. Just sleep here for the night. Happy?" he said in a harsh, cutting voice and pulled the sheets over himself.

Hinata was too relieved to say anything. She slowly rested her back on the futon and pulled at the sheets a little. Sasuke stirred slightly and then placed his arm on his forehead. It did not take him long to fall asleep. Hinata, too, closed her eyes, comforted by the fact that she was not alone at anyone's mercy tonight. The thought gave her peace and she fell asleep, dreaming something beautiful for the first time in five long years . . .

# # # # # #

Sakura was confused, her eyes surveying Naruto who was sopping wet, standing on her doorstep. "Naruto, you—" she began but stopped suddenly when Naruto let himself in. She did not say anything and closed the door behind him. The sky roared and rumbled and shook the windows a second later.

The lights in her apartment were out save for a few candles waning into a pool of wax on the shelves. It happened quite often when heavy rains hit Konoha. It was just a minor problem, but a problem nonetheless. It was a good thing that their village's security was compensated by a thick chakra barrier; otherwise, what would happen during complete blackouts? It was not that hard to guess.

Tsunade's reign was going smoothly. Problems had dwindled considerably ever since she took over after Hiruzen's death a couple of years ago. Maybe she would take this matter into consideration, but the Chūnin Exams' rules overhaul came first. The thoughts about swaying Tsunade were not on her mind—not now. Her emerald eyes deepened into two dark greens when the last candle in the room melted completely and cast a thick shadow over them.

She kept looking at Naruto whose back was turned to her. He was silent and breathed heavily beyond the near-impenetrable wall of greyness between them. "Do you need something to drink?" she asked and eased towards him slowly as if she would scare him off if she moved any faster.

When no reply came, she turned to face him and grabbed his face in her hands. "What's wrong?" she asked in the voice of a lover. "You look tired. You've been running again?" She skittered her hand through his messy hair, still not getting any response from him.

Naruto wheezed in response as if her words hurt his body and mind. He lifted his head and eyes, and an expression of brutish lust came into his countenance. There was a delightful curl of pleasure in his lips that made her shudder with a realization. He did not give her even a moment to talk him out of it this time and grabbed her roughly by the shoulders and pushed her into the room that was so familiar to him.

Sakura staggered back and fell down on the floor; she sensed the aggression and force behind his movements. It was better to stay quiet and bear through this. So she raised herself to her feet when she saw Naruto approach her with slow deliberate steps; a hunger had came over his face like a heavy veil. He discarded his wet jacket, grabbed a fistful of Sakura's pink hair, and pulled her in to claim her lips in a rough kiss.

Naruto's teeth closed on her lower lip, bleeding it. There was no gentleness in his touch, but the heat that radiated from his body consumed the human part of her, and she gave herself over to his harsh caresses. It was not like Sasuke ever indulged her this way—it was such a painful thought in the heat of the moment. It was better to forget and pretend he was him. She did not protest when he grabbed her blouse and tore it apart and then reached down and did the same to her skirt and cotton underwear.

She stood naked in his arms, letting him paw her as he wished. He pushed her back on the bed and crushed her with his weight. His lips—that had abandoned the gentleness of previous nights—nipped at her delicate breasts and left red marks on her body. He broke her skin as he pulled at the soft skin of her taut stomach, his long canine teeth digging into her inner thighs, wrenching out sobs of pain and pleasure.

But it was all right—she would let him love her: it was what he wanted, and this was what she wanted him to do; and that was what she needed for this pretend-play. She could pretend it was him who had come to play with her like this if she closed her eyes—it was just a little game. She arched her back and pushed her genitals into his face when he lowered his face between her legs to sniff her scent. It delighted his daemons that she was always willing and ready for him—that she was selfless for him. Hinata was cruel, cold, and unkind. She pleasured herself for someone else!

He growled and licked the mucus that clung to her quivering slit. Yes, her body was always pliant under his touch: a touch Hinata rejected. He lifted his head and looked into her misty, murky-green eyes. They invited him to please himself and satisfy his building hunger. So he did. He pressed his body on top of hers and took her harshly, entering her over and over again with hard thrusts that made her cry out.

When her walls did not allow him to go deep enough, he flipped her over onto her knees and took her from behind. It pleased him how she struggled and moaned into the pillow, feeling pressure between her legs as he went in deep and hard, pushing her forward on the bed. Sakura clenched her fingers and moved her knees so wide apart till her child-like breasts got squashed against the mattress. She turned her head and peered through her sweaty hair that fell over her eyes, but she could not really see Naruto clearly beyond the mist that had come across her gaze.

His hands slipped on her sweaty back and felt the muscles under her lovely skin convulse with pleasure. It had been a few days since he last felt pleasure like this. It was not as though Hinata was ever willing to embrace and love him. How he had begun to loathe her fake innocence. The thing dominating inside him smiled at his thoughts, and he increased his pace, eliciting loud grunts out of her.

But Naruto was still not satisfied. He needed more—more pleasure, more lust, more warmth from her body. It was still not enough to consume him and sate his passions. So he grabbed her by the arms and pulled her back onto his lap and pushed upwards. It felt amazing how he speared her completely in this manner, feeling the crushing depths of her walls—so warm and slick. These were the pleasures only Sakura could give him.

He placed his hand against her forehead and pulled her head back onto his shoulder; then he leant in to whisper in her ear as he slowed down his pace, "Sakura-Chan, you wouldn't hurt me, right?" he hissed, bit down on her shoulder, and held her head in place when she screamed and clenched her walls tighter and tighter.

At that moment, a thought crossed his mind: how much could she have squeezed him had he wrung her tiny throat in his hands? He smiled and kept up his pace and enjoyed her body to his heart's content.

The night had yet to give into morning's easy seductions when Sakura got up from her bed and stood before the mirror. Her genitals ached. She would have to use medicine this time to heal. Naruto was never this harsh to her before. She brushed her fingers on the small red marks on her breasts and a blue bruise on her shoulder. They would heal on their own, but she would never let Sasuke see them: they would be just another weapon for his mockery. The Medic, would-be lover in her scorned the idea to bear them like a Fuin-Jutsu seal.

She turned her eyes to Naruto sleeping on his stomach. He had spent himself today and left his seed inside her; it was just another chore, another thing to clean up before she left for the office. She walked out of the room and felt the chill of the morning wind on her body that had exhausted itself and spent its heat for today.

When Sakura looked out the window, the first ray of sunlight burst through the night and created a balmy hue in the sky. She sighed and lowered herself into the chair and opened the drawer. There it lay, the same white paper with the same black pen on it. She took it out and wrote down Naruto's behaviour; she deleted the important details of the night. That would never concern him. All he wanted to know was that how far his daemon had consumed him.

A layer of tears came across her eyes, and she stifled a sob that vibrated in her throat as she created the Root symbol given to her on the end of the page with her chakra. The tiny sparrow sitting in the cage on the table bounced happily, eager to see her. It was time for it to fly back to its sanctuary and feed. She opened the cage, took it out, and slipped the paper she had just rolled into the tiny container tied above its feet.

The bird struggled as Sakura approached the window; it knew how to find its home. She released it and it flew south. It would not be long before they knew how everything was coming along. When it flew away out of sight, she lost her will with it, too. "N-Naruto, I'm sorry," she whispered and sank down to the floor. Then she buried her face in her hands and cried . . .

# # # # # #

Chapter Text

# # # # # #

Whoever said that necessity was the mother of invention was quite off the mark and a fool. It had always been desperation, looming behind it, tall and menacing, the way a woman was behind the ill-fated sequences of men's lives. They may deny it, they may hide behind the veils of social ambiguity, but Sasuke knew—women proved to be necessary to quell his boredom when it stung him hard.

The last thing he wanted as an added distraction was another woman hounding him by day and dogging him by night. The mess he seemed to be in was piling up, and he was only sinking deeper—that deep plunge into the chaos of sweet trouble had become only deeper. Yes, games were always sweet. There was a certain charm in a muddle of confusion a new plan provided. The more it unravelled, the more excited he got, giddy as a child for his new-found toy.

He had sunk his teeth into this new ambrosia and tasted the trickles from its new, delightful tendrils that fell drop by drop on his eager tongue—a tongue of a lover that adored the evanescent fragrances and tastes of so many flowers; and when the thrill would enthral him completely, he would let it flood him with such eagerness that, for a moment, he would think he was no better than a madman, giving chase to the darkness that played hide and seek in the shadows. But then the thought would slink back into the undulating blackness like an unwelcomed nightmare, buried deep under the things he deemed not to be his necessities.

So it was a ritual, a requiem of loss for that one lonely thought he had buried himself as he stood in the cool draft of autumn wind pushing his shirt against his skin dotted with sweat from the heat of his jacket; he was no madman. No, he was a thrill seeker. And he had come to cheerfully embrace this side of himself a long time ago. Others may have hated, even loathed him for his sharp, harsh tongue that smoothed out the roughest of edges (occasionally) . . . and even women; but he shrugged off these sentiments—they were not his to collect.

Last night, when the cold rain had yet to stop, he slipped out of the futon and sent Kirin off to Karin. She had been sending him messages. He did not think her inclusion was necessary right now, but the way such a powerful seal could not prevent Naruto from leaving his manor—he had to admit it, he was being plagued by doubts. And these doubts were starting to gnaw away at his plans.

Was he being played? Was someone beating him at his own game? A look of cool anger flashed across his face. It was so quick, like a sudden flash of lightning that leaves a bright cobweb floating in one's eye, that no one's gaze could have navigated fast enough to see it; but only faster, like the coming of a heartbeat when you feel that a powerful pulse is about to throw the heart against the ribs . . . and then it was gone, suffusing the body with the slow crawl of life again.

Sasuke let out a breath of warm air, and then sucked a lungful of cool air back in. He wrinkled his nose a bit when the air pushed the musk of grass and soggy ground up his nostrils. His gaze stopped for a second on Naruto and met his cloudy blue eyes: he looked tired, oblivious, with Sakura's arm in his. Since Hinata was not here, Sakura somehow found it convenient to flaunt their arrangement out in the open.

He chose not to say anything. Naruto's forgetfulness was his advantage. He hung his head a little to the left and hid the smile breaking across his face. Yes, it was just a game . . . and the playtime had begun! He lifted his head suddenly and masked that fast-fading hint of glee (almost) perfectly behind that same old expression of duty that involved the dutiful raise of his brow and the shift of his facial muscles into a look of authority. It was truly a tired old ritual!

"I've called all of you here out in the cold to introduce a new member," he began and folded his arms more firmly than before. "I'm sure you can all see her. Her name is Uzumaki Karin, and she'll be the Sensor of the Team."

All of them were already looking at the young woman standing by Sasuke's side, looking quite excited. "Sasuke—I mean, Sasuke-Sama, do I have to introduce myself?" she asked and circled his waist with one arm.

Sasuke's jaw tightened, and he spared her a sidelong hard gaze that bored into hers. She immediately backed away and collected her glasses swiftly as if to prepare herself for the coming criticism. "This isn't a Genin class," he said in annoyance and clenched his teeth together. "You've already been introduced. Talk to Yuu and make yourself useful for the coming missions."

She laughed a little, but that laughter quickly died in her throat when she saw Sasuke walk away from her. Her smile vanished, and then she wore that indifferent expression on her face. Her soft pink-ish eyes turned left and trailed over to the lost lover staring at her with a boyish, innocent grin spreading across his face; then she gazed at the look of subtle apprehension Sakura's eyes could not manage to hide in time.

Karin cast one last quick glance at Sakura, and then methodically wiped her glasses with a clean cloth she had fished out of her pocket. She lifted them, her breath fogging the glass, and repeated the same circular motions with her thumb again. When she got satisfied, she put the glasses back on and fingered them back to their usual perch. She leant her head to one side and smiled a smile of delight that must have looked like happiness to everyone, even Sakura.

It was amusing . . .

# # # # # #

Sasuke lay still under the thin trickle of rainwater leaking in from the crack in the roof. A puddle grew wide next to him as it caught the persistent droplets. Drip drip drip . . . the sound was like hammers in his ears. He stirred his head a little and pulled back his dry lips that were stuck to the cold floor caked with dirt.

He exhaled sharply and hazily saw a small cloud of dust rise up into the air. The place was dark, save for a single shaft of moonlight travelling down and breaking into thin white wisps as it struck the wisteria coming in through the crevices in the roof. His head was pounding and his vision was blurred, swaying like a heaving boat on the tides in the storm.

He mustered up the courage and propped himself up on his elbows, his head hanging in exhaustion. It took a while before his cloudy vision allowed him the luxury to survey his surrounds: it was muddy and soggy, and the noise of the sky beyond the thick tree roots, burrowing into the tiny cave, grew angry. It was about to rain.

Sasuke whispered something to himself, but his voice was lost. Slowly, he got to his feet and put his hand on the harsh rocks to his right. They glowed in the dark. His chakra was out, and his Sharingan could not beat back to life again; his own power had abandoned him! How helpless he felt as an Uchiha with his anchor taken so harshly away from him? It was a nightmare come alive.

The rustle of feet through the grass turned his vision. He could not see anyone save for a tall shadow. The kunai in its hand glimmered in the pallid light and shone like a spectre of death at the sharp edge. His pride whipped the fear in him, and he stood defiantly before it—ready to take on the brunt of its cruelty.

The figure lunged forward, and it stabbed the knife through his heart. It was a magnificent sight: a thick shower of blood landed on the dry Sakura flowers strewn about the cave, dappled red with the last signs of his life; it was amazing how he just saw them—death had lifted the last secret's veil, and he could see everything clearly now!

He tried to speak but the air left him: his dying, unblinking eye caught the last drop of cool water . . . and he woke up, his breathing hard and heavy. He placed his hand on his sweaty forehead and wiped it across his face, collecting the sweat oozing from his every pore. The warm room was a welcoming place from the spectacle of his own death—even if it was in a dreadful dream.

Sasuke turned his head slightly, still not amused that Hinata had taken a refuge for the second night inside his room. But he let it slide. It was a sacrifice on his part, a hard compromise for the prize he was so desired. He eased back down into the futon and relaxed the tense muscles in his back.

Breathing in, he realized that this was the third time he had had this dream; his Sharingan was telling him something, and he intended to solve this mystery . . .

# # # # # #

The premonition was set into motion. No, he could not really say that for sure, but he could hear the wheels of its chariot turning, ready to crush and crumble his life and everything he held dear. But that would have to wait. He knelt down and picked up the last fallen Sakura flower of the season. They would not bloom again this year; their beauty was of short stay.

By his feet, countless tiny ripples disturbed the shallow marks in the muddy ground. The hard stone-road had been scoured away by the merciless autumn rains. If the ninjas did not know their paths right, they got lost in the vast forests, killed by spies or taken hostage. Konoha and Root always washed their hands clean of such petty matters. Lives did not matter to them as long as that nexus of power, sullied by corruption, remained undisturbed.

Sasuke breathed in the moist air and palmed his wet face, his lips pulling into a thin line. A frisson of disgust remained suppressed under his skin, cradled deep in the heart blackened by the slaughter of his people. When it beat, it sent bits of hatred coursing through his whole body: an anger he willingly embraced and cherished now . . .

He lifted his head and put his elbow on his knee and looked beyond the red hair flowing in the wind, breaking the last shafts of grey lights. Karin had tied her hair back into a ponytail. Presently, two fingers of her right hand were pointed upwards. She was concentrating. Her glasses were foggy and dotted with countless raindrops that slowly trailed down and splashed on her lips and nose. It was cold at this time of dusk.

"Anything?" he asked, stood up, and cleared his throat. The abrupt change in weather had given him a bad throat.

Karin opened her eyes and lowered her hands. "When he merges with water, it's difficult to track him," she said and blinked her right eye several times when a drop of rainwater clung to her red lashes and touched the surface of her dilating pupils. She removed her glasses and rubbed her eye with her fingers. When she opened it back again, it was red and teary.

"It's been a while," he said and turned on his Sharingan—that one tool that never lied to him. His ears were abuzz with the rustle of leaves that quivered in the rain. The dissonance of forest's melody did not disturb his vision. He kept looking, disappointed when his eyes failed to trace his chakra.

"Should we go and look for Jūgo?" Karin asked and shook her wet hand. Her red hair clung to her face like paste, her smooth cheeks blushing under the assault of light rain. The thinning rain was not lasting long enough for this foray. The wind was ice cold, and both of them felt its cruel lash on their skins.

Sasuke turned his head around, not finding a soul out here at this hour. Faint slivers of sunlight vanished behind the dark clouds that devoured the sinking sun. The grey blanket cast darkness below, and it dispersed like frightened children when the sky lit up with a roar. His cunning could not have anticipated this poor weather!

"Let him sing with his birds," he said and cast a bored gaze at her when she burst into girly giggles, "he might get luckier than us."

"Should I sense again?" she asked and moved her hands up to form a seal again. He could barely see her beyond the mist that rose between them—a grey ghost in the weak blackness.

"No, no need," he said louder this time as the wind hissed, cut through the air, and cried into their ears. "What's taking them so long?" He moved under the cover of branches that had gotten snarled up with the vines above them. Overhead, the leaves that barely clung to the branches with last signs of spring’s life got severed by the wind.

"Sasuke, we won't find it in this weather. And even if we do, the rain would’ve cleaned up any leftover chakra. We should come back another day," she said and placed her hand on his shoulder. His Jōnin shirt was completely soaked though that she could feel his cold skin underneath.

"We have to find it today. These rains aren't going to stop—I don't even know if I'll get a day off in the coming weeks. Nii-Sama will be back soon. He won't allow me to do as I please. You know how things are," he said in a throaty voice, peering into the grey mist by their feet. He could no longer see the grass underneath.

A look of curiosity came over her face, and then a clever smile broke it suddenly. "Your little pink-haired slut won’t make my job easy," she said with teeth in her smile. "Should I just kill her? Keeping an eye on Naruto would be easier that way."

"She's not my lover. I've never touched that woman nor do I intend to," he gave a measured reply and drew in a cold breath—it travelled like ice in his lungs.

"Oh, poor her—bet the sow wants to fuck you so bad!" Karin said in a playful, mocking tone and pressed her finger over her soft lips. "I still think she would be nothing but trouble. Don't worry, I'll make it look like an accident."

Sasuke smiled at her strange sense of humour—truly a wicked and innocent smile—and leant back against the rough tree. "Why dirty your hands with her blood? She isn't worth it," he broke off and fixed her with a mischievous look, "I wouldn't worry about her. But you really are a bit cruel, Karin."

"Are you still hung up on that dead whore?" she asked, her soft voice getting lost in the midst of a cacophony of so many sounds. "She was going to tell on us. If I hadn't done that, Root would've been onto you after what you did to . I didn't have much choice."

"You could've wiped her memory. Murder—" he stopped to let out a heavy sigh, "it makes things complicated. It's better to keep things clean and simple. Sometimes, even the murder of a bystander can become a noose later. I would rather keep my neck free of that. You would do no such thing—not unless I tell you to."

"You're such a softy," she said and mashed herself against him, clasping her arms around his waist. "That’s what I love about you. Such a romantic!"

"There’s a certain romance in keeping matters from getting messy—that’s what Nii-Sama says anyway," he said slowly and looked around; the mist fell down on them through the wet boughs like a cool cascade. "You'll do well to remember that." He walked out into the open as the rain eased up to a thin drizzle.

Karin walked behind him. Both of them stopped when they heard rustling in the wet bushes ahead. "It's okay. It's just Jūgo," Karin said and put her kunai away.

Sasuke's grip slackened on the hilt of his sword. Not a second later, a very tall man appeared from behind the bushes: he had quite a few birds perched on his wide shoulders; they chirped and sang in melodious voices, and for the life of him, Sasuke could never understand how he was able to talk to them.

"Sasuke," he said immediately as his gaze fell upon the young Uchiha, "I talked to the birds around the area. They don't seem to know much about the hidden trail. But they say that there is something at the base of the small mountain up ahead." He pointed north and stood with a calm disposition.

"Where's Suigetsu?" Sasuke asked and pushed the sword back into the sheath. "I hope he didn't get carried away by the currents—w ouldn't want him to get lost in the river."

"He should've made to it the entrance. He said he was too wet to walk around for now," Jūgo said and fed one of the birds few soggy breadcrumbs.

"Let the bastard die! Why did you ask him to come along?" Karin asked, looking irritated.

"Behave yourself, Karin," Sasuke said, turning his head to look at her features touched by a hint of anger. "I wouldn't have this here. You understand?"

Karin clucked her tongue irritably. "You'll get along and you'll do it without creating a mess for me," he continued as the Sharingan flared and then disappeared, overtaken by the usual blackness his eyes were so familiar with. "Don't disappoint me. Otherwise, you know I won't keep you around."

"All right, all right," she said, raising her voice. "But he better not get on my nerves."

"Lead the way, Jūgo," Sasuke said and ran behind the tall man followed by the reluctant Karin.

It took them a few minutes to reach a small clearing. Sasuke held out his palm and a flame came alive upon it, flickering and sizzling in the drizzle. When they stopped, he looked around. He had passed by this area a few times but never came upon this clearing. It was probably because of the pile of boulders before the area to the right. He never had any business to come here, anyway.

He walked carefully and let his Sharingan see through everything, even the clear chakra flowing within the water-like form of Suigetsu's odd body. "I thought you drowned," Sasuke said and elicited a loud laugh out of Karin.

"Yeah, ya would love that, huh, Karin? Ya just think 'am this tiny stone in yor path, dontcha? Like hell I am, because I'll be this giant boulder between you and Sasuke. Am never going to move. Ya hear me?" He moved his saggy face and revealed jagged, pointy teeth. It was hard to tell what kind of expression he was trying to make, as all Sasuke could see were tiny bubbles of water rising up to his blue skin. "But, really, Sasuke, I can't. Ya know why? Because 'am water, baby—am here, there, am everywhere!" He lifted the large sword up into the air as some sort of victory gesture and pulled a smile that sagged the next second. It looked as though he could not maintain any expression longer than two seconds.

"You shouldn't sit under the rain after being in the water for so long. I don't want to come back and collect you in buckets," Sasuke said with poker-faced seriousness.

"Ah, good times!" Suigetsu said aloud and snapped at the mist several times like an irritated dog as if it would dilute him more. "When was that again? Oh, yeah, that cloud village incident last year. The broad was about to flush me down the toilet. I still got nightmares." 

Sasuke let out a subtle 'hmm' sound and moved his eyes around, looking at the thick line of trees standing all around them like an ominous, variegated curtain. It was hidden in plain sight. He had no reason to tread this far away from the main trail during his missions. How much were they hiding from their own military?

"I think she should have. You're already so full of shit!" Karin said with a snap, creating a disgusted expression as if Sasuke really had pulled him out of the gutters—bucket by bucket.

"That's rich, comin' from a whor—"

"Enough, both of you." Sasuke raised his hand and then turned a little to look at Suigetsu. "Where is it?"

"I'll take you, Sasuke. The birds are getting restless because of the negative Natural Energy here. They need harmony," Jūgo said with infinite calm and started for the boulders in front.

"Now ain't that guy an original thinker!" Suigetsu exclaimed and pointed his sword at Jūgo who disappeared behind the pile of large rocks worn thin by fungus and rain. "If only ya was like that, Karin. But with all that anger and guttery thoughts about Sasuke, you'll just disturb his peace-lovin' parakeets!"

"For Sake's sake . . . " Sasuke mumbled and walked behind Jūgo, not sticking around to lend a patient ear to Karin's uncultured insults that involved Suigetsu, his fluid penis, and his willing, dead mother.

When he turned the corner, he came across a shrine or what was left of it: it was shattered to pieces, and from the looks of it, not long ago! He knelt down and brushed his fingers on the hard mud. He could see nothing. The chakra, the prints, it was all gone save for the fragmentary bits of bluish energy plastered to the rocks, and it was not enough to pin down the wriggling worm. The rain took care of it and hid the culprit's identity; otherwise, his Sharingan would have seen the colour of that snake's chakra.

"Not quite what ya was expectin'?" Suigetsu asked from behind him. "I thought it always looked like that and was wonderin' what you'd want with this dump."

"No," Sasuke sighed out and stood up. His eyes turned and stopped on Suigetsu and Karin. "One of the Root members talked about coming in through the entrances in the south only three days ago. Someone destroyed this very recently. Karin, can you sense anything?"

Karin touched her glasses—it was a perfunctory habit for her. "There's residual chakra from someone here, but it's too small to sense anything. You're right. Someone did this quite recently," she said and moved a little to the left to look at the smashed entrance.

"Isn't there any way under it? I can slip inside," Suigetsu said and propped his sword against the tree.

Sasuke looked down at the entrance again and found nothing but darkness. The entrance was destroyed from both ends. There was not even a gap the size of a bodkin to squeeze through. "Leave it. Whoever it was, they sensed danger and acted before us. Even if you do manage to slip in, you'll be caught," Sasuke said, a look of confusion scurrying across his face.

"Any ideas who?" Karin asked.

"Don’t know," Sasuke replied and brushed his fingers across his reddened cheek. "But I'll find out soon enough."

# # # # # #

Chapter Text

# # # # # #

A cool drizzle was back—autumn season had arrived. It would be a good five months before winter left and let spring and earth breathe with a new life. But even this season had its charms: purple lilies had begun to sprout out of the soggy ground after the rains had filled their roots with life; small animals burrowed their snouts deep into the ground and uprooted the yellow flowers. Even autumn was not completely affected by death. (It had its own story of a new life.)

It was autumn when Hinata was wedded off to Naruto . . . and what followed were five long years of loneliness. Sometimes, she wondered, what if it were spring when she was given over to the Uzumaki clan under the fresh bloom and quiver of Sakura flowers? Would they have blessed her marriage, made it last longer—made it more happy, more blissful? She sighed and dragged in a cool breath.

She let her gaze wander south and then looked down to the roots poking out of the ground that cradled a mass of fresh autumn flowers. It was then her eyes found the yellow flowers and there sprang a sudden feeling of hope in her heart—that same yellow colour that brought back old memories of herself . . . an abandoned lover. She had finally managed to discard it. It did not matter to her now, but yellow was the colour of autumn for her, a colour she wanted to forget!

So Hinata was not surprised by this new string of strength she had grasped. Out of all that governed her fate and jerked her around, this one was her own; no one would take that away from her! Her eyes managed to fend off the fear when she saw Naruto standing a few feet away from her. He looked happy, oblivious to the pain he had given her. A part of her cruelly thought that he should have raised his hand to her years ago. Maybe then she would not have fooled herself into thinking he would come around, change himself for her. She had no one to blame but herself.

She did not look away this time and met his blue eyes, which had the same boyish innocence she had once dearly loved, with a bold disposition. That look . . . it rent her heart, but she steeled it somehow and managed a small smile of her own. It ghosted over her lips like a kind spirit and then vanished just like that. A wide grin broke Naruto's face, and he scratched his messy hair. He waved at her quite energetically and then lowered his face to hide his blush: he looked like a Genin boy on his first romantic date.

Hinata did not know what to think. Was he mad? When she thought about it, her imagination came to a shuddering halt. He blew hot and cold. When he was warm, he would respect her, treat her kindly, albeit they shared no intimacy. But, lately, he had become so cruel to her—as cold as the autumn's wind that whipped her skin without kindness , without compassion. Where had he hidden his loving self? That part of him that loved her as a friend, even if he never truly wanted that bond to progress?

When Hinata felt the ice-cold rain fall down on her face, she realized that she did not want to know him, not anymore! She would not unfurl this cursed part of him, this new cruel streak that was beginning to haunt her like something evil and daemonic. So she rejected the idea to unravel this mystery and put a quick stop to her curious nature treading far into the darkness of his mind . . . what lay beyond his innocent eyes? It was better if she did not know.

Sasuke had told her that someone poisoned him: he was the sole heir of the wealthy Namikaze family, after all. It was not the first time someone had tried to take his life. Poisoned? she thought. It did not really matter. She was standing out here now after withstanding the lash of Sasuke's cold words last night: he had asked her to be here or leave his team.

Itachi was to take her with him on a small mission. She thought of his brother, but for the life of her, she could not recall his face clearly. She had seen him years ago! What was he like? She would find out soon enough.

Standing amidst the Team she would be a part of in the future, Hinata took comfort in the thought that some things should just take their course. She was thankful to Sasuke, even Neji, for shouldering her when she needed someone to lean back on. Her eyes wandered to the left, and her gaze fell on Neji's calm face. He had his eyes downcast as he stood with his hands clasped tightly behind his back. He always wore his hair long: it was a tradition passed down in her clan. Her father, her uncle . . . everyone kept long hair; it was a sign of pride!

His light brown hair was gathered into a ponytail, with two lank tufts hanging loose from above the headband around his forehead, framing his fair, handsome face. She let her gaze trail over his countenance and saw tiny brown freckles adorn the area around his nose. It was odd how they did not mar his features. Her eyes went lower to his pink lips dotted by the raindrops. He passed his tongue over his lips when they collected upon them by the dozens.

Her eyes admired him. There was a lingering sense of longing that hovered there. It was strange how she spent so many years chasing after Naruto, not looking Neji's way, not even once! It took time for her love to crumble away into many bits and pieces; and she would swear to herself that she would never be able to recollect and piece them all together! Nothing lasted forever, and she had been a fool to believe in that. Her love was lost, gone with the winds of change that plagued her life. She breathed in loudly, lowered her head a little, and looked through the curtain of thick black fringe on her eyes when Sasuke came into view from behind the trees with another tall man.

This was the first time she had seen Itachi after a gap of so many years; the brothers looked so alike! He had deep tear lines under his eyes that gave him a more sober appearance. His countenance was hard to read—flat and devoid of any emotion. He looked cold, colder than Sasuke. It was not till his eyes wandered in Sasuke's direction as he talked would they fill with a sudden flare of something so subtle . . . what was it? Love? Kindness? It was such a fleeting look that it was impossible for her eyes to read.

She put a stop to her wayward thoughts and raised her head when Sasuke's smooth voice wafted to her as he talked of the arrangement with Neji and his brother. The time to feel pity for herself was gone. She did not have many to trust, but she always had herself!

Sasuke walked with Itachi to her and stopped. Then he looked at his brother with an innocent, child-like obedience, his lips sealed as he waited for him to speak first. "You are Hyūga Hinata?" Itachi spoke in a smooth voice that sounded odd with his expressionless face.

"Y-Yes," she replied and bowed down. He was the Head of Anbu-Division but still a year shy of thirty: the youngest captain in the history of Konoha!

Itachi looked at her with a flicker of an odd sort of curiosity in his face, his deep eyes appraising her. "My brother has told me of your Byakugan. Does it need work?" he asked, stealing a quick look at his brother who wore the typical deadpan expression on his face now. "But I believe we can all agree that he can be a little . . . over-critical."

"Nii-Sama!" he protested with a barely audible mumble and looked around as if no one heard his brother's honest words.

A ghost of a smile came over Itachi's face. "Still a child—I doubt anyone heard," he said and patted his head. "I can teach you a trick or two to control your chakra. You will not have to contribute much to the mission other than your Byakugan. You can leave the rest to worry about any battles."

"Take notes, you might learn something," Sasuke said and created a ready-made expression of a Captain—an expression his face was probably too familiar with.

"Did you bring your supplies along? The mission might take more than a day."

"Y-Yes. For three days—just in case!" she said and clasped her fingers together, feeling a bit nervous. She did not want to perform badly in front of the Anbu Captain, so she had asked Yuu about as many details he could possibly give her.

"She did take notes. You over-work your mind. Let it rest for a while," Itachi said in an almost offhanded manner and steered his gaze to look at his brother who was probably about three inches shorter than he.

"It's a part of my job. You take things lightly, Nii-Sama. I don't have that luxury. Most of your Anbu squad members are a bunch of charlatans. They shame you," he said in a profoundly deep voice. There was a hidden thread of emotion behind it, something that went beyond the present conversation. Hinata did not understand . . .

"Well, if they slack too much I might just drink that black tea that makes you so angry every morning. Then they may learn something. How right am I?" Itachi asked and put his hand on Sasuke's head again.

Sasuke did not say anything. A deep colour flared in his cheeks. He looked embarrassed. "We will whip them to shape, together then—that is a promise," he assured his silent young brother and returned his attention back to Hinata who was staring at both of them. "Follow me."

Hinata nodded and started behind Itachi who had about four other men with him she had never seen before. She stopped and looked back at Sasuke who turned his head away and started talking to two men who came into the clearing: one of them was unusually tall, and the other had that mischievous look on his face and a very large sword on his back. She did not know who they were.

Yuu told her this morning that Sasuke was going on a mission with two new Team members and that they would meet up with Itachi on the second day; she did not know what kind of mission she was being sent out for . . .

# # # # # #

When his brother disappeared from sight he brought his gaze to Jūgo and Suigetsu. Jūgo was carrying several birds on his wide shoulders. They must have considered it a comfortable perch. Suigetsu was smiling ear to ear. The wet weather pleased him. He took a sip from his bottle and stopped next to Sasuke.

"More drinks, and in this rain? You'll just make the ground soggier," Sasuke said, his lips pulling into a small but tantalizing smile.

"How mean," Suigetsu said and swilled the ice-cool water around his mouth, his face now bearing the marks of his water-like form. "It'll just give me spit a longer range. Last time, I managed it just two centimetres short of Karin's cup. This time, success is mine!" He bared his pointy teeth in a mischievous smile and gave Karin, who stood next to a huddle of trees, a side-long glance.

"Why don't you two ever get along?" Sasuke sighed out and looked from Jūgo’s ever-calm face to Suigetsu's countenance that always made him look like a mean, Genin-academy prankster.

"I keep telling them that, Sasuke," Jūgo stated and petted one of his birds. "Their quarrelsome nature disturbs the Natural Energy in the area. It's bad for the animals, us, and even your temper." He brought his hand to Sasuke's shoulder and tapped it lightly.

"Anger is like his motor. Dontcha worry, Jūgo. He likes it angry and rough," Suigestu joked and let out a loud bark of laughter. A confused expression scurried across Jūgo’s face—he did not quite understand it.

"With such keen sense of insight, I see a bright career for you in Konoha politics," Sasuke said, smiling.

"Tell me ’bout it. I kept insistin' in Mist that I would make a great Intelligence-Division member. I can cut off them limbs—like a ninja," he said in a whisper and made several odd dance-like gestures with his hands. "But tell me, does that pile of dust still live?"

"Danzō? Haven't seen him in years. But I'm sure he does," Sasuke said and his face began adjusting itself into a look of mild anger, but he subdued it quickly.

"I'll be damned!" Suigetsu said, looking surprised. "Must look like a fuckin' dried up turnip right about now." He reached to his back and slipped the bottle into the fanny pack he was carrying, along with a few supplies.

"Who knows, all he needs is a nudge, honestly," Sasuke spoke in such a subdued voice as if he was talking to himself.

"Do the other two corpses breathe, too?" Suigetsu asked and stretched his eyes wide in disbelief when Sasuke gave a silent nod. "Unreal. No wonder when I passed by their office it stank to high-heaven. They don't change their poop-soakin' cloths often, I'll bet."

"Keep it down. Not everyone dislikes the Political Lobby here," Sasuke warned as his eyes skittered around the field and then he lowered them.

"Who says I dislike 'em all?" Suigetsu asked and made a loud gurgling sound. He spat a gob of spit that went south like a bullet and speared clean through a tree. "Yor Hokage is one fine woman. Tell her that I'm wet enough for the both of us."

"She'll probably call you for evaluation. You can tell her yourself," Sasuke replied lazily. His gaze wandered a bit to the right, and his jaw went tense with irritation; Sakura was making her way to them. He bent his head down and spoke, "go and stand by the gate and call Karin. We'll leave in a few minutes."

"Okie-dokie. Come on, Birdman. I see so much humour and tragedy in these sad and abandoned birdies' eyes." Suigetsu walked behind Jūgo and waved his hand at Karin. She fingered her sparkly clean spectacles grudgingly and then moved.

"New team members?" Sakura asked, her gaze flitting from Suigetsu to Jūgo to Karin. Her green eyes were glazed over with a few cool raindrops, yet they still measured their every gesture, every subtle movement of their lips.

"Naturally—is that why you came here?" Sasuke asked and angled his head to look into her eyes that still glinted with desire for him. His upper lip twitched with something between irritation and amusement, but he chose to keep his words to himself this time.

"No, I—" she stopped and reached into the small backpack to pull a rolled scroll out, "I came here to give you this."

He took it from her hand and unrolled it. A low sarcastic laugh rumbled in his throat that brought out a humiliated expression on her fair face. Her cheeks burnt red, and she clenched her fingers into fists, her nails digging into the wet palms.

"Congratulations. You finally got into my Team with your own hard work. Aren't you proud of yourself?" he said and burnt the scroll with a flame that flared up suddenly on his palm.

"You don't have to mock me!" she said, and her voice cracked with emotion. Her eyes, which cradled a hint of gentleness, looked dead: they bore the marks of a beaten woman. His tongue wounded her every time and made tiny wounds in her heart—those wounds did not seem to heal.

"Don't talk back," Sasuke said and the sharp hiss of his voice died against the sudden noise of wind. Then the wind slowed down to a pleasant breeze that brought with itself the smell of wet earth and flora. "You should feel lucky that I haven't made this public. Imagine, the rest of the Team would've thrown you out all by themselves if they knew. You should thank me. No one would've coddled you the way I did."

"Thank you for not forgetting to remind me," Sakura said in a defiant voice, her lips shaking with anger. Deep fires of passion and desire she felt for him burnt with hatred; they mingled into an exquisite mixture that would need to be snuffed out later.

Sasuke created a sober stone-cold face that followed a fleeting smile that did not stay there for long. He did not seem affected by her desperate comebacks when he knew he sent her heart skipping beats at his command, made her spirit weak with a mere intense cast of his gaze. He never played any games with her, and he won them—always!

She whipped her head away, not wanting him to see the painful desire suck out all the anger from her eyes. He made her weak, and she was beginning to resent it all. Why did he not want her? She told him once that she did not need a reason to love him and she was honest—for she loved him with all her heart. It belonged to him—its every beat, every resonating pulse that made her feel alive; but he did not care . . .

"Tsunade-Sama probably won’t accept them," she whispered, with her face still turned away. "You know what happened with other Teams' applications."

"I don't have time for you," Sasuke spoke with nothing but irritation in his voice. Sakura's eyes trailed along the side of his face before he walked away. His face, which was forever marked with nothing but frigidness for her, made her heart ache for him.

Her gaze lingered where he stood with his new Team, and then she directed it skyward. These mornings were bleak. She felt tears dribble down her pink cheeks; but the rain hid her shame today, and the wind overpowered that tiny sob that drifted from her lips (but could not make it to his ears to thaw his stone-heart that probably held no desire for anyone) . . .

"Keep an eye on Naruto. You're staying here," Sasuke commanded Karin. He turned his head and gestured Neji to come over to him. Neji was standing with Yuu. He jogged for Sasuke and stopped close to the motley bunch—that was one word for them, he thought. "You and Karin are in charge. Don't make Naruto over-exert himself. He wasn't feeling well. If I need someone, I'll send Kirin."

"All right, Sasuke-Sama," he said and moved his lips to say something more but stopped.

"Don't worry, Hinata is with Nii-Sama. He's a far better Shinobi ninja than I am. You worry needlessly about your cousin," he assured and then returned his gaze back to Karin who did not look happy with the arrangement. "Help Neji manage Naruto and the Team. I don't want any complaints when I get back."

"Sasuke, I—"

"We both know how stubborn you can be. You're a part of the Team now. Do your part," he cut her off and turned around, ignoring Suigetsu's wink and that loud whistle that rang around them like an annoying Genin academy days' halftime bell, despite the persistent pitter-patter of the rain.

In a second, Sasuke and the other two men disappeared behind the trees. Karin turned a little to face Neji. "Introduce me to the Team. I would like to know them," she said and put on her fake smile that had Neji completely fooled!

# # # # # #

A swathe of thick greyness hung low over Konoha's forest that stretched for countless miles. Mist, white as snow, settled thickly over trees and fell through the naked branches to float down. The soggy ground by their feet was white and invisible. Itachi could feel the chill bite into his feet through the thick sandals. They were wet with moisture. But he had experienced worse, far worse.

His Sharingan was on, and an eerie red light shone magnificently from his eyes. In the midst of the ghostly whiteness that red was a pulsing Philosopher's Stone: something holy to answer all the prayers of desperate, mortal men. He moved his gaze and kept his vision as steady as a still boat floating on a tranquil lake. Hinata followed him and three other men followed in the rear with their swords out.

As their feet moved, the thick lake of mist ruffled and created ripples. It felt as if they were moving through the divine lake that fell down as a holy cascade from the heaven where the Sage lived. Their journey had the illusion of being blessed. But Itachi knew that beneath the veil of holiness lurked misery, hate, revenge, and even death. He had seen a sea of human shambles as a child when he ran away with a newborn Sasuke in his arms . . . from a village burning up in flames!

The stench of burnt flesh was in the air, and it was a day like this—misty and bleak. Screams of Men and children alike speared the smog in the small burning village on the outskirts of Rain. It was an inhuman sight as swords fell down over and over again to slaughter everyone indiscriminately. He had gone there to visit his friend. His caretaker died, and they chased after him out of the village—a frightened little animal followed by the relentless and cruel shinobi from Mist: they wanted their still dormant Sharingans!

He remembered that black day as the mist in the area touched his cold cheek; now, twenty-one years later, it felt pleasant. But it brought back a flood of memories that crashed as roaring waves against the barrier of his composure, cracking it just a bit to let that malice of forgotten memories come out. His lips trembled a little, and he remembered. No, the mist made him remember: little Sasuke lying cold and still in his arms after he had cried himself to sleep from hunger and thirst.

The cloth Itachi had wrapped around Sasuke's tiny body got tattered in the chase as it caught the thorns on the rose bushes. He stumbled and wheezed with fear, carrying Sasuke who looked fearfully back into his eyes. He did not know when his sandals' straps broke and when they came off his feet. Running on the stones, his bare feet bled, but he did not stop. Sasuke was only a few months old. His little brother understood that they would be killed if he let out even a tiny sob—it was a connection they shared.

The babe did not make a sound when Itachi hid in the dank and clammy cave that was dark and lonely. There he sat behind the harsh stones, squeezing Sasuke to himself as he breathed slowly, watching Sasuke's tiny hand curl with love around the hair of his ponytail.

The men went away, but he kept hiding there like an innocent animal that had just escaped the fire and found refuge in a dark burrow. The battle continued on for three days, but Itachi sat there, fearful that if someone from Mist found them, they would kill him and his little brother for Sharingans. So he did not leave and put his tongue into his brother's mouth when the thirst would make him wail like dry leaves in autumn. Sasuke would suckle on it and then lose consciousness.

When the pitiless thirst would become unbearable for the eight-year-old child, he would unfurl his tongue and catch a few drops on it that fell down from the roots poking into the cave above his head. They were ice-cool, but they moistened his tongue that was a piece of dry-wood in his blistered mouth. Then he would clutch Sasuke to himself whose fragile, hurried breathing made him look like a child on the verge of tasting that eternal blackness from where there was no return.

Itachi had put his tongue willingly into Sasuke's mouth again and felt him suck out the few drops of cool water he had tasted, leaving his own self on the brink of death. But Itachi did not care. He loved that fragile little thing without reason, without condition, without limit. His love for it knew no bounds!

"There there, Sasuke," he whispered and planted a kiss on the child's cold forehead when he cried with thirst. "I will always protect you." Then Itachi rocked it to sleep and watched Sasuke’s lips bleed from dryness when he gave out a series of tiny sobs—he had no wind in his small lungs to cry anymore.

He knew Sasuke wanted to suckle on Mikoto's nipple, draw out milk to his heart's content. He lifted Sasuke's shirt and saw his condition: Sasuke was hungry; his stomach was bloated; his skin was stretched grotesquely over his pronounced ribs. Itachi did not know when tears broke from his eyes and fell down on Sasuke's sallow cheeks as his breathing slowed down . . . the little body in his arms was so close to death—he had felt another change in his vision then. He barely managed to carry him outside on the fourth day. The light of the warm sun stung on his skin when he squinted his eyes to look skyward. That was when his strength gave out, and he collapsed, hugging Sasuke tightly in his small arms.

He had promised to himself then that he would shield Sasuke from the world, drag him towards light when the shadows of life would try and take him. His love for him made the Heaven so envious of its purity, and Hell's pit rumbled, angry at the intensity of his attachment to this mortal and the would-be sinner he would become for him. Yes, Sasuke was his everything, and he would gladly bear his shame and his burdens, as long as it would keep him safe and happy.

A smile disturbed his face, but it faded behind the blanket of mist. No one could see a man taking joy in his own world. His thoughts always remained undisturbed no matter what happened beyond his mind. He was secretive that way; he was dangerous that way. No one could read that face: his features did not map any emotions for all to see. They remained locked inside him, and he was unafraid to bear them for all eternity.

The mist seemed to thicken as if it was a white brick-wall that would not break even if it was left alone for aeons under the assault of rains. It kept piling on them like tons of snow, only weightless and cool. His Sharingan was starting to fail him as in this mist was the taint of coloured chakra. It was hindering his vision. It was a trap but he came prepared. He made a gesture with his hand, signalling Hinata to look at the surrounds.

Hinata turned on her Byakugan and closed her eyes, her vision making through the gently closed eyelids. The world was drenched in shades of black and white and grey. She could see men standing all around them. Her face broke out in cold sweat despite the chill hanging in the air. It struck her body like a bucketful of ice-cold water and made an electrifying, fearful jolt shoot through her body. Her body shook with the fear of mortality now. She had never been in such a situation before.

Itachi looked over his shoulder, Sharingans glowing in his sockets, and made another gesture with his hand. She quickly stood behind him with a fighting stance, and the three men behind her fanned out. He pushed his body forward and created seals so fast that her eyes could not read anything.

"Katon: Gokakyu no Jutsu," he said aloud with a heavy accent and the next second a monstrous orb of fire tore up the ground underneath them, travelling forward at high speed.

The surrounding mist dispersed and revealed so many men standing high up on the trees all around them. About ten of them were not so lucky; they got burnt to a crisp, unable to evade the fire in time. The heat in the area made the sweat on Itachi's skin tingle. He clenched his fingers into a firm fist and stopped the flow of chakra. The fire disappeared in answer. Itachi swung his sword wide and deflected several shurikens thrown at him and Hinata with ease.

"Spread out," he commanded and jumped up, leaving Hinata alone in the fray. She took one step back, then another . . . and then another one and looked at Itachi dispatch ninja after ninja with lightning fast speed. They surrounded him like flies but got swatted like them just as quickly, too. His face was calm and composed and bore no signs of the anxiety that was beginning to spread through her whole body.

She wanted to run away into the woods, but there were too many of them. They would chase and kill her with sheer numbers. No matter where she looked, blood flew into the air and splattered over the dry barks and the soggy ground. The area had now been reduced to a scene of macabre painting. A new mist rose relentlessly into the air again, guided by nature this time. The whole scene appeared to move in slow motion before her eyes—red drops hung in the air against pure white. It was a scene of holy martyrdom!

Fear had slowed down the time and her voice. She tried to whisper Itachi's name when her Byakugan caught sight of a dagger launched at the back of her neck. It was a sudden reflex action. She fell forward to the ground to avoid it, but quickly got back up on her shaky feet and pushed out one of her hands in a Taijutsu stance. There was no helping it: it was kill or be killed!

The man grinned, amused by her expression that was bathed in nothing but fear. She was rusty, but that did not mean she would stand still for him to kill her. "Vacuum Palm," she suddenly shouted. The chakra she expelled from her palm hit the ninja square in his abdomen and knocked the wind out of him. He got thrown several feet back and smashed into the tree behind him; but that did not stop his movement. He knelt down and spat out blood. She had hit his internal organ, but the damage was not enough to stop him.

He tightened his hold on the sword and lunged at her. He was fast, too fast, as he swished his sword left and right and desperately tried to cut her head clean off her body. She kept bouncing back, glancing off every quick strike of his blade with perfect counters of her gentle fist. But she was still on the defense. If this continued, she would be in deep trouble.

Her fear distracted her, and, not a second later, the sword sliced cleanly through the branch to the right and nicked her shoulder, opening a half an inch wound. She had stepped back just in time. The wide swipe managed to cut off the tip of her fringes. She slumped back against the tree and grabbed her wounded arm, feeling warm blood underneath her hand. It stung! She clenched her teeth and breathed heavily as if she had just run a marathon.

Behind her back, sounds of metals' clashing permeated the air. Blazing hot fire ran to the left and then steam rose up into the air. These ninjas had Suiton Jutus. They knew Itachi was coming? Her hair floated up against her face, guided by warm currents that gathered around her feet as Itachi used another Katon attack in shape of a few large dragon heads. What followed were blood-curdling screams and the stench of sizzling human flesh. She wanted to vomit.

There was no time to look behind her back. If she turned back, she would let her guard down and this man would never miss that chance! Hinata's heart jumped in her breast, but she did not try to soothe it this time. She moved her hands down and clenched them into tight fists. Chakra glowed over her fists and took on the shape of Twin Lions. They were still not properly formed; her chakra control . . . it was only now that she realized how crucial it was.

Hinata opened her mouth wide, her face drenched in sweat. She sucked in the charred air deeply as though she was about to take a deep plunge into the ocean. The decision was made, and there was no holding back now. She lunged forward and frantically swung her arms wide. Even the slight brush of his skin against her wispy blue lions sucked out the chakra from his body. Warm fresh energy flowed into her system, replenishing her, giving strength to her weak legs. She was afraid, but the shakiness was getting throttled by her resolve to live.

The blue aura from her Twin Lion fists swirled and moved in circles around her, trailing behind her attacks. Every single movement drew more and more of his chakra till his movements became sluggish. Now was the time to finish this off before more men came running to his aid. She knew she would not be able to handle them—not now.

So Hinata curled her fingers, pointed two of them out, and jabbed them into his chakra points. What followed was a barrage of stabs in quick movements. She closed off thirty-two of his points when her skill reached its limit. She stumbled forward, unable to extend it to sixty-four points. He coughed blood as he remained rooted to the spot, but he moved his hand up shakily to strike her down. Seeing this, Hinata moved her arm back, but she was too close and too slow!

She blinked when a flying kunai dug into his forehead. A shocked expression froze on his face and blood sprayed out of the deep wound. It landed on the side of Hinata's neck. She whipped around and found Itachi standing behind her. He was holding three kunais in his hand. Behind him were countless corpses strewn about the ground; some of them were charred beyond recognition and others were cut up into pieces. The stench of death in the air was overwhelming.

The rest of their Team members landed on the ground. One of them looked injured. "I did not want to interfere. You seemed to be doing well," he said to Hinata and put the bloody sword into its sheath. "This is what a shinobi's life is like. It is constant danger. Be sure of what kind of life you are signing yourself up for."

Hinata did not say anything. It was a dangerous experience. Her heart was still not calm as it skipped beats, going against her command to soothe itself. It had been five long years since she had last moved her hands to use Taijutsu. It felt odd somehow. She still felt the heat of battle on her skin that managed to keep the chill in the air at bay. The smell of burnt flesh was overpowering. She wanted to go as far away from this place as possible.

A sizzling sound came from behind them. One of the men was still alive and . . . he had many explosive tags stuck under his jacket. "Itachi-Sama, he is about to blow us all up!" one of the men shouted.

Itachi threw a kunai at his forehead, but his hand was still falling down. Before it could touch the earth and pull the string for the explosives, Itachi grabbed Hinata and used the Fuma-Shuriken strings he had tied to a tree several meters away as a last backup plan. He swung up with Hinata in his right arm, the rest of the ninjas trailing a little behind. They had not even made it ten meters into the air when the area blew up. Fire blazed and expanded out behind them.

The tree where the strings were tied was so high up. The heat from the blast was beginning to catch up: it burnt on Hinata's skin, and her hair shrivelled as it touched the black tips. She was flying, looking at the forest speed past her eyes. But the growing blast of fire died. They swung across and landed in a clearing safely. Itachi pulled back what was left of his strings and looked at her. "That was a little close," he said coolly and wiped his sweat-drenched forehead clean.

The life of a ninja was dangerous, he had just said; she did not know what to feel . . .

# # # # # #

Chapter Text

# # # # # #

Rain grew heavy, like small pebbles, and thunder boomed as clouds spread wide above the forest. A wet curtain fell over their eyes and clouded their visions. Despite not wanting to play with Sharingan, Sasuke took it out regardless. Rain droplets collided and hammered into the stones all around them—a melodious cacophony. He could barely hear himself think as sparks of lightning raced through grey, and sounds of exploding thunder roared in their ears.

"Man, ya sure picked a fine day to drag me out here!" Suigetsu screamed behind him, hoping that his voice carried itself over the loud sounds. He wore a thick water-repellent coat. Its hood hung low over his eyes. His hands were covered with thick gloves, and his feet were warm in heavy boots.

Sasuke remained quiet. They had to reach the desired destination before darkness fell; otherwise, it would make the mission much harder. It was simply an issue of killing two birds with one stone. He had to fulfil Mei's request, concerning the rogue ninjas from Mist, and catch two other rogues Suigetsu had intel on. But the latter had nothing to do with Mist's mission: it had everything to do with his personal vendetta.

Wind shushed and rushed past his wet face, leaving a persistent buzzing sound in his ears. The rain was not thinning, but they were in luck today; the cover of Nature had blessed their journey. It would be easy to give Mei's guards a slip through the murky curtains and reach the second destination ahead of time. Sasuke smiled to himself and increased his speed whilst all of them jumped from one tree-branch to the next.

"Hey, slow down, will ya? Not all of us are as fast as ya!" Suigetsu yelled behind him, and his ringing voice disappeared in the harsh sounds of thunder.

Sasuke paid him no heed. He could feel a surge of current coming their way—a large bolt of lightning was about to reach them and strike them down. He moved through the trees like a blur and landed into a clearing and shot both his hands up with his palms facing out. There was a blinding flash, and a loud bang rocked the whole area.

A single blue line pulsed and throbbed like a vein; it latched itself to Sasuke and the clouds above. Then it roared, whipped its head about, and took the form of a tamed dragon, its scales glimmering-blue like the gauziest of crystals one could have laid his eyes on. It was a magnificent sight! He had managed to call all the lightning in the area unto himself. Suigetsu let out a loud whistle and stood still on a thick branch that held his weight. A stunned smile broke across his face.

"Sasuke was always really good with Raiton, but it's the first time I have seen Kirin," Jūgo said and slowly adjusted the wet heavy coat on himself. He patted the birds' heads that poked out of the row of pockets he had on the inside.

Sasuke moved his arm with lightning speed and shot a bolt of Raiton towards a few branches, adorned with lush green leaves, high up on a tree. It clove clean through the bark above and disappeared into exploding sparks about two hundred feet away. "Don't even think about it," Sasuke warned, still standing in the shroud of lightning.

"Zabuza-San," Suigetsu yelled and jumped down, his body suddenly convulsing with the assault of sparks travelling through his water-like body as his boots met the muddy ground.

"You shouldn't have jumped down so soon," Jūgo said—he wore a dead-pan look eternally pasted on his face. Half of his arm was metamorphosed into a thick exoskeleton. A few crab-like claws adorned the tip of his fist, hard as steel. He jumped down close to Sasuke, and his eyes locked on the two ninjas caught in the mist with Sharingan's tricks.

They made no sudden movements and neither did Sasuke. His arm was still outstretched and two of his fingers were pointed at them with a bright spark still fizzing at their tips. "Throw away those senbons or the next one goes straight through your head," Sasuke warned again, his voice deep and threatening.

The shorter one of the two, who still had a mask on, threw them close to Sasuke's feet. "We didn't know who you were," the short one said from behind the wet mask, his voice small and mellow like that of a child. "Suigetsu-San didn't say he was bringing any company."

"I . . . I think I just pissed in me pants," Suigetsu said from behind Jūgo. His arms were still trembling a little.

"Suigetsu, stop fooling around. Are they those two?" Sasuke asked, not lowering his guard. This was something his brother had taught him during their boar hunts: no matter how harmless a prey looked, it could always bare its teeth and strike when one least suspected.

"I'm serious. I had been holdin' it in for the past two hours," Suigetsu replied in a voice that wobbled quite pitifully.

"I don't think anyone would be able to tell," Sasuke said coolly and listened to the wind slow down. With that spark gone, the storm lost the battle to overwhelm them. His eyes slightly moved up to see a small tear in the clouds. The rain would end soon . . . and this foray had to, as well. He did not have much time!

"Thanks a lot!" Suigetsu shot back and made an awful face. "My pants smell now—and it's all yor fault, Zabuza-San." He reached his hand around to his back and took out the large executioner blade from its massive sheath.

"The welcoming committee is a pack of sour children," Zabuza rasped, his lips moving subtly under the cloth wound tight around his mouth. "That's my sword."

"Never gave ya the impression that this was a welcomin' committee," Suigetsu said and ran his tongue over those pointy white teeth. "Finders' keepers, losers' weepers. Besides, that's a nice kitchen knife—suits yor built." He pointed the large sword at them; its smooth tip glistened with raindrops that trailed down its sharp edge.

A mild frown creased Zabuza's forehead. "As insolent as your brother," the man said in a grave, rough voice. He had a thin dagger-like sword clutched in his left hand.

"He taught me well," Suigetsu said and pumped water into his arm: it bloated within a second and ripped open the thick sleeve at the seams. It was massive. "The scroll, Zabuza-San. Ya know how this goes. With those Mist guard-dogs from the bitch at our heels, it might get tricky."

"What guarantee is there that you'll give us the citizenship permits to Rain? You never were trustworthy, Suigetsu," Zabuza spoke, and his voice hissed sharply behind the rough cloth.

Suigetsu chuckled and licked his lips. "Ya will just have ta take a leap of faith, then," he said and turned the sword's handle in his hand, his eyes not leaving Zabuza's heavy gaze that hid the torments of Mist's sordid past—a past marred by streaks of corruption.

"You'll get the permits. It's in my interest that you do," Sasuke assured and lowered his hand. His body soaked up the entire charge. A single drop of sweat burst out from his forehead, but in the light drizzle, its disguise was perfect.

"Sasuke, ya don't know 'im like I do. The guy could have an army of thugs waitin' nearby. We need ta see the scroll first," Suigetsu said and stepped forward, his feet sloshing through the muddy water gathered beneath their sandals caked with mud.

"If he doesn't have the scroll, then I'll kill him and the other one right here, burn the bodies with Amaterasu until not even their ashes are left to scatter across the land. I don't like it when people break their promises," Sasuke said in an even voice, and its smoothness sent a cold shiver up Zabuza's spine as his eyes met Sasuke's that cradled the changed pattern of Eternal Mangekyō Sharingan.

"That might work, too," Suigetsu said and stabbed the sword into the ground.

"Haku, stand down," Zabuza said and raised his hand to stop the young ninja from taking out more senbons to target Sasuke's weak spots. "So Suigetsu was working for you in Rain?"

"Why did you bring a child along? He might cut kite strings with these chopsticks, but I doubt it'll kill any wary shinobi," Sasuke remarked and turned his eyes that snuffed out the heat of his Mangekyō's pattern, and returned to the usual calm of three commas they always wore, to look at the boy's small frame: he was a good two inches shorter than five feet and wore a wide Hakama that was too big for his thin legs.

Zabuza jumped down when he saw the ferocious fire in Sasuke's eyes die down. Haku followed him, holding three senbons in his hand. He looked ready to strike, and Sasuke found it amusing. "He may be a child, but he's a Chūnin-Class ninja. I trained him myself." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a scroll.

"Did you know about this?" Sasuke tilted his head a little to look at Suigetsu and took the scroll from Zabuza's hand.

"Don't look at me. He told me that his partner, Haku, also needed the permit. I had no idea it was someone who still wore spare soft-cloths ta hold in his shit," Suigetsu said and leant on the large sword that sunk a little more into the ground.

"One more embarrassing incident like this one, and I might ask you to wear one as well. You smell awful," Sasuke said and unrolled the scroll. "How old are you?" He looked down at the child who took his mask off and revealed the face of a babe that had yet to relish the maturity of life or experience the first blush of youth!

"I just need ta air this a bit. Yor too sensitive sometimes." Suigetsu spread his arms wide and let the rain pour into his form.

"Ten," Haku replied, his voice so small that Sasuke felt a pang of pity for him. He was too young to be thrust into the cruel business of rogue ninjas.

"Don't you feel even a small ounce of shame, taking in a child so young and turning him into a hired hand for thugs?" Sasuke asked and looked from Haku's innocent face, still unaffected by the cruelties of murder and death, to Zabuza's hard one affected by the same sins the child's soul was still safe from.

Zabuza let out a dry chuckle and placed his hand on Haku's small shoulder. "You live in the comforts of a manor, Uchiha-San. You don't know much about the harsh life of small villages Konoha and others have preyed on. It's a vicious cycle. I took him in when his own kin tried to sell him off to a militia in the West. With these permits, I can finally start over in Rain as a part of their Guard-Squad. And this child might get the life I promised him," Zabuza said, his voice heavy with the truth of his own unkind life.

"Promises . . . " Sasuke whispered to himself and lowered his eyes. He, too, had made a promise: to avenge his kin and exact vengeance on those responsible for his misery. His eyes ran over another kind of truth the scroll told him. "How many rogue ninjas Mist supported as the secret Tulip Squad force after the bartering of Byakugans?"

"My guess? About fifty. I could only pin down sixteen names out of the elite twenty that were directly involved in secret operations with Root and other villages in some shady political business. Danzō and your Elder council never made it public. It says nothing about the Byakugans, though. Why are you . . . ?" Zabuza stopped, his gruff voice trailing off.

Sasuke's wet finger traced the rough black lines on the paper. Blots of black, irremovable chakra ink had dried out. That side of the page was quite messy. He remembered the scroll he found hidden deep inside Mist's underground storage unit—things seemed to come together now!

"Three sets of Head family Byakugans disappeared from the Hyūga clan's list more than a decade ago. Ao has adorned his empty socket with a new Byakugan. He claims it's a trophy of war. But the funny thing is, he only keeps one. Where did the second eye go? I can bet those five were distributed amongst these elite Tulip Squad members," Sasuke said, his eyes intently looking at the signatures from Danzō and the Elders. Their names had dried out, sealing the fate of his clansmen over something so small.

"Let me guess, Kisame-San coughed this up before he bought the farm? I've heard rumours that he died. Is it true?" Suigetsu asked and bounced the flat of his hand off the sword's thick hilt.

Zabuza turned his eyes, and his gaze momentarily stopped on the massive man that stood quietly next to Sasuke; he was still busy petting and feeding rows of tiny beaks poking out of his coat's pockets. "Looking for Samehada, are you?" Zabuza asked and narrowed his eyes that glinted with a familiar look of amusement. Suigetsu's obsession with new swords was a bit vulgar: he used whatever means necessary to get new ones and discard the old ones he grew tired of.

"Out with the old and in with the new," Suigetsu paused and grinned with all his jagged, pearly-white teeth exposed, "still, sixteen names are a bit less than what we asked for. I'm disappointed, Zabuza-San. Ya didn't even bring the sword along for a good flavour."

Zabuza's keen eyes studied his face for a moment before he spoke, "this sword business for you—almost as vulgar as men with new colourful women." A sharp shriek of thunder resounded in the area, stopping him from saying anything more. The tear in the cloud had closed up. Nature was kind to Sasuke—for now. "Yes, Kisame died. I don't know when and I don't know how. He simply disappeared when Mei took charge about two years ago. Kisame gave me this scroll not long before that. It was intel to grant us a safe passage off Mist's grounds."

"Sounds so convenient." Suigetsu's shrill voice turned into a chuckle.

"A valuable information for the highest bidder," Sasuke remarked and suppressed the quiver of his lips that threatened his emotionless face to break into an amused smile. "That's why you reached out to Suigetsu? You knew what had happened in Konoha. You also knew he worked for me under the guise of the Guard Squad. That can't be the only thing you know. Permits seem like a large payment for such a small piece of information. What else are you hiding, Zabuza, one of the underlings in the Tulip Squad? Am I right?" Sasuke's eyes blazed with the new pattern. A red teardrop bubbled out of his tear-duct. Thick and red, it trailed slowly down his white cheek. His intense eyes bore the familiar marks of danger and death—things Zabuza knew all too well.

Zabuza's face remained calm, hiding the ferocious ocean of anxiety that crashed against his composure. "You're clever," he stopped and tightened his hold on the sword, "it's not as simple as you think. It's a complicated matter. Far too complicated—perhaps, even for you."

"Try me," Sasuke said, his voice had that sharp, cutting edge to it.

Zabuza closed his eyes under the light drizzle. It created a light, see-through wall between them as the sun rays struck the countless raindrops pelting them. Clouds were piling up far to the east on the horizon now. "I only found out about Suigetsu through Kisame. He knew his brother," he began with a sharp intake of breath, "someone from Konoha, someone close to you, is leaking information about who you hire for your missions."

"Did he say who? It could be anyone," Jūgo remarked, not letting go of the calm that always flooded him when Nature was kind to the forest.

"No," Zabuza said and put his hand on Haku's head. The child looked up towards the taller man. A look of adoration hovered over his innocent eyes—a look that did not miss Sasuke's gaze. He pitied him. His resolve to kill them was beginning to crumble under the innocence of the young child: a child who needed and deserved the mercy and love of a parent, a love he was deprived of in his own childhood.

Sasuke's grip slackened on the hilt of his own sword. He was torn: on one hand, it would be beneficial to kill them, bury the secret in the depths of the forest. The rain would wash away his sin like before. On the other hand, those guiltless eyes were eating away at him, pleading before him to let it live, let it taste the life it wanted. He kept intently looking at Haku, feeling his innocent face smother the intense hell fire rising without mercy in his eyes. After a moment's struggle, he lost and let out a breathy, defeated sigh. He closed his eyes for a moment to accept his decision and quelled the Sharingan's pattern that was meant only for his vengeance.

"Kisame was one of the top five Elite members. Even if he knew, he wouldn't tell me. It's quite possible that only the top members of the Elite Squad knew. Not everyone is privy to all the information. The Squad had tiers, just like you guessed. I was just an underling," Zabuza explained, and his eyes scanned Sasuke's hard face that was impossible to read.

"Who led the Tulip Squad?" Sasuke asked, and his mind burrowed under the large pile of memories. Even if this information was valuable, it had countless holes to fill. It would take another lifetime to connect all the dots, merge all the threads together to make this mysterious cobweb whole. And that was the time no man possessed.

"I don't know. Only four members knew who the person was, and Kisame was the only one I knew of. He never told me . . . and now he's dead," Zabuza whispered, looking cautious as if the forest had eyes and ears, and if his secrets wafted to its core, it would snuff out his life all by itself.

"Sasuke, I'm getting a bad feeling about this. The rogues Mei asked us to take care of—" Jugo broke off and looked down at Sasuke's face that still did not let any emotion disturb his features.

"The remaining second-tier members in the Tulip Squad," Sasuke said in a low voice, sweeping his gaze around the area. "She knows—why do I get the feeling she was a part of the Squad?"

"She's eliminatin' competition. Maybe the previous Mizukage left her with the task. I always knew somethin' was off about that broad. Sasuke, what do ya want us ta do? Should I kill 'em right now? Ya gotta remain in her good books if ya want somethin' outta that two-faced slut," Suigetsu said and pulled out the sword from the muddy ground.

"Put that sword away," Sasuke said and raised his hand. His words automatically brought a veil of calm on Haku's young face that bore the fleeting signs of mortal fear only a moment ago.

"Are ya sure? I don't want ta kill the kid, but it can't be helped. He's one of the Squad members and now they know too much about us—about ya. What if it's just a game and she's testin' ya? Knowin' that yuis onto her, who knows what that whore would do," Suigetsu said in an honest manner, not lowering his sword raised at the two ninjas.

"I'm sure. We can just show the guards that I burnt two rogues here. This could prove to be advantageous," Sasuke said and turned his gaze to look at Zabuza's face. His visage of control was mildly cracked. He knew he would not be able to take Sasuke on, and that fear was starting to reveal itself on his brow. "What else do you have on you? Surely, this isn't all Kisame left as his classy last words of farewell."

Zabuza remained quiet for a few seconds, weighing his chances and possibilities to make it out of here alive—both of them were slim. "I guess I really have to take a leap of faith," he said in a voice that sounded aged and defeated. "Someone from the Hyūga Head family was involved in the bartering of tools and Jutsus. I didn't know it involved Byakugans, but you figured it out yourself. Kisame told me before he left. He knew his days were numbered."

"In exchange for what?" Sasuke asked and lifted his eyes slightly to look at the darkness gathering in the clouds. Sun was completely hidden now—the sky, grey and angry.

"Payment for the Tulip Squad's elite," Zabuza said, his harsh voice ringing in Sasuke's ears with the single realization that stung his soul as though it had been pinned to the ground in the depths of yomi: Konoha paid Mist to do something that resulted in his parents' deaths? But what? Surely, six Byakugans were not enough to topple the entire Police Force? No, this did not feel right; the payment was too meagre for such a big task. What was Mist hiding?

"Sasuke, what're you thinking?" Jūgo asked in a kind voice and laid his hefty hand on Sasuke's wet shoulder. "You have to make a decision quickly. The bird that came back just now told me that Mei's guards are coming this way. You know one of them is a sensor and Ao has Byakugan. These two will get spotted from a kilometre away." He lifted his hand and grabbed that bird gently. Then he put it into his pocket and stroked its small head with his thumb.

"I would need proof of this claim. The scroll you have in your pocket—no need to hide it for another bidder. Hand it over to Suigetsu when you reach the border," Sasuke paused and tilted his head to look at Suigetsu and Jūgo, "take them to the border. Karin has made arrangements. Four of her family members would be waiting there."

"What will ya tell those slobberin' bitches? The border ain't exactly five minutes away. It'll take us a few hours ta get back," Suigetsu asked and took a few steps towards Zabuza and Haku.

"You can let me worry about that. Do as I say," Sasuke said and took his sword out and traced a fine line into the muddy ground.

"Okay, boss. I hope ya know what you're doin'," Suigetsu said and pushed his sword back into its massive sheath. "Ya heard the boss. Let's go." Within a second, all of them disappeared from view.

Sasuke blinked and inhaled sharply. Using Amaterasu now would take a lot of chakra from him. He would not be able to see properly for quite some time, and his left eye would be rendered blind for two whole days. Even the soldier pills he brought with himself would not replenish his chakra properly. But it had to be done. The heat from the black flames would burn all the residual chakra in the area, and the powerful chakra would confuse Chōjūrō's sensing and Ao's Byakugan.

He took in a deep breath. Amaterasu was always dangerous, and if Mei really had played him, then it was a risky move. If more ninjas showed up, he would be too disorientated to dispatch them quickly. He remained silent, his eyes closed as he kept thinking about Mist's game. Time was slipping through his fingers like water.

The chakra kneading was done. He could feel the heat rise around him in spirals. When he opened his eyes, bloody tears poured out of his left eye. His vision focused on the grass by his feet that still bore the marks of Haku's and Zabuza's sandals. A massive black flame suddenly converged on the point: it sizzled and burnt, consuming all chakra and burning all Natural Energy within the area. Jūgo would not be able to consume it from here for a while.

The fire was scorching hot. Even its residual black flames felt hot as if burning on his skin. Sasuke jumped back but tripped, unable to remain on his two feet. He fell forward, bracing himself on his elbows. His head hung down a little to the right; he breathed heavily and looked through his blurry vision at the sweat drops falling down from the sharp tip of his nose. He moved his trembling hands, and with the last dregs of strength left inside him, placed them firmly on the ground and pushed himself up.

His legs shook; Amaterasu had eaten through his strength. The light in his left eye slowly began to fail him. An impenetrable darkness fell upon it, and suddenly, he could see nothing to his left. His right eye was so blurry as if rainwater stood in it. His murky vision made it difficult for him to make out the shapes of trees properly. Sasuke slapped his hand over his left eye when a searing pain exploded in his head as he peered through the haziness of his own vision to look at the flames as they grew taller, touching the branches above. At this rate, the wall of flames between himself and the forest would spread.

Sasuke focused his right eye and smothered the black chakra rising like something unquenchable from the depths of hell. He halted it in its path just in time. The flames' heat was still unbearable, but his Sharingan did not fool him—all of the chakra in the area was gone. Even its haziness did not stop it from detecting the last bits of his own chakra disappearing when it was touched by Amaterasu's heat.

He stood silent and took one soldier-pill to ease his pain and replenish a bit of his chakra. A few moments passed when Chōjūrō and Ao landed behind him. They had bewildered expressions on their rain whipped faces as their gazes fell upon the black flames contained within a small area by Sasuke. "So this is the powerful chakra I sensed!" Chōjūrō remarked in awe and touched his glasses.

Sasuke did not move to look at them. He knew Ao already had his Byakugan out to search the area. He would be disappointed. With his head bent, Sasuke relished this moment of amusement. "I can't see any chakra for two kilometres," Ao said, hiding a bit of resentment in his voice as he was not the true owner to exploit the eye to his heart's content. Despite being from the branch family, Neji could see anything within a ten-kilometre radius in every direction. And with proper training, Hinata's vision would grant her the same power.

Sasuke's upper lip trembled and turned that curl of amusement into a curl of contempt. He quickly masked his expression, raised his head, and put the sword back into its sheath. Now was not the time to use it. There would be another time when he would let it feed on their blood and develop a soul. "I didn't know you would be alone, Sasuke-Sama. Weren't you supposed to bring along two other members?" Ao asked cautiously and kept his distance as if the other man was ready to strike him down.

"Don't touch the flames. It would leave more than just a mild burn," Sasuke warned and turned his head to look at Chōjūrō who was about to let his curiosity get the better of him. He immediately pulled his hand back and puffed at his palm. It felt as though something had burnt it. "They went ahead to check the borders—just in case if one of the rogues slipped past us along the way."

"But these black flames—" Chōjūrō stopped, still in the grip of wonder. This was the first time he had seen Amaterasu.

"I caught two here and burnt them. They were about to blow us all up. Normally, I don't even use it, but the situation called for it," Sasuke explained and tried to keep his functioning eye focused—everything seemed to swim before him.

"Let's check out the border, then. We can—"

"Why, you don't trust me?" Sasuke sharply cut Ao off, meeting his confused eyes. Half of his face was severely wrinkled by Byakugan's activation. Hyūga's prized genetic possession really was not his game.

"I-I didn't mean that, Sasuke-Sama. Please, forgive me," Ao paused and cleared his throat, "I meant to say that it wouldn't hurt to double-check."

Sasuke let out a soft laugh. "My ninjas are more capable than you two. You're welcome to waste your time, but you certainly won't waste mine. I'm heading north as we all agreed upon to meet up with Nii-Sama. You can carry out your fool's errand," he said in a deep voice and used Body-Flicker to instantly increase the distance between them by sixty meters. He stood on a thick tree bark for a second to scan his surrounds, and then he vanished.

"I don't sense anything, and Suigetsu-San and Jūgo are no ordinary ninjas," Chōjūrō said and reached his hand to his back to curl his fingers around the hilt of his massive sword. "He's right—we'll only waste time here. Mei-Sama would be so angry if even a single one escaped."

"Suigetsu . . . that traitor," Ao spoke in a venomous voice. "He can't be trusted."

"His family migrated to Rain when his brother was just a child. The Hōzuki clan hasn't been a part of Mist for six generations. His father was only commissioned there for a mission, and Yagura-Sama got him killed after it was done. He allowed his family to leave afterwards. The secret is buried. I don't see why you're still sour over it," Chōjūrō said in a small measured voice, clenching the hilt tightly in his hand.

"He's been doing missions for this Uchiha from Rain. Do you really think he's that innocent?" Ao asked, raising his voice as the wind hissed close to their ears. He turned around to face the younger man who was a few inches shorter than he.

"All ninjas from Rain do missions as hired hands for many villages. You know how poor that village is. His older brother—what was his name? Yeah, Mangetsu! You know what happened to him? He got killed in one of them. His mother died a long time ago. He's the last surviving member of his family. Why does it even matter?" Chōjūrō asked and pulled his hand down. He glared from behind his glasses at the taller man. The conversation was going nowhere.

"His brother knew Kisame and what he was up to. All those rumours hit a dead-end when Mangetsu died. And Kisame? We don't even know where he is. That snake—" Ao hissed out the last words.

Chōjūrō kicked a small stone lying by his feet at the tree on the right. "As long as people believe those rumours to be true that's all that matters. And you need to let go of Suigetsu just because he turned down Mist's mission from you. He's a citizen of Konoha now. Sasuke finalized his Fire Country citizenship about a week ago through his brother, Itachi. He's the Anbu-Captain these days. Don't forget that. He isn't exactly some small-fish. You want to get us all into trouble with the Uchiha Clan now?" he asked and looked around. His sensing was not turned off.

"Of course not! I'm just worried about Kisame. This Sasuke, he's clever. If he finds out about something through Suigetsu—I can't even imagine what will happen," Ao said and moved his gaze. When he saw all was clear, he turned off his Byakugan and relaxed the tense muscles around his eye.

"Are you still going on about this? You paranoid old geezer. Mei-Sama is personally looking into Kisame. He'll be found sooner or later. She said she's found some solid leads. And if Suigetsu was somehow involved, we would've found something by now," Chōjūrō accused, keeping his tone flat.

"Sometimes, paranoia is what keeps us alive. You're probably too young to realize that," Ao said lowly and rubbed his eye. Using Byakugan for so long had taken its toll on him. He could not use the Clan's Kekkei-Genkai Taijutsu techniques as he lacked their blood, but this eye was useful for sensing.

"And you're probably too old to let go of it," Chōjūrō returned and turned around. He could not sense Sasuke's chakra because of the black flames, but he knew where the rendezvous point was. He gathered massive chakra into his legs, jumped up, and landed on a bark some forty feet above the ground. He looked down and adjusted his glasses. "I'm going, and if you know what's good for the mission, you'll follow me, too." Then he disappeared north, leaving Ao alone in the clearing.

Ao turned his head and tried to peer through the wall of angry flames, but without Byakugan, it was hopeless! The rain turned to steam several feet above the flames. His mind went blank. Following Suigetsu and Jūgo now was a foolish idea. The seals the Elite learnt had sealed the tongues of many members, but Kisame had found a way around it somehow. There was a chance that some of the members had removed them.

The secrets they would divulge . . . it could become a deadly noose for the higher-ups, including Mei. Ao and Mei knew that asking the Uchiha brothers to dispatch the lower-tier members was a risky move; but it was not like the underlings knew anything. Even if they sought sanctuary, Root would take care of them. They had to be taken care of so that Kisame would never be able to find any solace—hunted down with nowhere to hide, he would come out of his hole soon enough. It was also a well-placed trap, and they did not know whether the prized-prey had noticed it or not.

Mei wanted to gain the Clan's trust to find Kisame. It was a race against time, but somehow, his mind kept going back to Suigetsu. That executioner blade was once wielded by Zabuza. He disappeared with a child five years ago and sold off all his belongings to peddlers on the borders near Rain. Suigetsu could have bought it off the black market, but there were too many coincidences.

Ao did not let the thoughts plague him any longer. The mission took priority. He knew that as one of the Elite Five. He cast one last glance at the roiling flames that were as black as a haunting, starless night and ran after Chōjūrō. Suigetsu would have to wait . . .

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Chapter Text

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The storm abated; night had fallen hours ago over the forest that hastily began to throw away the blanket of quiet, bursting with life. Crickets chirped noisily in the overgrown grass as they dug their way out of the muddy ground, and a night owl with its yellow eyes gleaming trilled and hooted overhead. The light rain beating against the foliage barely made it to his face—its path was broken by a thick knot of branches that still seemed to have mysteriously kept their green lush leaves despite the brutal arrival of autumn winds.

Sasuke looked over his shoulder; his eyes slid from Chōjūrō eyes, misty behind the fogged spectacles perched on his thin nose, to Ao's tense face and his lowered eyes that still bore signs of accusation. He did not really care. They did not have anything to lay on Suigetsu. He was free and safely under his wing, and they knew they would be sorry the second they decided to threaten the Uchiha clan. The Uchihas were the famous daemons: it was good to play with them, but they never made good enemies.

A ghost of a smile broke Sasuke's tense features, but it slid from his face just as quickly. His vision swam under the steady drops of rainwater and the self-inflicted haze on his eyes. Amaterasu was a cruel mistress, but his eyes did not need their vast field of vision to tell him that dawn was breaking across the horizon. A splash of red hue was spreading across the far end of the sombre sky, tearing away the clouds that now threads of yellow were beginning to race down to the ground.

Sasuke screwed up his eyes against the shaft of light that descended on his face. He knew it then: it was morning and Suigetsu and Jūgo still had not made it back. Absentmindedly, he whistled and a small snowy hawk, dappled with greyish spots, landed on his stretched hand. That was enough to capture Ao and Chōjūrō's interest. Chōjūrō adjusted his glasses—a perfunctory habit Karin seemed to have, too. His face was inquisitive, his features breaking into a small, curious smile at the sight of the bird. Ao looked tense, not letting go of the fact that they could have checked the borders themselves.

"Is . . . is that a hawk?" Chōjūrō asked in an awed voice and made his way towards Sasuke. He stopped only a few inches short of him and stretched his finger taut that got nipped painfully. He hissed and wagged his hand in the air. His face had yet to let go of that innocent curiosity that was beginning to irritate the hell out of Sasuke. "These small ones are so rare!" he spoke with a curious expression on his young face, bending his head so low that it looked as though he was bowing before Sasuke.

Sasuke did not say anything and pulled out a small scroll from his jacket's pocket and tied it around Kirin's leg. He had written everything he needed to in a code only he and his brother understood. It was a brief message, but he was content that, if Itachi had not killed all of the rogue ninjas, he should be able to find one hiding away somewhere. He gave his arm a slight sharp jerk and the bird disappeared to the north.

Chōjūrō, who was still bent in an awkward pose before him, craned his neck and adjusted his glasses awkwardly. "You sent this to Itachi-Sama? Aren't we heading in that direction ourselves? Was it—"

"This is a mission, not a fool's errand," Sasuke curtly cut across him, bringing out a blank expression on Chōjūrō's face. "I have to know how things are going at Nii-Sama's end and that he's safe. He's brought a trainee ninja with himself from my team. I had no idea the mess you people invited us to. She wasn't trained for this—I never should've let her come."

An uneasy expression flickered across Chōjūrō’s face, but he quickly composed himself and fingered the frame of his glasses. "We had no idea they recruited more thugs," Chōjūrō spoke in a calm voice and roved his eyes over to the vast forest up north; he was kneading chakra for Sensing.

Sasuke frowned, unconvinced. He wanted to get something, anything out of him. "You mean you had no idea they had created an army? I killed twenty myself—twenty-two if you count the last two I burnt. What's your Mizukage playing at? I don't like games," he rasped, voice rough, and bent his head a little to glare down at the shorter man.

Chōjūrō opened his mouth to speak when Ao intervened, "we had no idea about this as well, Sasuke-Sama," he paused, saying the honorific with such difficulty that it sounded as if he had choked on it, "we were in the dark—in the same boat as you. Mizukage was tipped off by our spies in Rain. They never told us they had built an army. They probably had a hide-out somewhere close to the borders where they carried out their operations." He stood up from his dirty perch that was a toppled over tree covered with moss growing on the sides. The side of his blue robes was caked with mud.

"Your Intelligence division’s so well-informed and on top of things that, lucky for the thugs, we never found that hide-out," Sasuke said, keeping a note of sardonic pleasure in his voice. His lips curled in an exquisite sneer. The look seemed to have frozen on his face, and he took pleasure in watching a pink colour of humiliation rise high in Ao's pale cheeks—he had looked away.

"You have a good point, Sasuke-Sama," Chōjūrō spoke in a fake, simpering voice; he was the cleverer of the two. "But that's why we brought you and your brother along. We knew we needed help. I think a little pat on the back is in order for our simple-minded thinking, too—don't you agree?" He let out a small laugh and folded his arms on his chest. His expression remained untouched by Sasuke's humiliating words.

Sasuke narrowed his eyes and looked at him for a few fleeting seconds, taking in the blankness of his face. He was probably sent to keep an eye on Sasuke, and the two ninjas from Mist were sent to make sure his brother did not do anything unsavoury. They must have met up with Itachi by now . . .

A feeling of pure loathing rose in him that his brother was being spied on by filth from Mist. He was impressed with himself that the realization did not break the surface of his calm, and Chōjūrō did not feel the heat of it on his skin. Despite his ready-made smiles and fake masks, sometimes, his short-temper got the better of him. With time and arts of imitations, his skin grew more thick and more elastic—ready and pliant to create a moody expression that almost never betrayed him. Yes, he impressed himself today. Such a child!

Slowly, he turned away without saying anything. His ears wriggled and Chōjūrō's eyes widened with a realization, but he did not move. A few seconds later, Suigetsu landed with Jūgo close to Ao who staggered back, nearly tripping over his feet in the slippery mud; he was still sulking rather pathetically.

Suigetsu's smile widened as his eyes fell on Ao's face. "Hello, Ao. Watchya doin' in this part of the forest? I heard it gets dangerous at night." He widened his eyes, feigning fear. Ao's cheeks burnt red. "Time to stick yor head into the mud. The dirty spies'll just slap those plump buttocks, thinkin' that yor a broad. They don't exactly carry that Mist male-bum stiffness to ’em. The thugs’ll pass right by ya—after a good gropin’. I guarantee!" he ended that with a loud dramatic sigh and slammed his fist against his breast.

Chōjūrō had an urge to let out a loud laugh, but he turned away with a chuckle. Ao grit his teeth and clenched his trembling, cold-bitten fingers into two mighty knuckles. He looked murderous. Suigetsu opened his mouth to say something more, but Sasuke spoke first, "Suigetsu, knock it off."

"A'right, a'right," Suigetsu said and made a regal gesture at Ao with such an airy grace that even Sasuke could not help let slip a small smile. He marched to him with that same mischievous grin on his face; Sasuke could not remember any moment he saw him without it. "Look at ya, all wet, hot, and bothered—bet the thirsty bitches would love that." He winked and leant against the tree. Behind him, Jūgo looked around, and almost magically, several colourful birds swooped down and landed on his shoulders. They sat there and tittered without a care in the world.

The wink and Suigetsu's jokey remarks meant that the job was well-done. Sasuke leant his head down and started looking at the tiny buds of flowers just opening up to catch the morning light. "Did you find anything around the border? Any sign of the rogues?" Sasuke asked, his murky eyes flickering from Chōjūrō's curious face to Suigetsu's.

"Nope. Would’ve told ya if I found any, boss. So—" he broke off and rounded on Chōjūrō, who was looking shrewdly at Sasuke's stone-cold indifferent face, "how long’s this bullshit gonna last? I'm kinda tired. How much is he payin' us anyway?" He looked over to Sasuke.

Sasuke's gaze drifted slightly towards Chōjūrō before he brought it back to Suigetsu. "They'll pay as much as the task required," he said grimly with an air of finality. He saw Chōjūrō open his mouth to say something; he looked at Ao for support rather sheepishly and then closed his mouth when he found him still sulking by the tree, with his back to the rest.

"Well, that settles it." Suigetsu yawned and raised his arms to stretch. "Was just tellin' Jūgo that he needs ta get some real birds, but he didn't get what I—" he stopped, his hands still up in the air as a loud blast up north shook the whole area. A massive shockwave blew against their faces. Ao, who was cursing Sasuke under his breath, came rushing forward with his Byakugan on—it failed him again, unable to cross the barrier of distance his eye could not pass.

Colour drained from Sasuke's face. With that mask of control unconsciously thrown away, his features collapsed into a look of absolute shock and terror, his eyes bulging and his mouth opening wide as if he was about to let out a loud scream. Sweat burst from his every pore, and his heart pumped blood so fast that it ached. His face trembled, and his eyes turned a little misty as he took one step and shouted, "Nii-Sama!" Then he vanished, leaving a cloud of dust in his wake.

"Sasuke, wait!" Suigetsu shouted behind him. He exchanged a look of fear with Jūgo whose shoulders were empty—the birds had left their perch in a frenzy of terror. They did not stick around and chased after him, leaving Ao and Chōjūrō behind.

"That was the meeting place," Chōjūrō said, his face giving the look of a tired, gaunt man. "This is bad. If those ninjas killed Itachi—"

"Itachi’s good. He won't die that easily," he assured, not turning off his Byakugan. "There's no use sticking around. If he lived and caught one—I don't even want to think about it. Come on!" Chōjūrō nodded in agreement, and they both left for North where a steady pile of smog was rising up into the air, breaking apart the pearly streams of droplets.

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Hinata sat with her eyes downcast, her fingers knotted on her lap. Only a couple of minutes had passed since they evaded the blast when a Mist ninja appeared at the rendezvous point. He told Itachi that he was sent to assist them. Itachi did not look happy as, despite the cool expression, he could not quite suppress a breath of disapproval. The four ninjas Itachi had sent out dragged a rogue ninja into the clearing. He had been hiding it out to give them a slip with a couple of chakra bombs, which he kept throwing out after every ten minutes. It was a miracle they did not spot him earlier; Itachi thought that the guy was such a fool.

The Mist ninja wanted to kill him, but Itachi stopped him on grounds of interrogation. Now he sat on the ground, tied to a thick tree. His eyes were downcast, and he looked like a defeated man. Hinata did not know what to think. She sat quietly under the nearly bare branches of a tall tree. The rain had stopped, and now, a gentle wind whistled in her ears. But she was thinking, ignoring the stray drops that fell on her cheeks. She could have been killed. The thrill of the moment had passed, and then it occurred to her: Sasuke sent her out, an untrained ninja, on such a dangerous mission? She felt a surge of resentment towards him, and her chest heaved rapidly with emotion.

He had sent Kirin moments before their encounter with the rogues. Now it sat happily in Itachi's front pocket; it moved its tiny head rapidly from left to right. Itachi sat down next to her, a touch of weariness on his cold face. He looked out into the distance as if daydreaming and suddenly spoke, "family . . . we need them and they rely on us, do they not?"

Hinata did not say anything. She bent forward and fingered the ground. There was nothing she could have said. She wanted him to talk about anything else, but to her disappointment, he resumed the subject that was foreign to her. "There is a monster in all of us," he whispered, his voice low as if he was hissing, "is it not?"

She sat upright, and her white eyes stared back into his that held such depths and darkness she had never seen before that, for the tiniest moment, her body quivered with a delicious sensation of fear. She still did not answer him and bent her gaze ever so slightly to stop him from looking into her secrets. He continued, "it is wise to accept the monsters in us, in others, and learn to embrace them—perhaps in an attempt to bring them to light."

Hinata's lip quivered, and she blinked back a few tears. "You don't know anything about my monsters," she said as her voice quaked with emotion. She hated this weakness, but the woman in her was weak.

"I do not have to and I do not need to," Itachi said in a smooth voice and got to his feet. "But it is wise to look deep within ourselves and others, as well. You will then find that some of those monsters are just innocent daemons that need to be loved and tamed. Do not set everything free and do not try to embrace those that do not belong to you. You will only make things worse for yourself. We all do not enjoy relinquishing the things we cherish."

Itachi cast one appraising glance her way and walked away. Is he talking about Sasuke? she thought fearfully. Her face trembled and threatened to reveal her weakness, but she composed her face into a look of mild sadness. Not a few moments passed when Sasuke landed into the clearing. Hinata leapt to her feet, her heart racing. He had abandoned her with his brother. Did he even care? She took one step but drew up short at the sight of his dishevelled appearance: his eyes were red and swollen as if he had been crying.

His breath was ragged as he took one step, taking in Itachi's appearance and, from his dry lips, whispering his name that floated to Hinata's ears. Itachi moved closer and stretched his right arm as though to catch his brother who looked on the verge of despair. His right hand reached around to grasp the back of Sasuke's head. "Sasuke, I am all right," he assured him when Sasuke said nothing. "You worry so much. Look, I caught one for interrogation." He smiled at Sasuke, meeting his eyes that changed patterns.

The world slowed down in Sasuke’s vision. He shrunk in size and landed in Itachi's lap with the same origami bird in his hand, his heart racing as fast as the thousands of crows beating their wings around him—their sounds drowning out his hurried breaths. Fearfully, he looked up at Itachi smiling down at him. "I don't want to talk to you like this," Sasuke said and listened to his own small voice bounce back at him.

"No?" Itachi asked, feigning surprise. His voice sounded a lot softer than usual. "I've always found the idea of such a change . . . pleasant."

Sasuke blinked and the next moment he stood facing Itachi in his current form. Black ink drops plopped into the grey around him, and within seconds, they metamorphosed into crows. They beat their wings fiercely and flew away to the edge of the dream-world before they melted into the veils—to become the fabric of Itachi’s illusions. A cold shiver ran down Sasuke's spine; this place always felt strange to him. It brought out a childish fear inside him that he could never deny.

"I'm glad you are all right, Nii-Sama. If something had happened to you, I don't know what I . . . " his voice trailed off, and he lowered his head to hide his anguish, not looking into his brother's eyes.

"You know I have never enjoyed disappointing you . . . look, I have kept a gift for your distress," he said with a faint smile on his face. A few crows landed on his shoulders and few chose to find comfort by his feet. They cawed together, their noisy language echoing all around him. Sasuke narrowed his eyes as they watered against the noise. "Silence," Itachi let out a whisper that carried itself smoothly to Sasuke and dead silence fell all over.

The crows opened and closed their beaks but nothing came out; their calls had been silenced, their sounds muted in the dark and grey painted-world, in which he stood with his older brother—fearfully. "Is he one of the rogues?" Sasuke asked and looked around warily. This place . . . it always looked ghastly.

"Yes. I would have killed him after interrogation, but you told me to keep him alive," Itachi said and walked to Sasuke. "Did you find something?"

Sasuke took in a deep intake of breath and told Itachi about the Tulip Squad, hiding what he needed to hide. His brother remained quiet and then spoke into the silence, breaking it as though a sword cleaving the wind’s delicate fabric in two, "I have not interrogated him, but he would not know anything. They probably left the grunt-work for us—a little humiliating." He sighed afterwards and put his hand to the side of his face.

"I'll make her pay. Who does she think she is? Sending men to spy on us and thinking that she tricked us into doing her dirty work?" Sasuke spat at the empty air as if he was looking at her.

Itachi pulled down his hand. "Do not be rash, Sasuke," he paused and put his hand on Sasuke's untidy hair that had been made even more untidy by this long haul without any rest. "Perhaps you are right and she did all this to test us. I will look into this Squad matter to ease your worries. I know I will not find anything, but we do not have anything to lose."

"I can always draw out the culprit. It's a snake in my team. I know it," Sasuke rumbled and narrowed his eyes at the shadows, hoping that the culprit would jump out from their midst.

"We will find him—do not worry,” Itachi said in a low voice—his red eyes glinted with an emotion. Then it vanished from his eyes, and he ruffled Sasuke's hair affectionately. The illusion ended before Sasuke could draw in another breath.

Sasuke felt the tingling sensation of the cool wind on his skin. The sun greeted his eyes in reality. He inhaled sharply and let out a loud sigh. Then he turned his eyes and stopped them on Hinata. His gaze lingered on her for a few moments and watched as she turned pink in the face, then he looked away as the rest of his team landed into the clearing, followed by Chōjūrō and Ao right at their heels.

"We heard—Sasuke you—" Suigetsu blurted out as he struggled to regain his breath. These two trips had taken out a lot of his moisture.

"I'm fine. Some rogues tried to kill Nii-Sama. They're dead, of course," Sasuke said in a proud voice and ran his thin finger along his lips. He turned his eyes to the Mist guards. "Why are you two here? The mission is over."

"The Mist rogue," Chōjūrō began and pointed his hand at the tired man still under Sharingan's Genjutsu, "we’ll take him off your hands."

"Yah, buddy, I don't think so!" Suigetsu snorted and whipped out his bottle from that fanny pack dangling over his buttocks.

"That's not up to—" Ao began in a heated voice but stopped when Itachi raised his hand to silence him.

"You lied to us and used our valuable time to do your work. I have a Hokage to answer to. I suggest you do not argue as this is standard protocol under unauthorized missions," Itachi explained and stood close to Sasuke.

Ao tried to speak again but Chōjūrō cut across him, "we understand—but with all due respect, Itachi-Sama, we can't allow you to keep him forever. I believe forty-eight hours is a suitable time to deal with this matter. Am I right?" He smiled that fake smile of his that Sasuke was beginning to loathe.

"You will kill him before you reach your borders. I am not sure why this lowly grunt is so important to you," he stopped and cast a curious glance at the deathly quiet prisoner, "regardless, you will get the prisoner after he has been dealt with accordingly—dead or alive." Then he said no more and turned on his heel to walk away from them.

Sasuke obediently followed his brother, with the sniggering Suigetsu and the ever-quiet Jūgo in his wake. Hinata kept staring at the Mist ninjas, and she could have sworn that Chōjūrō could not mask that sour expression scurrying across his face . . .

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Chapter Text

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Shadows slanted awkwardly in the dimly lit room. A chink in the tiny window in back of a large table let in the moonlight, which lost the battle against the steadily advancing darkness too soon. The scribbling and scratching sounds of the wooden pen on the thick scroll were bouncing off the walls, magnified in silence. There stood three figures in the room: one with hands clasped behind his back, one with a steel-straight spine, arms hung almost stiff by his side, and one with fingers knotted like a clumsy rope-knot in front. Their shadows stretched out in front of them—much taller and bigger than themselves as the candle behind them, sitting on an unusually small table, flickered in a sudden draft of cool wind.

The scribbling stopped, and the beautiful woman sitting comfortably in the chair that ruled leaf lifted her brown eyes, narrowing them slightly to gaze at the tall men whose faces were hidden behind the masks of shadows. She dipped the wooden pen into the black ink bottle and began to roll up the scroll. The ink had dried out on it just a few moments ago.

She inhaled a little loudly, as if to grasp their attention, and put the rolled scroll aside. "Very rash, Itachi," she paused and moved her eyes slightly to look at the younger brother hidden safely behind the tricks of darkness and night. "Sasuke is a very young Captain, but you accepted a mission just because Mizukage requested it of him? I did not expect this from you. He should have been reproached by you for taking it up—yet you backed him despite being his superior? I am disappointed in you."

Sasuke did not intervene and stood straight, waiting for his brother to speak. "They tricked us," Itachi started with a deep sigh, "it was a simple B-Rank mission, and Sasuke asked for my authorization. I checked the details and authorized it. He only had to dispatch a few rogue-Shinobis in the area. He did not require my help, but he asked for it to train a new recruit. She was to stay behind me at all times and acquire field experience. I can assure you that we, or rather, Sasuke, had to intention to conduct an S-Rank mission without your approval."

Her brown eyes deepened into a magnificent colour of a burnished axinite when a thin line of smoke from the candle on her desk rose between their gazes. "Words from a coddling brother . . . how much weight do they carry?" Tsunade asked and her face split into a meaningful smile.

Itachi was quiet; a look of calm remained plastered to his face like a new skin on a snake. Something menacing glinted in his eyes, but it died away suddenly, and behind the thick band of shadow on his face, she could not quite catch it fast enough to recognize its intensity. Beside him, Sasuke's blank face remained untouched like a skilled chameleon that was trying its hardest to take on its brother's colour; he was successful—for now.

"You don't honestly expect me to believe that, do you, Itachi? It seems that you are covering for your brother again, who," she broke off, placed her hands on the table, and directed the heavy gaze of her warm brown eyes upon Sasuke, "seldom pays any heed to what I have to say and has a high disdain for authority."

"Whatever happened in regards to my complaints against your student has nothing to do with Nii-Sama. You should—"

"Sasuke, stay quiet," Itachi cut across him and Sasuke fell silent. He took a step forward and appeared out of the grasp of shadows as if a thick black smoke had dispersed to reveal him. "This is neither fair, nor just. What good will come out of this accusation? Why would Sasuke take an S-Rank mission from a ruler of another village? Where are you steering a simple matter of misinformation?" he asked, tilting his head slightly as if he was straining to get a good look at her face obscured behind smoke, his eyes red and ominous, devoid of emotion and so frightening in nature.

Tsunade kept looking into his eyes, and as though their intensity hurt her, she dropped them to look at the scroll. All the words had dried and appeared like twisted and broken hair to create a scroll full of words. "This is standard inquiry—not something you are unaccustomed to," she said and moved the scrolls around to busy herself. "I'm not sure why you're so surprised."

"Your questions present more than an element of surprise. I am simply trying to clear my name and my brother's. If it concerns you that much, then I will visit the Mizukage personally and demand a letter of apology for her unbecoming and unprofessional behaviour. She did try to fool us," he said in such a calm voice that it forcefully seduced Tsunade's eyes to look up at him. The red in his eyes was gone . . . Sasuke was a something he guarded ruthlessly like a greedy serpent, she thought.

"Fooled you?" she asked incredulously, stressing upon the final word.

"Yes, I am afraid. Though I am not sure if she is very wise . . . or very foolish," Itachi said, lowering his voice to a mere whisper.

"Perhaps you should grade and gauge Kages. You seem to have a knack for criticism," Tsunade taunted as a look of mild anger came into her fair face.

"I did not know rulers were Kami. I always thought they were lucky people from amongst us who win the chair's favour either through cunning, wile, or sometimes, talent," he said and looked to her with a hard-as-stone face that no emotion was powerful enough to break. "But common folk like us are too simple-minded to guess these mechanics, I suppose. I do not think I am clever enough to see through these threads of man-made fates—foolishness courses through a common man's blood, after all."

Tsunade's red lips were pressed into a thin line, anger etched into every thin line that appeared on her forehead. She chose not to press this matter any further. Itachi was always difficult to deal with. He was cunning, too cunning, to read, direct, and control. He always exuded a strange aura. He was dangerous.

"This report is unsatisfactory. I hope you have a damn good reason to keep that Mist Missing-Nin," she hissed through clenched teeth and chose not to meet Itachi's hard gaze boring into her mind; it ruffled the threads of her thoughts and picked them apart one by one. Sometimes, she thought he frightened her.

"The report in your hand is incomplete. I will add more details when I interrogate him," he said with no change in the flat tone of his voice. "They would not have tried to trick us if it was a simple matter of a few Missing-Nins. They had created a small army. Hinata is lucky to be alive," he added, not turning to look at Hinata standing still next to Sasuke with hunched shoulders and a bent head.

Tsunade shifted in her chair a little and bent her gaze on Hinata. She looked pale in the light of the candle, so pale that she was giving off a pearly glow in the orange light of the tall candle. There were shadows under her eyes, and her black fringes curtained them to hide her emotions.

"Itachi told me you performed well, Hinata," Tsunade said, stood up, and pushed the heavy chair back.

Hinata's head jerked up as if someone had forcefully yanked at her hair. She enclosed her right hand on her left wrist and looked at Sasuke out of the corner of her eyes. Darkness clung to him—a leech above his lips. She could not see his eyes or the rest of his face. She brought her gaze back to Tsunade but said nothing.

"For someone who has been out of training for so long, I'm surprised you handled a Jōnin on your own. Your father must be proud," Tsunade said in a warm voice and walked around the edge of the table.

Hinata opened her mouth to say something but lost her voice—she knew her father did not care. She wavered a little as if on the edge of speech but remained silent. "Sasuke you—" she began by leaning against the table; it was large and bulky, taller than her hips; she probably placed a few cushions underneath her buttocks to raise herself to a proper height, "your report is absent on Hinata. Why?"

"The rogue matter and the prisoner in Nii-Sama's custody were more pressing matters. I didn't think it was necessary to make a report without talking to my subordinate first," Sasuke said in a flat, matter-of-fact tone.

"You don't get to decide which reports take precedence. Hinata is your subordinate, and her performance against a Jōnin, I believe, is—"

"Had Nii-Sama not thrown a shuriken in that rogue's spine by making it ricochet off the trees, she would've been beheaded on the first swipe. It affected his reflexes and he missed repeatedly because of his injury. As Nii-Sama said, she's lucky to be alive," he said without removing his gaze from Tsunade's face that appeared to show a hint of anger.

"And you didn't think that required a report?" she asked as if shocked by his blunt response. Her gaze slightly drifted to Hinata and saw a bright colour of shame flood her cheeks.

"I just got here. I need a little time to talk to her and get a few details. I'm not a magician," he said in a quiet, thoughtful voice, not getting bothered by Tsunade's face that crumpled up with rage.

"How dare you!" she hissed and marched and stopped a few inches short of him. Then she drew herself up to her full height and peered at the darkness that stood over his face. "Do you have any idea who you're talking to? I can remove you from your post for your insolence. The only reason I’ve given you a leeway is because of your performance. Don't test my patience."

Sasuke opened his mouth to speak again but subsided into silence when Itachi spoke first, "Sasuke, stay quiet." He turned fully to look down at Tsunade. "You will get the report in a few hours. Sasuke and I got here only an hour ago—he did not get a chance to speak to her. He had to make a report of the border investigation conducted by Suigetsu and Jūgo. It should be under my report. I myself did not think Hinata's performance required any report. It was just a field experience gone awry. A few lines at the end of the mission report would do."

"Her father would require one and so would I," Tsunade said, still keeping her eyes on Sasuke as if to stop him from speaking or running away.

"Why would her father require a field experience report?" Itachi asked and moved his head slightly to the right. A mild look of surprise came into his face, but it vanished quickly.

"She was expecting and lost her child about a year ago when she strained herself. He thinks it would be for the best if her missions are monitored by her family. They have her best interest at heart," she said and stepped back with her hands on her hips.

"But I—" Hinata began, darting her eyes here and there as if she had made a grave mistake by talking, "I-I don't want to report my missions to my father."

Tsunade gave Sasuke a cold look and then brought her eyes to Hinata whose cheeks were red . . . and not from embarrassment this time. "Why? He's your father. I'm sure a copy of this report would keep him well-informed of your missions," she said and smiled a smile of motherly kindness. She had dealt with her miscarriages and knew how fragile she was.

"No," Hinata protested in a loud voice that shocked Tsunade. "Forgive me, H-Hokage-Sama, but this is a private matter. I'm an adult woman, and I don't want my family to interfere in my life all the . . . t-time," she muttered the last word and then fell silent again.

"Did you put her up to this?" Tsunade demanded and returned her cold eyes to Sasuke.

"I've no idea what you're talking about. Her family matters don't concern me, and had she not performed well in this mission, I would've sent her home—where she could’ve picked stitches and cleaned her house and that absurdly vast garden to her heart's content," he said in such a dry voice that his honesty hurt Hinata. A pain seared her throat and her eyes stung, but she fought back the tears and, for the first time in her life, succeeded in fully masking her grief.

"A little kindness would do that face a world of good," she said in a low voice, eyeing his unnaturally beautiful face that appeared hazy behind the receding darkness, but Sasuke merely sniffed the air in response. "A lot of things seem to be wasted on you," she added resentfully and looked at Hinata for a moment before directing her gaze to Itachi.

"Is there anything else you need?" Itachi asked and pulled a fake, sweet smile that was as subtle and ghostly as his other smiles; he appeared to be unperturbed, even amused, by Sasuke's behaviour . . . and it irritated her: Itachi really had coddled him so much.

"Just go, Itachi, and take this shameless, rude little boy with you—and teach him some manners," she shouted at Itachi and Sasuke. "I need to talk to Hinata. And I need those reports on my table by tomorrow evening, Sasuke, if you know what's good for you," Tsunade added in a stiff voice; she fixed her gaze on Itachi as he gave an amused smile and a small tilt of his head, and Sasuke who simply turned on his heels and left the room behind his brother, without sparing Hinata a moment's glance.

Hinata's heart picked up the pace, pounding. She had looked at Sasuke for any response, but he had not given any indication that she was even in the room. His cold attitude made her feel abandoned. Her thoughts raced: is that how Sasuke’s to his lovers—cold, distant and, aloof after he gets bored of them? The thought stabbed her heart like an icy knife. No, he can't—he wouldn't—I-I . . . her thoughts ran the race and stopped dead in their tracks.  

Her lips trembled, and she hid her face behind the convenient smoke of shadows. Even in her thoughts, the words seemed to shame her, beat her pride, and haunt her. Would she admit to herself that she felt something more than lust for the man who remained unaware of her desire? She closed her fingers, her knuckles turning white as the blood drained from her hands. It was hard to face up to the wish from her heart and spirit—a heart that was left blank and empty as she stitched up the white cloth that was meant to remain protected . . . torn, holed, and dirtied by everyone (with just a few rosy stains on the corners . . . ).

But deep down, down and down, right under the depths of those desires where no light penetrated, she knew what she felt for him: perhaps something delicate; perhaps love. The thought washed over her like a million waves crashing on a battered man, stranded on the edges of a turbulent shore, his hands scrabbling to grab a solid rock to save his life. She took a heaving breath as if she had just strained herself out of the surface of turbulent waters to draw in lungfuls of cold breaths.

It was hard to face that word and the truth that had been hitting at her conscience the moment Naruto betrayed her, and her heart strayed beyond the lines of marriage, honour, and loyalty—beyond the rigid lines, beyond the quaint customs she was taught from her childhood: "Hinata, be good. Be loyal. Be someone who can make her Otō-Sama proud. Be a woman who would bring honour to our family. Hinata, you are a wonderful girl—a good girl." The words of her mother echoed in her mind, ringing in her ears as if the voice had made it from beyond the curtains of life to reproach her for her misdeeds.

Her breath came as a dull sob, unheard by the woman who was pacing around the office with a few papers and scrolls in her hands. Her mother was dead; she had no right on her life anymore. She lost it the moment she left her at the mercy of life. Her body was not a temple for Naruto to visit as he pleased, desecrate if he did not enjoy, and defile with relics of another woman's affection if he hated. No, she had made it her own and created a sweet disposition for herself to find her own happiness.

Hinata wanted, no, desired Sasuke with such vehemence that it was creating a small creature of fear in her that wriggled and twisted warily whenever she looked at him. It sang a song of desperation that came from her depths—a song that lamented her betrayals and sung of the hot blood in her veins in joy: the young blood that was willing to course hotly through her young body that yearned for him to touch it; the blood that boiled and seethed, not willing to stop till it was not over for her. She closed her eyes, breathing in the cool air in the room.

Yes, she accepted it . . . embraced something of him she could not name—not yet. A small smile broke the dull features. Tsunade knocked her right knuckle gently against the table, and the sound broke through her thoughts almost immediately. The Hokage was shaking her head over something and muttering under her breath. Hinata caught 'rude Uchiha boys' and 'think they can fool me' before she left whatever business she was attending to and turned around and looked at Hinata full in the face.

"Sasuke isn't here now. What did he say to you?" she demanded, her hands firmly fisted on her hips as if she was ready to punch and knock out anyone who would dare enter her office.

Not understanding a word she said, Hinata's expressions assumed a confused look. "I don't understand, H-Hokage-Sama?" she said in that same stuttering voice she hated with passion now, but this small hair-trigger experience had knocked out a bit of shyness from her.

"Did he say you shouldn't report back to your father? Sage knows that brat doesn't even want birds pooping in his garden without his permission," she said heatedly and pursed her lips, colour rising in her pale cheeks again.

Hinata had a strange image of Sasuke wagging his finger at birds that trained their posteriors with great accuracy at his lawn and dropping sticky droppings everywhere, angering him till he was forced to pull out his whizzing Sharingan and Genjutsu as many of them as possible; and then Itachi finally coming out and patting him on the back. "Sasuke, I love you with all my heart. Today, you have made me proud again by saving my Uchiha Gunbai fan lying in the garden from these unpleasant bird droppings. Long live Uchiha pride and long live our garden."

"Nii-Sama, you're always so awesome!" Sasuke spoke with stars sparkling in his eyes.

Hinata had a strong urge to let out a laugh, but she bit her lower lip instead. "No—Sasuke-Sama never told me not to tell my father about the mission. We're only not allowed to talk about the details. It was my choice," she said honestly and stared back with calm in her white eyes when Tsunade grabbed her shoulders, looking concerned.

"Hinata," she paused as if gathering her wits to talk to her, "you know your uterus is too fragile to withstand such burdens. You can die if you push yourself too hard. That doesn't scare you? You want to bear a child for—"

"I don't want to bear any children for now," she replied and placed her hand on Tsunade's, meeting her shocked eyes with the same calm that washed over her. "I don’t want this—for now. I would appreciate it if you kept this b-between us. Don't tell anyone, not even Shizune-San . . . and Sakura," she hissed out her name, but Tsunade did not notice it—she still appeared to be positively shocked.

The older woman kept staring at her in disbelief. Her face appeared white, curtained between smooth golden hair. Hinata could see sweat bursting out of the pores on the fair forehead, but the look of absolute shock was slowly disappearing. Suddenly, a small smile graced Tsunade's red lips and she backed away. "Hinata’s all grown up now," she said with a smile and patted her head in a loving manner. "I'm happy you are finally thinking about your own life. You never did in the past—no matter how many times I protested."

Hinata stood silently, and her eyes lowered in adoration. Tsunade had been kind to her; she had looked after her during those tough days when she suffered the pains of miscarriage and nearly died once on the hospital bed from excessive bleeding. Naruto had looked repulsed that day; and that was the last time he ever laid with her. It seemed like so long ago. But she would always be grateful to her.

"Change," Tsunade breathed out dreamily and looked up at the small cobweb dangling between the blades of an old fan on the ceiling. It was still and needed to be dusted. "It's a good thing—for you, even better. I’ll ask Shizune to send you the medicine you need to be sterile for a year." She looked down and settled her hard gaze on Hinata.

"But—what if my—"

"Don't worry about Hiashi or Minato. I will tell them that you’re unwell to bear any children for now—not till you get your strength back," she assured and brought out a warm smile and a light pink colour on Hinata's pallid face. "Now run along. You have had a long day. I know Sasuke. He likes to give people a hard time. The rude boy . . ."

Hinata bowed before her and jogged out of the office. She felt like a child—free of burdens for the first time in her life. When she made it outside, the moon had won the battle against the swathe of clouds and was shining brightly down upon Konoha. She was slightly disappointed to find that Sasuke had left; but she smiled up at it and, feeling freer than ever, ran off to her home.

# # # # # #

The bizarre Sharingan patterns in his eyes lapsed back to their calm state. The commas appeared suddenly, and their perfunctory circling came to a slow halt. The prisoner's head was bent. He looked haggard and weary. A deep stoop to his back made him look like a decrepit old man on the verge of starvation. Fresh sweat broke out on his young forehead that had yet to bear the deep marks of age. The drops dried quickly in the dry chill of the room. It must have stung him, but they did not know—nor cared.

"The seal on him is strong," Itachi spoke and placed his hand on the prisoner's shoulder. "I cannot seem to get through, even with Genjutsu." He twisted his neck and created a calm exterior as he looked back to Sasuke. It was a sham, a mask he loved to wear upon his face, but he always regarded Sasuke with fond eyes, quelling his Mangekyō Sharingan before it unintentionally snared his younger brother's senses.

Their eyes met and Sasuke's Sharingan pulsed forcefully to life to resonate with his brother's as if it were alive and desired the other intensely. It was something all Uchihas shared—something bizarre and grotesque that had its own romantic notions. They cherished this bond of visions, this dance of shared perspectives; it was their pride, their vanity, and their eternal romance with the idea of 'see all and know all’.

Sasuke's face appeared blotchy behind the deformed shadows of trees thrown on his visage. He stood in the long, wavering beams of the lanterns' lights outside. As they swayed, his face appeared to take on different shades of grey. His eyes defiantly shone on his face. He looked ghastly, standing aloof like a lifeless spectre in the dark. Hinata stood just ten feet away from him, her eyes flitting from Sasuke's stone-cold face to the prisoner’s. He was wheezing, trapped in a nightmare no one saw. She could not bear to look anymore.

"They will ask for him when the night falls again," Sasuke spoke with a strong note of bitterness in his voice. "What's the use of keeping him alive? Just cut his throat. He's better dead than alive to us."

Itachi got to his feet and cast a curious eye over the young man, thinking. Sasuke, at times, was too hot-headed and hasty in his eyes, but there was merit in his words. "The seal was probably placed on him more than twenty-four hours ago. At this rate, he will not survive through the night," he said, his voice measured.

"A curse mark?" Sasuke asked and looked down his nose at the prisoner as if he was something filthy that would dirty his sandals and soil his new uniform.

Itachi brought his finger to his lips and looked up; something suddenly invaded his calm, impenetrable thoughts. "Where is Karin? She should have been back with the counter-seal by now."

"Poking around her trunk with a damn stick to find the scroll . . . imbecile," Sasuke said, his features changing with unpleasantness as if his brother’s pride was being mocked by Karin's unpunctuality and girlish giddiness: they always were her shortcomings.

"I might try something, but it is risky," Itachi said, and his eyes met his brother's with such intensity that Sasuke felt a cold shiver crawl languidly down his spine in a zigzag manner—like a pesky spider. His playful illusions always got under his skin. Even though his hide was thick, his exterior a mirage, he was still a little too clumsy, a little too innocent for his beloved older brother's sinister tricks.

"Risky enough to end his miserable life?" Sasuke asked and stepped out of the bluish beam coming from the shaking lantern outside.

"Less risky than cutting his throat," Itachi said with a wisp of a smile playing about his lips.

Colour burnt in Sasuke's pale cheeks. "Nii-Sama, you mock me—and in front of my subordinate?" he spoke in a heavy voice, his jaw set.

"I forgot she was here," Itachi said in mock surprise, his tone soft, and stretched his hand to pat Sasuke's head. "I want to wait till Karin shows up. If she does not have anything on her, then I will leave him in a painless Tsukuyomi for a few seconds, though he will not survive it."

"If it's a curse-seal, we won’t even get a chance to place the counter-seal. He might die during the transition," Sasuke said, adopting a low voice that died quickly against the sharp whistle of the wind, as it sped through the gaps between the lanterns.

"I wondered why they did not persist to take him—a little silly, because I foolishly assumed it might be a simple matter," Itachi said, his voice growing stern.

"They played us," Sasuke said, his voice thick with anger that was absorbed by the walls of the small room.

Outside, lanterns clanked and knocked into one another. Autumn wind sawed through the stillness. It was still steady and pleasant, carrying with it strange odours of earth and flora from outside. They permeated the room that was filled with the last glints of orange light, broken severely by the distorted beams of purple; the room was a blast of messy colours.

Sounds of girls trilling and kids laughing poured into the silent room through the small window—the only window in the room. Hinata's Byakugan could see through the thick walls at the chakra of many passing by just beyond the walls of the garden. The bare trees' dry branches crackled as if in pain from being caressed by the cold wind. Suddenly, Hinata saw a body with an incredibly intense chakra enter through the gate.

"K-Karin’s back!" she stammered out so suddenly and loudly that Sasuke and Itachi turned around and whipped out their deadly equipment like a hasty bolt of lightning.

"That gave us a fright," Itachi said in mild amusement and stowed his sharp kunais away. He looked at Hinata who pulled her lips back in embarrassment, showing too many teeth.

"Keep it down!" Sasuke rasped and pushed his sword back into the leather sheath. Hinata let out a quiet sound of frustration and hid her blush under the thick shroud of shadows accumulating steadily at the corners.

Soft steps sounded on the other side and not a breath escaped their lips when Karin swung open the door. She stood there, framed in the door, staring at the prisoner like a baffled idiot left alone at an overcrowded circus.

"You need an invitation?" Sasuke asked, and his face worked into a scowl—an expression Karin recognized all too well.

Karin stepped daintily into the room, with a wide grin on her face. There was playfulness in the way she moved, and Sasuke was losing patience. She stopped close to Sasuke and pulled out the scroll with an exaggerated gesture. She let out a nervous laugh at the look on Sasuke's face and then suddenly fell quiet.

"I hope this is worth everyone's time," Sasuke said in a grave voice, casting a cold indifferent glance her way.

"I had to make changes to the counter-seal. It wasn't easy, you know," Karin said in a small voice and avoided Sasuke's eyes.

Sasuke opened his mouth but Itachi forestalled him: "will this work? The curse-seal is well past the point of return. Look at him—he's already dying," Itachi said in a soft voice, his face an exquisite mask of coldness. The man wheezed by his feet. His forehead pressed against the dirty floor of the room. He looked miserable . . . and so close to death.

"You'll just have to put a little faith in me, Itachi-Sama," Karin said with a smile in her voice.

"Faith is a precarious thing. I do not like to put all of my fruits in one basket," Itachi said, looking at her with curiosity: she struck him as someone delightfully odd in manner.

"Sasuke really takes a lot after you. I always thought it was just the beautiful face and that hot body," Karin teased, her voice vibrating with glee.

Itachi gave a short, quick sigh that may have hidden a soft laugh. "Please, proceed," Itachi said in a flat tone of voice, wearing a small smile on his face. Yes, she was odd. "We will soon find out whether faith falls behind you or not."

"I don't think it’s safe just to keep all of our defenses here. Karin can use Sensing. You and I have to be at the Hokage's office for the report. That just leaves Hinata," Sasuke said and turned his eyes slowly to Hinata who stiffened under his heavy gaze.

"Send her out—at this time when the night is almost upon us? That is not wise, Sasuke. She is not well-trained for this sort of task," Itachi replied, his eyes on Karin's back as she settled herself down next to the prisoner and started making symbols at the back of his damp head, to start the counter-seal process.

"Our Hokage thinks I’m a buffoon for suggesting that, and she's quite accomplished. Well, aren't you, Hinata?" he asked and worked himself into anger again . . . though, halting carefully short of that nature to imitate his brother’s natural charms, he only managed a little frown.

"I-I didn't say anything. She just assumed it on her own. I swear!" Hinata said innocently and pressed her hand to her chest.

"Liar, liar," Sasuke said, gave an amused chuckle, and nodded afterwards as if he was agreeing with himself. "You can finally prove yourself today by standing at the verges of the village. Make sure you cover ten kilometers—till morning."

"I-I—" she fumbled helplessly for words with fresh sweat breaking from her every pore, her shirt's front straining from deep and nervous breaths. This was insane!

"You're not to move from where I station you. Keep your Byakugan on at all times. Take supplies from the compound to replenish your chakra. If you see someone, you contact me by sending a distress signal into the air. You won't engage, you won't follow, and you won't play the role of a foolish Shinobi. Do I make myself clear, Hyūga girl?" Sasuke turned around to look at her, and his face contorted with a hard smile.

"Someone's in trouble," Karin lilted from the corner.

"Karin, do yourself an immense favour and stop talking," Sasuke said, but his words fell on deaf ears as it had yet to knock the giddy girl out of her. She pressed her finger over her lips and let out a loud 'shhh'. Her behaviour was beginning to irritate him.

"Why don't you make yourself useful as well, then? The patrol of the other portion would do just fine—now that the counter-seal’s almost done."

"That's twenty kilometres. It will be muddy outside—and dark! That's the patrol team's job," Karin protested feebly and jumped to her feet. "Besides, I might have to watch over him. The counter-seal business is tricky." She touched her glasses and pushed her sheet of red hair back. Sasuke looked unimpressed.

"I thought I told you to stop talking," Sasuke said in a low voice, his face impassive. "As useful and skilful your tongue is, I wouldn't overuse it freely if I were you. Do as you're told. As soon as the counter-seal starts showing its effects, you'll leave and patrol the entire region to the South-East. I don't want any patrol interrupting my work here."

"No one is aware that we have a prisoner with us. I informed the Hokage of this. She believes it is safe that no one but her knows what we plan to do. Leaving out our trusted ninjas amongst the patrol is a wise decision. Karin, you should make haste. This is a delicate matter. Do not slight it," Itachi said and cupped his chin.

"Nii-Sama, why don't you leave your crows to watch the areas to the East and West? The fewer loopholes we have, the better," Sasuke suggested, shoving his hand inside his pocket. He stole a quick glance at the sky and then looked at the dark wicks in the lanterns. It was nearly dark now. The lanterns outside were out. He would have to ask Yuu to rekindle them.

"Birds of a feather," Itachi said and smiled. They used to spy on the neighbouring houses in the past in this manner to know their secrets on the boar hunting game—to set traps at the convenient spots. Sabotaging them was just a dream every team equally shared. They also shared disappointments when the mischievous Uchiha brothers always won. It was an innocent childhood pleasure, but one they thoroughly enjoyed.

Sasuke chuckled, his coal black eyes glinting in the faint purple light of the last lamp still burning defiantly against the steady, cool draft. "We play to win," Sasuke said, a playful smile breaking his face. He hung his head slightly to the right and flicked Hinata a curious glance. "Get going. We have a whole night ahead of us."

He left after whispering something to Itachi, which she could not quite catch as the wind's whistling grew louder by the second. "Come with me," Itachi said after Sasuke left and gestured Hinata from the door to follow him.

When they made it outside, Itachi created several crows. They all flew in different directions, except for one that sat calmly on his shoulder. "I am leaving this one to follow you. If an enemy shows up, it will cast a powerful Genjutsu on it. That will give you enough time to make your escape," he paused and looked up at the moon, distracted by the sliver of the last golden lights of the sun, "I will not be able to watch all places at once. I expect you to be wise."

"But Sasuke-Sama said—"

He held up his hand to silence her. "Do not worry about Sasuke. I will reason with him, but he is right. I am not concerned with what you said before the Hokage and I will not press you, nor would I call you a liar. However, she believes that you believe yourself to be ready. She said to Sasuke as much, when we both know you need time to hone your skills—work hard and stop relying on my brother. He is hemmed in by troubles as it is." He looked at her with such expressionless eyes that it wrung a small sigh out of her.

"Thank you, Itachi-Sama. I won't let you down," She said in a small voice and lifted her head up to watch as the crow flew up and perched itself on a naked branch and looked down at her with keen, human eyes that frightened her.

"I am doing you an immense favour. Do not expect me to intervene in my brother's decisions again. Speak wisely and think ahead. Your tongue seems to get the better of you and your mind. Let your mind instruct your body and tongue. Do not leave its reins in their inexperienced hands. Otherwise, you will only end up with regrets," Itachi said, his voice was calm but full of warning.

Hinata felt naked before him. He knew and she felt humiliated! Did Sasuke really confide in his brother—told him of something so personal? No, it could not be. The crow loudly cawed as if urging her to move on. She looked in Itachi's direction, but he disappeared behind the shadows.

Do not speak to me and dissolve into the depths of passions that have swayed my heart, Hinata thought about these words she had read in a Romance-story so long ago; she stood alone under the pattering rain in the dead of the night. It was her first mission alone.

She had been standing here for hours and had watched the sun dip below the tenuous line of clouds. They had become thicker gradually, swallowing up the autumn sun that was merciful at this time of the year. Now, it was darkness all around. A dull, cloud-filtered grey light of the moon barely touched the branches overhead, and then it disappeared almost suddenly.

It was ominous and she felt alone. Sasuke was, at least, generous enough to let her stock up as many chakra replenishing supplies her fanny pack allowed her; but being left to her own devices was still frightening. She shuffled nervously, and her sandal landed into the mud. She did not bother to look down. It was a part and parcel of her ninja life now.

Hinata cracked her cold-bitten knuckles. She felt resentful. Sasuke was pushing her forward too soon. Tsunade was that incessant woman in his view who really needed a bitter taste of reality. Her rose-tinted glasses did not make her see Hinata's poor skills. So to make it a point to teach Hinata a lesson to not spin yarns behind his back, he sent her out all alone.

Hinata could hear the thuds of her own heart, faint in the sounds of the light rain. She looked up and saw Itachi's crow staring down at her with its red eye shining like that of a bird of ill-omen. The Sharingan in its right eye whirled—its three commas slowly moved in circles.

It let out a loud caw and shook its body. It did not feel right having it around, perched on a branch right above her head. Itachi had the best of intentions, but she felt humiliated at his persistence to aid her. He was only proving Sasuke right. She was not even sure if he did it for her . . . or Sasuke. His words had left her in shock. He always talked in riddles, but even if Sasuke had told Itachi of the intimacy between them, it was not as though he would confess. It was pointless to linger on it any longer.

She sighed and slumped back against the wet tree. The crow cawed again, and its sharp sound echoed in the space around her, magnified by the stillness, broken by the gentle pattering of the drizzle. A swell of a night bird's song rose into the cold air. She looked up and saw the crow twisting its neck and looking to the right as if something interested it. Suddenly, it flew away, startling Hinata.

"Wait!" Hinata called out and made to stand up straight but fell back against the bark again. Sasuke had warned her not to move from her position. She sat down on the muddy ground but quickly got to her feet when she saw chakra of several people coming from the North. Her face worked into a soft look of panic. Other than her blind spot, there were few people behind her as well.

She reached into her bag and pulled out the chakra flare stick, only to realize that the powder inside it had gotten wet from the raindrops. She had forgotten to zip up her fanny-bag. She rubbed it hard against her sleeves, but it was still wet. Fear washed over her in waves. The crow was gone and she was all alone.

She ducked as if evading Ninjutsu attacks and looked everywhere. The people behind her were gone save for two ninjas, but as she strained to look ahead, she saw three people hiding about a hundred feet away from her in the bushes. It was hard to tell whether they were men or women, but they had a good amount of chakra. The crow suddenly came back and cawed madly overhead.

"W-What—what should I do?" she asked it frantically and craned her neck; but it would not stop cawing. She wanted to shoo it away but it would only direct the attention of those men towards her. She had to think fast as one of them was speeding towards her.

She rubbed the flare on her jacket's sleeve again. It had dried up a bit. She tried to pass her chakra through it, but the wetness of the powder did not let it pass through the stick. It was designed to convert any chakra to flame and launch it upwards. She had bungled such an important mission. Her throat hurt and raindrops stood in her eyes, misting them.

Hinata had to act. She scrambled to her feet clumsily as if she had just gotten loose from someone's strong grip and ran ahead, thinking that as long she did not wander off too far, Karin should still be able to cover an area close to the compound; she should be able to keep a track of the area behind her.

She had barely made it a couple of feet ahead when the crow landed close to the branch just above her and let out an ear-splitting caw. "S-Stop it!" she said in a shaky voice and vigorously rubbed the flare on her jacket again. But the crow would not silence itself: its beak opened and closed rapidly, putting out grating sounds so loud that she felt as if she was sitting amidst countless of them.

Sensing that it had distracted her, she ran ahead, astonished to find that someone had just collapsed a small tunnel there. She could see nothing beyond a few feet beneath the broken rocks. The man standing just a few feet away simply disappeared. "No—a Kage Bunshin," she whispered in defeat. It was a trap!

She hastily retraced her steps. The other men were nowhere to be found. She sprinted as fast as she could. Finally, her chakra made it through the flare-stick and a long light rose up into the air that cut the darkness in half. She did not stop to look up and kept running and running. Her breaths came out as short, ragged gasps. Her forehead stained with cold sweat as she felt puffed, out of wind from covering such a large distance in mad haste without a break.

Hinata jumped over a rotting bark ahead but lost her footing. She slipped in the mud and crashed to the ground and sprained her ankle; but she did not stop. The night pulsed with life around her, but the only thing on her mind was Sasuke. He would never forgive her if the prisoner died. He would let her go. He would stop loving her. The trees passed by her, a grey blur. She did not care. She did not stop. She kept running till she reached the threshold of Uchiha village. She stumbled into the garden, her eyes swollen and red with the assault of tears.

She slapped her hand onto the smooth wall of the house and raised herself up. Her half-mast eyes shone in the light coming from the stairs going underground. She put her hands on her bosom and braced herself. Her feet moved before she even measured her first thought. She stopped at the door, her eyes wide as she stared at the fresh blood that gushed in streams from the hole where the prisoner's heart should have been. Sasuke stood over him with his back to her.

He turned around, his face contorted by anger and contempt. His lower lip trembled. He stopped close to her and parted his lips and hissed, "you're useless." Then he stormed out of the prison-cell. The prisoner was dead . . .

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Chapter Text

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The horizon was just starting to bleed first red signs of a new morn as three of them stood under the vast expanse of Konoha sky. Out in the jungle, a gentle swell of the first morning songs of numerous blackbirds broke the stillness in the damp air.

A light rain was pouring down, pelting the side of Itachi's pale face, his eyes fixed rather impassively upon Karin as she knelt close to the small tunnel that had caved in last night. He had his hair in a loose ponytail as always—a habit he had not given up ever since he grew them out about two decades ago.

Hinata stood close to him, her face a little fearful under the smooth black fringe that whipped her wet forehead. Her hands were in tiny knots by her sides as if she was ready to strike out at anyone. But she was fragile—fragile enough to feel the gentle shower of dry leaves graze her face slightly when a cold wind shook the final bits of life out of the tall trees that stood proudly, nearly still, around them.

She remained quiet, counting and measuring her breaths as carefully as possible. The way rage broke over Sasuke this morning . . . she did not want to draw Itachi's ire, as well. She had made a terrible mistake, but she was not ready to lose the battle just yet. One more chance—that was all she desired now.

Karin's face was covered with the thinnest film of the morning rain, the gleam of her young flesh visible through the wet blouse. She wore a black undergarment—which was soaking wet—and the cotton blouse clung to it for its dear life. Her face suggested nothing as she concentrated on the spot by pointing two fingers up; she was gathering chakra to sense. Hinata could not tell whether she was successful or not.

Karin looked over her shoulder, and the misty greyness of autumn's morning broke her face into strange colourful patterns as the sun rose ever so slightly in the sky. She drew her lower lip slowly through her teeth and inhaled a bit loudly to speak, "I can't sense anything. Whatever it was, it's gone now."

No expression invaded Itachi's eyes. His face was like a pale mask that melted into such subtle expressions when his guard was not needed. As painfully handsome as he was, his face appeared waxen and lifeless without Sasuke around. Hinata felt a slow shiver dance through her; was she wrong in placing her trust in him? Something about him scared the wits out of her.

He kept staring at the spot where Karin was, his Sharingan out now, scanning the area curiously. The fingers of his right hand were curled beneath his chin; the other rested under his elbow as if supporting it. He maintained that deathly silence for a few more seconds, and then his Sharingan finally disappeared. "The rain?" he asked and fell silent again.

Karin raised herself to her feet and dusted off the dirt caking her knees. "I doubt it. The rain isn't heavy enough and it wasn't that long ago, anyway. Sasuke immediately sent me here, so no one could've run past me."

"Unless they ran for the hills up North," Itachi said, his mouth suggesting the disposition of an eternal sceptic. The more Hinata looked at him, the more she realized that Sasuke, with all his passions and wildness, strove to mimic his brother. There was no emotion she had not seen on Itachi that Sasuke's face did not assume with sheer delight—only with far less subtlety and experience. He loved to mimic his older brother. It was like a sacred ritual to him.

Karin gave a small shake of her head. "I should've been able to sense them anyway. Even if it was a Bunshin. My sensing range is accurate for thirty kilometres. It fades afterwards. But I should've sensed something—anything," she said and rested her fists on her hips. "This tunnel was built to fool her."

Hinata made a small angry sound of protest, but Itachi interrupted her as if he did not hear it, "tear it up," he said and his voice sounded so strange in the wind.

Karin nodded and made a few hand seals. A small gasp escaped Hinata's lips before she could catch it with her hands. Four sturdy looking chakra chains appeared out of Karin's small back. They looked wispy and ghostly—things for show. But she knew better than to be deceived by appearances. She stepped back, ignored by Itachi who knelt down, stretched his arms, and rested them on his knees. A long kunai dangled from the lazy grasp of his long fingers.

Stones flew out and few of them were ground to dust by the mechanical looking tips of her chains. In a few more seconds, she cleared it out the heap of misshapen stones and revealed a small space underneath. She did not look at Itachi this time and hopped in. The colour of her red hair deepened in the shadows that still gathered by large numbers in the tunnel.

After a few rustling and coughing sounds, she leapt out and landed before Itachi. His head was bent slightly to the left, and a look of mild curiosity crept slowly over his face; but the transformation was so sluggish that Hinata felt that his unyielding face would never quite catch on. It was a comical show of pretence. How the two brothers loved to hoodwink everyone.

"It's like you said, Itachi-Sama. It was a small tunnel, barely large enough for one small person to crawl through. How did you guess?" she asked, and suddenly, a mischievous smile broke her fair face. Hinata thought she was quite pretty with her small kittenish features, rare pink eyes, and a small button nose and a soft pink mouth. A few deep-red coloured freckles dotted her cheeks, giving them the illusion of a warm blush. Her red hair clung to her cheeks and a few to her forehead in a naturally clumsy manner; she gave the impression of a child who wore a badly cut imitation of a rose petal for a cheap theatrical drama.

Itachi rose to his feet and stood erect, his face blank. "Call it a hunch," he said. "It was created to trick Dōjutsu users. How many seals?"

"I counted eight on both sides before the debris blocked my path. I'll bet they run all the way to the opening I found," she explained and turned her head slightly to look south.

"I underestimated this whole thing. How foolish of me," Itachi said and put away the long, oddly-shaped kunai. "But how unlucky for you, Hinata."

Hinata looked away, her small mouth, a blur of its former pink hue, twisting down in worry. Yes, how unlucky for her. Sasuke threw her out of the team this very morning after he had spent his rage and shouted himself hoarse. Had Itachi not been there, she would have been amongst the walls of her lonely home by now; those silent walls that ate away at her and drove her mad.

Itachi reasoned with Sasuke with a few words, and he, reluctantly, came around—all because of the simple fact that she knew about the prisoner. Sasuke told her to get out of his sight. She still remembered the sting of his voice rising with such violence that it nearly shattered the passions they shared together.

She felt a lump rise up to her throat, but she swallowed it hastily. Itachi saw the soft movement of her fair throat and spoke, "now, what to do with you?" His voice, still gentle, seduced her white eyes, and she raised them timidly to look through the smooth strands of her black hair. "Karin, go back and report to Sasuke. He needs to know what we have found here."

Hinata did not look in Karin's direction, but she knew Karin was running away as the soft splashing sounds of her feet dimmed in the pitter-patter of the drizzle. "I asked you something, Hinata?" Itachi asked again, his voice quite flat.

She looked up and stared into Itachi's eyes that did not hold any human emotion. They were empty, cold, and strange, and despite herself, she felt fear at Karin's absence. "I-I'm sorry," she said softly, her lips forming each word with care, "I don't know w-what came over me. I can't apologize enough."

"You disobeyed me when I told you not to leave your position unless it became a necessity. You made a foolish error of getting the flare wet. You did not heed the crow's caws. Tell me something with utmost honesty—do you enjoy being coddled like an unruly child with no sense whatsoever?" he spoke so slowly and in such a deliberately torturous manner that she felt his every word wound the little will left in her. His face was still cold, devoid of the touch of anything soft and human.

Hinata's eyes grew bigger and bigger and her mouth opened in shock. She did not know what to say. The tone of his voice was humiliating. His face was still the same: it suggested nothing. Yet, it was that lack of suggestion that lack of expression that made her fear him. How had she imagined she would have any sway over the Anbu Captain? How foolish that small reassurance seemed to her now.

Her lips moved but nothing came out. "Sasuke can be rash, very rash, unreasonable even—but he was right this time, and I had to go back on my words when I told you I would not challenge his decisions again. Do you have any idea what you have done? I have humiliated myself. The prisoner is dead, and we have a full-scale inquiry on our hands," Itachi spoke in an exquisitely frigid manner—each cold word whipping her pride raw.

"I . . . " she made a small sound but nothing really flowed out of her mouth to accompany it. She dropped her gaze and looked at her feet; she felt nothing but shame.

"Look at me when I speak to you," a cool voice came from his lips that drew her gaze quickly to his eyes. "It is always the eyes that give a man away. I do not like it when people hide their eyes from me. It is as if they are playing a game right under my nose." His eyes were narrow and cold—so cold that she felt something sinister flow out of him. She did not know what it was, but it made every sinew, every bone inside of her shudder with fear. Sasuke was just a coarse imitation of his anger and passions. They ran deep inside him.

He pressed a thumb to his lips, moved it over them harshly, and wiped away the raindrops with haste. Blood rose in them the next moment—warm blood that suggested life on his waxen face that had the same odd beauty Sasuke possessed. "I really doubt you have any idea what you have done. You foolish little damned-girl," he said. "You will obey now, and you will do exactly as I say. This matter runs deep, and I warn you not to do anything that is not suggested to you."

He fell silent, and in that stillness, his face passed into a soft expression of curiosity for just a mere second before that, too, disappeared. He looked normal, handsome now. Hinata did not like him. He mocked her. But she knew she had it coming since last night. She had braced herself for humiliation, and so far, she was proud of herself. She had not broken down before them; she had not spilt any unneeded tears. Her pride was still hers.

"For now," he began in a surprisingly soft voice, "I want you gone to the Trainee ninja lodgings. You will not leave those grounds unless I tell you to. You will not talk to anyone, not even Sasuke. You will not speak of anything unless I ask it of you. I will send Yuu to train you every day for the whole week. You will have to pull through the trials, because as it stands, you are unfit for any field missions. Is that clear?"

Hinata nodded and looked at the light breaking the greyness in the sky just behind him. Rain had stopped and light shone through his hair, his face soft and calm under the ink-black hair. He looked so like Sasuke that it broke her heart to hear the indifference in his voice. He did not say anything and stepped around her; he did not stop and kept walking towards the dense trees; then he simply disappeared—a dark blur in the forest.

Convinced that he was finally gone, she let out a loud sigh and slumped down to the ground. She wiped her face on her sleeve and smiled. It was tough facing these two daemons, but she had conquered her faltering will today, and it made her happy!

Light was still breaking the sky apart, flooding upon the cluster of Konoha buildings, when Hinata made it to the lodgings. Several people were smoothing the ground churned to mud by the persistent rains and countless steps.

She looked at the slightly ajar gate slick with wet and stepped through it. Several eyes fell upon her, and then came a steady sound of whispering from the workers. She had become a topic of discussion amongst many women and workers: a married woman who defied her in-laws and father to become a Shinobi again. Miyuki had told her as much in her letters: people were talking, their tongues wagging behind her back, but people always talked.

She was glad that Miyuki had told her. "Word gets around," she said in her letter a few days ago, "don't let it discourage you, Hinata-Sama. You're an inspiration to all women who can't escape their domestic burdens. I wish you all the strength and happiness in the world."

Hinata had sent her off to her relatives with full pay for two months. She needed to spend time with her family in another village in the Fire country. The image of her own home flashed through her mind, suddenly. She had not been there for days. The flowers in her window must have rotted away by now—pots overflowing with rainwater. Did she close the window when she left? Her kimono, her lamp drawings . . . all of them must be ruined, soaked through with water—damp and useless. She breathed a deep sigh, her eyes catching sight of Yuu marching towards her.

He was the same, his face calm and cheerful. He greeted Hinata with a warm smile and he stopped close to her. He bent his head sharply down when his sandal landed in the mud, and he winched. "You just got here?" he asked and the smile returned as he slowly raised his face. "Itachi-Sama just sent me a hawk from his office. All the official details are here." He held out a scroll in his hand, a soft smile still lingering on his softer face.

"Where will I stay?" she asked and looked around at the long line of quarters stretched from end to end at the edge of the vast misty ground.

"Yes, I should show you your quarter. Itachi-Sama won't be here until a couple of more minutes," he said as if talking to himself and then he turned around. "Follow me." He gestured and Hinata started walking in his wake.

Cool raindrops dotted her cheeks and traced the puzzled contours of her white face: Itachi had more to say to her? She did not raise her head as the light wind drove the clouds south. They were letting go of the final bits of their strength on Konoha.

Lost in thoughts, she had no idea when Yuu paused in his steps by a locked door. Then he unlocked it with a heavy-looking iron key and swung it open. The room was small, and there was only one tiny window just above the side-table. It opened into the small garden at the back, with flowers growing. There was enough space in the room to walk around. A thick mattress filled with cotton was laid on the bed raised above the chalk-white floor by legs longer than six inches, she imagined.

She could see a thin stream beyond the window that ran alongside a cluster of small stems sticking out of the ground. Only one had a tiny bud on a fresh and pliant branch: a budding purple lily. Sasuke's favourite. A smell of pleasure descended over her, so sweet and pleasant, but it disappeared quickly. Maybe she drove it out herself. She did not know. She turned her gaze and saw a small cupboard in front of the bed. The room was well-kept and comfortable enough.

Hinata did not mind she would be here for a week. She had no desire to go back home. She did not care if rainwater flooded her home and splashed onto the porch to ruin the pots there; she did not care if it destroyed the fake splendour of her garden; and she did not feel anything for those overgrowing moors. She was done. Her strength was gone for those chores.

Just when the last thought pulled out a delicate thread from the web of her memories, she heard noises behind her. Turning around, she saw Itachi standing near a group of trainee Shinobis—all of them bowed, shouted honorifics and morning greetings. He still bore the cruel signs of the same expression on his face. It was always the same face, day after day, subtly and cleverly managed by meagre emotions. He said something to the ninjas and they scattered, and she found herself jogging towards him.

She came to a clumsy halt and bent her head low in a courteous bow and whispered a quick greeting he did not answer. He was still angry or as angry he could have been in his own bizarre way.

"Go and explain the details to the group. They will have their tests for the night's field missions today. I need to speak to this girl," he commanded and Yuu walked away, leaving her alone with a man who really did stir the worst kind of panic in her.

Hinata raised her eyes this time, remembering his cold words: the eyes, they tell a man's tale. And what did his eyes tell her? Nothing. He was too clever. His eyes were too clever to become weak and mist over with a small emotion. No, they were at his command and she at his. How ironic were his words when his own gaze told no memories from his past.

Itachi closed his eyes for just a moment, and she unwillingly found her own gaze lingering on his face. She looked keenly at a few raindrops clinging to the rich dark fringe of his lashes. In that small serene moment, he reminded her of Sasuke again. O' darling eyes, tell me your tales, she thought of the tale's words again—not of him, but of Sasuke. But when he opened them, the same hard emotion blazed in his eyes, red with the mark of his clan.

She saw his lips move and got forcefully thrown out of her memories of Sasuke. "The matter is settled . . . for now," he began as he stood straight—his expression, a veil of mysteriousness again, did not quite delight her, "we made a yarn of a self-destruct seal on the heart. Mist tricked us. This lie was bound to go in our favour. What would they say? We lied to you? Made fools out of you? His memories are lost to us forever—and to them, as well." He let out a weary sigh.

As true his words were, Hinata could not see why such a lowly prisoner could be of such value to him. And as if he had just read her willing and open mind, he threw her a hard look of reproach. "You are not being filled in out of some misplaced notion that you are a trained ninja, privy to everything," he said, "no—you are told things that would not end up jeopardizing my brother, as you have left no stone unturned to ruin him in the darkness of cold nights."

"Itachi-Sama, I—"

"Kindly, let me finish," he cut across her icily. "You are as hasty in your speech as you are in your mannerisms. And let me tell you this, it is never a good combination. Sasuke should not have dismissed you. I knew he would have come around by nightfall, but it was necessary that I protected his pride. You see, I did not want to see him cringe before you—before anyone. It was one of the reasons why I stepped in."

Hinata nodded and felt a small sob swell painfully in her throat. She sucked it in and clasped her fingers together. He could not have made their intimacy more obvious. The curves of her cheeks were red with humiliation and shame, but she stayed quiet. He was not going to tell. It was still a secret. Why did it matter? She thought stubbornly, ending the threads of her clan's honour. It was a just a tale to her now.

He continued, "as clever, brilliant, and dexterous as he is, he is still a child—my child. I have been everything to him ever since we lost our parents. I have to guide him whenever and wherever he falters, missteps as a child would. And this was that moment. There was a chance someone could have murdered you before you even made it to the threshold of your home. You had seen the prisoner, and you are too naive and lack discipline to do enough to even save your own life."

He bent his head and wiped his eyes on the back of his hand, ridding himself of the quivering drop hanging from his lashes. "Imagine the mess," he sighed and appeared to look at something beyond her, "a defiant Hyūga girl, taken in by my brother, murdered in the dead of the night. The scandal would have destroyed his reputation. I could not let that happen. Part of the blame lies on him, as well. He was hasty, and in his eagerness to prove the Hokage wrong, he pushed you—and you crashed, foolishly, as I knew you would."

Wind picked up the pace and forced her black hair to shake loose from the ponytail she had made. In the light of the day, Hinata gave the appearance of a ruined young woman, fighting and struggling to maintain her calm. She did not cry. She did not flinch. She stood calmly and looked back at his cold eyes as he had asked of her—the eyes told a man's tale. What do they say about me? she wanted to ask, but they were not that frank.

"Karin has placed a seal on you," he said, drawing out a fearful expression on her face, "but do not worry yourself. It is a memory seal. Your head would be safe from others forever. I think you should consider it a blessing given the nightly mishaps that dog your steps."

There—it was that cold taunt again, wrapped beautifully in the flat tone of his voice. There was no use denying him. Yes, she desired Sasuke. Let him know—let him try and read my eyes. He knows everything . . . what was left to read from her now? Hinata cared little for his taunts. She tucked loose strands carefully behind her ear and waited for him to resume. He seemed to be distracted by something, with his head turned to his right.

Without looking at Hinata, Itachi reached to his back and locked his hand to the hilt of a Kunai and unsheathed it. He held it out and spoke, "here, keep it. Consider it a gift from me."

Timidly, Hinata reached out and took it from his hand. She ran her eyes over the sharp hilt glistening with raindrops as they slipped off its smooth edges. It was unusually long for a Kunai. Then she remembered that Sasuke and he carried one similar to this one, too. "Thank you," she said in a small voice and looked up at him, noticing no change in his demeanour.

"It is made by the kunai makers in our Clan. I am giving it to you as a sign of good faith that you will work hard and pull through. It is imperative that you do," he said and looked away for a second at the group again. "Yuu will train you and I will come by every evening to see your progress. If need be, I will train you a bit myself. But do not be foolish enough to count on it, as I hardly have any spare time for anyone beyond my brother these days. I cannot make any promises, but I will try."

She muttered out a weak 'thank you' again and clasped the kunai firmly in her right hand. Then, just like that, he left the grounds without looking behind him. Her gaze, thick with anxiety, followed him till she could see him no more.

It was an odd life on the training grounds. She never ate breakfast with so many strangers. She had to stand in a long line and hold out a plate to get a freshly baked loaf of bread, rice balls, a nice omelette with a few berries, along with that necessary cup of milk. The dining hall was just outside the grounds, and it was noisy.

Ninjas around her chattered, laughed, and discussed the coming exams. It was difficult to even weave a thought in that din. Hinata did not mind. It excited her. No one was curious about her. No one bothered her with unnecessary questions. She was not a wife who escaped her domestic life here; she was a woman training to be a ninja.

Many ninjas were not even from Konoha but other villages in the Fire Country. They would be stationed in the police, guard, and military-unit squads throughout the country. Konoha was the centre of Fire Country's military, and every ninja came here to brave through the trails and return to their own villages with emblems of honour on their foreheads and backs.

She could not see Naruto anywhere in the large hall. No one from Sasuke's team ate breakfast there. Jōnin-led squads were not allowed to occupy the quarters and crowd the dining hall. Those were the rules. But Neji had come from home and ate breakfast with her. His pale face, framed in that auburn hair, was ruddy with excitement and happiness. He told her all about the exams, trials, and the life of being a shinobi on the grounds. She could not have been happier.

He did not wound her with questions, and she did not ask anything about her family. She wanted to be reticent and secretive about her life, and silently, he understood. Their eyes met for the briefest moment, white looking into white, and something in his face changed. It was as though he could pull at a loose string from her heart. But the moment faded too soon, not to return again in that small hour. He left quickly, leaving her trapped in a flood of memories and spicy smells intruding her private thoughts. It was a confusing, ambivalent atmosphere.

Sun broke through the last clouds with force, its rays shimmering on the countless drops scattered on the ground and the corrugated roofs. When she stepped out of her room after wearing her trainee outfit, she was asked by Yuu to stand in front of an orderly line of ninjas to the far right. Everyone was scrambling to form a line: it was like being back in the ninja academy!

Hinata stood with her legs slightly apart and hands clasped behind her back. She chose to take the same posture as everyone else. What would Itachi say if he found her standing like a timid girl with hands at war with each other, anxious and sweaty? Probably nothing kind . . . ninjas poured into the ground, and within minutes, the small path was flanked by hundreds of ninjas on both sides.

The squads' Jōnins stood in front of their teams—at a short distance from the other Jōnins. Their teams behind them assumed the same posture. As the sun hung in the sky, their shadows stretched out long behind them on the drying ground. Hinata's gaze roved along the lines of ninjas standing stiff under the sky that was equal to all Men.

Sai lead the Sensor Squad. He looked so pale in the thick shaft of light, the hair clinging to his pasty face appeared tar-black against his white skin. Some six feet away stood Shikamaru in front of the Strategic Squad. His features were so subtly transformed to show boredom. It was an old story for the character of his features.

Shizune stood opposite her. She had been leading the Medic Squad ever since she was appointed as a Jōnin Medic few years ago. Rumours filled the academies a year ago that Sakura would take over and Shizune would be promoted to lead the Medic Trainees' academy, but nothing big happened. She was a capable young woman who was from the same Chūnin-class Itachi and Hinata's uncle attended in the past.

It was in the past now as Itachi was their superior. Hinata wondered sometimes: how did Itachi's peers feel about being led and whipped into action at his slightest whims? They probably would never be comfortable with shrugging off their frankness so suddenly to cringe before their peer. An unsettling feeling weighed down upon her heart—did all of them feel that way about Itachi, feel about him as she did? Afraid and curious and anxious before the rarest prodigy Konoha had ever produced? She took in a deep breath. For now, it really did not matter to her.

Hinata's eyes slightly wandered right. There stood Sasuke, his face drawn, anxious as he stood facing east, leading the Espionage Squad. Neji stood just behind him. Itachi's eyes softened so subtly for a second when he passed by him. It did not miss her eyes. Her heart took to thudding, putting out such noise. It could never be tamed by her when he was around. She felt weak, so far away from shores of reason. But it did not matter; these irksome thoughts of rationality seemed foreign as desire rose in her again like an old habit.

She wanted him to look her way, meet her eyes, and see the passion in their depths, and perhaps, share them with her just for a few fleeting moments. But he was cold today. He still had not forgiven her for her mistake. It angered her. It was his fault, too. Why should she bear that onus alone? It was his to share, too. But his gaze did not want to leave the sun rising steadily to its godly perch to the East.

Disappointed, she pulled her eyes away. She did not want to keep looking at the face that was always devoid of passion and woe. Itachi began to say something to the teams' leaders. It felt like a buzzing in her ears—her mind lost and defeated before passion's assault. It had been so many days since she had seen her home and felt the heated touch her body was so eager to experience again.

When would his rage blow over? It had not followed in the wake of yesterday's storm. She never really expected it to; but she foolishly hoped and prayed for it to thaw on its own, somehow. She was turning into this selfish child who eagerly wanted him to be available to her whims now. Was it wrong to be this way? She clenched her teeth, narrowing her eyes angrily on the small yellow flowers that quivered by her feet. She would take anything now, even a wonderful touch of fantasy to soothe her guilt. He was beyond her reach—for now.

Feeling a strange calm flood her, Hinata closed her eyes and breathed in the morning air. Opening her eyes in the morning light, she resigned herself willingly to the tides of fate. She had to overcome this hurdle life had thrown at her. Sasuke lay far beyond that steeple of her desires. She would climb to the peak when the time was right. She could not let herself be carried away upon the ebb and flow of her own tides. She would not, or else, it would be the end of her.

The meeting lasted for several minutes. Itachi droned about missions and teams; honesty and integrity and whatnot; his words meant little to her as she was just a bystander among them, waiting to be picked up from the sidelines. She should never have given up this life. The shame of being on the outside felt more pitiful and humiliating than she had imagined. She never wanted to taste this again.

Everyone scattered when Itachi was through with them. Sasuke and the other Team leaders disappeared. Itachi treated her with the same expressionless disdain as before and passed by her without giving her a glance. He, too, left the grounds after giving Yuu some instructions. Then it began: the impossible morning training. She ran several laps around the ground. By the time she stopped, her body ached all over.

Hinata placed her hand on the tree bark when Yuu gave them a break. Her shoulders bent. She was winded. Even in the chill of the wind, her skin burnt with the new ordeal it experienced. The rays stung on her fair face that flushed scarlet under the sun. Hot blood coursed through her body and raced to her heart that beat erratically and without rest. She could hear it pound everywhere, but she did not stop.

Yuu gave her a little chakra. It was so impossibly weak compared to Sasuke's. She wondered: is he even an Uchiha? But at that moment, it did not really matter. She focused her chakra and created a jagged sword. It looked no better than before. But she would sharpen and hone it with courage and skill. He made the swords again; and so it began yet again, the gruelling mission of repeating the same task over and over again.

She kept at it through the whole morning, stopping at lunch to take a little afternoon nap afterwards. The window was open. She espied the closed bud of the purple lily just beyond the window. It was still young, swaying and shaking in the light wind. It would probably bloom in a week or two. She could not really tell.

By evening, the sky grew purple and sombre. A thin crescent hung in the sky. The clouds were gone and the grounds were lit with torches. The flames crackled and burnt tall. She stood with a few other ninjas on the grounds. Some practised Shuriken-Jutsu, others Ninjutsu and Genjutsu dispelling techniques. She was left with the same task, and by the time night fell upon them and the sounds of the village became dull, Yuu asked her to make the swords one more time: they were just a bit better shaped than before.

Then Hinata heard the clang of the gates closing and caught a glimpse of Itachi leaving the grounds. How long had he been standing there? She did not really care. Yuu let her off for the day. She ate dinner at the dining hall and left for her room before anyone would ask her of her progress. She did not see Neji at dinner, so there was no point in staying there any longer. By the time she reached her own room, she was so tired that she fell down on her bed and fell asleep.

Next day was the same, but Jōnin Team Captains were not called on the grounds. “Mondays are report days,” Yuu told her. A steady stream of ninjas came and went. She was invisible. No one stopped to ask her anything. It was heaven. Time passed by quickly here.

Soon, the whole thing became a habit: she would wake up in the morning, eat breakfast, train, and take a few breaks and crash on her bed at night. Itachi would come by in the evening to see her progress, but he never bothered to interact with her.

When the week came to a close, her swords started to gain a little shape. They were no longer horribly jagged; the tips were slightly round and their edges smoother than before.

"This is fantastic!" Yuu said, smiling as she sat on the bench with him at the edge of the grounds.

She smiled in return and stopped the flow of chakra. But was it enough? Monday was only a day away, and she was not prepared for the test. The thought sucked the joy out of her face. She looked away to hide her embarrassment.

"Don't worry. Itachi-Sama has extended the tests' date. You've been given two more weeks, along with the rest of the ninjas," he explained. "Rains made the training difficult for a lot of trainees. And many couldn't make it here in time because of the deluges."

Hinata's spirits lifted and a smile broke the melancholy on her face. She lifted her head and looked skyward, but something dampened her spirits, spoiling her happiness: Sasuke had been to the grounds twice today to recruit a few ninjas. He acted as if she was not even there. She wanted him to say something to her . . . be angry with her, show disappointed in her, shout at her even; but his indifference was something her heart could not bear. She turned her head sharply towards the stars glinting in the sky. The glaze over her eyes broke into a single tear. She quickly wiped it away, but Yuu saw it.

She felt his hand on her shoulder. "You'll be fine. It's very normal for people to break down before the tests. I've seen many ninjas run away even. You're a lot stronger than most," he assured her and wore a kind smile.

"Thank you," she said weakly, not wanting to share the burdens of her heart with him. She hated this weakness. She had learnt not to show her humiliation, but this seemed beyond her spirit, her control.

"You’ll become a part of the team soon. Sasuke-Sama can be strict, but he makes sure that everyone gets a fair chance," Yuu said and took a drink of his sake.

"You speak highly of him," Hinata said in small voice—a part of her still wanted to know more about him.

Yuu let out a small laugh and scratched the back of his head. "I used to be his attendant. I'm only a year older than him. We used to play as children. He changed a lot after his parents were killed. But he made sure I received education in the academy—make a life for myself, you know?" He took another sip and looked up, lost in thought. "I'm only half Uchiha, you see. Women rarely have Sharingan in the Clan and my mother didn't have one. She belonged to the lower ranks of our clan. She also married into a poor family in Rain village. I was left an orphan in my childhood."

"I . . . I'm sorry," Hinata said and a look of genuine remorse came into her eyes. She never knew the man before her had faced so much and still conquered his life. It gave her hope, strength that she could be him in the future. It was just one of those small moments in life that really touch one and become his anchor: a universal tale of courage and hope in the face of impossible odds.

Yuu shook his head and turned a little to look at her. "No, it's a’right. It was a long time ago. I never knew my parents. Mikoto-Sama took care of me, and after she died, Sasuke-Sama took that responsibility. He paid for my education. Now, I’ve got a home in the Uchiha village and am his assistant. He worked hard to reduce the caste differences between our clansmen. He's a great man. But we are forbidden to marry outside our clan by law now. Well, you win some, you lose some," he said, smiling as he took a final swig of his sake.

"Really? But why?" she asked hesitantly.

"It divides the Clan's wealth—many clans are greedy for our name. It protects the Sharingan's legacy, too. In the Shinobi world, secrets, bloodlines, and name are everything. It was wise of the council to make this decision. I'm not against it. The young brothers are carrying on the tradition. Maybe Itachi-Sama will change it. But who knows? It's a small matter in my eyes," he said and placed the empty cup down by his feet.

Hinata did not know what to say. He might change it—a cold man like Itachi? She felt her throat burn and it was not from the sake Yuu had just offered her . . .

Days went by quicker than she had hoped. She caught glimpses of Sasuke from time to time, but she was invisible to him. She did not let the painful stabs of his frigid attitude cloud her judgement. She had begun working on her Byakugan skills and had improved them a bit. Every time the day turned into night, she would sit on her bed and look at the bud. The stem had grown a little now. It would take it a few more days to bloom into a purple lily when the moon would grow round and full, high up in the sky.

When the final five days were upon her, anxiety found a terrible home in her heart. Itachi came by as usual. Out of habit or simply to check upon her? She really could not tell. He came to her when the last four days were left and asked her to demonstrate her shuriken skills. She used her Byakugan and threw shurikens close to the middle dot in the bullseye. He was not impressed. He told her of a neat trick to twist her wrist a bit and focus on the middle point with her Byakugan and use Air-Palm together with Shuriken-Jutsu to make it work.

Hinata tried it a few times, and on the fifth try, it pierced the middle. Itachi's face remained blank, and he did not say a word. Everything about him felt mundane and habitual. He came and went pretty much unnoticed on daily basis—life as an Anbu Captain had hardened him. He was just an enigma to her. She could tell that he really despised her because of the affair. It stung her when she thought that he would be happy to know that Sasuke had almost completely abandoned her.

What was she to Sasuke now, an abandoned lover he had discarded? Her lips trembled, and she wept silently in the light of the moon. It was the final night—the fateful night—when her fate would be decided. Yuu had assured her that she would make it as a Genin. She had done all that she could. She really gave it her all. She brought her hands close to her face. The scars of hard work dimmed her fate lines. They would heal come tomorrow, but the wound Sasuke left in her heart . . . would it ever heal? She let out a defeated sigh and left for her room.

# # # # # #

Sun rose up in the sky, high and golden like every other day, but it was not the same for every Man today. Hinata was to be put to the ultimate test. When she stepped out of her room, ready for today's battle, the ground was teeming with ninjas. They were told not to eat anything for the tests. She saw a few men slumped over fallen trees, vomiting a thin stream of yesterday's dinner upon the grass. She turned her head away. It was making her feel sick!

Thank goodness she only felt a little hungry. She had eaten to her heart's content yesterday. Her hunger was conquered. Yuu called her to stand in front of a long line of anxious-looking young ninjas. She did not know what kind of people stood behind her, but she soon found out when Itachi told them that they would get their Genin licenses renewed once they demonstrated the following skills: Shuriken-Jutsu, Ninjutsu, and Genjutsu Kai; body flicker Jutsu and basic Kekkei-Genkai or Hiden if they possessed such abilities; and finally, basic Tai-jutsu manoeuvres.

Sweat broke out on her red face. She was nervous. Itachi called her first to show her Shuriken-Jutsu skills. She was to throw five kunais and five shurikens right in the middle of the ten bullseyes five meters away from her in fifteen seconds. She stood still for a moment to get her wind and took out five shurikens and kunais from the sack. When Yuu told her that her time started, she blanked out for a small part of a second.

It was easier than she expected. She mastered the trick Itachi had told her, and with her Byakugan on, she threw two at a time and got the job done in ten seconds. The kunais and shurikens were pinned to the dot right in the middle. She felt so happy that a broad grin broke her tense face. She looked over her shoulder to find Itachi looking thoroughly bored next to Yuu who was waving at her energetically.

The whole ground was in a state of chaos and people shouted left and right. No Teams were allowed on the grounds today as it was reserved for tests. Everywhere she looked, Jōnins from Anbu squad shouted orders and oversaw the test proceedings. To her delight, Itachi wanted this expedited as he had an official matter to attend to. He combined Ninjutsu, Taijutsu, and Genjutsu Kai for her to test out her bloodline abilities.

For this test, she was pitted against an Anbu Chūnin. Hinata bit her lower lip but steeled herself for the task. She turned on her Byakugan and noticed that controlling her chakra made it easier to manage her reserves and command her body. He took out his wooden sword, a fake for the exams, and charged at her. He was fast, but she had been practising for about a month now. She evaded him with ease, and as he flashed by her, she blocked two of the big chakra points near the joints in his arm.

The arm that held the sword fell limply by his side. A stunned expression came over his face. He grabbed the sword in his other hand and charged again. He was much faster this time. It appeared that he was holding back as he was dealing with a trainee-Genin. He swung the sword with poise and grace, and it was impossible to outmanoeuvre him now. Hinata tried to hit his arm again, but his reactions were so much faster than hers.

He thrust his sword towards her, but she deflected his movement with Air-Palm. It knocked him back, but he landed gracefully on his feet and lunged at her again. Itachi was standing quietly with a blank face. He had not stopped the ninja.

"Itachi-Sama, he's testing her on Chūnin level. This is—"

Yuu fell silent when Itachi raised his hand. He did not understand why Hinata was being tested beyond what she trained for. But the training Yuu put her through was a bit advanced for Genins. He did not say anything more and looked on as Hinata dodged and swivelled around the Chūnin with difficulty, trying to land a single hit on him with everything she got.

He cast a Genjutsu on her, but she had already closed her eyes. Byakugan allowed the clan members to fight blind—its sight went beyond the power of vision; it did not have any effect on her. That gave her a chance. She used body flicker and closed the gap between them quickly and managed to brush her finger against the core chakra point in his stomach. He winced and jumped back, but not before he had knocked her back with all his might. She flew across the wide gap and crashed into the ground, hard.

He had used a large amount of his chakra and released it against a single point on her shoulder. It was dislocated. Propping herself on the right elbow, she bent her head down and vomited; but she did not let the unbearable pain stop her. She raised herself to her shaky feet and knocked her shoulder back into place with Air-Palm. He was not completely unscathed as well. She saw that his chakra network was hit. He looked a little disorientated, his eyes unfocused and weary.

His face was knotted with humiliation and anger. He took the same stance again, but before he could lunge at her for the second time, Itachi spoke, "that's enough." The man stopped, seething with rage. "This is a test, not a battleground. You did not realize you were going well beyond the limits of the test?"

His face caved in upon itself. He was sweating now. "I apologize, Itachi-Sama, I didn't—" he stopped suddenly, looking down at his sandals.

"You people are always in need of supervision—even in tests. I wonder what sort of men throng Anbu division," Itachi said in a calm voice, his face betraying little. "I have already seen all she has to offer. Serizawa."

A man appeared suddenly next to Itachi; his Anbu mask was still in place. "Yes, Itachi-Sama."

"Conduct the rest of the tests with Kai, and bring the report to my office in an hour. I have an urgent matter to attend," he said and looked to Hinata. "Your trial has come to an end. You will receive the result by evening. Vacate the premises. Few other ninjas are coming in from the village near the Capital, and we do not have many rooms to spare."

"B-But," Hinata began and wrapped her fingers around her shoulder, "I can stay in the academy, can't I?"

Itachi slightly tilted his head and looked at her with such a strange expression that was a ghostly mixture of surprise and irritation and disdain. "Things do not quite go here as you wish them to. There are rules for stay on the grounds, and you have already exhausted them. You have a home—you have no purpose here."

Hinata bent her head in disappointment and did not say anything more. He left silently. She raised her head and peered through the thick curtain of her hair flopping against the sweaty forehead to watch him leave from the grounds—his face a delightful visage of emptiness. She wheezed and slumped down onto the ground. The pain in her shoulder was unbearable. She looked at it again. The joint was fine, but the pain had yet to diminish.

Yuu sat beside her and focused his chakra on the damaged tissues. Within seconds, the wounds healed. She thanked him and walked away from the area. She sat on the bench there for several hours, not caring about her hunger or Itachi's words. Home . . . what did it really mean to her? Finally, unable to resist the urge to eat, she went to the dining hall.

The ninja who was to take Hinata's place was already waiting in the dining hall. He was kind enough to let her collect her things. If she were to be honest with herself, then she really did not want to go back. Sasuke had been kind enough to let her stay with him. She stayed for a few days at the academy after that incident. Did she really believe she would be able to escape her home forever? She sighed. No, it was a foolish thought.

She stood quietly next to the sturdy bed. Her bag was packed with meagre things she had brought with herself: a towel and a few kimonos. She did not pack anything her father and husband gifted her. It was her dowry. She hated those colourful kimonos that reminded her of her life as a neglected and shamed woman. These were made by herself during the nights Naruto would leave her for days.

The room was cold. Hinata's eyes and throat burnt, and before she even had the will to silence her young emotions that had yet to be tamed and bent by the will and strength of age, a flare of anger and loneliness beat her to it. She was crying. Her lips trembled, and she squeezed her eyes shut, feeling the tears sting her skin. She had beaten just one hurdle today. How much more would life test her?

Standing alone in that small room, Hinata really had no answer. The small window that opened into the garden of pleasures was closed. Sasuke had left her. Did he really care at all? She would ask him. She had to know. She would find the courage to confront him. If she desired him, then he, too, did not rebuff her. He was just as much to blame as she was—an accomplice in their shameful affair. Itachi and his self-righteousness be damned! His brother was no saint and neither was he.

She brought her fingers to her cheeks and wiped away the tears that had stopped in their odd tracks on her cheeks. She moved her gaze slightly and looked into the garden: the purple lily had finally bloomed. It looked beautiful; the night wind had set it aquiver amid the lush green leaves that danced round it. Moonlight shone over its silky young petals. The flower shivered, its tiny veins silver like pearls.

"I must know—I will know," Hinata said to herself, her voice thick with emotion. Her eyes settled upon the lily still moving in the wind. Then she slung the bag over her shoulder and left the room in silence.

The walk back home was lonely, but the steps were familiar to her. They traced their path with perfection—a path she had followed for four long years from the moors to the heavy doors that trapped her inside for another day. The sounds of trees, owls, and insects filled her head; but the silence inside her was loud. She had no idea when she reached inside her home, the click of the lock behind her breaking her innocent thoughts.

Her eyes wandered around and found nothing out of place. She removed her sandals and put the bag beside the shoe-rack. When she reached her room, a rueful sight greeted her. The water had splashed onto her bed. The kimono she had spread out on her bed to dry had made blue stains all over the white sheets. The painted-lamps had lost all colour and were left colourless by the rainwater. They lay plastered to the floor, ripped and dried up like leaves.

Hinata gave a loud sigh and rolled up her large sleeves. She did not want to sleep in a dirty room. It took her an hour to clean up the whole mess. She tore up the kimono and tossed it into the sunken fireplace along with the ruined paintings. She would make new ones. They were only clothes. When the job was done, she raised her hands to look at her palms. The wounds were healed, and her fate lines appeared clear on her white palms. But her nails were dirty.

Hinata did not really have Miyuki to help her today. She had to make tea and draw a warm bath herself today. When she sat down in the warm water it was past nine p.m. This was the first time she felt that she had truly relaxed. She smiled, thinking that maybe she should go to the village and buy herself some ramen. She liked the spicy one with less pork. The ramen guy would be serving it now.

Stepping out of the bath, Hinata picked out the red kimono she had made for herself last year with Miyuki. It was made to celebrate Naruto's success in one of his missions. She never really went to the celebrations and was left behind to attend to her father's documents.

Hinata put the kimono on enthusiastically and brushed her long hair with great care; she folded them into a bun at the back of her head and stuck two ornamental combs there to make it stand out. She wrapped a crimson obi around her waist and then looked at herself in the mirror. The only thing left was to turn off the stove. Hinata hurried back to the kitchen to turn it off. She had just turned off the burner when a knock came upon the door.

She did not think the result would come out so soon. Her face flushed. Yuu had assured her. He told Hinata that she had given the best performance amongst the candidates vying for the Genin posts. But was it enough to sway the older, more cruel, brother who wanted her gone from Sasuke's life? Another knock came upon the door, and she stammered something incoherent and scrambled to the door. She fumbled with the latch and slid open the door.

Hinata's heart stopped. Why did he have to come, now of all the times, when she wanted to muster up the courage to face him? There on the doorstep stood Sasuke. His face was just as beautiful, in the lantern’s whitest light, as she remembered, and his eyes, which told her the yarns of her mistakes, were strange and distant. He appeared emotionless, a scroll held tightly in his grasp. She stepped aside to let him in. So many things . . . she wanted to say so much but words escaped her.

"Your license has been renewed," he spoke after a few seconds, his demeanour calm, lacking the thick exterior she had crafted for herself to hide her turmoil. "I'll send in more details tomorrow about your role in the team. I usually don't keep Genins, but the situation is different now."

"You didn't have to come all this way just to say that," she said, words springing to her lips to say something hurtful to him. His coldness and lack of love for her were driving her mad.

"I could have," Sasuke spoke, his tone unchanged, and his eyes fixed on her as he examined her dress curiously, "but it was wise. After the mistake you made, I think—"

And it was as though his uncaring words had finally pushed her over the edge—she lost that calm. "It was your fault, too!" she spat back at him, her eyes set ablaze with a fire of anger. "Don't blame me for your mistakes. If—if you hadn't sent me, I wouldn't have been humiliated. It's your fault. It's all your fault!"

A small frown creased Sasuke's forehead as he looked at her incredulously. He did not say anything to counter these silly accusations. It was pointless. "I didn't come here to bicker with you like a child," he said calmly and placed the scroll on the shelf, "I'm not your husband."

"N-No, of course not," she said with anger in her voice that rose steadily with each word, "you're my lover. You use me when you feel like it and discard me when you don't need me. Have you ever told your friend that you are sleeping with his wife? I-I wonder what he would think about you."

Silence fell around them, broken by the sharp whistling sounds from Hinata. She stood with her fingers clenched, and her body shook with anger. Her black hair came loose from the perfectly made bun. One of her combs had fallen by her feet. She did not even bother to look down.

"I told you this was a mistake," Sasuke spoke, his voice smooth. Her words seemed to have little effect on him. "You knew what you were getting into. What happened? Did your family find out? I doubt that’s the case as you seem to be ready for festivities." A smile disturbed his face, and his eyes twinkled with delight.

"You are hateful, cruel, and unkind," she said, her voice wavering in the heat of emotions. "It's all your fault—it’s all your fault—"

Sasuke sighed. "I don't have time for this childishness." He made to turn when Hinata lunged forward and grabbed his arm.

"D-Don't walk away from me!" she shouted, and her voice sounded so unfamiliar to her—young and strained with anguish. "Why didn't you stop me? Why, I-I want to know. Tell me!"

A shocked expression graced Sasuke's face. His eyes locked onto her tear-stained face. Where was she taking this? "What has gotten into you?" he asked, keeping his voice low. "You wanted intimacy—a good time, I assumed. I gave you what you asked."

"You could've stopped me. You knew it was wrong. You're sleeping with your friend's wife, S-Sasuke—" she stopped and wrapped her fingers around the lapels of his office jacket, her fingers shaking now. Words just seemed to pour out of her. What did she want to say? "Why—why didn't you?" She looked up and stared back into his black eyes that kept the blood hidden just beneath them at bay.

"I could have . . . " he said and took in a small intake of breath " . . . but I never thought you’d take it this seriously. It's only sex. I can stop seeing you if it bothers you that much. It's not a very serious matter that—"

Hinata let out a small laugh that startled him. "Is that a-all I am to you?" she asked incredulously, and her eyes turned so red with the flowing of fresh tears. "You toss me away when you don't need me. You had the courage to stop me. You played me. I . . . I hate you."

Sasuke's tongue was shackled to shock that ruthlessly invaded his senses. Would it really be this easy to take her under his wing? No, he would have to hear her say it—say the words that would bind her to him and make this game so easy. So he waited, waited for the right words to tumble out of her mouth before he would take her to the depths of passions and betrayal, from where there would be no escape.

Hinata's grip slackened, and her fingers trembled as her hands moved away from his jacket. Her arms limply hung by her sides. She had to say it to him. What would it be? Keep the truth from him and lose him forever, or tell him the truth and not weave yet another lie that she simply needed him to satisfy her wants? Time was running out—silence mounted upon silence. She had moments to keep him, and standing midst the overbearing darkness of the room, she chose truth.

"I—" Hinata stopped and gathered all of her courage to say it, “—I love you, Sasuke." She raised her eyes timidly to look upon that beautiful, cold visage broken by shock and bewildering disbelief: it was a sight to behold. "Why are you so hateful, w-when I love you? I’ve always loved you—ever since Naruto threw me away, I’ve always loved you. You’ve broken my heart. Why do you break my heart? Tell me?"

Her questioning eyes, misted over by a layer of emotion, gazed up at him and broke the string he had set up for her. A trap . . . and she had fallen in so deep that it was foolish not to taste this surrender and let it go to waste. He bent down and pressed a heated kiss to her lips—his tongue serpentine in her mouth.

Hinata did not know when they made it to her room. Her clothes were abandoned, her body hot under the assault of passions he had denied her for days on end. He worked her hard this time, enjoying the fact that she would always be willing for him to take her. When she climaxed, he turned her over, lay upon her, and pierced her from behind, sinking his teeth into her shoulder as she mewled breathlessly beneath him.

# # # # # #

It was one a.m. when Sasuke made it to the sake restaurant. His brother sat at the corner of the noisy hall. This was celebration night. Several ninjas had passed their exams; they had invited Itachi to celebrate with them. He was not the celebrating type, but he gave in as an act of courtesy. He looked slightly annoyed—Sasuke had kept him waiting.

He slowly made it through the crowd, avoiding everyone, and took a seat opposite Itachi after hastily bowing to him. "I have been waiting here for the past fifteen minutes," he spoke heavily from behind his sake cup. "You clearly have no sense of time . . . or responsibility."

"I apologize, Nii-Sama. I was back—"

“—back from vanquishing married women?" he said coldly. "Shame on you, Sasuke." An unpleasant expression flickered across Itachi's young face for a fleeting second. Then it vanished and he gave out a disappointed sigh. "This girl will be your undoing if her family finds out. I will advise you to cut her loose, but I am clearly the fool in this company."

"Nii-Sama, don't say that—of course you are not." Sasuke leant forward, looking  utterly shocked as if Itachi had offended him by calling himself a fool.

"That girl is foolish, and she believes she deserves special treatment because you entertain her whims. And, clearly, you do," he paused and took a sip of his sake, "this tastes bitter." He put the cup aside and folded his arms across his breast.

"Why did you come to this cheap place, Nii-Sama? It's hardly worth your time," Sasuke said and pushed the cup further away from Itachi; then he mimicked his brother as if he could already taste the cheap sake in the cup put before him.

"It seems my advice is not worth your time, either," Itachi said calmly and watched as an innocent frown creased Sasuke's forehead and his cheeks reddened with humiliation.

Sasuke opened his mouth but Itachi forestalled him, "Root will probably look into this Mist affair. Include this profoundly imbecilic Hyūga girl into the matter and they will know you are involved. Is that how you want to play this little shenanigan of yours, pulling strings left and right foolishly to see which one lands a sword on your head?"

Sasuke bent his head down and averted Itachi's heavy gaze. He was in the lecturing mood. It was best to stay quiet. "Honestly, Sasuke, what is the matter with you? Do you want Danzō to come knocking upon your door?" Itachi asked, keeping his voice low.

His younger brother looked up—his eyes flooded with emotions. "And you would aid them? Is that what this is about? You didn't do anything to find about Shisui's sudden death either, Nii-Sama. Am I next on your list to scrutinize for Root's sake?" Sasuke hissed, seeing something stir deep under the shroud of stillness on Itachi's eyes.

"Are you mocking me?" The older brother's eyes blazed without the red, betraying the calm tone of his steady voice.

Sasuke turned his head away sharply. The intensity in his brother's eyes was troubling his sanity. They held the power to pick apart his thoughts and leave him naked. Despite their gentleness, they always terrified him. He closed his eyes and let out a loud sigh. "Forgive me, Nii-Sama," he whispered, his voice barely carrying itself over the din. The noise in the hall was beginning to annoy him.

"Ending the life of all your opponents simply to give yourself a splendid future as a fugitive is not an idea of a happy life you should to aim for," Itachi said and turned the small sake cup between his fingers, "which is why we must proceed with care."

"I wouldn't mind a life away from Konoha with you, Nii-Sama," Sasuke said in awe and bent forward with enthusiasm. He looked like a child.

"If only it was that simple." Itachi smiled and picked up the small cup again to take a sip when Sasuke snatched it out of his hand.

"Don't drink that, Nii-Sama," he said with disgust and threw the cup out of the window. "It could be poisoned—you can trust these scum!"

"It tasted as terrible as poison," Itachi said, looking a little amused. "You did not tell me about the culprit leaking information. I am not that familiar with your team's routine these days."

Sasuke did not reply, and his face changed with irritation at the sight of Sakura. She had walked in with Sai. "I told her not to associate with him," he spoke, "but she would take anyone, as long as it's the next best thing."

"Sakura is quite talented. You let your anger cloud your judgement. She could be useful in gathering information concerning the prisoner," Itachi suggested.

"Her?" Sasuke asked incredulously as if his brother was tired and not in his right mind to weave a coherent thought on such a serious matter. "I might as well just buy myself a grave. I'll bet it's her. She’s left no stone unturned to use Tsunade to stay on the Team. And now look at her—dangling on this man's arm out of desperation that I would try to thwart her absurd behaviour just to create a spectacle. She's insane."

"Really? That is quite interesting," Itachi mused and pressed his knuckle to his lips. "How long has she been hanging around this Sensor?"

"A few weeks, I assume. Tsunade gave her several elaborate permissions to train with him and accompany his team as a support Medic. I never authorized it. But I’m a terrible man in her mentor's eyes," Sasuke scoffed and looked away to avert her eyes.

"She has the Hokage under her thumb," Itachi said, "or she enjoys playing favourites—the female touch as I call it."

Sasuke let out a small chuckle. "I never thought something so worthless would pique your curiosity."

"Has it not yours?" he replied. "It should. Do you not find it strange that she is training with a Sensor Squad Captain and the Hokage is authorizing it? I never received any authorization letters. Of course, the Hokage is free to bypass all authority, but to avoid any channel altogether . . . is suspicious."

"Unluckily, I don't have your resources. She could be planning my assassination and I wouldn't know a thing—not till she leaves me to rot out in the wilderness through one of her lazily made concoctions," Sasuke said with a wry mouth.

"So pessimistic," Itachi said, sounding amused. "I will look into this matter."

Sasuke gave a casual shrug of his shoulders and called the serving-man to them. Itachi turned his eyes and looked at Sakura, his expression hard. Something delicious flickered and came alive in his eyes. Few words came to his lips and he whispered, "the next best thing?" The expression on his face faded but its raw intensity hovered in his eyes for a few more fleeting moments . . . before they, too, returned to their blank state . . .

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Chapter Text

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Rain cascaded down his cheeks and fell about him in slow motion as he flashed through the wet forest—a mere green blur to him. Autumn rains were relentless. They did not abate. He was southbound, not easing up his speed. He had received another letter from Mei that asked for his aid in tracking down an S-Class Missing-Nin.

He knew better than to trust her. It was a trap. But curiosity (and impatience, too) was getting the best of him. This was his chance—the chance he had been waiting for. He could still tilt it all in his favour by coaxing something out of her. She was quite fond of him, and if that was what it took, then he was more than happy to oblige.

He expected it to be a day's journey. Suigetsu and Jūgo were sent in ahead of time to make sure Zabuza and Haku were well hidden. If all went well, he would make it back before his brother suspected his absence. He had a few Anbu training missions in the forests and confidential matters to handle. He had his hands full.

He felt the violent and distressing palpitations of his heart. His brother's words were a dull buzzing in his ears now . . .

"Sasuke, I forbid it," he spoke, his face throwing away the soft veil of gentleness, "do you understand? You are not to accept any requests from her."

"But, Nii-Sama, I could—"

"Did you not hear me?" his voice came out colder than Sasuke had expected, and he fell silent almost immediately. "The mess your hopelessly foolish subordinate has created has yet to be cleaned up. Do not make matters worse for yourself."

Sasuke raised his eyes to look upon his brother's face: the soft morning light did not seem to touch the sudden appearance of hardness in his fine features; he sat beyond the large table, his appraising eyes running over him and wandering off to look beyond the window and then returning to look back at him. It was hopeless to argue with him any longer. Silence was always his friend when his brother refused to listen, to lend his ears to his worries. To Sasuke, Itachi was almost . . . whimsical in his display of affections.

"Do not make me any more angry than I already am," he said and Sasuke could almost feel the stinging whiplash of his uncaring tongue. "Do not make this like last time. I am warning you." Then he stood up and walked around the table and Sasuke could do nothing but lower his head and gaze at the smooth wooden-floor. "Leave it be," he spoke coldly close to him, and the matter was closed that day.

There was a curl of childish impishness in his smile today, a look of innocence in his face that passed into boyish purity for a few fleeting moments. He knew time had robbed him of his childhood. If he could, he would turn back the wheels of Time and regain the honour his family lost so brutally; sometimes, he wondered, did his beloved brother even care about his disgraced parents?

Sasuke's mouth twisted down in grief, a look of sorrow coming into his pale face pelted without mercy by the rain. This thought had haunted him for years. His brother avoided this subject as though it was an aberration, a contagious plague that would ruin his reputation. He had to force him into this.

It took time, but little by little, his brother came around. Seeing Sasuke in peril was something he could never stand for. They were always this way even when they were children. Itachi would watch over him when he played in the small clearing outside the Uchiha village.

He was young then, stumbling around helplessly, struggling to stand and find strength in his inexperienced feet. He fell down over and over again and scrambled to his feet to reach his brother, with hands held out from his body . . . calling to him. And Itachi always caught him before he stumbled any more. The struggles against the grasp of childhood and the thrill to tread into the adult life were lovely.

When Sasuke got hasty, he would fall down and skin his knee on the stones. He wailed from pain; Itachi rushed to him in such moments and tenderly tended to his wounds and carried him home on his back. He learnt a lot from his older brother in those days. He learnt to walk, to run, and to make small Shurikens at such a young age. His brother taught him all.

How quickly time passed away. Now, he was a fresh-limbed youth and looking back at that time felt like peering at a disappearing mirage. You could chase and chase it but could never quite catch it. It was that unattainable dream that was nothing more than a hopeless illusion for him now—lost behind the impenetrable gap of Time.

Loss was such a subtle thing that came back with a searing force when old wounds were picked at in earnest to let loose a thick flow of memories—one by one. The rush of them would flood him, snaring his soul and scarring his innocence beyond recognition. Then he would lock them up again, cleaning his consciousness like an expert magician, leaving no mark of that stinky muck.

Ah, the act of locking it up and letting the beast run wild. It was an obscene routine, a savage side of himself he had learnt to embrace, and his brother had learnt to embrace all of him. He loved him for what he was, not what he wanted him to become. At least that is what he imagined . . .

But there were times when he was to be disciplined. When he wavered, he harshly steadied him. He was a shadow behind his every step. Sometimes, he haunted him, forced him into submission. The fear instilled in Sasuke from his illusions was, perhaps, eternal.

His right eye twitched at the sight of a crow sitting up ahead on a branch, thwarting his path. Itachi's name sprang to his lips and darkness descended all around him—a black veil dropped upon his eyes that could see nothing. He put his hand out and crashed into the tree ahead. It did not quite break his forward motion. He toppled sideways and tumbled down, but this time, thankfully, he landed on his feet.

Sasuke jerked his head up to look at the sky blackened by countless of those accursed birds his brother was so fond of . . . crows! They cawed and circled overhead as if he was a rotting carcass they longed to pick and poke at, to take his eye out in sheer delight. He made to draw his weapon when a vibrating, swelling voice startled him.

"So disobedient when I told you to leave it be," Itachi whispered, and his voice bounced off the walls—invisible around them. It was not even a whisper anymore—too potent and heavy it was now. He was already in Tsukuyomi?

Sasuke did not know how to speak: his tongue was heavy in his mouth, and he was too afraid to possess any voice. Wherever he darted his eyes, a bizarre mantle of crows greeted him, flying endlessly into the grey horizon robbed of its hue. The droplets hung in midair, pearl-like and eerie in this world Itachi loved to drag him … for heart-to-heart and cruel punishments.

"N-Nii-Sama," Sasuke whispered and bowed his head. His lips shuddered from fear on his face.

"Finally found your voice? You insolent child," Itachi said from beyond the mist. It parted like obedient sentinels to let him through. He was still in his Anbu uniform and stood upright in that same arrogant posture his body knew by design now.

Sasuke raised his head to peer through the mist—his brother's face waxen and devoid of its usual tenderness. He immediately lowered his eyes, standing under the weight of his older brother's deadly gaze.

"You thought I would never find out?" he asked in a voice that seemed to expand painfully about them: it produced such ghastly effects with its potency.

"N-No, Nii-Sama, I—" he stopped, his voice lost, his tongue unable to chase and catch the words that ran through his mind.

"No, of course you did," Itachi spoke in mock sincerity, "you think yourself to be too clever."

"Nii-Sama, I . . . " He raised his eyes to look at his brother standing about thirty feet away from him.

He blinked and he was staring into the depths of his brother's red eyes a few inches away from his. The searing intensity of Itachi’s gaze lowered his eyes against his will, and he lapsed into silence.

"Do not talk back," the voice spoke, floating to him afterwards from Itachi's unmoving lips; his swiftness was ahead of his speech.

"I should lock you in here for a few days to teach you a valuable lesson. You do not seem to respond well to my coddling," Itachi spoke again, and his warm breath fanned out on Sasuke's cool forehead.

Sasuke's throat burnt and his heart thundered. The sounds resonated through his every vein, every sinew, and every part of his mortal coil as though it was a sacred space made to resonate with his brother’s sinister sing-song words. This was not the first time he would be punished this way. His brother had a cruel streak, but his unruliness would make him seek out that rebellious nature and let it loose.

He was accustomed to this false sense of freedom, this humiliation at his brother's hands. He acted out: he wanted to be a wild one. The thrill of testing his brother and his own limits had made a masochist out of him. Deep down, he knew this was coming—deep down, his beast craved for this delicious punishment to whip it raw, break its pride so that it could carve out its own with that much intensity—in reaction.

Sasuke was always at odds with himself. That night, wandering amid the scene of human shambles, feet sloshing through blood, had robbed that little boy of his innocence forever. He was gone. Its last whimpers vanished, lost to the night that would never come back again. Itachi's illusions scratched opened the long-forgotten wounds, and his frail resolve crumbled before his brother's own brand of discipline.

His legs buckled under his weight, and he fell down onto his knees. Red bubbled up to cover his eyes in form of a grotesque shield that allowed him a momentary luxury to fight back in a customary manner to break free, even though he did not will for this to happen. They were as instinctively rebellious as he.

He opened his mouth and cried out hoarsely, "Nii-Sama, I-I'm sorry—" He bent his head down, his nose touching the blackened dirt, his hands trembling by his sides—a mere child lost and helpless in illusions.

No sound came from Itachi. He stood over him, and his right hand slightly trembled in the grasp of emotions by his side—to reach out and touch Sasuke whimpering at his feet, begging him to stop this illusion. He clenched it into a hard fist. It had to be done; he needed to be disciplined; it was for his own good. He had already killed Fū out of revenge. How far was he willing to go? Itachi did not desire to see him tread that far.

Itachi had to be his shield, even if it meant protecting him from his own daemons, even if it meant making him suffer a little to halt his steps. Truth was never a necessity, reassurances were. He closed his eyes when he saw blood, flowing profusely from Sasuke's eyes, cruelly fall down on the dirt that drank it up with relish, thirsty for its taste for ages.

Sasuke's entire body shuddered and broke under the weight of his brother's illusion. "Nii-Nii—I can't—I can't see . . . " his voice wobbled with fear when he brought his shaking hands up to his face, his countenance a bizarre mask of red. He could see nothing other than an endless devouring blackness. "I can't s-see!" he spoke hoarsely, blinking rapidly to look around as if searching for a light in the darkness that had fallen over his eyes. His trembling ashen lips dappled red as he stared up with uncertainty in his eyes.

He stood up, his legs shaking under his own weight as if unaccustomed to his youth, still caught in the delightful trap of childhood. "I can't—" he broke off and lurched sideways as though a lost child regaining his balance, "c-can't see. Nii-S-Sama, I can't . . . ” His voice was catching in his burning throat. He clenched his teeth, crying—just like a lost, pitiful child. Red flowed unopposed down his neck now, a network of eerie red veins on his white skin.

Itachi turned his head away. He had a black heart, but he could not bear to look upon his brother's visage, ruined by blood, tears, and a thick shroud of fear, any longer. He stood silently in the rain, viciously aloof . . . not moving and letting the terror of darkness consume his beloved brother who tried to wander off deep into the forest in search of his eyes' light: a somnambulist trapped in his own world of wondrous, vicious reality.

He did not make it far and crashed to the ground, exhausted and spent for the day. He had fainted. Itachi slowly walked to him and knelt by his side. He placed his hand on Sasuke's wet forehead and brushed his thumb against his bloodied pale cheek. "Sasuke . . . please, forgive me," he whispered and reached down to pick him up.

The rain had stopped. Itachi looked down to see a few raindrops trace defiant paths through the blood cooling fast on Sasuke's face. Letting out a heavy sigh, he flashed out of the forest with Sasuke . . .

Itachi was done for the day. The missions would have to wait. He sat on the tatami mat, with Sasuke lying on the futon. He had a high fever—a foreseen repercussion of Itachi's actions. Sasuke sighed and moaned in distress. His cracked lips were parted in pain. Itachi had spent the past fifteen minutes wiping clean his breast. The red was gone, leaving behind the redness of the skin where he had used the cotton cloth. Despite Itachi's gentleness, the harshness of the cloth left a reminder of his actions.

Now, only one side of his face was left untouched with the marks of punishment. It looked as if someone had painted that half as a crude joke. Itachi found no humour in it. That sight of it . . . it pained him to no end. He squeezed the cloth, which was submerged in a small pail of cold water before, and placed it on Sasuke's cheek.

Sasuke hissed and felt a sudden assault of biting chill in his hot skin. He was out of strength—a fainted youth lying helplessly under the covers, unaware of being wiped clean like a child, and cleansed at this point in adulthood of the venial sins he defiantly committed out of the vacillating rhythms of his precarious nature. True as it was, it was dangerous, even for himself.

"Itachi-Sama, I—" Yuu stopped and drew up short at the sight before him: Itachi wiping away the red marks on the side of Sasuke's face. "Itachi-Sama, w-what happened? Is he—"

"Let me worry about my brother," Itachi cut him off in his usual flat tone of voice. The subject was closed. "Did you bring what I asked of you?"

Yuu's curious eyes wandered slightly towards Sasuke, but Itachi's deep, disapproving gaze pulled them back to him. He nodded absentmindedly and stretched his arm to give the scroll to Itachi. "It's just like you suspected, Itachi-Sama. She’s been going on missions with Sai's Team," he began and clasped his hands behind his back, "and without Sasuke-Sama's knowledge."

"Twenty-five S-Rank missions . . . " Itachi spoke in a low voice and ran his lazy eyes down the scroll. "So many and without Sasuke's approval—why?" he asked himself, deep in thought. A subtle expression of curiosity changed his countenance. He looked up at the lantern overhead that glowed with an eerie light. A pink moth fluttered around it, eager to meet its death on the flame.

"I asked Serizawa to eliminate the chakra from the Hokage's office as you asked. Karin went with him to make sure nothing remained behind," Yuu said and cast his gaze upon Itachi's Anbu jacket that lay discarded beside him. His sword was sticking out from beneath it, catching the red glow of the lantern. It gave the illusion of a heated metal that had yet to meet cold water (to give it a good temper).

"You may leave," he whispered in such a mellow voice as if making sure it would not rouse Sasuke. Yuu bowed down and left silently. He brushed Sasuke's hair aside and pressed his thumb into his cheek lovingly. Yes, he was such a child . . .

"Look, Sasuke," he broke off and gently pried Sasuke's right eye open with his thumb and forefinger, "an autumn moth. You like them, don't you?"

He bent his head down till his lashes touched Sasuke's: his Mangekyō Sharingan pulsed to life and gripped Sasuke's senses in his sleep, his hair cascading around his brother's pale face like a curtain. A tear sliding down Sasuke's cheek slowed down, obstructed by the sluggishness of Time. In the dream, his voice lost its potent nature and changed into that from a boy’s mouth. "Look, Sasuke," he said and stopped dandling a three-year-old Sasuke and pointed at the moth flying just above them, "an autumn moth. You like them, don't you?"

Sasuke hopped off his knee and leapt up to catch it, but it was so far away from him. "Look, it's going for purple lilies—your favourite," he said with a smile and picked Sasuke up in his small arms. He, too, was only eleven. His let out a small laugh and rested his head against Itachi's breast and looked out towards the vast field of purple lilies set aquiver by the pleasant autumn wind.

Itachi wiped away Sasuke's tear, his forehead pressed against Sasuke's, and his eye held its powerful gaze, his lips still moving. "Look, it's going for purple lilies—your favourite." An innocent laugh rumbled in Sasuke's throat, and his dry lips quivered with a smile—just like a child, sleeping and dreaming a beautiful dream . . .

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Chapter Text

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Autumn rains came and went and jagged rocks near the shore got glazed with a layer of slime in their wake. A thick green layer encrusted their top like lush grass—lake water cracked their surface and left them withered. The fragile air dispersed as he breathed out a loud sigh, his warm breath coming out as white wisps.

His feet navigated amongst the thousands of grey pebbles on the shore that seemed to run up north for more than a kilometre. His blue eyes deepened into sapphire as mist rose up from the water. He wrinkled his nose and sneezed loudly: autumn always made him allergic, or maybe it was that damned fungi he touched earlier out of curiosity. He even smelt it.

He flashed his blue eyes on the girl standing not far away from him. His face had that impatient look. "How long do I have to do this?" he shouted louder than he should have and clenched his fingers to stop the chakra flow to his right hand. The Rasengan fizzled and disappeared. Lightning fulminated overhead, and a sudden surge of wind disturbed the calm surface of the lake, breaking the mist.

"We should go to the house, Karin," Neji said and put a hand over his head to shield himself from the light drizzle. "Sasuke-Sama said that he shouldn’t push himself."

"Stop treating me like I’m a child," Naruto said over the mellow shush of wind, "I can hear you, a'right?" He jerked his head away in a huff.

"Naruto, I'm just—"

"Quiet, Naruto," Karin cut across Neji and fingered her glasses, "I'm tired of your nagging. We're going to do what Sasuke said. It's almost evening, and you've made some progress today. Pick up your little bag—we're done for the day."

Naruto fixed his angry deep-blue eyes on her. "And where’s Sasuke? He hasn't come here for nearly a week," he paused and breathed in loudly. "I've got to talk to him about something . . . "

"Sasuke-Sama’s on leave," Neji explained and jumped down from a large boulder. "He won't be back on duty for a while."

"Did Itachi say that?" Naruto asked, and a faint emotion flickered across his face, but he guarded it well.

"Yes, he's the head of the Squads, after all. He simply told us that he'll be handling some of Sasuke's missions," Neji said and shoved his hands into his pockets. Naruto turned his head away. "Someone had put you under a powerful Genjutsu. We don't even know who did that and why. You need to stay calm."

"I'll bet he said that," Naruto mumbled; Neji's words fell on deaf ears as he did not seem to have heard anything he said afterwards. He was in a pale rage, soft whiskers on his cheeks standing on ends. His chest tightened, something wriggled inside, but the feeling subsided quickly.

Karin narrowed her eyes. The seal was almost done, but he was slipping again because of that erratic temper. Sasuke had spun a simple story of a Genjutsu. Naruto and Hinata did live on the outskirts. Some ninjas attacked him and took a few scrolls. It was a simple story; Neji was told to treat this in an official manner.

Karin jumped down and scanned the area. She could not sense anything for more than ten kilometres in all directions. They were in the clear. Thunder rumbled again. She cast her pinkish eyes on the small house just beyond a cluster of trees. Their naked branches shook and shivered when wind touched them; it had not been kind to their young.

Sasuke and Itachi used this house when they travelled further North to hunt. It was small and clean and had a garden at the back. It had enough tools for Neji and Karin to use—just in case someone found them. Its roof was cracked through by so many wisterias crawling out of tiny crevices and gashes. Rains lashed it good.

But the roof had a waterproof material underneath, so they were safe till Sasuke would get furious over the slow speed of repairs. Her lips curled down in a deep scowl. Sasuke had left her in quite the mess. Whoever was stirring that thing inside of him wanted him to lose control and die. She walked to Naruto and Neji, her sandals sinking into the mud.

She scanned the area again, her senses hitting the forms of each animal she could find. There were several birds sitting about on the sparse branches some a hundred feet away. The forest was quiet, and disturbed by the rain, it gave an illusion of being alive. Naruto was still protesting. Neji was far too patient, she thought.

"I'm just saying—" Naruto protested again and raised his hands into the air.

Karin cut across him in a sharp tone of voice, her fingers squeezing her arms: "pick up your bag, Naruto. We’re leaving."

Naruto turned around to face her, his face contorting in rage, his teeth clenching . . . she was just pushing him over the edge. "You're not my boss," he hissed and she saw something ripple his features in the subtlest of ways, but it got defeated. "Stop ordering me around."

A smile broke Karin's face. The seal was done. She turned her gaze slightly on Neji who was staring at Naruto with a bit of disbelief on his face. These temper tantrums were new for him, but it did not really matter—as long as they were ahead of the game, it was just a matter of playing their cards right.

Karin touched her glasses out of habit again and looked through the raindrops coursing down the frame of her glasses. "You've regained quite a bit of control over your chakra," she began and took three short breaths to warm up body, "that's really enough for the day. Don't push yourself. Take it slow."

Naruto brought his gaze upon her, an unfriendly gaze, but he did not say anything. He grudgingly picked up his bag and marched to the house. Neji stared after him. He had a pink-ish hue in his cheeks now—he did not seem to like the cold. "I've never seen Naruto this upset," he paused and squared his shoulders and rubbed his hands together as though he was nervous, "I wonder when Sasuke-Sama will get back. I need to know what kind of Genjutsu it was."

He had an air of uncertainty about him, and then he slowly walked behind Naruto. This was not going as smoothly as Sasuke had planned. The seal had blocked out the chakra inside of him from his Byakugan—a secret to his eyes—but how long would this seal last? Karin frowned. She had never made anything like this before. They had just crossed the first hurdle.

The weight of uncertainty weighed down heavily upon her heart. The feeling only compounded. She did not think much of it and cast a reassuring gaze to the lake, as if it was her secret companion, and followed Neji.

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Hinata had not seen Sasuke for a week—standing under the roof of the Uchiha manor only made her realize that even more. Itachi had asked the Team members to bring their reports in. Sasuke had left a lengthy mission and duty-roster for the whole week. She went on her first mission with Yuu, together with two more members, to the border as a guard for an official from the Capital.

It was much better than last time. Her eyes proved to be a valuable asset in Neji's absence, who had gone off on a mission with Karin and Naruto. She had not seen him for more than a week. She breathed out loudly and looked at the red light, spilling from an old lantern on Itachi's office-table, overpower the shadows around it. The black barely touched the colour as though ceding its territory to it.

Itachi's table was neat—perhaps a little too neat. Every little item was arranged perfectly. There was not a brush, not a scroll out of place. Presently, a scroll lay open on it with a brush rolling back and forth over its unfinished lines. A light breeze had snuck in and was making it restless. He seemed to have left it in a hurry.

Behind the small table was a towering rack filled with scrolls. It cast a long band of shadow in front that was broken in half just above the red light. She wanted to sit down on the cushion by her feet but chose to stand. Itachi preferred to sit on the tatami mat—a tradition his family upheld to this day.

A sudden powerful burst of wind moved the bamboo outside, and it smacked itself against the rocks above and below it, putting out dull sounds repeatedly. It suddenly stopped moving. Hinata moved her gaze away from the closed window, stared down, and scratched her right foot with the left. Then she lifted her eyes and looked at the clock above the rack: she had been standing here for the past thirty minutes.

She took one step forward and placed the scroll on the table, stealing a tiny glance at the scroll. Sakura's name caught her eye, but she backed away quickly when she heard footsteps on the other side of the door. The sound of steps faded away, replaced by the dull whistling of the wind.

Dull sounds wafted to Hinata, faint and indistinct. She strained her ears and tiptoed to the door. Then she pulled at the door till it was slightly ajar and pressed herself against it and listened. She caught the sounds of voices again; only this time, they made it to her ears, unobstructed by the door.

"Sasuke, you are still so warm," Itachi's mellow voice came from beyond the door down the corridor. "Just drink this. It will ease your pain." After a slight pause, the sounds came again. "You are such a child. What am I to do with you? Why do you not listen to me? I am . . . remorseful for what I have done. Please, forgive me."

Hinata could not hear what Sasuke said in reponse. She immediately backed away and stood before the table when she heard Itachi close the door; his footsteps grew closer and louder with each step. Not a moment passed and the door swung open. Itachi's usual emotionless face greeted her, but this time, there was a strange fire in his eyes as they fell upon the pale contours of her face made hazy by the shadows; and despite the missing red marks of his clan, she saw something stir in them for her: hatred?

Hinata hastily bowed and muttered a greeting that was met with the usual icy silence. When she looked up that look had vanished. "Why are you still here?" he asked quite suddenly and walked around the table. "Your office hours are over." He grabbed his Anbu jacket, hanging from a nail on the side of the rack, and looked at her.

"Y-Yuu," she paused and thoughtlessly smoothed down the wrinkles on her jacket, "he asked me to give you the scroll."

"I am sure he asked you to leave the scroll on my table," he stopped and pulled his hair out from beneath the jacket, now fastened to his narrow waist by a few buckles—a typical Anbu jacket. His, however, had an Anbu Captain's mark on the back. "I have a few matters to attend. You may leave." With that, he cast her such a cold gaze and walked out of the room in silence.

It was said that curiosity killed the cat, and Hinata wanted to be that cat today—satisfaction brought it back, too. Turning on her Byakugan, she saw the exquisite Uchiha chakra burn and course through Itachi's veins as he walked out of the front gate.

There was no one in his house, and just beyond the door lay Sasuke—his chakra a matted mess. Hinata did not need to turn her head to see one servant attending to the dishes in the kitchen. She cautiously walked towards the door, each step, a slow and deliberate struggle against her own nerves. If Itachi came back . . . who knew what he would do.

He told her to leave, but damn that curiosity and desire; she was such a weak master of her passions. She opened the large door, and a mass of golden light poured onto her. It was a very large room: beautiful partition screens stood behind the lanterns and delicate paper windows wore shadows like clothes.

There was a table put next to the partition screens. It had the same bizarre neatness to it. She turned off her Byakugan and looked at the thick, quilted Kakebuton; it was the most beautiful one she had ever seen, and beneath it, lay Sasuke. It was a traditional sleeping bed made with a set of shikibuton and makura. Itachi was an austere man. It did not surprise her that he and Sasuke preferred to live this way. Her own family did, too.

This was Itachi's room. Turning around, she walked backwards and looked at the scroll paintings in the alcoves. One of the designs had a mischievous lightning deity dancing in the rain. Hinata spun around and gazed upon the neatly arranged piles of scrolls in the racks. Right next to the futon was a small table: a pail of water was placed on the side, and a damp cotton cloth hung from its handle.

Hinata sat down next to Sasuke and looked at the small cup. A few sips of a colourless liquid were left at the bottom. She brought her eyes upon Sasuke: he was drawing short, quick breaths, and his right hand lay trembling over his heaving bare breast; his cracked lips had countless red cuts; red stains dappled the sides of the white pillow, too. He looked so weak and so vulnerable, with a sheen upon his forehead and a look of pain in his face.

She had never seen him this way. In that small moment, gripped by thoughts of lust and passion, she leant down and caressed his damp, hot cheeks with her lips, planting light heated kisses along the side of his jaw; then her greedy lips found his, and she kissed him deeply and relished the fleeting scent and bitter rosy taste of medicine still on his tongue. Her fingers fluttered lovingly across his neck and shoulders, mapping a path along his collarbone and over the trembling, heated skin upon his flesh. His vulnerability was so beautiful—so new.

When Hinata pulled away, his lips were left so red, full of blood and the heat from her kiss. A red tear trailed down his cheek in answer, bringing out a look of fear on her face. Quickly, she grabbed the cloth and wiped it away. Sasuke's eyes flew open, blazing with the Eternal patterns of light.

Hinata staggered back when he sat upright with lightning fast speed. She did not even know when he moved, and she found herself being lifted off the ground, her throat in his tight grasp. He threw her back, and she skidded across the floor and got knocked against the wall. "S-Sasuke?" she asked, her voice bathed in disbelief and fear.

He staggered on the floor, still so frail from fever, his usual veneer of composure and cunning shattered by an exquisite mingling of fear, anger, and hatred. "You . . . " he hissed out and stopped with a heart-shuddering, pained groan, slapping his hand on the side of his face to cover his right eye: it seemed to cause him great pain. "You … your fath—you ruined my—" Blood spurted out, runny and quick, from between his fingers that dug painfully into his temple as though searching for his face. He let out a sharp hiss and slumped to the wooden floor, only to defiantly stand up again with immense speed.

Lightning chakra fizzled on his left hand, and it turned into his signature technique: Chidori. He rushed to her, an indistinguishable blur; Hinata let out a loud scream and covered her eyes. "Sasuke, stop," Itachi's voice made her open her eyes. He stood between Sasuke and her, Sasuke's left hand in his firm grasp, his right pushing him back. "Put it out. Calm down."

Chakra came alive in his right hand, and he shot it forward with frightening speed. Itachi was fast. Itachi grabbed Sasuke's right hand, but a spear shot out from the tip of the radiating chakra. He hit Sasuke's arm with his elbow. The spear went through the wall an inch away from Hinata face and travelled zig-zag at erratic angles to the right, tearing through more the half of the room's walls. Hinata's lips trembled. It was happening so fast!

"Sasuke, put it out. Listen to me," Itachi spoke with difficulty, sweat dribbling from the tip of his chin. His office sandals slipped back on the smooth wooden floor and squeaked loudly: his whole body was thrust forward to keep Sasuke at bay. Sasuke's hands trembled in his grasp, and his eyes bled badly. "Sasuke, stop. Please, listen to me. Listen to your brother. Calm down." Sasuke was so frail already. Using Genjutsu on him now . . . Itachi did not even want to think about it. Words were all he had. He did not want to hurt Sasuke; he did not want to risk it.

Despite the buzz in Hinata's ears, they did not miss the note of urgency in Itachi's voice. What was happening to Sasuke? She crawled to the right; her back was pressed hard against the ruined wall, as if she was hoping for it to swallow her. "Get away from me," Sasuke hissed, the character of his features carrying the profound marks of fear.

With great strength, which Itachi did not think he even possessed, he pushed him aside and rushed again—a shadow. Itachi moved faster and grabbed both of his hands as he charged his chakra again. He squeezed his wrists with strength and snuffed out the noisy blue charge. "Sasuke, listen to me. I am not going to hurt you. You have my word," he assured him and twisted Sasuke's wrists a little as the chakra rekindled on the tips of his bloody fingers. "Just calm down," he added, assuaging his brother's fears. Then he twisted Sasuke's wrists some more to stop the flow.

Sasuke let out a hiss of pain and slumped down to the floor, his wrists painfully twisted in Itachi's hands. His fingers contorted into claws, trembling like that of a convulsing man. The chakra refused to go out. Despite being so ill, he put out a massive Raiton charge from his body. The thick layer of impenetrable composure cracked on Itachi's face. His lips trembled as the charge ran through his body.

He let out a small sound of pain and slowly sank to his knees. If he had not been a master of chakra control himself, it would have stopped his heart and killed him. Sasuke's hands were still held tight in his. His grip slackened and Sasuke pushed him back. His sandals skidded on the floor, and he steadied his body to catch his balance. His body trembled, the powerful surge of current messing up the signals from his nerves—his body, a wonderful bundle of pain.

Hinata's eyes were wide open, her mouth hanging open in mid-scream as another blur rushed at her. Itachi moved faster, grabbed hold of Sasuke, and pushed him against the wall. Sasuke broke free again. The whole room appeared as though a theatre with a spectacle of blurs running all over the place that stopped at moments to capture the slow motion of Sasuke struggling to break free of Itachi's grasp . . . against the wall, on the floor . . . Itachi finally managed to restrain him and pushed him against the wall. He pressed his fingers against Sasuke's brow to push his own chakra through his damp skin, to make him lose consciousness.

"L-Let me go," Sasuke said in a shaky voice, his eyes disorientated as he gasped for air, his right hand pulling Itachi's hand away from his face but to no avail. He was too weak.

But he mustered all of his remaining strength and pushed Itachi back and vanished through the door. "Sasuke," Itachi called out behind him. He was breathing heavily. He started for the door but stopped and turned his face—marred by such wintery rage—to her, his eyes two cups of malice.

"You," he let out a frigid sound that sent a shiver through Hinata's whole body, "leave. Now."

A kunai shook in his right hand, his body indecisive. Hinata scrambled to her feet and ran out. She did not stop till the walls of her empty house did not greet her. It was one of the few moments in life when she felt safe there.

Itachi chased Sasuke through the forest and stopped at the sight of thousands of purple lilies growing and shining under the full moon. It looked as if a current of air was moving through a silken cloth and rippling its surface in the meadow. Sasuke lay in the middle, nearly obscured by countless swaying flowers.

He took slow steps and sat down beside Sasuke's convulsing form. Sasuke's eyes seemed to look at something beyond him, his lips moving and repeating the same words over and over again: "autumn moth . . . going for purple lilies . . . moth … . . going for purple lilies . . . " The older brother, not used to an open display of emotions, pressed his knuckle to his lips and there was remorse on his face.

It was easy to take Sasuke back home. He was delirious and exhausted when Itachi put him to sleep. By the time he reached his Anbu office, it was nearly twelve a.m. He had changed his clothes and looked as emotionless as before. He had a trick to these things, but he was not the sharing type. His eyes fell upon Sakura who sprang to her feet when he stepped into the office.

"Itachi-Sama," she said lowly and gave a quick bow of her head.

"I hope you brought your papers along as I do not really have the time to entertain another mishap today," he said coldly and occupied the chair across the table from her.

"Y-Yes," Sakura said, her face a little pink from embarrassment.

Itachi took the scroll from her hand and read out the details. "You have been learning to become a Sensor by taking assistance from the Sensor-Squad Captain, Sai? May I inquire the reason as you have done so without my brother's knowledge?" he asked and leant forward to put his elbows on the finely polished surface of the table.

"How did—" Sakura stopped, her face breaking out in sweat.

"When an Anbu Captain requires mission-assistance from any shinobi, their records are divulged by the Hokage. I hope you did not think this would remain a happy little secret," he spoke from behind his tangled fingers, his eyes as blank as his face.

"N-No, Itachi-Sama," she stammered and rubbed her fingers together.

"That is very nice. Otherwise, I would have assumed you to be a foolish little girl," he said in a voice laced with authority. "Kindly, bring your tools along tomorrow. You will be assisting me on a mission."

"But Sasuke left a—"

"I am handling Sasuke's missions for a few weeks," he cut across her, "it would be for the best if you did not question and simply obeyed." He looked up to see a slow shiver crawl up from the base of her legs.

"I’m sorry," she blurted out nervously and gave a hasty bow. "Please, forgive me."

"You may leave," he said in a flat tone of voice and watched as she left the room with an uncertain gait. He did not hold his gaze long and leant back into the chair. "Learning to become a Sensor . . . " he said softly to himself and then stretched his hand to put out the candle still burning on his table . . .

# # # # # #








Chapter Text

# # # # # #

Red stared down at her face. So close, as if filling the space between them. Then he backed away, and the room waxed into existence before her eyes, his face gaining the clear contours, hazy and obscure before. Calm, yet slightly pallid today, his face was still so like his younger brother's that it haunted her even when she was wide awake.

When he spoke, a cold voice came from his lips, venomous words tripping from his tongue: "it is just a little mark. You should grow a thicker skin Shinobis are accustomed to." He stretched his hand and moved her hair aside to look at her bruised neck again, red fingerprints left on the white throat—like wings of a butterfly pinned to the wall. "It will heal itself." He brushed his finger slightly against the healed scab, drawing a sharp hiss out of her, and then he drew his hand back.

"Itachi-Sama, I . . . " Hinata whispered, unsure of what to say, and fell silent again as a set of helpless tears threatened to fall from her eyes. Sasuke attacked her, even if she had told him of her love—her unconditional love. Her lower lip shuddered, and she felt a hard knot of pain in her heart. He really did not care . . .

"You came in late today," Itachi spoke slowly and folded his arms across his breast. Her worries were not enough to thaw the stone-cold his body was sculpted from. "Perhaps you are taking advantage of the leverage you have?"

She raised her head, confusion settling itself upon her face. "I don't under—" she stopped and looked beyond the shaft of a weak light of autumn sun coming in through the window to the right.

"Do not try to play innocent. You know why you were kept and under which circumstances you regained your position. There is little reason for me to make you recall any theatrical show of your mishaps," he said, the rancour of his words hidden behind the workings of his sweet tongue.

Hinata felt humiliated. Her cheeks burnt raw with embarrassment. It was no surprise that he loathed her with passion. No matter how smooth his face, no matter how controlled his passions, his words were enough to shame her. She raised her gaze a little to look at the same uncaring visage of arrogance stare back at her—unflinching and unsympathetic. But there was no use arguing with the Captain of all Jōnin squads. No, even she was not that foolish.

"You have gained so much arrogance overnight that a small explanation and an apology seem to be beyond the horizon of your reasons?" he asked in the same flat tone as if it was a tangible leech that remained glued to his tongue, feeding off his arrogance to give off more arrogance and venom in delicious, rippling waves.

"I—" Hinata paused, and her heart tripped like a bird in a deathly trap, "I . . . I was afraid. Y-Your brother—he nearly killed me yesterday!" She grasped her breast with both her hands as if stopping her heart from making it out of her body. That rebellious thing that made her lust beyond reason for Sasuke; it was never truly under her control. She staggered back to catch her breath as if something knocked the wind out of her.

Itachi stepped through the shaft, and it parted as though obedient curtains that flowed to the rhythms of a cool morning breeze. He rolled up his right sleeve and showed her a thin scar that ran all the way up his arm before disappearing under the sleeve.

"I got this scar when I was fourteen," he explained and moved his fingers over the scar as if evoking long forgotten memories left behind in the ugly marks of old stitches. "It was during one of my missions. The enemy nearly wrested my arm off. He could have succeeded had I not been swift. One misstep can only throw you so far down. I can even lift my shirt and show you few more on my breast. But this is not an exhibition and nor are we that . . . intimate." He shook his sleeve over his healed injury and regarded her with impassive eyes.

"But—" she began breathlessly, her eyes brimming with tears now.

"But? Is that your defence for your insulting, unbecoming, and arrogant attitude?" he asked, his voice thick with anger, yet smooth and unchanging. "With whose permission did you cross the boundary of my room to disturb my ailing brother? You were told to leave, yet you, it seems, have taken it upon yourself to cross me, disobey me, and show me a persistent display of your ever-inflating ego—repeatedly," he spoke, and his exquisite eyes glimmered with the fierce hot fires of Sharingan that revealed the fury of his pride and passion.

"Itachi-Sama, t-that's not true—" she stammered like a child and squirmed under his hard-as-stone gaze.

"Is it not? You have such a leverage over me that you think yourself to have me under your little thumb," he paused and created a fake smile on his face that merely made a small crack in his hard countenance, "well, let me make something very plain, Hyūga girl, I tend to prune the branches that cause me worry." He stepped away from her and leant back against his large office table.

Hinata's eyes grew wider; her eyes misted as a layer of tears came across them. She blinked and felt them crawl down her face. Her cheeks were itchy. She hastily raised her hand to wipe them away. "I-It won't happen again—I promise you," she said in a small, sincere voice and gave a bow.

"If only your sincerity had any merit. It is as fickle as a greedy man's pride," he said and pressed his finger to his lips, thinking. "Kindly, do not bring up that little mishap in front of my brother. He does not need to know anything."

Colour flew from her lips. He could not be this cruel, this unjust, and this blind to his love for Sasuke? "You c-can't be serious? Your brother could've killed me. And yet you—you ask so much of me, Itachi-Sama," she whispered the final words and bowed her head to hide her anguish.

"I find it quite fascinating how you ask for so much and have so little to offer—other than your persistence to shame my brother," he said in a frigid voice; he cared little for her troubles. In fact, he did not care for her at all. She could rot in the darkest pits of his gaze's hell for all he cared. "He attacked you because he was delirious and ill. He thought you to be someone else. The Sharingan can play tricks on the mind if its chakra is disturbed."

"He thought I was . . . someone else?" she said in a small voice to herself, her face growing uncertain.

"There is no need to repeat things after me. It is a simple matter," he said, his eyes upturned to look beyond the large window at the first autumn flowers blooming on the trees standing in the well-kept lawn. A few workers hewed the wood and were cutting some parts in short sawing motions. The higher-ups were building a new office for the Anbu division: it would be completed in a few months and he would shift there. This building was to be attached to the medical division in the coming months—one of the many expansion projects sanctioned by the higher-ups.

"I don't u-understand," she spoke, her voice timid, and her shoulders slightly stooped as if bent from his weighty gaze.

"There is nothing to understand. Forget what happened. Had you not ventured into the room, my brother would never have been roused from his peaceful sleep. You suffered through your own foolishness. He attacked you because he did not know you in that moment of unfortunate delirium. Shoulder the blame. It would be a healthy change of pace from your steely spine's natural routine that never bends out of the need to remain arrogant," he said and clenched his jaws, softly, as if on the verge of speech, but he did not say anything, waiting for her to say something foolish so he could bruise her again with a few cutting retorts.

"But what if he asks—attacks me again? I-I can't, Itachi-Sama—I can’t!" she protested, and her eyes roamed on his face that naturally mimicked his brother's features with near perfection: a curse from nature.

"Let me tell you a little story," Itachi began and straightened his spine, "there was once a talkative monkey who spoke of things that got others into a lot of trouble. When the news reached the king, he sent out some men to deal with him. Months passed and no one heard any of his foolish stories. You know why?" he whispered and came closer, his face hidden behind the mask of ghastly emptiness, clinging to the approaching paroxysm of a sensation that twitched just a few muscles around his mouth with the final thrums of another passion. "He had no tongue."

Hinata's eyes grew wider: her face was losing the last colours of life. Sweat oozed out of her pores, and her body shuddered with the near exquisite urge to make itself known to her: it was still alive! The shuriken pattern in Itachi's eyes vanished, and he backed away—slowly. "Carry out the mission Sasuke left you. You are to make it to the border with Yuu and two more Chūnins and meet up with Suigetsu and Jūgo. Sasuke sent them alone. They might need some assistance. You can leave now," he said and turned around to pick up his sword from the table.

She did not need to be told anything twice. Somehow, she found the strength and resolve in her body to bow before him like a dutiful soldier; then she left in silence, her heart thundering inside her as though it just suffered a near miss from being nipped by the hound of hell . . .

# # # # # #

Sunlight floated over the grey mist and it carried it like an enthralled lover—the sounds of the release of her pent-up breaths sawed the still air. Sensing was taking a lot from her strength. This really was not her forte. Itachi did not exactly appear all that amused. A small crease disturbed his smooth brow; his face always fought vehemently against the nasty intrusions of emotions. "How long have you been learning?" he asked, his voice several degrees colder than the indifference in his expression.

Her mouth, snapped shut like an iron-trap in concentration, parted to speak, "I think you know, Itachi-Sama." She bent her eyes, making them crawl unnecessarily around her sandals.

"Your humour is rather childish—or you simply adore bypassing etiquettes? Sasuke really coddles you all a lot. Sometimes, his leniency surprises me," he said and reached to his back to pull out three kunais—each wedged between two fingers.

She began to nervously pet and pat her Chūnin Jacket. She wanted to speak, but the resolve to will her mouth to say something brash before this man was . . . terrible idea. He flicked two of his fingers and signalled her to get behind him. His eyes, still looking over his shoulder, urged her to use her sensing again—even though she was holding onto the final threads of her chakra.

Sakura did not falter, pointed two fingers up, and concentrated on the spot beyond a thick clump of bushes about seventy feet away. The dry leaves stirred and Itachi threw three kunais at the tree to the right. They ricocheted off the bark and speared sharply inward. An agonizing howl rent the cold air. Itachi suddenly vanished and appeared at the spot where the ninja was hiding.

His Sharingan was still on. Sakura ran behind him and stopped short of the body. Her eyes fell upon the man's face: his forehead was stabbed with all three of them; his face had contorted and frozen with his last battle against pain. He was dead. Her eyes travelled up to Itachi's face, who seemed to be examining the chakra as if on the verge of some amazing discovery. She did not understand why he even needed her when the Sharingan was capable of breaking through the boundaries of such distances.

She let out a loud sigh and lowered her defeated eyes. It was some sort of test . . . and she failed quite miserably. Did Sasuke put him up to this? Her face trembled with rage, and she pressed her lips together to bite back the curse words she had in store for him. He was used to humiliating her. He liked to break her pride and remind her how frigid his body was, which could not be affected by love—certainly not hers.

Sakura was beginning to feel like a frail fish that tipped and writhed on the shoreline, just inches away from tasting the waters to save itself. He was so close, yet impossible to feel and touch. Her body broke apart under his gaze, a gaze that kept her spirits beyond an impossible barrier he had made around himself. She was this intruder, a pariah for his body that refused to relinquish itself to her . . . even for a few moments of passion that would ease her worries.

Oh, how she felt Sasuke was cruel to her. He would gladly bed women who enticed him, made his body vulnerable in throes of late night passions. But her? She clenched her cold fingers, her nails biting harshly into the soft flesh of her palms. A look of fury rushed into her eyes, making a home in their depths—forever trapped beneath the currents of her irrepressible lust for him.

But . . . why? All she asked were few pieces of his passion, some heated moments, let them be moments born from delirium. She would gladly take what he would be willing to give—no more, no less. Those hours of gazing upon him, knowing that he loathed her, drove her insane and pushed her further down into the depths of crushing darkness, and the seed of hatred for him was already sown.

Sakura could feel it sprouting out of the empty ground of her desolate lust: a barren land left without a touch or caress to soothe its darkness; its dried mud, a cracked and ugly mosaic, without any rain to quench its thirst. A gluttonous need to be satisfied by him left her raw with pain, anguish, and more lust. And it was growing. The reaping was at hand, and the more he pushed her away, the more it climbed, gaining heights till it would touch her heart and poison her against him.

A look of hatred came across Sakura's face, her eyes two shiny wet stones. She raised them slightly to look at Itachi sitting down beside the body. His face was touched by a hint of softness, and that countenance touched the cords in her heart. He looked almost like Sasuke—almost, with just a few silly missteps by nature.

That raging black ocean from her pandemonium suddenly found its calm, its tides finally finding that perfect rhythm, their ebb and flow musical under the pull of the full moon. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, and her nostrils flared with the scents of crushed flora beneath their sandals. He looked so like him, the next best thing!

"Are you lost in some paradise?" Itachi asked and Sakura snapped to attention. "I asked you a question—do you find it appropriate to continue your training as a Sensor? I have heard you are quite apt at breaking non-ocular Genjutsu."

"But this will prove useful for my team," she replied and hugged herself. The temperature seemed to have plummeted suddenly.

"Sasuke already has Karin and her skill is . . . well, let us just assume the difference exceeds that between night and day. I am in need of a shinobi who is trained in the field of Genjutsu Kai—a free vacancy. You can continue training with Serizawa. He might not be the best in the field, but he is apt for the job," he said and got to his feet, his face completely unreadable and cold-as-winter again.

"But I’d like to continue. Sasuke might—"

"You are forbidden to contact Sai again," he cut across her, his voice had that same undercurrent of barbed disdain, "if this is all you have learnt in well over a dozen missions, then your progress is appalling. You are only wasting my brother's time. You did it without his knowledge, as well. Whilst you may have the Hokage's favour, you certainly will not have mine. And if she does play by the rules, she has no authority to override an Anbu Captain's verdict. If I catch you sniffing around in his Team without your Captain's approval again, it will result in your swift dismissal from your post with no recourse to entreaty. Is that clear?" He twisted his arm and pushed a scroll he had retrieved from the rogue ninja's dead body into his pocket.

Sakura gave a weak nod and walked behind him. Itachi had put her in a difficult situation. He stopped by the tree to the right and a crow landed on his shoulder. He looked into its eye and his own pulsed rhythmically to life. The crow vanished, and for a second, she caught a glimpse of a smile on his face. He took out the scroll and hastily ran his eyes down its contents. Then he set it on fire and its ashes went away with the wind . . .

# # # # # #

"Masks workin' a'right, Zabuza-San?" Suigetsu asked in a chirpy voice, sipping heartily from his trusty bottle. "Man, it's so dry out here. I might evaporate." He slumped backed against a large boulder and heaved a sigh, and his face sagged from exertion.

"The rains have stopped to the south. The clouds might come here. The birds told me," Jūgo said in a calm voice and petted the head of a small bird sitting on his hand.

"Get that thing away from me," Suigetsu snapped and flailed his arms about. The bird flew up and disappeared behind the trees. "Those things poop on me head almost every day now. Yor teachin' 'em to shit on me head, ain'tcha? Don't play innocent, Jūgo."

"Why would I do that? Honestly, with Sasuke not around, you can be so silly, Suigetsu," Jūgo said in the same soft tone of voice. He turned away from him and began conversing with few other birds sitting in the trees overhead.

Suigetsu mumbled something incoherent and brought his attention back to Zabuza who wore a completely unrecognizable face: a courtesy of Karin and her family. They created special masks made out of chakra, and no one knew about them other than a few Uzumakis in her family. They hid the real faces behind a powerful seal, which was undetectable even by Sharingan.

"Where’s Sasuke-Sama?" Zabuza asked, his voice gruff and thick.

"He sent us ahead to make sure ya was a’right. His bro probably caught 'im. Itachi can be such a tight-arsed little meanie. Ya don't have ta worry about 'im. But," Suigetsu paused and took another sip from his bottle, "ya sent 'im a letter through Karin. What's so urgent?"

"This is," Zabuza said and pulled out a peculiar looking scroll from his pocket. The mask mimicking the contours of his real face: it showed anxiety.

Suigetsu stowed away his bottle and took it from his hand. Its contents surprised him. "No way—" Suigetsu shouted in surprise, "no fuckin' way! That shark still lives? So Mei and her underlins haven't made a shark-fin soup outta 'im yet? That nasty bastard!" He went into peals of laughter and smacked his hand against his thigh as though it was a crude joke.

"There you have it," he sighed, unamused by Suigetsu's reaction. "He contacted me through an unknown man. He needs help. Mist’s closing in on him. It won't be long before they start sniffing around where he's hiding. He's running out of places to hide. If your boss wants to act, now would be the time."

"Suigetsu, Hinata, and Yuu are coming this way. Finish this up," Jūgo spoke from a few feet away.

"How long do I have to hide? Your boss said this would be over soon," Zabuza said and flashed away from them to the other side of the stone deities that made the line of the border between this region and Rain.

"Just cover yor sweet lil' arse for a lil’ while longer. Bitch won't know what hit her. Bye bye, Zabuza-San." Suigetsu waved and crossed his legs on the boulder where he sat. Zabuza disappeared out of sight, and a few minutes later, Yuu and Hinata, along with two Chūnins, jumped down from the trees. Hinata looked a little out of breath, but she regained her composure quickly.

"You guys all right?" Yuu asked, putting away his Kunai.

"Our ninja in shiny armour is here," Suigetsu shouted, his hands flying out as if he was falling. "We are saved!"

"Oh, for Sage's sake . . . " Yuu muttered and kneaded his brow. "Pick up your stuff and get going. Itachi-Sama has cancelled all of your missions. Come on, let's get going." He flicked his head to one side, urging Jūgo and him to follow.

Suigetsu hopped off the boulder and thrust the scroll into his fanny-pack. "He's cancelling all of the missions? I don't like this. It would be impossible to contact Mei like Sasuke asked," Jūgo whispered, towering over the shorter man.

"I know—Itachi’s actin’ like a meanie again," Suigetsu said, his face uncustomary serious. "Let's just go. There's no point in stayin' around and drawin' suspicion." He started for the group walking ahead but stopped to look up at the crow staring down at them from its perch far up in the tree—its neck was stretching out rather oddly. He paid it no mind, for now, and resumed his walk . . .

# # # # # #

Chapter Text

# # # # # #

Morning came and went. It was a holiday today and most ninjas were in their homes. Rains had stopped, and streets were brimming with people. Noises rose and fell on the smooth currents of warm afternoon air. Standing close to the window, she caught a whiff of spices from the shops tucked underneath the upper-story of the inn.

Hinata had decided to leave home and rent a room for a week. Those three missions she completed recently earned her a little bonus. Itachi was brutal, but he did not withhold her pay. Her cheeks tightened in a grimace: if he hated her, then she was damn sure the feeling was mutual.

She clenched her fingers, but as she saw the village again at a glance from above, the feeling left, floating out of her body like a wayward ghost. She had never done much for herself; her life was always a rush and flurry of silk through the nettles. It was pleasant to be out of her home without any worries—just once.

She looked outside again. The light on the horizon was slowly losing its golden glow and turning orange. Few shopkeepers were already lighting the lanterns outside their shops. Red, blue, purple, pink . . . it was like a haze of so many colours that would only find their strength at night.

Moving away from the window, Hinata cast herself on the bed and rolled onto her back. Her eyes roamed around the room. For the amount she paid, this was a steal: the bed was big enough for one person, and the racks were large enough to house her belongings; a partition screen hid the far corner of the room—her ninja clothes were thrown over it haphazardly; she caught a glimpse of a few feathers painted on the screen’s surface, but she could not quite make out the whole pattern—it was a black and white painting.

Her eyes found themselves roaming around the small table. The breeze coming in through the window passed over it, drying the ink on the official letter she had written to Sasuke: a permission to join the training squads for the Chūnin trials. A heavy sigh spilt from her lips, a defeated sigh. Itachi's words were like the incessant buzzing of insects in her ears, gnawing on her brain.

Sasuke attacked her because he was ill: Hinata reassured her racing heart that would not listen. It was never in the grasp of her fragile will—that unruly, stubborn thing. He had no reason to kill her. In her memory, his face was a sad and broken mask, his eyes, an empty void. The words he wanted to say to her . . . his anger and fear had robbed him of his voice. Whose father destroyed his life? For the first time in their strange relationship, she had taken a glimpse at the dark beneath his cool face.

What else was he hiding? He was a stranger to her. Maybe she was running ahead of herself, thinking that her words were enough to make him open up to her. She never thought they would sit under a lush tree so soon and exchange family grievances.

Hinata sighed again, a little loudly this time. Itachi had closed that door in her face. It was shut forever. Sasuke's moment of vulnerability was gone, lost behind the mishap she had created. She moved her hand and played with her hair, her thoughts racing along with her heartbeats.

Why did he not want Sasuke to know? The thought was beginning to bug her. It was burrowing under her skin, prodding her to do something rash and silly again—a cat yearned for satisfaction now! But she had made a promise. She would be a good girl and let Sasuke reach out to her again. She would not misbehave out of the silly need to be a curious little girl, but the curiosity to know . . .

How would she even bring it up? "Sasuke, you tried to kill me. I hate you now, but who destroyed your precious life?" The inner voice of reason laughed at her, and its words mocked her; they seethed with contempt.

"Foolish, loathsome girl . . . " Hinata had heard Itachi whisper as she left the office. She ground her teeth. His loathing of her natural passions grated on the little pride she had left, the last vestiges of her clan's might.

How her heart and body dully ached for Sasuke now. She had not seen him in so many days. How was he? Had his fever abated, leaving him as cool and uncaring as before? Did he dream of her as he lay helpless beneath the sheets, burdened by the thoughts of his tormentors? Ah, such a silly girl and that silly little body of hers—It craved his intimacy.

Distance and time had parted it from him, but the pain within rose like a loud noise. The flare and surge of lust inside her were cracking the walls of the little composure she had learnt to craft for herself. She was such a silly girl, and she would not last long without relishing the feel of his skin against hers. It was tamed by his touch by now—a timid animal caged inside the walls of his own brand of discipline. And she hated it, loathed this feeling of need that nipped and ripped her senses apart, shredding her nerves to pieces.

Now that Hinata had tasted the pleasures he offered, it was impossible for her feet to tread back. It was wrong, she told herself. But it was right to soothe the flaring passions, the other voice whispered heatedly. A paroxysm of desire seized her body and mind. The voice of a woman inside her always triumphed, overpowering the whispers of regret and betrayal.

Why does it even matter? Hinata thought to herself as she undid the obi of her kimono and moved the collars aside to bare her body, crushing the voices of reason, locking them up again in the dark corners of her mind where they would remain, talking amongst themselves, shouting themselves hoarse. Their words always rang hollow.

She hooked her finger underneath the waistband of her underwear and dragged it down to her thighs. The cool wind rushed at her naked body—a cold sensation against the burning and exquisite fever rising just beneath her skin.

Hinata closed her eyes and sensations of want crept into her pores like little crawly insects: they stung and bit as she moved her hand over her breasts and trailed her fingers sluggishly across the skin of her stomach. Her fingers tangled in her pubic hair, and she moved them lower still . . . moving them down along her folds; and then she plunged the finger into her slit and caught a shaky release of breath in a sigh.

It felt good. The other free hand roved over her torso, soothed the aching sensation from her taut muscles. At that moment, she moved her finger faster, and her throat spasmed as though she was straining her head to breathe above the surface, after a deep plunge. She twisted her nipple between her fingers, her body shuddering from the lovely sensations.

It did not take long for a hot electric spark to strike her at the core, jolting her there. A spray . . . and she felt the warmth of her release on her fingers. Hinata opened her mouth and swallowed the air in the room: her face trembled from release. As if in a stubborn mood, she sat up straight and wiped her hand on the kimono. Yes, why did it even matter? A faint smile crossed her pink face as she looked outside the window. Freedom was a precious thing . . .

# # # # # #

Night was upon them, casting its ominous shadows that hid and skittered away like children as pale shafts of light from the new crescent-moon descended upon them. The air in the forest was heavy, thick with the odour of decaying flowers and leaves. Autumn was that reaper that sliced off the heads of young—Nature's own style of merciless reaping.

The warm sun had sucked the moisture out of the ground and left the leaves by their feet dry. They crackled as their sandals crushed and crunched them without an ounce of mercy. The naked branches overhead were the perch of many owls. They hooted, their yellow eyes glowing in the darkness. The forest was alive again!

Rains had withdrawn their tight grasp—a few days of respite for the land. Purple lilies poked out of the ground. They thrived in these corners, the foot of the trees abloom with their purple glow, delicate mouths open and eager to take in the light of the moon. It was an enchanting sight that compelled the man walking ahead to stop in his tracks. He bent down and plucked one, his face blank.

"Takin' one for Sasuke, Itachi-Sama?" Suigetsu asked from behind him; he wore his readymade mischievous face.

Itachi stood up straight and slowly turned around. A ghostly smile disturbed his cool features, his Sharingan on. "Hand over the scroll, Suigetsu," he said, his voice steeped in his customary, languid drawl.

Suigetsu lost that cheeky expression for a moment, stunned. Then, as a realization dawned on him, it returned to his face with full force. He let out a loud laugh. "Was wonderin' what this wild goose-chase was ’bout—and in this part, too. Yor clever, Itachi-Sama," he said and tapped his finger against the side of his head.

"Do not waste time," Itachi said, his face becoming a blank slate, waiting to be touched by something, anything subtle.

"Yor crows are everywhere—" Suigetsu broke off and reached into his fanny pack, "it ain't nice ta spy on unwary folk. Yor a bad bro."

Itachi merely smiled in reply; his pale face, laden with crooked shadows of the bare branches overhead, was hard to read. He waited for Suigetsu to hand it over.

Suigetsu turned the scroll in his hand as if he had just stumbled upon it. He looked indecisive. He flashed Itachi a clever grin and spoke, "might I ask somethin'? Why do ya need it? Sasuke would be bloody mad if he found out, ya know."

"This should not concern you. Curiosity is a terrible business. It gets many people into a lot of trouble," Itachi said, and his voice had that serrated edge of frostiness that was hard to miss.

"That's all fine an’ dandy, but ya know, I gotta answer ta Sasuke, too. Yor lil' bro is not the type to let things go. And from the looks of it, neither are you," Suigetsu said and threw the scroll up into the air and then caught it again as gravity pulled it down.

"You already sent the mail into the system?" he asked, his brow disturbed by a single line of irritation.

"Of course I did," Suigetsu said, his voice approaching a shout as if he was being accused of someone's heinous murder and this was his only chance to come clean. " I doubt even ya have the time or the patience ta go through thousands of coded scrolls ta find Sasuke's."

"He asked you to send a coded message . . . of course," Itachi sighed and closed his eyes. "He is such a child."

"I hope yor not gonna try ta Genjutsu me. They kinda don't work on us. Water, ya know," Suigetsu said with a wide wave of his hand as though it was not obvious enough. "Or burn me. But that would be crazy mad of ya." His face suddenly turned a little wary, and he took a single step back as if it would save him from his Mangekyō's wrath.

"I could," Itachi said in a soft voice, softer than the calm waves of the sea, "but I am not in any mood to push Sasuke anymore. It will only make him more angry. It becomes difficult to handle him that way."

An owl loudly hooted, and a sudden surge of wind at Suigetsu’s back shook the leaves that crackled and spun around upon the ground. "Handlin' as in how ya keep Genjutsuin' 'im?" he asked.

"I know the mind has a tendency to wander, but I told you never to bring that up again," Itachi paused and heaved a sigh. "Do not compel me to try it out on you."

Suigetsu shook his head, chuckling. "So scary," he said and leant back against the rough tree behind him. "I'm just sayin' that it ain't nice. Ya have a better Genjutsu, but he's got the better set of eyes. How long do ya think this'll work? He's fightin' back. What will ya do when the floodgates open? He's gonna be so mad at ya." He grinned and showed pointy teeth that flashed in the soft moonlight.

"I see that staying here has made a scholar out of you," Itachi retorted, a cunning look coming into his blank face, occupying its every vein, every fiber with haste.

"Am just warnin' ya," Suigetsu began—his smile had vanished, "last time he was wanderin' like a mad ol' codger across Rain's border. That's when I found 'im. He was utterin' gibberish. He doesn't even know about my first mission. Someone could've killed 'im for eyes. But ya two are so stubborn. Yor a hard-arse for disciplinin' 'im, and he's just as bad in not obeyin'. Ya gotta draw a line somewhere." He finally threw the scroll at Itachi.

"Are you suggesting me something, an advice, perhaps? Believe me, those days are not yet upon me," he spoke sardonically and opened the scroll to read the details, his eyes roaming between Suigetsu's serious face and the location of the hideout.

"I ain't suggestin’ nothin', boss. I'm just askin' ya to cool it. Ya put 'im under Genjutsu every time things get outta hand, and then you put funny images in his head. Kinda creepy for such a lovely thing like bro-mance, don't ya think?" Suigetsu asked and winced when Itachi burnt the scroll. "He's gonna give me a big and new one for this."

Itachi did not say anything and started walking ahead into the deep forest. The light was sparse here: the ground appeared like a black mass. Itachi kindled a flame on his palm, breaking out a fresh light. He saw an opening between two small boulders. It would have been impossible to spot without his Sharingan.

He stepped through the opening with Suigetsu trailing right behind him. "Smells like a place between a bitch's legs—fishy! Get it?" Suigetsu joked and pinched his own nose. When Itachi did not answer, his smile sagged. "Smells—ah, never mind."

A click resounded like a single loud beat of a drum, and two razor-sharp wires passed right through Suigetsu, splashing water all over the place. He looked up to find Itachi stretched across a small gap in the wall above, his hands and sandals plastered against the rough wall with chakra. He had evaded it. "Thanks for the warnin'!" Suigetsu muttered and solidified his body.

"Good thing you are made out of water," Itachi spoke and jumped down, "otherwise, I would not have sent anyone here to clean up your messy leftovers."

"Hey, me mum thought I was special!" He made a childish expression and then looked around. "Chakra-less traps . . . the fish brain of his works."

Itachi walked deeper into the cave. It was clammy and dank. Water dripped down from the holes overhead, and tree roots protruded through the cracks. He disarmed several more traps till he came across another opening.

The area was well-lit with candles still burning in the crevices. A few clothes were left haphazardly behind on the cold verdure-covered floor. Itachi picked one up and smelt it: it stank of sweat. The man had been here not long ago. Then why did he leave? He looked around, chakra pulsing just beneath his eye—that was used to calling the flames of hell—cooled down. He was prepared to kill him and end it all.

"He left not long ago. Someone warned him I was coming," Itachi said; his eyes searched the cave, and then they settled on Suigetsu.

"Don't look at me," he said, picked up a few fish bones from a broken plate, and turned them around as if hopeful for a little piece of meat hanging between their gaps. "I gave ya the only connection I had with 'im. Looks like he moved ahead—just in case. Maybe because of Mei? Who knows what goes on in a fishy's lil' brain."

"Yes, who knows," Itachi repeated, looking slightly amused. He walked out of the makeshift room Kisame had made out of the gaps and stones: his inner sanctum.

"I saw you cryin' that day in the rain . . . " Suigetsu whispered as Itachi's vanished behind the shadows. Then he started walking behind him.

# # # # # #

His body ached, feverish with the struggle to break free. A single point in his consciousness opened up like a lily—so bright in the endless darkness, so hungry for light. He felt as if he did not have a spine as he writhed beneath the sheets. A single web of courage and strength, which a spider had woven and thrown down from the maw’s mouth above him, was at arm’s reach. He took it in his shivering hand and climbed out: his eyes opened with a shudder . . .

# # # # # #

Chapter Text

# # # # # #

"What?" Neji asked and his face changed with the relentless assaults of shock and disgust. "What are you asking of me?"

Thunder spoke angrily, rocking the whole place as if they sat on a piece of an uncertain land, right in the angry eye of the storm. The night was upon them, a wild animal clutching its prey, slaying it with little remorse. Stars hid behind the mercilessness of Nature—scared children fearing punishment for their misdeeds—their twinkle snuffed out by the swathe of clouds painted black by the night, wind hot on the heels of lightning. It was a stormy night, indeed.

"I won’t do this," Neji said in a firm voice that rose resolutely above the wind.

"It is a simple matter, Neji. You are Naruto's friend and Hinata's cousin—what better man to entrust this task with?" Minato spoke gently, his right hand resting on his thigh. Next to him, Kushina nodded in agreement. Her demeanour was a display of an uncertain calm. A fake smile broke her fragile face. Neji was not fooled by its trickery.

"Forgive me, Minato-Sama," Neji paused, his jaw set, "but it really isn't a simple matter. You are asking me to—spy on my cousin, on Naruto, and report back, to you, the details of their private affairs? This is—it’s unthinkable! What do you take me for? A petty family spy to ensure your clans' futures?" The whole matter had set his nerves on edge.

"Neji, it is nothing like that," Hiashi spoke from across the table. The shadows seemed to have perched on his pale face. "We need someone we can trust. A man who is one of us. Someone they trust as well. If we do not get an heir, our families have met their ends. Hanabi is still too young and will bear the burden of the Hyūga clan. Hinata had to be the one to carry on Namikaze’s future. You will not be doing this for them—you will be doing this for the future of our clans. Try to understand our position."

Neji let out an impatient sound, his fingers crooked upon his thighs. He breathed heavily for a few seconds and located the courage inside him to speak. He settled his eyes on Hiashi, words leaping to his quiet tongue, and it quivered in his mouth to speak: "why do you want to spy on your own daughter? Does this seem reasonable to you?"

Hiashi let out a loud sigh and put his hand on his forehead. "Tsunade has sent us a letter that she is unwell to bear children and needs to recover, but she is doing missions under that Uchiha's supervision. Naruto hardly stays at home. He seems too busy with his paramour to go near Hinata," he said and saw shock come into Neji's face from behind the thin curtain of receding shadows.

"Paramour? What are you talking about?" Neji asked and bent forward, trying to take a good look at Hiashi's face. It was difficult without his Byakugan to see a man's face shrouded in darkness.

"Naruto has been—" Kushina stopped and clasped her fingers tightly together, "—intimate with Sakura for quite some time. He wanted to marry her, but he had a responsibility. It could not happen. A Haruno Clan's daughter is hardly worthy of my son. "

Shock splashed across Neji's face. "How long have you all known?" he asked in a small voice and looked from the face hidden behind the darkness to the man and woman sitting in front of him in the dull light of the lantern.

"He has been with her for a few years. He had no desire to stay in this marriage. I suspect he did it to wound us. He wanted to end it—be free, as he had said. But we could not allow it. It is . . . a complicated matter." Kushina's small voice trailed off, burdened by the truth spilling from her lips.

"I don't believe this . . . " he sighed and buried his face in his hands. It all seemed to come together: Hinata's misery, Naruto's disinterest in his married life, and his parents . . . both wanted to break free of the trappings of their fates.

Neji lowered his eyes and caught sight of a small, pinkish moth that writhed on the mat by his folded knee. It twisted around in pain; a dull and thin line of smoke rose from its scorched wings. It must have thought the purple light overhead to be a lily. It went still after a few fleeting moments. The spectacle of death had come to a close.

He raised his eyes, breaking his gaze from Kushina's face to bring it forcefully upon Hiashi's. The shadows haunting him had receded back when the flame on the wick gained height, painting his sober face with an aura that looked at odds with nearly half his face. "I'm not going to be a part of this," Neji whispered, his voice dulled by the rising anger.

"Neji," Hiashi spoke with an air of impatience, and his face turned an ugly shade of purple down the neck. "You are the Branch family's heir and my nephew. If I cannot trust the Branch family, then who can I trust?"

Neji lifted his hands and pulled off the headband to reveal a fading seal. Gasps rose from their lips at the sight of it. Only a small glimmer of it remained on Neji's pale forehead. It was mostly gone, faded away as if yielding its territory to something strong. "I'm no longer a Head of an inferior family. This caste system will exist no more," he said with anger in his firm voice and etched upon his young face.

Hiashi slumped forward and braced his hands on his thighs. "You accepted Tsunade's proposal to remove the seals?" he asked in such a small defeated voice that it barely made it to Neji's ears. He looked up with a face painted with anguish. "But . . . why?"

Neji got to his feet and shoved his headband into his pocket. It was dark—the shadows would hide the mark of his clan's shame. "Ever since the time of my great-grandfather, we’ve been nothing but your unwilling shields. No more—" he stopped, his chest heaving with emotion, "—no more. My father lost his life to save you and your family. My family will do your bidding no longer."

"Neji," Minato spoke and hastily rose to his feet, "this is unfair to Hiashi. You should not think this way. We need your support, and your . . . "

"I won't support you in spying on your son. Do you even care about him at all? Don't you feel anything for him?" he asked, looking at the changing character of Minato's features. He turned his eyes to Hiashi whose face was lashed by shock and disbelief's whip. "And you? Hinata is your own daughter. How can you do this to her? Sacrifice her to a loveless marriage, leaving her to rot on the outskirts of this village with no aid from you?"

Hiashi's eyes misted over and his cheeks tightened and he lowered his head to hide the tears coursing down his cheeks. He was silent, his head bowed as if in a silent apology . . . too little, too late to bring his younger brother back from the dead, sacrificed to save his clan's repute, but it did not thaw the layer of unforgiving cold resting on Neji's face.

"Neji, you must understand," Kushina pleaded and clamped her hand on Minato's arm, "this matter is delicate. You need to listen to us. Naruto is fragile. He might . . . "

"I don't have to listen to this. I told you, I have nothing to do with your families' legacies. I’ve got my own clan to protect. Something people like you threw away for your own gains," Neji said and calmed his ragged breaths. He turned away and started for the door.

Hiashi got to his feet and stretched out his hand. "Neji, wait. I'm—" he fell silent, unable to weave his thoughts into words.

Neji looked over his shoulder, his eyes softening to the purple light of the lantern. They strayed toward that moth again: it lay still and crumpled where it had died. He did not say anything and left the room in silence.

"Hiashi, this cannot go on. You have to talk to Hinata. She has a responsibility to her clan, to you, and to us. She is out of your control. You need to discipline her. What will become of the essence inside Naruto? It needs to be passed on to find its balance. Or else all that trouble, that shame, that slaughter . . . it had been for nothing," Minato said and put his hand on Kushina's trembling fingers clasped around his arm.

Hiashi slumped down to the floor with a sigh as though he had just experience great defeat in a battle. He looked up at the other man, sharing the secrets, the sins with him—in his blank eyes. He nodded absentmindedly and spoke, "I will. This cannot go on like this anymore."

A loud sound shook the room again, and then it was silence once more . . .

# # # # # #

When all things were said and done, when all lies disappeared, what would be left behind to shelter the bond he so wanted to safeguard? His gait was graceful, each step deliberately measured and weighed by his Sharingan to guide its way. He was perfect: a perfect man in appearance, in intellect, and even in concealing lies. Yes, Itachi was a perfect man and a perfect liar.

Nothing escaped his Sharingan as he walked against the wind picking up the pace. Dry leaves and dead Sakura flowers whirled around him in the air—such a rush to be swept away by the swooning winds. He could count them all: one, two, three—fifteen, fifty . . . he lowered his eyes and looked down to the familiar path that led to his home.

Light danced overhead and glimpsed like blue insects at the far end of the sky. The small part of his sword, peeking out from above the sheath, shone in the blue light. The mission for today was over, but his burdens were only piling up. He would not let his back stoop to protect his pride. But what to do . . . what to do?

His cunning eyes darted from corner to corner as though in search of an intruder who threatened his calm thoughts. It was a habit he had developed ever since he joined Anbu. Even a short walk back home was a tedious journey. Every nook and corner had to be investigated for spies. Back in the day, when he was newly appointed, he used to kill several assassins every week. Their numbers dwindled, and then, they just stopped coming.

Itachi let out a sigh and then sucked in autumn's cold air. A metallic object hanging at the door of someone's house musically clanked as the wind brushed past it. It stopped him in his tracks, and his eyes located a small well obscured by thick grass a few feet away from him. His mind suddenly took a trip down memory lane, and his Sharingan cast an illusion around him, throwing him back nearly sixteen years into the past.

Sasuke sat in the grass with his back pressed against the well. He had his knees clasped together with his small arms hugging them close to his chest. His Genin academy bag lay abandoned by his feet.

"Sasuke," Itachi spoke his name, pulling the boy's eyes to himself, "why are you sitting here? It's past five p.m. You must be hungry. Come on, let me take you home."

"I don't wanna go home," Sasuke answered—his small voice was smaller than usual. The lush leaves cast the coming evening's shade on his pale face enveloped by a child’s sorrow.

"What's wrong?" Itachi asked and sat down beside him. "Did someone say something to you? You can tell me and I'll punish them." He gave a reassuring smile and stroked Sasuke's messy hair. His shadow loomed over the small boy—Itachi was quite tall for his age.

Sasuke hesitated for a moment before he turned his face to Itachi, his cheeks flushed from heat. It was really warm today. "Otō-Sama didn't even see my test. He doesn't care at all," he said in a sad little voice and then turned his face away. Itachi saw his tiny pink mouth quiver as he squeezed his eyes shut. The tears stung on his hot face.

"Sasuke . . . " Itachi brushed his tears away and pushed his sweaty hair aside. "He's other matters to deal with. Where’s your test? Let me see." He stretched his hand and pulled out the paper sticking out from between the books. "A perfect score. I'm proud of you."

Sasuke's face lit up, and he looked into Itachi's eyes. "You are, Nii-San?" he asked as if unsure of his brother's honesty.

"Of course I am. You're my brother. Why would I lie to you?" he spoke softly and wiped away fresh tears shimmering in the last light of the sun. "Come on, let me carry you home." Reassured that his brother was being honest, he let Itachi pick him up. Itachi flung Sasuke's bag over his shoulder, slipped his arm under Sasuke's buttocks, and slipped the other behind his neck.

Lifting Sasuke up, Itachi started walking. Sasuke circled his arms around Itachi's neck, his chest pressed against his brother's, his heart beating loudly. "Nii-San, I want to be like you," he whispered close to Itachi's ear, his cheek pressed into the crook of his brother's neck. "You're perfect, Nii-San. When I grow up, I’ll be just like you. I’ll work hard to be like you."

"You don't have to be like me, Sasuke. You are you," he reassured him again and moved his hand up to press Sasuke firmly to himself as he opened the gate. "See, we are home. You should . . . " he paused and turned his head slightly to look at Sasuke. He had fallen asleep.

Itachi closed his eyes. The memory ended. The illusion ended. Time had cast a different shadow around him. It was a memory relived under the darkness of this sky. Somehow, his feet had found their way back home, retracing the path like a routine ritual. He never thought that in those innocent childhood confessions lay the absolute passion for honesty. He tilted his head back and felt the chill from the wind crawl upon his warm skin; it was his fault that Sasuke forever chased the idea of him being a statue carved out of a cold marble—a symbol of perfection.

Somewhere down the road, the boy had forgotten himself, overlooked the mask of perfection his brother wore to hide his True nature. He had tempered his own innocence and beaten it out of himself to mould it in Itachi's image. Itachi stood still and felt the soft chill of rain upon his unyielding skin; it betrayed him to tremble at the sensations—a crack in his perfect mask. It readjusted itself quickly to appear indifferent again, but within him raged an ocean of regret. Sasuke was slipping out of his hands . . .

He felt as though he was standing on the brink of a frightening precipice, staring down at the darkness by his feet. It was barbed and alive—a lid on his secrets and sins. He had little remorse for his deeds. They were his duties, his willing choices to protect the village as its uncompromising soldier . . . and his brother. Yes, he would do anything for him: betray his clan, his loyalty to the village, and break free from the precepts of innocence and notions of martyrdom. Those are disgraceful sentiments if he had nothing to protect.

What would he protect if Sasuke lost himself to the Truth? The perfect mask yielded before fear for just a moment. Waves of distress eating away at his insides slammed against his composure, but it was too stubborn for them to break through, tear it apart, and spill out over his face to consume him for just a moment's victory. No, he would do everything to shield Sasuke from the truth, to protect the bond forged in innocence between them. Sasuke did not have to know everything.

Taking a long intake of breath, as if the matter was settled, Itachi stepped inside the manor. The servants had lit the lanterns. The Uchiha symbol glowed behind the yellow light of the lantern in the entrance's alcove. He looked at it for a moment as though interested in the red glow of the fan and took off his sandals. The chill was trapped behind the door. Dull and hushed sounds of the rain's pitter-patter permeated the space about him.

Itachi opened the clasp of his sheath and grabbed hold of the sword. The rack to the right had the weapons he and Sasuke used for their missions. When his gaze moved in the direction of his room, the sword in his grip clanked to the floor, and his eyes pulsed to life. "Sasuke . . . " he let out a whisper and flashed to his brother, a crumpled figure by the open door. He sat down and grabbed Sasuke by the shoulders. "Sasuke, speak to me. Sasuke . . . "

Sasuke lifted his head, his eyes unable to decide the pattern they wanted to wear as they fluctuated hastily between the ring of Tomoes and the petals of Eternal light; Itachi had been too hard, too cruel this time. "Nii-Sama," he let out a weak sound, his face enveloped by sadness, "have you ever had the urge . . . to just let it all go?"

Itachi did not know what to say. He kept looking at Sasuke, his innocence apparent on his face without that mask of mimicry. "I remember I visited our parents' grave—and I went on a mission that day. I was hanging by a thread, looking down at the ocean . . . those raging waves crashing on the rocks, the smell of salt rushing to me. I just—I wanted to let go. I wanted to be free . . . I hate this—this burden. I don't know what to do." He grimaced, his eyes brimming with tears.

"Sasuke, you are my flesh and blood and I am your anchor. Even if you end up loathing me, it would never matter because that's what older brothers are for—to bear the hate and be their brothers' shield," Itachi said with utmost honesty and pressed Sasuke's forehead against his own.

He had to find Kisame before Sasuke. Truth was never a necessity . . .

# # # # # #

"Tsunade-Sama, can't you do anything—anything at all?" Sakura pleaded. The night was a child perched on the sky's throne, but the sky was hidden behind the vast swathe of clouds: an unwary darling was ruthlessly shielded by a curtain of rain and storm.

"Sakura, I wish I could, but Itachi has written a detailed report. He's the Anbu Captain and the boy is typically thorough. Sage knows he never leaves any loopholes behind for anyone to get around. I can’t override his decision under these conditions. If you want to learn more, then take the opportunity he's offering you. You are a gifted Medic and hold great mastery over Genjutsu-Kai. It wouldn't hurt to hone your skills," Tsunade said from across the large table. It had few unsigned scrolls lying open on its surface.

Sakura heaved a sigh, her eyes downcast, looking around at the new rug spread across the floor. The office was being renovated—racks, cupboards, and even the large table, were new. She breathed in the overpowering smell of fresh paint and coughed. It was unbearable to even stand in the office.

"This would give you time to separate yourself from Sasuke and think for yourself," Tsunade said and gazed at the shocked expression on Sakura's face. She was not expecting such honesty from her mentor.

"Tsunade-Sama, I—" she stopped and lowered her eyes in shame.

"There's no need to hide it. I know you have strong feelings for him, but that's clouding your judgment. Why don't you tell Itachi already that you failed the tests because you were making a poison's antidote for Fū under Danzō’s orders? I’m sure he can make Sasuke understand. Sage knows that wild boy can't even be controlled by anyone but Itachi," she said, her brow knitting with irritation. The Uchiha brothers always were these two bratty imps in her eyes: unreasonable, secretive, and hard-headed.

"It was a classified mission. I was told not to tell my Captain. I don't think there’s any need to tell Itachi-Sama. I've passed my tests anyway," Sakura answered, her eyes still lowered before the Hokage's soft gaze.

Tsunade sighed and lifted herself up with great difficulty. Sitting on the chair all day long was hardly her idea of a decent job. She walked to the closed window and opened it a little to let fresh air in. It hit the side of Sakura's face and cooled beads of sweat standing on her skin. She shivered, took in a gulp of air, exhaled as hard as she could. It was a good idea to air the room.

"I'm giving you an honest advice—forget about Sasuke," she broke off, and then she turned around to face her student and met her green eyes glazed with fresh tears. "He doesn't love you. He will never love you. You're just wasting your life away, chasing after this—this boy who doesn't care for you. The sooner you realize this, the better. Sometimes, when our desires are shattered, we go down wrong paths from where there’s no return. Break yourself free. Be free. That's all I’m going to say."

Tsunade kept her gaze settled upon Sakura; she was weeping in the light of the lantern. The grieving girl raised her head, her face ruined by tears. She took in a shuddering breath and spoke in a wavering voice strained by her youthful passions, losses, and fears: "t-thank you, Tsunade-Sama. You are—k-kind."

Tsunade took a few steps and clamped her hand on Sakura's trembling shoulder. "I know it's hard, but you have to let go. Let him go, Sakura. For Sage's sake, you're only twenty-five. You have a whole life ahead of you. Don't ruin it by running after a mirage. Take this chance Itachi is offering you and you can apply anywhere you want . . . you can get away from this place, away from Sasuke and start over," Tsunade said and stroked Sakura's hair.

Sakura did not say anything in response. Could she really break free from him? The thought hit her hard. He was like a sturdy, unrelenting chain of desire around her—an unbreakable chain wrapped around her flesh and soul. Would she ever be able to run away, break free without tearing herself apart? Her heart thundered in her breast as she thought of the next best thing, and she felt his hold on her loosen just a little . . .

# # # # # #

Chapter Text

# # # # # #

Cool drops quivered on his face, his cheeks blushing from the chill nipping at his skin. He palmed his face and kept his eyes downcast and avoided his older brother's persistent gaze. A sigh came out as a thick fog from Itachi's mouth, and he finally spoke, unwilling to prolong the silence between them any longer: "are you still angry with me?"

"Why does it matter what I think? You do as you please," Sasuke retorted and flexed his neck. He was still staring down at his sandals, and his cheeks tightened in disdain. The scroll was lost, burnt by his own brother. Everything he had worked for . . . was lost.

Itachi took one step and moved the branches, dotted with cool raindrops, out of his way. His eyes had a hint of worry, his face calm that defiantly kept the emotions from crossing the verges of his control.

"Were you really content with chasing a Missing-Nin without authorization? You know we have the inquiry hanging above our heads. The matter is still not in the past. Must you be an obdurate child with a Team under your command?" Itachi asked, his voice calm, but it was failing to mollify his brother's passions this time.

Sasuke raised his gaze, meeting Itachi's eyes, steeped in an emotion that shocked his older brother—was it hatred? "Did you bring me here to mock me?" Sasuke asked and a sudden bitterness came into his face, but it left just as quickly.

"Of course not. I am simply exhorting you to be vigilant. Chasing after Missing-Nins without thinking, taking that Mizukage's tasks on a whim . . . people in Root are starting to whisper. They can start an inquiry into this matter if they desire, and I will not be able to stop them. The only one I can stop, is you," Itachi reasoned and watched a flicker of anger race across his brother's face.

"I wasn't doing it on a whim. Don't insult my intelligence," he hissed, his voice thick and angry.

Itachi slightly tilted his head to the left, his face inquisitive, his left hand twisting the hilt of the long kunai in his hand. "Is there something you want to tell me?" he asked, and his eyes roved on his brother's face.

"Why?" Sasuke said in a mocking voice and gave a small laugh, "you've won. Isn't that what you always wanted—to humiliate me and prove yourself right? Well, congratulations. This wouldn't be the last time you put so much effort into cutting my paths. I'm sure you’re proud of yourself." He wore a contemptuous smile on his face. His tone, his expression, his whole demeanour shocked Itachi. He had never talked to him this way before.

Itachi's eyes widened momentarily, but he quickly regained his composure. "Is that what you think—that I cut your paths, and put so much effort in disgracing you? You seem to soak yourself in your own world, unable to see reason from my eyes that I do everything for you. How can you be so . . . oblivious to everything?" he asked, his voice not able to hide the small undercurrent of worry this time, but it was not enough to cool the fires blazing just beneath Sasuke's skin.

"Oblivious?" Sasuke asked, his voice rising, his face contorting with anger. "How dare you! You treat me like things in your games. You thwart my paths whenever it pleases you, never caring for a second how I feel about it. Then you give yourself the liberty to accuse me?" Sasuke raised his hand to his face and brought his thumb and forefinger close. "I was this close—this close, but you went ahead and destroyed everything. You had no right. You never had any right to do what you did. You just did it to please yourself."

"Sasuke, what is—"

"I'm not going to listen to you anymore," Sasuke cut him off, his face marked red by fury, "if I don't find any lead soon, I swear, I’ll never forgive you." He looked into his brother's eyes resolutely, letting him feel the rage in them. Then he turned around and walked at a quick pace out of the clearing. He passed by Naruto who had just dragged out a ninja from behind the bushes.

"Sasuke, I caught him! Where are you going?" Naruto asked and tried to still the ninja struggling in his grasp. He turned his puzzled face to Itachi whose eyes were staring at the empty space before him. His mask had been thrown away, and he was not aware of this vulnerability.

"Hey, Sasuke—" Naruto called out from behind, but Sasuke disappeared behind the trees.

"Let him go. Just let him cool off a bit," Itachi sighed and closed his eyes. He put the long kunai back into the sheath and looked at Naruto. "I suppose you cleared the task. You can resume your Chūnin duties from tomorrow."

"Thanks," Naruto said in confusion, his blue eyes unable to fathom the intensity in Itachi's face. He looked very angry all of a sudden. "What about my Jōnin application?"

"Talk to your Captain about it. He will arrange the dates. Loosen your grip," he said in a heavy, commanding voice.

Naruto obliged. The prisoner slipped from his hand. Naruto blinked and saw the prisoner’s head fly into the air: his blood floated before his blue eyes enveloped by a strong wave of shock. He stared beyond the spotty, rosy veil at the drawn sword in Itachi's hand—his passions un-obscured in his red eyes.

"What the . . . hell?" The breathy voice tumbled up to his throat, his boyish face in the grip of shock and fear as he looked at the head lying close to his sandals, touching his left toe. He pulled his foot back when he felt the gob of saliva, hanging from the prisoner’s lips, on tip of his toe, looking repulsed. He jerked his head up and watched Itachi as he wiped the blood from the sword on his pants, looking remorseless and cold. Itachi's lips twitched very slightly at the corners, with a hint of loathing as though the man disgusted his sensibilities even in death.

Itachi paid Naruto no heed, his face hard, chiselled out of the coldest of marbles. He bent his head down and let out a breath of fire. It engulfed the dead man and turned him into a charred, black body within two seconds. He did not stick around and flashed out of the forest the next moment, leaving Naruto alone in the clearing.

His blue eyes, still under the shadow of fear, looked down at the ashes flying up into the air from the body. The wind was carrying them away. He kept looking at it, and not sure why, felt a tear squeeze out of his eye. His heart was too kind, too soft; his lips trembled with sadness and the realization that Itachi had taken out his anger on the prisoner . . .

# # # # # #

"You have to quit your post, Hinata. You don't understand what's at stake here?" Hiashi pleaded before Hinata, standing in the shafts of light tempered by the paper-screen window.

Hinata raised her gaze—there was a touch of defiance in her eyes. She pressed her hand to her breast and her heart tripped, nervous of her new found resolve. "I-I can't quit my post, Otō-Sama. I won't quit my post. You ask so much of me," she said, her voice small with emotion.

"You’re disobeying your father? When did you become so insolent?" Hiashi said in a raised voice, his fingers clenched as though he meant to hit her.

"I’ve never disobeyed you. I’ve done whatever you’ve ever asked of me. Can't I have this small amount of freedom? I didn't say I won't give you an heir," she lied, her face trembling. It did not matter. All she needed was a bit of strength, and then she would leave her clan . . . and go away from this place. "But y-you can't lock me up like this. I'm a human. Have you ever thought of me as one? Have you ever . . . cared about me? This is the first time you've come here after my marriage." She closed her eyes, and her lips shuddered. She hated this weakness, but she steeled herself and looked him in the eye and saw remorse.

Her words had broken him. He stood erect, breathing heavily as if something was burdening his back, trying to bend it against his will. "You don't know how much I have sacrificed for this clan's sake—my dignity, my honour, and—" he stopped, chewed up the word he wanted to say, and swallowed it down, "you have to understand that, without an heir, Namikaze Clan is lost. And if they are lost, we are lost. You don't even realize this." He turned his head away, feeling ashamed of his daughter's newfound defiance.

"You didn't have to stop. You've sacrificed me, too, haven't you? You don't have to hide. I was always the pathetic, weak one. And I don't blame you. I wish I was stronger. But I can't do things because you want me to. You want an heir, and you will get it . . . a-after I recover," she lied again, and this time, she held her gaze. Her fingers clenched into fists. She was not going to let him bully her again.

Hiashi opened his mouth to speak but a knock came upon the door. "Come in," Hinata said and touched her lips with her fingers to catch her gasp when the door opened: Sasuke stepped into the house, moving his eyes from Hiashi to Hinata.

"If I'm interrupting something, I can come back later," he said and looked at Hiashi.

Hiashi shook his head. "No, it is all right. I was just leaving," he said and turned his eyes to Hinata. "We will discuss this matter some other time." Then he left the house, closing the door behind him.

Sasuke kept looking at the door, his eyes narrowed as though he was lost in thought. He finally turned around and put the scroll on the table, his eyes meeting hers with a sudden wild intensity. "I've approved your request. You’ll have to induct yourself into the trials next week. Train with Yuu and see how it goes."

"T-Thank you," she stuttered and lowered her eyes. The desire she felt for him came back with full force. She raised her gaze slightly to look at the smile playing about his lips, and her heart writhed and convulsed with desire. She had not seen him for a week. Her body could feel the heat rise from him—a palpable warm aura sliding against her. It felt so delicious to stand so close to him and let that needy part of her scrape at her walls, mad with lust.

"That's not the only thing I came here for," he paused and took out another scroll from his pocket, "there is an inconsistency between the dates your father gave me."

"What?" she asked through the haze of her thoughts.

"The date your father gave me? It doesn't match the date when the eyes were relinquished. You know, when the eyes are taken out like that, it leaves a trace of chakra behind, don't you?" he asked and drew close.

She nodded, her gaze bent on his face. He looked calm, serene, and a little playful. "Well, Nii-Sama’s asked for an investigation into the matter. You understand, right?" he asked again, drawing closer still. "I want you to look into the matter. Your father doesn't even have to know." He smiled and his eyes glinted with a new playfulness she had never seen before.

"But—" Hinata fell silent and took the scroll from his hand. She unrolled it a little and looked at the Anbu Captain seal at the corner with another odd symbol she had never seen before. She rolled it back up again and clutched it tightly.

"Your father might not want the investigation, and Neji could get involved. I don't think it's necessary for the matter to escalate. It's better if you simply look into this and search for a few scrolls that might carry the symbol I showed you. Let's bury this matter. I don't want this to become an issue. I'm sure you'll agree," he said and created an innocent smile on his face.

"I—I agree," Hinata said and an innocent desire came up in her face and flushed the white cheeks with a vivid pink. She put the scroll on the table by the entrance door, her eyes not leaving his, enchanted by this new side of him. He was so different from the time he attacked her. Itachi was right: he did not have to know.

Hinata let out a burdened sigh and approached him. She stretched her hand and placed it against his cheek. He bit into his lower lip in a manner naughty children do, and her warm expression made a seductive smile appear on his face, his eyes red and feral. "Naruto will come here to get his things any minute now. I don't think it's the right time to play," he teased and lowered his eyes to her shaking fingers as she pulled down the zip of his jacket. She was still not used to this intimacy.

Sasuke gave a soft laugh and grabbed her trembling wrist. He bent down his head and clamped his mouth over hers and felt her hasty tongue push into his mouth. Well, if that’s what she wants . . . he thought in amusement. He grasped her thighs, lifted her up with ease, and settled her down on the table—her legs squeezed his hips.

Sasuke reached down and pulled at his zipper. Pushing her underwear aside, he created a little room for himself to enter her. He pressed the slick tip against her wet entrance and slipped inside in one smooth stroke. She let out a little sound and arched her back reflexively. Clasping her legs tightly around his hips, she kissed his jaw and nape, his skin hot under the touch of her lips. He moved in and out of her at a hard pace. The table banged against the wall, and a cup fell onto the floor with a loud crash. His warm breaths were harsh and ragged against her ear.

Hinata did not want him to stop. She did not want him to pull away. Her walls contracted against his flesh painfully, and he dug his fingers into her inner thighs, wedging her legs further apart as he drove into her harder and faster and at a more frenzied pace. She panted against him, lips pressed to his warm neck slick with sweat. His hair, stuck to the side of his jaw, smelt musky.

She twisted her neck and sucked on his lower lip that shuddered with arousal between her lips. He responded eagerly, twisting his tongue around hers, relishing the warmth of her sheath. It did not matter to him: she provided a good distraction. He broke the kiss suddenly, his eyes red. Then he pulled out quickly with a jerky movement and zipped up his pants.

Hinata ached between her legs, but she smoothed down her kimono. Her heated eyes watched him button up his shirt and pull the Jacket's zip up to his throat to hide the red marks on his nape. He stood calmly against the wall, and the next moment, the door opened and Naruto stepped in. His eyes widened in surprise. "Sasuke, you left so suddenly—I," he broke off, and his face split into a wide grin, "I cleared the mission."

A warm smile formed on Sasuke's face. He stretched his arm and slapped on Naruto's back. "Didn't I tell you it would be easy for you? But you always doubt yourself," he said with warmth in his voice.

Hinata's mouth twisted down. Sasuke . . . he cared for Naruto. She could not say she liked this side of him. She sat silently on the table, feeling the delightful moist wash of their arousal drying out between her thighs in the dry heat of the room.

"You promised you'll treat me to sake and ramen for a whole week," Naruto said with a broad smile and threw his arm around Sasuke's shoulders.

"A promise is a promise. Come on, let's go. We'll talk about your Jōnin application, too," Sasuke said and walked through the door without sparing her a moment's glance.

Naruto stuck his head in and twisted his neck to look at her. "I'll come by in the evening to collect my things. Just put them outside the door. I don't want to disturb you," he said, grinning from ear to ear . . . and then he left.

Their voices floated to her for a few moments, and then she could hear nothing other than the shushing sounds of the tall grass outside. Her gaze wandered slightly to the right. The scroll . . . it had fallen off the table. She leant back against the wall and took a long intake of breath. She would get the scroll. If that was what it took to pull away from her family, then so be it . . .

# # # # # #

Itachi sat down and turned the stamp in his hand. He closed his eyes and let out a breathy sigh. Sasuke's chakra lingered on it a bit. He had put his own upon it to make sure he would know if someone used his Anbu Seal without his permission. The darkness stood like sentinels around him, guarding his face. His whole body shuddered with fear this time. If Sasuke slipped, he would be caught for treason against Root, and killed . . .

He felt a knot of great pain in his heart, and it madly thudded as though a dying, snared animal, pitifully wriggling to get out of fate's pitiless trap. His cool facade was gone, his face an exquisite mask of sorrow and fear. Sasuke was lashing out; he was testing him the way he always did when he was angry. He closed his eyes, and his breaths and heart gentled, his mind racing. Could he beat his brother at his own game?

Who had he used the seal for? He placed his hand over his eyes, his fingers digging into his temples. He never really knew the whole affair, even in the past. How much did Sasuke hide from him about the Tulip Squad? The questions abraded the finely crafted landscape of his mind and powered through his calm. It shattered, hard raking waves crashing themselves upon it without a heart, without a pity.

He pressed his thumb to his dry lips. Someone was leaking out the information from Sasuke's team. He turned his red eyes to the door. Beyond the garden, stood Sakura, her chakra a meagre quantity compared to his own—so miserably weak, so pitifully fragile that he could snuff it out entirely with a tiny trickle of his own with such ease that it almost amused him. But the seal on her forehead held tons more. His mind kept coming back to her. He had cast his net. Now all he had to do was wait for this proverbial pink moth to scorch itself upon the flame.

Itachi stood up, grabbed his sword from the table, and pushed it into the sheath on his back; his mind came back to a web of memories and the spider that sat waiting upon its core . . . waiting. It had to be her. The thought pierced the wall of vengeance, and a spurt of red gushed out, drowning his conscience. He stepped out, walked through the garden, and stopped close to her; then his eyes appraised her life and what little worth she had.

Her cheeks burnt under his gaze before she spoke: "I brought along the supplies you asked of me, Itachi-Sama. Are we ready to leave?" Her eyes bounced around, avoiding his gaze.

He measured her worth, and his mind formed a perfect reason: if it was between anyone and his beloved brother, they had no worth—troubles always needed to be weeded out . . .

# # # # # #

Chapter Text

# # # # # #

He downed one cup of sake, then two, then three . . . and let out a loud sigh. Then he filled his lungs with the warm air of restaurant: it was redolent with the fumes of alcohol and a sharp whiff of spices, his cheeks red, his half-mast eyes raised to look at the waitress wearing a plunging kimono; a silver chain dangling from her neck got lost between the squeeze of her breasts. She brought her arms together to deepen the cleavage—a leer upon her painted lips.

"One more," he rasped and knocked the small cup against the table. He slumped forward and pressed his cheek against the cold table.

The waitress skittered her fingers through the mop of unkempt black hair and whispered into his ear: "you're such a handsome drunk. Come in the back room and I'll give you sake and so much more." Her warm breath tickled on his nape. He strained his head a little to look at her and smiled.

"Maybe after you get me that cup, sweetheart," he said in a groggy voice and knocked the cup on the table again.

The woman took hold of his wrist and tried to raise him up to his feet when another strong hand firmly grabbed her arm. "Whoa, whoa! Calm down there, lady," said the man, a little loudly. "Hey, I saw that. Don't you dare go for his wallet again," he warned and sat down beside his friend, "and bring me one cup. Make it light."

The woman frowned and disappeared behind the beads hanging in back of the small counter. He returned his gaze to his friend and gave a hard tap on his back. "Oi, Sasuke! Quit drinking, you idiot! That was your twentieth cup. What's wrong with you?" he said with reproach and grabbed hold of his shoulders.

Naruto pulled him back to a sitting position; Sasuke’s head was still hanging down from heavy intoxication. "I brought you here to have fun, Naruto. Well, aren't you having fun?" he asked, his eyes still closed.

Naruto sneezed and wiped his nose on the back of his sleeve. "I can hardly breathe in here," he remarked, looking around at the heavy smoke from incense and spices hanging in the air like a thick winter fog. "You know, I didn't ask you to bring me to this place. Three women have groped me, one nearly took off with my wallet, and you nearly got dragged off to the back room to get groped again. What's so special about this place anyway?" He scratched his yellow hair matted with sweat. The room was hot.

Sasuke let out a chuckle. "They serve a special kind of sake, good food, and the women here are really cheap. The self-proclaimed monks from Konoha come here to rut, what else? And you're no monk," he said and looked at Naruto from the corner of his misty eyes filled with tears from inhaling so many fumes in the room.

Naruto clucked his tongue, wearing a disapproving expression. "You're drunk," Naruto said in a heavy voice and threw his arm around Sasuke's shoulder. His warm, ocean-blue eyes regarded him strangely. He let out a sigh and wiped the sweat from his forehead. "What's the matter—you had a fight with Itachi?"

Sasuke made a sound of irritation and turned his head away. "So I am right—great way to get around it. Get yourself robbed and groped by strange women. You sure have a fine way of settling things," he said with an air of defeat and looked at the woman who came from the back room with a small tray in her hands. She put down the cup before Naruto and glared at him. Her lips pursed as she cast one last hopeful look at Sasuke before disappearing behind the tinkling beads again.

Sasuke slapped his hand on the table, his head spinning. "Mounting a mistress daily—you're the one to talk," he retorted hoarsely and coughed, his eyes bloodshot and bleary. He had a hard time focusing on the cups in the racks and was seeing doubles.

Naruto drained his cup and placed it back on the table with a clink. "Yeah, I'm not the one who’s drunk and wasted. What happened? Did he give you too many missions? Your brother is . . . strange," he said softly, fearing that any sharpness in his voice might incur Sasuke's wrath—it was a sensitive matter concerning his Nii-Sama, after all.

Sasuke turned his head a little and fixed him with an angry glare. "Don't talk about Nii-Sama like that," he said heavily and propped his head in his hand. (And that day Naruto learnt that even softness did not work when Itachi was the subject of discussion).

"Well, did he?" he asked and placed his elbows on the table.

Sasuke remained silent for a few moments. Then he breathed out loudly and wiped away the sheen on his forehead. "Back to back missions for thirty-six hours. I don't even have an hour of free time between the missions. If I don't complete what he left me—" he stopped as a wry smile pulled at his mouth, “—I'll be demoted to the Chūnin rank." He emitted a half-hearted, forced laugh and tipped his head back to look up at the beads hanging down from the low roof. They looked as though they were swaying and floating above his head.

Naruto's mouth hung open in shock. "He's joking, right?" he asked with a nervous grin on his sweaty face.

Sasuke straightened his head and shoulders. He shook his head and traced the marks on the table (left by sake) with the tip of his quivering fingers—sake had soaked through its wood for years. Naruto clamped his hand on Sasuke's shoulder. "Why—is he mad? What's wrong with your brother? It's just like last time when he didn't want me on the team. You fought with him and he ended up discharging you from duty on disciplinary grounds. I get that he's strict, but for Sage's sake, this is crazy!" he spat out, his blue eyes bulging with anger.

"Naruto, I've told you time and time again not to talk about Nii-Sama like that," he growled and knocked his elbow against the table; then he rose to his shaky feet and waded his way out of the restaurant.

"Hey, wait up, you fool! You're still drunk. Some shady woman will grope and rob you," Naruto yelled from behind. He slapped the tip on the counter and ran behind Sasuke. When he stepped outside, the breeze outside hit his warm skin with a delightful chill. Sweat drops shivered off his brow, and his skin trembled under the sudden assault of cold. He looked around and found Sasuke bent over beside a tree . . . vomiting.

He spat out, probably, the last cup of sake on the ground and slumped down against the tree. Naruto walked to him and stopped by the tree, his eyes wandering skyward to look up at the crescent in the sky. It was a clear night. "Come on, let me help you up," he said and held out a hand to him.

Sasuke took a whiff of the fresh air and sighed out. "Just . . . give me a few moments," he murmured in reply, breathing heavily, his eyes downcast and his expression guarded. He was gathering his stray senses.

Naruto stretched and put his hands behind his head. "Man, you're a handful. You haven't even changed. That uniform probably stinks now," he said, yawning. He rubbed sleep from his eyes. "I'm hitting the sack when I get back—oi, Sasuke, don't fall asleep." He lightly tapped his shoulder and grabbed his limp arm. "That's it, I'm taking you home. Come on, easy does it." Naruto threw Sasuke's arm around his shoulder and curled his other arm around his waist.

"You fool, I’ve a mission in an hour," Sasuke protested, getting annoyed.

Naruto pulled him closer and chuckled. "Fine, you can get a power nap and I'll wake you up fifteen minutes before the mission. Happy? Oi, I said don't fall asleep or I'm gonna carry you on my back. What will people think?" he joked and gave a soft laugh.

Sasuke touched the side of his head and narrowed his eyes to a squint. "Damn you, don't yell in my ear. My head hurts." He winced and clutched at his stomach. It was hurting like hell.

"Your own fault. Told you not to drink that much." Naruto laughed and turned to the long winding road to Konoha. It was night and all the colourful lanterns were lit. Konoha was a twinkling lake against the backdrop of night. The fragile yellow leaves above them shook as the night breeze rushed through them. They quivered and prayed to not be parted from the tree.

"Say, Sasuke," he paused, steadying him, "you told me Mist's lake was beautiful at night. I want to see it. I've never been outside the village that much, you know. Father hardly allowed it. It would be a great trip—just the two of us. What do you say?" He stopped in his tracks and drank in the sight of fog around the boundaries of the village.

Sasuke raised his eyes and looked beyond the haze of the mist and night playing tricks on his eyes. The alcohol was wearing off. He took in a lungful of air and spoke, "sure, why not. We can do a mission together there."

"Huh? I was thinking about camping or something, but all right," Naruto said and started walking down the slope. The wind rushed at them from behind: the cool mountain air was moving down the slope. It nipped at their skin—so cold and light.

Sasuke coughed again and sniffed the cool air. "Don't be silly. I don't have time for camping these days. Why don't you concentrate on your Jōnin trials rather than day-dreaming about camping? You're still so irresponsible and flippant," he remarked and picked up the pace—it felt as if they were jogging down the slope.

Naruto's smile broadened. He titled his head a little to look at Sasuke's sobering face. "You passed on the application?" he asked, looking shocked.

"I did. Maybe that'll teach you to finally drop that conniving woman," Sasuke said, nettled.

Naruto groaned in response, his face a little tense. "Don't talk about Sakura-Chan like that. That's not nice. You can be so mean," he said, his voice filled with reproach.

Sasuke broke into a laugh so hard that his body shook. "I'll call a rusty kunai a rusty kunai," he broke off and breathed in and out loudly, "keep indulging her till she drops you behind and goes off her merry way. Don't say I didn't warn you."

"Sasuke, I—" he stopped with a heavy sigh, "never mind." They walked silently down the slope. The mist steadily rose from the grass and enveloped them . . .

# # # # # #

Sitting under the weak light of the candle set high on the desk, Hinata riffled through the scrolls. Night had fallen, her father's anger spent, her resolve strong against its resolute, advancing steps. She had steadied herself after the catharsis, and viewing her life through a kaleidoscope of emotions, she thought herself to be above her former self: a little less timid, a little less vulnerable.

A cloud of dust rose up into the air when she set the scroll down, with a little force, on the wooden table. The wood underneath it creaked. She turned on her Byakugan, soft veins bulging harshly around her eyes. They were all asleep. She had brought few scrolls with herself to copy the details if she found anything, and she would leave the front door with the same number. It was not like they ever thought her to be clever.

Hinata clenched her teeth and cast an angry glance at her father, who tossed and turned on his bed in distress. He had spent his entire youth without the warmth of a woman. Her mother died when she was just ten years old. Years of loneliness had, perhaps, made him a little hard and a little uncaring.

Her features softened, and the veins shrank on her pale face, stinging with the bite of the chill in the dusty storage-space. The air in here pressed against her like a cold wall of neglect. A pile of dust lay thick next to the jute bags in the corner. This place had not been cleaned in so long. Pressing her arm against her lips, she broke into a cough. A cool wash of memories upon her mind splashed sorrow across her young face; if her mother had not died, her father would never have been so desolate.

She felt wretched and unhappy. The pendulum of her consciousness moved back and forth between reason and lust, loyalty and betrayal, emotions and passions. Leaning her back against the dusty wall, she let out a shaky sigh of regret. She had made Sasuke her lover with such relish; he played hard to get when he desired and then let the elusive threads of passion loose from his body when he wanted—just like that.

Hinata's frail fingers trembled on the wooden floor. She raised them to look at the dust caked beneath her fingertips, and on her palm and wrist. She wiped her hand clean on her kimono, her thoughts racing back to Sasuke. Thoughts of him invaded her mind: the memory of heat rising from her body that pressed against his . . . brought out sensations she had never felt before. She squeezed her eyes shut—the sting of betrayal was a scourge upon her vow.

She loved him; she wanted him; she desired him. Tears filled her eyes, and a tremble in her skin made one slip down her cheek. Hastily, she raised her hand to wipe it away as if leaving it burn there was hurting her pride. She had become so pathetic, so weak before her lust, falling back on him over and over again and casting her desire-filled gaze upon him to feel the delightful weight of lusty sensations around her, on her body, and in her mind.

Her eyes dilated and darkened with desire. Even when he was so far, he had such an effect on her. Like a pantomime show for children, he moved his finger and the string tied to her clumsy body responded with the precision and eagerness of the lifeless gestures of a puppet. She could sense herself losing it whenever he touched her. Her skin burnt with an ache that shattered her peace, her vows, her dignity, and she felt little remorse for it.

Regret: what was that feeling? Hinata's face contorted. There was a little anger in the voices of reason in her mind. She sighed out in defeat and opened the two scrolls in her lap. A look of disappointment came into her face, and she set them aside on the pile to the right. They were not what she wanted? But what did she want?

She slumped her head over her knees, her face buried in her hands. Her shoulders hunched. "Naruto," she whispered, shaking, "why did you never love me? Why did you n-never care for me? Do you even care where I stand now—on the edge of shame, betrayal, and anger? It's your fault—it's all your fault." She laid all the blame on him, thick and uncompromising against his will.

Pulling her head back, she stared at the flame burning on the wick. It flickered very slightly. The breeze was too weak to travel this far down the basement. It must have lost its strength, trying to desperately sneak through so many gaps under the doors and around the windows. A moth fluttered over it and burnt its wings black as soon as the tip of the flame touched their soft tips. It writhed and died within seconds.

Naruto was to blame; his madness, she had seen it with her own eyes, denuded before her in the dark when no prying eye could bear witness to his cruelty. He had crushed her then, humiliated her, broken her will. Looking back at the sorrowful memory, she felt that his soft-blue eyes that had once looked at her with the tenderness of a friend were a hazy memory. Did she feel remorse, shame, for breaking away from him?

Sasuke had told her that someone cast a Genjutsu on him and stole the scrolls in his possession the other day. Is that why he attacked her—was so merciless to her? She did not know what to think. It seemed like such a pretty lie, but it was not as if she knew him to be sure.

She turned her head away: the flame stood before her like an austere judge—to weigh her mischief and missteps that drove her further down the path of desires. Her fingers moved through her dry hair, her gaze resting on the small trunk by her feet. It had a seal on it that would only open if a Head family member touched the lock. She touched it and found the seal on the old paper she was looking for greet her.

The ink had soaked through all the way to the back. This was made with haste in the past. Hinata pulled out the only scroll sitting on so many that were fragile and unreadable. Her Byakugan could tell that time had eaten away at them. She unrolled it and read the details of a deal between her Clan, Minato, and someone else—the symbol was foreign to her. It involved a large payment. The smell of old paper crawled up her nostrils. Her mind was caught in a web: why did her father not tell her of this?

Turning it around, Hinata found nothing of interest. It was a deal overseen by Danzō. What would Sasuke want with such a useless thing? She took out a blank scroll from a bag tied to a single strap around her waist, made a few hand-seals Sasuke had taught her, and watched the letters emerge like a magic trick across its surface. Every colour, every line found its way on the blank surface and filled it with chakra ink right down to the seal pattern. It was done.

Hinata breathed out loudly, her face blank. She put the scroll back into the trunk and shoved the copied one into her bag. She sat still for a few moments, and a smile disturbed her face. She wanted to run away. With this . . . would Sasuke aid her in becoming a Chūnin? She sighed as if sensing the heat of his lips upon hers. With this, would he willingly come near her, make her feel loved when she would crave without remorse for him again?

Hinata closed her fluttering eyes. Back and back, through the darkness in her mind, her body throbbed and her throat ached. A wanton sigh spilt from her lips, warm against the cool air around her. It was like a misty tendril of fog on a winter's morn. Her fingers trembled on her thighs as a fanciful reverie of an intemperate lust (of the unsatisfied mind and body) snared her with such deliberate brutality.

Her mind took a flight and created a pretty illusion of her beneath him, her lips eagerly feeling the hot skin on his nape, his body pressing heatedly against hers—the mad surge of his hips, the harsh sighs from his lips, and the passion flickering across his face . . . and she sighed. It mattered not. She would run away from here. She would find her own peace because that was all she knew in life . . .

# # # # # #

Itachi tapped the katana against his leg. He looked a bit impatient, though it was hardly a surprise that his face was as cold as ever. If there was not a slight tremble of his eyelids, Suigetsu would have thought him to be a statue made out of wax, dragged out from one of those theatre-shows for all spectators to see.

His expression softened quite suddenly and Suigetsu gave a start as if a chakra tag-bomb had just gone off right under his buttocks. "Suigetsu, stop jumping around," he said and pushed the sword into the sheath on his back.

"Right, boss!" Suigetsu said and quickly turned his laugh into a cough at the sight of Itachi's frown. Next to him stood Sakura, her head bent and eyes raised to stare at Itachi. A mild blush graced her cheeks, though the shadows were too thick to give her away.

"What is taking them so long? I do not have an entire day for this foolishness," he said and turned his eyes to Sakura who raised her head attentively to look back at him. "Sakura, go and see what is keeping him."

She gave a quick nod and jogged through the open gate. A symbol of ember was etched on the plank above the gate. This was a small village with very few Shinobis. Tsunade had sent him here to make sure the emissary of another village made it safely to Konoha and back. It was Sasuke's mission, but leaving him to wander off on his own meant nothing but trouble now.

Sakura disappeared behind the darkness on the narrow street, just beyond the gate. "The broad’s a clumsy Sensor, Itachi-Sama. Why didya bring her along?" Suigetsu asked and reached to his back to grab the hilt of the massive sword. He always touched it for no reason at all—it was an unhealthy habit of his.

Itachi turned around and half of his face came under the shadow of the night. "You ask so many questions," he replied as a mild smile ghosted over his lips.

"That's what a man does when things don't make sense," Suigetsu said, his white face turning mischievous.

"And you talk too much," Itachi remarked, the smile still lingering on his face.

"And that's what a man does when he's really bored," he said with glee, passing his tongue over his sharp teeth that sparkled as though they possessed a light of their own.

"Then I suggest you dig a little hole by the gate and play a game of marbles and try to roll one marble out of it at a time," he said in a flat tone of voice.

Suigetsu burst out laughing. "Yor funny, Itachi-Sama. I mean ya hardly look it, but yor funny!" he choked out, and wiped the tears from his eyes with a very exaggerated gesture. "But, I gotta say, wasn't this Sasuke's mission?"

"Still so concerned about my brother's duty-roster? Your interest in his well-being is truly touching," he said without emotion and cupped his chin and looked up at the sky hidden behind a sheet of grey clouds.

Suigetsu bent down and picked up a small rock. "Yor such a mean bro. Ya took his mission and left 'im to rot in the village with back ta back missions for three days, didn'tchya? He wasn't goin' ta run away, ya know. Come on, Itachi-Sama, where's the love?" he said loudly, raising his hands into the air dramatically as if he was praying to the gods.

Itachi did not say anything. His Sharingan was out as he scanned the gates. The wind rushed to him, and the hair in his ponytail flared away from his ears in waves. Suigetsu smiled behind him and threw the rock at the metallic gate: the rock clanked against it, ricocheted off at a sharp angle, and fell into the darkness to the right.

"Why didn't ya bring Jūgo along? He's a good Sensor. I think all that hard work’s getting' to ya! Just get a fancy whore and calm yorself. That's what I'll do—if I had enough money and yor looks," he said and pushed the stray hair out of his eyes.

Itachi cast him an amused look. "I do not think it is necessary now to keep track of my odourless crows through his Natural Energy sensing skills, would you not agree?" he asked slowly with a soft smile on his face.

Suigetsu's boyish grin turned into a laugh. "You may think I do not know my own brother, but you will be surprised that no one knows him more than I. I know why he kept Jūgo, and I know why he kept Karin. He wants to guard himself against my intrusions. I granted his wishes to induct you all as I had no desire to see him unhappy. He believes me to be an intruder in his affairs, and he tends to get carried away like an innocent child, lost in his playtime, when he knows it needs to end now. And he kept you," Itachi paused, bending his dark, meaningful gaze full upon Suigetsu’s face, "as you seem to share some interests with him. I hope you do not think you ever tricked me."

Suigetsu pressed his knuckle to his quivering lips, a delightful laugh rumbling up from the back of his throat. "’Course not. Why would ya ever think that? Ya know I've always admired that schemin' noggin of yours. It’s got nothin' but my respect," Suigetsu said, laughing, and gave a low bow. Then he raised his head a little and looked back at Itachi's eyes steeped in red. "But ya do tend ta give into Sasuke's emotional blackmailing—kinda always. I guess his noggin ain't that bad, either. He just knows how to get past ya. Ain't that adorable?"

"Did you do what I asked of you? I hope you did not come along to flap your gums and make foolish comments. I could have brought Hinata along to humour me then," he said by barbing his words with disdain.

Suigetsu feigned indignation. "Come now—comparin' me to that bimbo? That's so mean. ’Course, it's done. I left my Water-Clone with yor crow next ta her room just like ya asked. Am gonna slip in, look through that whore's soiled knickers to find the Root seal, and slip out. Easy-peasy—job done!" he assured and slapped his hands together and rubbed them briskly.

Itachi steered his gaze to Sakura who yelled out a confirmation that the stay here was confirmed. He started walking to the gate, with Suigetsu behind him. He kept his face blank, his spirit seething—three days and this would be settled . . .

# # # # # #

Chapter Text

# # # # # #

His sweat plopped on the scroll and soaked through the scroll-paper. Few more drops fell down and graced the blank side before he decided to wipe his glistening forehead harshly against the thick, and slightly coarse, material of his sleeve. He took a breath; the cool wind felt foreign on his hot skin.

He could feel the heat from the flame, in the lantern, on his face. The warm blood rang in his ears like the tolls of heavy shrine bells. His fever was spiking again. He squeezed his eyes shut and jerked them open to focus on the two scrolls on the clean office table. His vision swam like a heaving boat, and he sensed his Sharingan, rudely and disobediently, flicker and fulminate against his wishes.

Despite his miserable state, a glimmer of a cold smile shivered on his colourless lips: the rest his face did not cede to the warmth of triumph. It was still too soon to call this a victory. A small win—a favourable foray, he thought. Hinata was as much of an obedient fool he always thought her to be. She was at his command over something as meagre as lust. How easy was it for him to bring her to her knees? Oh, how easy.

He blinked hard and the smile faltered, his eyes moist, glinting with red malice. He would make them pay. He would make them suffer, and she would be the one to pull at the fateful string attached to that blood smeared guillotine, and it would be "off with the traitor's head", then. He forced down a humourless laugh.

Fools, the lot of them! he wanted to spit out, but the thoughts remained chained to his secrets. He liked keeping them to himself. They were like toys, and he, a little child who never intended to part with them. Each was exquisite, magnificent, and tempting in its own way. What good would it do to end this playtime? A mild frown came over his face, and he bit his lower lip. His brother would not beat him at his game. He would not let him. He would not allow him.

So stubborn, you unruly child, the cold words of his brother rang in his mind. He received a reprimand for his actions in the forest—a punishment for talking back. But he was stubborn still. As if the lash of his words were enough to damper his soaring spirits! He clucked in satisfaction. It was as though Itachi did not know him at all. How foolish of his older brother. He smiled a childish smile of innocent amusement.

Bringing his veering thoughts back to the scrolls, he traced the seal with the tip of his shaking finger. His knees felt weak to support his body. He placed his hands on the table and slumped over. His vision focused and unfocused: the room seemed to distort around him, but he did not have enough time to care for his own misery.

Sasuke moved his keen eyes back and forth between the two scrolls: the payment for Byakugans was made before he was even born. He sharply turned his head to the right. A large payment was made under Danzō’s supervision to Yagura. His heart raced, the feeling exquisite. He really was close. So close.

The sum was huge: several thousand gold coins. Right on the bottom was a seal he had never seen before. It was some kind of Jutsu bartered to gain something from the Tulip Squad; something about it was so familiar. But . . . damn this scroll. He clenched his teeth, his face working into a red fury. It said nothing about what was even taken from the other side.

Agitated, with something of an angry scowl on his flushed face, he raised his head to look at the woman who walked in through the door. "Took your sweet time," he bit out the words as if he was dragging them across the rough rocks on the shore with relish.

Karin fingered the frame of her glasses. She wore a tense look. "You know, Sasuke, it isn't my fault your brother’s punishing you. Don't take it out on me—it isn't fair," she said, her voice heavy, her expression subtle.

Sasuke stood straight. "Did you do it or not?" he asked in a cold voice. He blinked and squinted whilst he showed her his fury with the character of his features.

Karin let out a defeated sigh and walked around the table. She placed her hand on his forehead and looked startled. "Sasuke, you're burning. Go home and lie down for a while. You have another mission in an hour. Don't waste your time on this scroll now. You have it now, don't you? It isn't running away," she reasoned in a soft voice, looking into his eyes rimmed by the most uncharacteristically deep black circles. He had not slept in two days—only power naps of a few minutes were keeping him afloat.

His face was gaunt and pallid, his lips paper white. "Well," he paused and let out a heavy breath, "did you?" He raised his shaking hand.

"I did it, okay? The seals you showed me on the other one are typical Root seals. Your brother has ’em in his office. It’s even got the same signature chakra—but for Sage's sake, Sasuke! Do you want to kill yourself? What's wrong with you?" she asked in disbelief and pushed him down into the chair. She rolled her sleeve up and pressed her soft arm to his lips. "Bite it—it’ll bring down your fever a bit."

Sasuke looked from her arm to her face with an annoyed expression. "Come on," she spoke sweetly and sat down on his right thigh, "don't be stubborn."

He sighed and sank his teeth into her arm and broke the soft skin there. His eyes fluttered close, and he almost swooned at the sensation: he drank her blood with such thirst, feeling as if he had never tasted anything so warm and sweet. Her chakra coursed through his veins and imbued his body with a delicious, hot sensation of calm. She let out a loud and vulgar moan—something he was accustomed to ever since they became acquaintances. When he backed away, he saw a rosy blush on her cheeks. So predictable.

Karin moved her arm up and watched as the marks, and the purple bruise, healed on their own. Clasping her arms around his neck, she gave him a kiss on the cheek. "Feeling better?" she asked in the same, sugary sweet voice he knew to be fake from experience.

He leant back and felt the burden on his body lessen. The enervating heat vanished into something more manageable. "Where’s Jūgo?" he asked and looked up at the lantern above his desk. The sun was nearly below the horizon, and the shadows were already rising ominously in the office.

"You haven't seen the duty-roster your brother left?" She quirked her brow and twisted her back to grab the scroll from the table. "He left with Serizawa, Kai, and Naruto to do a B-Rank mission for Tsunade—something about a businessman or something."

"Fantastic," he said in a harsh voice, his lips twisting in a scowl.

"Aren't Serizawa and Kai your cousins?" she asked.

"Distant cousins," he corrected with the flick of his hand.

“I thought you liked Serizawa?” Karin asked, and when he didn’t answer, she brushed back the strands of black hair stuck to his face and spoke again: "your brother doesn't want this done. Isn't it obvious?"

"Thank you, I probably never would've guessed had you not made it so humanly obvious," he said sarcastically and looked at her up and down as though she was mocking him.

"That's not what I meant," she broke off and pressed her back against the edge of the table, "is it even necessary to fight Itachi? Talk to him. I'm sure he’ll listen." She stood up and placed the scroll back on the table.

He cast a curious eye over her fair face. "We both know you aren't that foolish. You think he'll listen to me—when my protests have earned me these punishments? I hope, for your sake, you're just trying your hand at humour—and failing," he said heavily, putting force into his words.

"He's not going to stop. How long do you want to keep this up? You retaliate, he punishes you. You step out of line, he punishes you. You ask for answers, he punishes you. This is crazy. If he's not backing down, then maybe, you should try something different, or—" she stopped at the look of rage in his face.

"Or what?" he hissed coldly and got to his feet. "Go on, say it that I should stop—let bygones be bygones. Forget about my parents' disgraceful deaths. Is that what you want me to do? Accept that my parents deserved to be put down like dogs? Accept the slaughter of my people?" He emitted an emotionless laugh.

Karin raised her eyes to meet his. "That's not what I meant," she began and grabbed his hand, "I'm just saying that you should slow down. You're killing yourself. You just got a little better after two weeks of suffering from high fever, and look at yourself now—back in the same boat again. If you keep this up, you won't get anything done. That’s all I'm saying. I'm not your enemy, Sasuke."

She stretched on her toes, her lips at his throat. "Yeah, go ahead and ignore me. You know I'm right," she said irritably as he moved to grab the other scroll from the table.

He held it up and tapped his finger against the symbol on the scroll. "What's this? It looks like a Fuin-Jutsu symbol of the Uzumaki clan. I get a feeling that I've seen this before," he said, his eyes moving on her face.

She grabbed it, her eyes wide. "Where did you get this?" she asked as if awed by something.

"It doesn't matter. What does it mean?" he asked, with a bit of impatience this time.

"You're right. It's an Uzumaki Fuin-Jutsu. This is a sealing Jutsu for the daemonic essence. Look, it has a triangle symbol. Which means—” Her lips pulled into a smile, her eyes widening with wonder as if she had come across something secret, something magnificent.

"Isobu, the three tails daemonic essence," he replied back, his face oddly blank.

"Well, I don't think I need to tell you the rest, but it seems like Danzō and his sympathisers paid Mist and the Tulip Squad a hell lot more than a couple of eyes," she whispered, afraid that someone might overhear their conversation.

Sasuke threw the scroll on the table and breathed out flames from his lips. The flames danced over the scrolls. They crinkled and burnt on the glass. Within a second, only a small pile of ashes was left behind on his desk. He slumped down into the chair, frightened of this new thread . . .

# # # # # #

"Kindly, let us through. Do not make this unpleasant," Itachi said in a polite tone of voice, his face carrying the hint of a smile.

Raindrops coursed down his white face, his hand locked to his weapon. Behind him stood Suigetsu with his deft, ever-ready hand on the hilt of the executioner blade. It had a few unsightly chinks in its metal. The struggling light of the sun shone on its large blade that was sharp and big enough to cut a man in two.

Sakura stood alert, her face tense. A frail old man hid behind her slim figure. His crooked hands quivered on her shoulders in fear. She moved her fingers and turned on her Byakugō seal and a purplish chakra sprang out: it twisted around the contours of her face and ran down her arms and breasts.

Suigetsu chuckled. "Don't be a cunt, brah. Ya don't know who this guy is. I'm tellin' ya, he'll kill ya like no body's business. Even starin' at his tight arse’s such an honour for me and pinky-chan—yah, her hair’s real. I know, right? Fuckin' crazy pink shit!" he said incredulously. "Just run along and suck on some tits or cocks, if ya swing that way—bury your tiny goose in some hopeless hole and calm yorself. Why do ya wanna die? Just let us through."

"Suigetsu, do not use such coarse language," Itachi said calmly and shook his head in a disapproving manner.

Suigetsu pulled his sword out of the old-looking leather sheath and pinned it into the soggy ground. "Why, boss, ya don't like compliments? I love handin' 'em out to ya like dangos." He clapped his hands together, grinning.

The man in front looked mortified. His face twitched in disgust. "Dear Sage, shut your gob! You talk a lot for a pissy little water monkey. Just hand over the man and we'll be on our way." The man in front drew his weapon and took on an aggressive stance. He was ready to strike.

"I will not ask you again—let us through," Itachi said, and his eyes grew sinister. His Sharingan whirled to life, and the man in front staggered back, surprised that he was dealing with an Uchiha.

"Uchiha . . . " he whispered and gulped down the hard lump in his throat. The expression of smugness drained from his face, replaced by this primal fear instilled into his mind by the ill-omened red in the taller man's eyes.

A clever smile came into his eyes. Three kunais flew towards them from the back and got deflected with ease. The man blinked. He did not even see Itachi move. His face contorted, his limbs convulsed as he raised his hand to his throat. A spray, like red plumes, exploded out of the necks of the two men in front.

They thudded to the ground, dead. Blood soaked through the mud and began to quickly disappear. Itachi's pale face shivered a bit with disgust. He wiped away the blood from the side of his face and looked at it as it got diluted by the rain into a mild pink colour on his palm. It ran down from between his fingers and disappeared—its warmth, a fleeting sensation.

He looked over his shoulder and brought his eyes upon the old man shaking behind Sakura; his fear-stricken face was frozen in mid-scream. "Tetsu-San, kindly, come here." He indicated with the flick of his hand. The man wobbled to him, raising his kimono high enough, like a dainty woman, for his spindly knees to come into full view.

He squelched through the mud like a lady of high-stature, his round belly shaking as if he was wading through raging water that would sweep him away without any shout for help. "Others are still around. You two are capable enough to—" Itachi stopped mid-sentence as he staggered forward from the belly thrust at him from behind. He caught his balance and half-turned, his eyes widening.

The man was shaking from head to toe, his knees knocking together, and he had his arms around Itachi's waist in a tight embrace. Suigetsu had the back of his hand pressed to his lips as he shook with silent laughter. Sakura's eyes grew wider. She had a mild blush on her cheeks. "Tetsu-San, it is not necessary to cling to me so closely. We can protect you," he said with a straight face and tried to pry his arms open gently—but the man did not move.

"I w-will pay you more, boy, if you spare me your calm-me-down pep-talk and pretty bullshit. I'm not dying here—not today. These assholes have been out for my behind and blood for months. Don't you tell me not to worry with that pretty mouth of yours. You look like a capable shinobi. So enough with the jibber-jabber and stand still and let me hide behind you," he said in a single breath, his jaw rigid.

Itachi opened his mouth to say something but heaved a sigh in its stead. "Never mind, just clean up this area. Both of you. The sooner we end this, the better. We have to escort him back, as well, and it already seems like a monstrous task," he said with mild irritation: a vein throbbed in his temple, and his jaws clenched as though he was in pain when he felt the man crush his belly against his back. "Well, move."

"I thought you was gonna say, spare me yor somethin' else, pretty please. But, oh, well—next time, right, Tetsu-San? You da man!" Suigetsu winked at him and disappeared with Sakura behind the trees. It did not take long for one mischievous High-Jōnin and the other Chūnin class ninja to tear up the men hiding like rats in the trees.

Itachi had his Sharingan out. He gauged Sakura's worth again. She had a lot of chakra in her forehead seal—enough to make quite a few Kage-Bunshins and still more to make it back to the prisoner and release enough of it to smash the rocks to pieces and . . . a heart, as well. It appeared to be her unique ability to gather precise chakra into her hands and release it against a single point with devastating results.

Could it be? he brushed off the thought (for the moment) and waited for them to finish the task . . .

# # # # # #

The dull light from the lantern overhead flickered. Itachi raised his head to gaze up, looking slightly agitated. They made it safely back from Konoha, but he did not even get the chance to see his own brother. Tetsu proved to be quite the handful, cowering behind him and clinging to all three whenever danger presented itself in any form. The man was an annoyance, and he was glad that they made it back in time. Now, they just had to stay there till the meeting ended and this ridiculous task would be behind him.

Presently, he sat in his guest room with a scroll in hand, his eyes upon the details; but it seemed as though he had other pressing concerns. He rolled up the scroll and placed it back on the table. Sakura sat opposite, her eyes slightly misty from anticipation. "Why have you come to me for this?" he asked and slipped one leg over the other.

Sakura cleared her throat, her gaze bent upon the Sharingan in his eyes. She lost her train of thought for a moment, but composed herself to speak again, her voice a little too timid: "I thought it would be appropriate to go directly to the Anbu Captain for this—that's all." She bent her head and rubbed her trembling hands together. She was nervous.

Itachi took in a deep breath and created a cold smile on his face. "It is slightly outrageous that you believe I will indulge you like your mentor," he said in a low, smooth voice, his face blank.

Sakura jerked her head up, her face enveloped by embarrassment. "N-No, Itachi-Sama, that's not it. I just—I wanted matters to expedite, because Sasuke—he—" she mumbled and fell silent.

"You have so many grievances with my brother," he said heavily and narrowed his eyes, "you try to bypass his authority all the time through your mentor. Is there any particular reason for this disdain? I am just a little curious." And then he was wearing such a strange smile that she shivered.

She chewed on her lower lip, pulled her eyes off his face, dark under the soft drape of a shadow, and moved them downward to her lap. Bitter tears welled up, and she saw them fall over her shaking fingers. "Your brother, he . . . he humiliates me all the time," her voice wobbled and shook with emotion. "I just want him to tell me what mistakes I've made for him to hate me so much. I-It isn't fair." She lifted her head and harshly wiped away the tears with the back of her hand.

Itachi's smile had not vanished. He tilted his head slightly to the left—his eyes had that flicker of amusement. "I will ask him the reason as to why he treats you so unfairly, but he told me that you were forced upon him by the Hokage. You failed your tests, and he had to go through a lot of trouble to make sure you stayed on the team. Is it true?" he asked in a cool voice. Her tears had had no effect on his demeanour.

Tears and eyes and faces . . . such things never thawed his heart and his resolve. Unless, it was not his beloved brother, he always found them to be cheap tricks—means to an end. People adored to exploit them and made them work with emotions to sway the other in their favour. He thought this girl to be so foolish, so cheap. How did she assume he would be moved by this show? She seemed to have a knack for overestimating her abilities.

"I," she paused, blinking back more ready-made tears he was starting to find a tad bit irksome, "I did a task for Fū-San."

Itachi raised an eyebrow, and his deliberate, fake smile almost slipped off his lips. "Fū? He does not have the authority to ask for such assistance. You have done missions for Danzō? I saw nothing of the sort in your reports," he said with a slight amount of surprise in his voice.

Sakura nodded but did not repeat Danzō’s name. There was no need for Itachi use an honorific for Root's Head. They were of equal rank. The only ones above Itachi now were the Hokage and the Daimyō. "I had to make a poison and its antidote for him. It took me many weeks to make it, but I was successful," she explained with a broad smile.

"What sort of poison?" he asked, pressing his thumb to his lips, his eyes looking at her intently. She was not experienced enough to espy the fleeting emotions surfacing and disappearing in their depths like the night ocean serpents of the deep—so secretive, so slippery, so elusive. It was always difficult for any eye to catch his emotions in its firm gaze. They were fleeting.

"It combines the venom of a small spider and the enzymes found in—" she stopped suddenly, looking unsure as if she should even say it, "in . . . in the purple lilies." She lowered her eyes immediately when she saw something flare automatically in Itachi's eyes, like a reflexive jerk of a chakra-imbued synthetic-automaton's lifeless body in the hands of a skilled puppeteer. His eyes brightened—like fires. Just like Fires.

Sakura peered through the darkness and looked fearfully at the Mangekyō Sharingan pattern glowing in a threatening manner in his eyes, though his inscrutable face gave no suggestion of what passed in his savage mind. He managed a small smile, and his eyes cooled off. "I see," he said softly, "I will speak to Sasuke, but I am afraid you will have to take your Captain into confidence over the Jōnin trials business. I cannot intervene here and give you any free access. Otherwise, people will assume such . . . terrible things." A subtle emotion rushed across his face, but her eyes were unable to register it.

Sakura nodded weakly. Itachi grabbed the scroll and held it out. "You may leave," he said as a knock came upon the door.

She stretched her hand, and her finger brushed accidentally against his. A sudden flare of heat rose up to her skin, and it tingled as his hot chakra stabbed her resolve. She caught her sigh in her spasming throat, and a thin layer of mist came across her eyes. She blinked and saw Itachi standing as he opened the latch of the lantern overhead to let out a small spit of fire. The wick caught it with such eagerness, and the flame burnt with a newfound life.

The heated feeling washed away. Sakura pressed her hand to her breast and felt her heart throb violently. Her hands and vision were not steady. Her gaze wavered a bit as she moved her unwilling feet towards the door.

"Prepare the part of your mission-report tomorrow and submit it to me before we leave," his voice came to her from a faraway corner of the world—so whispery, so sweet. She did not turn her lusty gaze to him, lest he would break her now—it would shame her so. She gave an awkward nod and grabbed the handle of the door when he spoke again, "I do find it rather peculiar that of all the flowers, you chose the purple lily . . . a flower Sasuke so adores." He smiled but did not turn his head to see her silently leave through the door.

Suigetsu stepped in and closed the door behind him. He was swaddled down to his ankles in a large robe, with a smile sparkling on his face. "Pinky-Chan’s such a lil' tramp, Itachi-Sama. I hope ya haven't taken a likin' to her. Ya deserve the finest of birds," he chirped.

Itachi walked around the table and closed the window at the far end of the room. He could still feel cold air make it in through the chinks around the window. He turned around, his eyes red: she was in her room. It was safe to talk now. "I hope you know I did not bring you here for theatrics. I have seen quite the show just now and it has bored me," he said, a bit brusquely.

Suigetsu created an offended look on his face. "Hey, now! Don't take her anger out on me. I put my life and eyes in danger to get these. Yor crow nearly poked my eyes out—thrice! That nasty lil' bird was outta control," he said in mock outrage and handed over a scroll to Itachi. "She’s keepin' an eye on Naruto. And just like ya said, the bitch’s reportin' to that rotten poop-snortin' old fart, Danzō. She’s been doin' it for the past two years."

"Right about the time she was forced upon my brother by the charitable Hokage," Itachi mused.

Suigetsu scratched the back of his head; the lack of cool air in the room was making it a bit hot for him to speak and think. "That's not all. She knows about the daemonic essence in that blond nutter and has been told ta keep watch and report when he goes loopy. Pretty shitty thing ta do, when he's knockin' her up an’ all that," he said and walked to the window, letting the small amount of air hit his face. It felt good.

Itachi was quiet. The details were odd: keeping track of Naruto's timings, what he did, and where he went; how much control he had; when he lost control . . . the list was long. "It does not speak of what she utilizes to make him lose control. It could be some sort of seal. She probably left this in a hurry when I called her for the mission. I believe we were lucky," he said and rolled up the scroll.

"Why don'tchya just Genjutsu it outta this bitch? It ain't tough for ya. If ya can plant funny images into Sasuke's head, then she'll be no trouble for ya," he said and placed his hands on his hips.

Itachi heaved a sigh. "Tsukuyomi would kill her. Only Sasuke can resist it as he's my flesh and blood. I can use the ordinary Genjutsu upon her, but," he paused, kneading his brow, "she must have a Root seal somewhere on her body. It would be mostly invisible to my Sharingan. Root will know if I break into her mind. I cannot risk starting an incident between Root and Uchiha."

"Invisible?" Suigetsu asked.

"Courtesy of Kushina. She sold quite a few Jutsus in goodwill to Danzō. They were ready-made for such occasions." He moved his head back—the cool wind from the gaps made the sweat drops on his brow quiver. "All that to ensure her husband's reign . . . she was such a fool."

"Are ya sure you don't even wanna try it—not even for Sasuke?" he asked and produced another scroll from his pocket.

Itachi cast him a curious look and took the scroll from his hand. He unrolled it, and the details made a prickly shiver go up his spine. "What is this?" he asked as if talking to himself.

"She's keepin' an eye on Naruto for her full reports on Sasuke," he explained, his face free of its typical antics, "she reported how his eyes calmed Naruto in the forest. How he uses 'em. How powerful they are in controllin' the beast. She seems ta be dangerous. I’d kill her now if I was ya. She's playin' somethin' big with Danzō."

Itachi just stared at him . . . Root was going after his brother?

# # # # # #

Chapter Text

# # # # # #

Thunder rattled the sky, the clouds so black and so angry, as the light flashed again and again, illuminating the dank cave he stood in. Heavy spatters of rain hit the rocks hard, and the drops shattered with a deliberate zeal. Light slithered in through the cracks, snake-like; its many tails forked out magnificently as it exploded into a million pieces right before his eyes.

He still could not see who stood in front him in the heavy clutch of an unforgiving darkness in the corner, mocking him of his inability to see through it all today. Dead and dry Sakura flowers swirled and whirled by his sandals, but he did not bother to steer his gaze to look down, his Sharingan, a disobedient tool today. The heavy shroud could have been rent through so easily by its prying gaze. But, alas . . . today, it was his own enemy.

Water dripped down from the tiny hole above and fell upon his shoulder and soaked through the cotton cloth of the shirt to touch his shivering skin. Thunder growled again like an inflamed beast, tearing up its prey. His damp face worked up into a knot of rage. He knew . . . he somehow knew, and yet, he did not know who it was. His mind drew a blank.

And then it was that same scene playing again right before his eyes: a kunai thrust at him stabbed through his heart, and he crashed down, a silver streak falling down again and again and again . . . and again without heart upon his breast. Red exploded out of his gaping wounds—a gush of blood rose up like wings of a butterfly, beating the air restlessly. It spattered on the muddy ground and cooled off right before his eyes.

His life ebbed away, drop by drop. How cruel that ritual of Death was? He could not fight the dark that came at him from all sides—wriggling, shapeless arms reaching out to cradle him as though he was a pitiful child that needed to be dandled for an innocent smile, a tiny sound of laughter. His limbs convulsed and his fingers contorted, pain in his every fibre; his body was a static, lifeless temple as a paroxysm of pain and fear seized him. He was dying . . . counting down the seconds that slipped away so quickly like small grains of sand from between his shaking fingers.

That life, his life, passed before his very eyes like a fast flash. He caught few moments, lost others, as a black mass of nameless fear descended upon his heart. It skipped beats, tripping weakly—fearful of the approaching faceless black. His veins throbbed with the last drops of his life. Yes, he was dying. He wanted to call out to his beloved brother. He would save him, shelter him in his arms from the cruelties of life; but his tongue, a heavy mass of flesh, would not move. "Nii-Sama," he wanted to whisper so desperately but it failed him, too.

How exquisite Death felt. Just a few trickles from its wondrous body, and he was floating, eager now to taste it with haste and leave it all behind—leave everything behind. Why did it all even matter? Did his life matter? It was all a lie; his body, a bundle of lies and innocence; hope and fear; lust and treachery. A human body. A flawed body. He was but a frail Man, after all.

He blinked one last time, his tear-filled right eye catching the cold drop. All he saw was the kunai reaching for his eyes . . . and then everything was black. Torturous breaths returned to his body and imbued it with life. His heart pounded with such speed in his throat and temples. The room swayed slowly into view, and his murky gaze found two purplish eyes staring down at him with concern.

He coughed and leant forward, holding his head in his hands. The dream . . . it was haunting him now. "Sasuke," the voice sounded whisper-like against the ringing noise in his ears, "ya a'right?"

Sasuke moved his head to look up at Suigetsu's concerned face. Suigetsu placed his hand on his shivering shoulder and spoke, "Sasuke, ya okay? Yor bleedin'."

Sasuke blinked a few times and felt the itchy, red tear sluggishly make its way down his cheek. He wiped it away with the tip of his fingers and looked back at Suigetsu. "I'm fine," he sighed and drew a few cool breaths to calm his aching nerves. Izanagi was telling him something . . . he just did not know what.

A frown creased Sasuke’s smooth forehead and he sighed. "You're done with the mission? If you are, then let's talk about Mist. I need to contact Mei again if I hope to catch Kisame," he said into his hands, stifling a yawn.

"Yah, 'bout that," Suigetsu said with an awkward grin, "yor brother has sent in another mission-order for ya." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a scroll. Sasuke groaned and flashed his red eyes on him. He was boiling to a rage now.

"Another one? Does he think I'm some common mule?" he growled, angry at his brother's persistence to keep up the unjust course of punishments. "You have at it, then. He can throw me out if it pleases him. I'm going home." He made to stand up when Suigetsu pushed him back down again.

"Slow down there, sonny boy," Suigetsu said in a high-pitched voice. "This is just a small trainin' mission. Don't go angerin' him now. Do ya wanna be barred from missions for months? Ignore it if ya feel like it, but don't say I didn't warn ya." He waved the scroll in Sasuke's face—who looked up at him and then took it from his hand grudgingly.

He ran his eyes down the details, and a small chuckle slipped past his lips. "Train Sakura?" he asked, looking surprised. "The team's training sessions are three weeks away. I'm not coddling her now. And why is Nii-Sama so interested in her all of a sudden?"

Suigetsu shrugged and made his way to a slightly ajar window by the table. A cool wind was floating in and the sky was still orange. Sun hung just below the horizon and black clouds piled up with haste up north. It would rain at night. "I don't know. He thinks Pinky-Chan’s slow—too slow ta assist him in Anbu missions. He wants ya ta give her a few lessons ta improve her reflex speed and shit like that," he explained and looked over his shoulder at Sasuke's amused face.

"Pinky-Chan?" Sasuke rolled up the scroll. "Aren't you a poet?"

Suigetsu turned around with hands on his hips. "I used ta write items for a local news scroll—poetry section. They mostly centered on water, wetness, and more wetness. Alas, they never quite got past the wet stuff ta take a peek at this bundle of talent. Yor just jealous!" he returned and opened the window to let more cool air in.

Sasuke turned his red eyes to the door, his Sharingan breaking the barriers to look beyond everything before him. He saw Sakura's dull chakra move within her body as she mounted the stairs at the far end of the hall. She came to a halt before the door, timidly raised her knuckle, and knocked. "Come in," he said and did not turn his eyes to look at her.

Sakura closed the door behind her and stopped before him, her eyes upon his face, her heart racing. She squeezed them shut, and her face worked into a reflex of disgust. She hated herself for being so weak, so vulnerable, so silly before his charms. He looked so ill and frail today but still so beautiful that she loathed that face with passion—she loved that face with passion. It was a delightful clash of love and hate. She could not quite live with both sides mocking her passions and weaknesses.

Ever since she was a child, she had desired him so. He received education in his own village when he was but a wee boy. They first met when he joined the Chūnin academy. His face was so innocent then, free of the clever facades he wore upon it without a care before her now. As her body grew, she found herself within the cruel, unyielding grasp of lust. Such a profound, crushing sexual attraction that he was all that went through her mind—day and night. He had stolen her dreams and her peace and her heat. Yet, he was still so cruel to her when he was a thieving, conniving man who cared little for her loss.

She wanted him to touch her, come near her just once, let her smother those fires burning just beneath her skin, touching and licking at the soft flesh blooming between her thighs. It ached with lust. Containing them within her chinked, cracked, fleshy armour only rose that burning fever: a fever she satisfied through Naruto; but it was not enough. It was never enough. Naruto was not him. No one could ever be him.

Sasuke said something to Suigetsu, but she did not hear it. Her gaze was bent upon his countenance, held there by a powerful emotion her face worked feverishly with—a terrible want. Tears rose in her green eyes as she pursued and chased him in the lust-drenched landscape of her young mind. A shiver of arousal ran through her body when his eyes met hers. His lips moved to say something, but she did not bother to hear it. Her eyes roamed about his cool face and that cold body. He would touch all, but her . . . and it was not fair!

"Sakura, I asked you something," he said in a surprisingly calm voice, drawing her attention, "were you included in the last week's teams' training sessions?" He pressed his back against the cushions on the sofa and closed his eyes.

"N-No," she mumbled and looked at his smooth neck and relaxed back; he appeared to be drifting into sleep. A few drops of sweat stood over the green vein flickering beneath his white skin. A look of sad longing rushed into her eyes, and she lowered her gaze. It was not as if she could ever make him hers. Her lower lip shuddered, and she bit back a sob. He made her so weak, and she hated him for it.

A heavy sigh came from his lips. He rubbed his eyes and raised them to look at her face that was turned away from him. "It's six p.m. and the training grounds would be empty," he said and breathed another deep sigh, "come along." He got to his feet and turned his tired eyes to Suigetsu. "You, too—come with me."

Suigetsu whirled around with a shocked expression on his pasty face. "Why me?" he asked with a shout.

"Because I said so," came the quick reply, and he walked out of the door with Sakura right behind him.

"Eh?" Suigetsu frowned with his jaw jutting out in irritation. He mumbled something incoherent and followed them.

The training grounds were empty, not a soul in sight. After last week's training sessions, all ninjas were given a week worth of respite. Crushed dry leaves lay strewn about the field, stirred ever so slightly by the breeze. A low hissing sound rose up into the air, as though a mating ball of a thousand snakes, as the wind picked up speed. The tree leaning above Sasuke's head shook, and a shower of leaves descended upon them. They got swept away by the wind before they touched the ground.

He leant back against the tree and shoved his hands into his pockets. His eyes were on Sakura's face and the pinkish hue in her cheeks. It was always the same with her.

"Spar with her," he commanded. Suigetsu took a battle stance and pulled out the large Executioner Blade from its sheath. Sakura looked fearfully at the sharp end of the massive sword. "Not with that sword, you fool. Pick up a wooden one. Do you want to cut her in half?"

Suigetsu chuckled. "A'right, a'right," he said in a low, amused voice and threw the sword to Sasuke. He caught the hilt and shoved the sword's tip into the ground. Suigetsu picked up a medium-sized wooden one from the rack and stood before her again. Then he licked his lips and charged. Rushing at her, he swung the sword. She did not even have time to think. It caught the side of her ribs and sent her flying across the ground. She crashed fifteen feet away from him, her limbs spread on the ground in an awkward manner.

"What are you doing?" Sasuke scolded her. "Intercept his movements and block or parry. Again."

She scrambled to her feet and knotted her fingers into fists, her body shaking, her face shivering with anger. Suigetsu pulled his lips back in a slow smile; spit glistened on his bared teeth as he passed his tongue over his lips again. He was mocking her.

Gathering a massive amount of chakra in her legs, she used Body-Flicker to instantly close the gap between them. She slammed her fist into the ground that cracked and caved in around them, but he was faster. He jumped back into the air and hit her again with the sword that sent her sprawling to the ground.

"Again," the harsh voice came from Sasuke and again she raised herself to her shaky feet, her breathing quick but steady. This time, she turned to her seal and poured out the chakra onto her body. It rushed through her veins and sizzled on the minor wounds that closed up on their own. She rushed in, faster this time; but, against an expert swordsman, it was impossible to make her fist connect with his body.

He twisted and moved around her with ease, chuckling as though he was playing with a child flailing her arms about in anger. His wooden sword hit her across the shoulder this time. Her body twisted around, skidded across the ground, and came to a halt on a patch of dry grass. She breathed heavily and slapped her hands on the ground and raised her upper body. This was impossible—he was too fast! What kind of monster had Sasuke recruited?

"Get up," Sasuke said with anger in his voice this time, "you’re supposed to smooth out the chakra around your feet and in your body. It’ll help you in moving your legs faster and you’ll react faster as a result. Your reactions will improve. Your chakra control may be perfect for healing, but it requires a lot of work in Body-Flicker."

Sakura raised herself to her feet. Her body burnt with exertion, her eyes upon Sasuke as he made his way to them. He looked over to her, his red eyes hiding a meaningful emotion. He held his gaze for a few moments. Then his Sharingan suddenly disappeared. At last, he spoke, "try to hit me—both of you. I won't use any Ninjutsu other than Body-Flicker. I won't use any tool. I won't use my Sharingan. All you have to do is react to me, parry, or hit me. Begin."

As soon as his voice passed to silence, overcome by nothing but hatred for him, she swung her arm to catch the side of his shoulder. When she blinked, he was standing more than thirty feet away from her, and she had clumsily staggered forward, completely missing her mark. A look of pure shock passed over her face as she gazed at him. "Too slow," he whispered, a wispy, haughty smile pulling at his dry lips now.

"Sasuke, ya got a high fever. It's not like ya would be movin' like ya normally do. Don't work too much, brah. I don't wanna hurt ya. It won't be fair," he said in amusement and waved his sword at him in a mischievous manner. "Can I pick my own blade back up, pretty please? I ain't likin' this kitchen knife. Besides, I’d like ta try an’ cut yor pretty legs in half."

Sasuke's eyes glinted mischievously. "You're welcome to try," he rasped and gestured him to come closer.

Both of them charged at him at the same time, with Suigetsu covering the distance much faster than her. He moved his sword around with lightning speed and grace. His sword was a blur in the slow-moving air, cutting the mist hanging around them into confetti, but it was all for naught. Sasuke was a master of Kenjutsu. It was impossible to even lay a finger on him at close range. The only one faster and more skilled than he in this art was his own brother. That was the reason why he was the Head of the Espionage Squad: he was quick, silent, and stealthy—a deadly opponent.

Sakura attacked him from behind. She sucked in her cheeks in a grimace when he flashed and jumped over her. She had no idea when he caught her arm and sent her flying into Suigetsu. They both crashed to the ground. Sakura quickly jumped to her feet, huffing and puffing. She moved her hand up and wiped the sweat from her face.

Suigetsu winced by her feet and gathered himself up to a sitting position. "Yah, I give up," he said in a dull voice and raised his hands up. "Go get 'im, Pinky-Chan," he mocked her and stood up.

Sakura ignored his taunt and rushed at him, all those thoughts rushing through her mind. She wanted to inflict the amount of pain he had sliced into her spirit, etched into her skin through all those years. All he ever did was reject her, taunt her, and test her limits. It was not fair. It just was not fair.

She rushed to him and suddenly found herself facing a vast expanse of trees just beyond the boundary of the grounds . . . with no one in sight: her hands were pinned behind her back. The hot touch of his fingers on her shivering skin made her weak again. He leant in and whispered, "I caught you." His lips touched the shell of her ear and such a hot spark rushed through her that her breaths quickened without an ounce of shame. She bit her lower lip, drawing a bit of blood. She fought back a moan of anguish. He was teasing her, and she wanted to make him suffer for it.

He released her suddenly, and she crashed forward to the ground, her legs limp from just a mere touch of his lips. They shook without much of any discipline against her will. Her pink hairs were dirty and sweaty now. They had fallen over her eyes that glared at him with a newfound ferociousness. He looked calm, his face blank.

"Work on your chakra. Smooth it out. Train with Suigetsu if you have to. Nii-Sama just loves to take both of you along, so you'll have many chances to do this," he said with an air of anger about him. His jaw twisted from side to side, but he looked away. "Leave this training session's report in my office. I'll hand it over to Nii-Sama that his obedient brother fulfilled another one of his commands."

And then he walked away, leaving her in a state of anguish on the ground.

The night was as cold to her as Sasuke. A chill rushed through her warm body as she dragged her feet to the office. Night had the sky in its clutches, and the clouds made a nice pile overhead. Thunder roared and a light rain came down on her head. She ran for cover and made it to the office before it intensified.

Climbing the stairs, she reached up and touched her ear: it was still red-hot beneath her rain-soaked fingers. An expression of disgust contorted her face, and she slapped her hand on the wall. Her fingers shook, and she bent her head to hide her tears. How could he tease her like that when she was trying so hard to detach herself from him? How could he? How dare he?

She wanted him to feel her pain and distress—somehow. Her feet moved mechanically on the steps, her mind caught in the cobweb of illusions. Was he changing for her? A burdened sigh left her lips. The thought was foolish. She let out a small laugh of disdain. How foolish was she to hope that he would come around?

When she came into the office, she noticed it was dimly lit. A single lantern was still burning on the table; its dull light struggled to win over the shadows. She looked around and found Sasuke sitting on the sofa. He was sleeping. His neck was arched back on the sofa and a scroll lay open in his lap. He had fallen asleep while reading something.

Sakura put the scroll on the table and bent down to look at the medicine: it was a common sleeping draught with pain-killer properties. The Medic team made these for a restful night of sleep after a long and tiring mission. She raised her eyes to look at his face hidden behind the hazy strip of a shadow.

He looked calm, serene. His handsome face did not have that cruel look he vigorously used to mock her. He looked . . . so innocent, almost child-like, as though he had just experienced the wondrous first year of adolescence, without the typical display of his anger and cunning. She gulped down the lump in her throat and climbed onto the sofa. Supporting herself on her knees, with one hand on the sofa, she strained her neck to look into his pale face again.

Her heart thundered at a deliberate pace, and before she could stop herself, she bent down and kissed his lips. He did not stir for quite a few moments as she relished the closeness of their bodies—the heat from his lips and the mad rise in lust just from tasting him. Backing away, she looked down and his eyes fluttered open.

"Get away from me," he said groggily and weakly pushed her back with his shaking hand. She breathed heavily, her eyes misted over with tears. His fever had not abated and that training had taken the last of his strength. He was so weak that she pushed his hand aside and clamped her mouth over his again.

He protested feebly and jerked his head away, only to have her grab it again to guide his lips to hers. Her fingers were wrapped around his throat, which throbbed with such heat under her fingers, holding him forcefully in place as the shameless fever rose in her. She pulled back to breathe in a lungful of cool air that stung inside the depths of her body, and looked at him through the thick shroud of lust.

"Stop it," he hissed between his teeth like an angry, feral cat. His eyes blazed under the windblown hair. He made to stand when she went at him again, her mouth dropping hungry, heated kisses upon his lips, face, and neck. When she found his pulse beating in the hollow of his throat—his heart just jumping there like something impatient beneath his skin—she sucked at it hard, and his breath quickened ever so slightly against his will.

She went back to his protesting mouth again and nibbled on his lower lip, his throat growing hotter under her firm fingers. She grabbed his hand and brought it to the needy core between her clenching thighs. His fingers brushed against it, and she bit down on his lower lip hard, drawing blood: the touch sent a stabbing spark through her body, tearing it apart. He mustered all the pieces of strength that remained in his body and threw her back. The haze of lust lifted from her eyes and new tears stung on her face. She raised that hot and battered gaze to him as he stood away from her. His harsh red eyes stared at her as that warm blood moved slowly down his red lips.

"What's wrong with you?" he growled and rubbed his finger harshly against his lower lip. A deep cut from her bite adorned it right in the middle. It was bleeding badly.

"Why—" she cried out, her face warping in anger and defeat, “—why don't you love me?" She scrambled up to a sitting positing, panting.

"Why?" he repeated in a harsh, grating voice. "I don't have any answer for you. Get out of my office—now!" He stretched his hand and pointed at the door.

She stared at him wide-eyed with shock on her fair face. "I need to know. Why don't you love me, Sasuke? I'll do anything for you. If I don't have you in my life, then I have—I have nothing! I don't love anyone more than you," she spoke, her voice heavy under the weight of anger, lust, and anguish: an exquisite, violate mixture that was making it all spread inside her like a devastating shockwave from an explosion.

"You make me sick," he said and his voice was a cold hiss as he wiped at his bleeding lip again. "You have no shame. You’re telling me that even your parents are beneath me? Shame on you, Sakura. Shame on you." He looked at her with not an ounce of sympathy on his cold face.

She stared back, her face convulsing this time. "Yes, I love you more than—" she stopped, and a dull whimper seeped from between the gritted teeth, "—m-more than my parents. More than anything! I’ve always loved you more than everyone, Sasuke. Don't reject me. Don't deny me. Why do you keep breaking my heart? Tell me? Why do you k-keep breaking me over and over again?" And then she wept hoarsely, hiding her face behind her hands.

His face worked with emotion, and he felt anger bubble hotly in his throat. His eyes flashed rage when she stood up and fell forward to grab his arms. "Sasuke, don't," she pleaded and tightened her fingers around his. They shook in the grasp of pitiful emotions he found to be weak. "Don't do this to me—you don’t know how much I want you." She reached up to touch his face, but he pushed her hand away harshly.

He bent his head down and whispered and his breath hit her damp forehead, "a treacherous woman who doesn't even care for her own flesh and blood is not worthy of anyone." He removed his fingers from her grasp and watched a wave of shock flow over her face. "Out," he repeated in anger.

Her shaky feet moved on their own and carried her out of the office. When she stepped outside, a roar of thunder greeted her battered senses. A throttled moan slipped past her lips, but it got lost under the sounds of wind and rain that whipped around her. She stood in the rain, feeling it lash her face raw. He did not love her—he did not love her at all. What a fool she had been. And she wept silently, shaking all over.

"Soaking yourself in the cold rain would only make you ill," a voice came from behind her, and she turned around to find Itachi standing under the shed a few feet away from her. "I suggest you get some rest as we have a mission in a couple of hours." In the cold rain, his face suggested nothing. He started walking and disappeared behind the buildings to the right.

He reminded her so of Sasuke: the next best thing . . .

# # # # # #

Chapter Text

# # # # # #

Nose to the grindstone: it was something he kept reminding himself. Hard work was not easy. Unraveling old mysterious was even harder. Trying to open many tight knots that held the secrets of his childhood was similar to fumbling one's hand in the clearest of waters, to try and locate that one silver coin that got lost amidst many silver stones. It was a hopeless task; his chances were slim. He might as well just give up.

But he was not the type. He would see it through to the bitter end. He would vanquish foes and take his revenge, and he would keep his allies close as long as his games got him closer to that one secret that ended his childhood . . . a restless noise of thunder broke his thoughts as he sat on the matted floor crossed-legged—a low table was set before him. He moved his eyes to the closed window as it creaked a little to keep the wind out.

"Sasuke," Karin cooed in his ear, "come to bed with me, won't you?" She played with his hair and pressed her breasts against his back. He did not answer. His fingers trembled around the finely crafted brush shaking in his hand, his body still burdened by illness and fatigue. Two ink drops plopped on the scroll that lay open on the table, and he frowned. He bent over the table to look at the black stain spreading in a perfect circle. It could be overlooked.

He moved the brush above the ink-bottle and shook it a little to rid it of extra ink. Presently, he was writing the final report of his last mission. He sat in his personal office in the manor. Four gruelling, torturous days had drained him dry. The lantern sitting on the table splashed a weak light on the fine scroll, throwing a misshapen shadow of a burnt moth across its top half. He stretched his hand and tapped the lantern with his finger a few times. The scorched moth stuck to the inside fell down. He could see a lot better now.

Bringing his eyes back down, he saw that the wet letters were already drying out: the ink had soaked through the fine pores. Sasuke pressed the brush against the surface and created another fine letter.

"Your chakra smells funny," Karin whispered and kissed his neck. She wrapped her arms around his waist. "Should I taste you?" She did not wait for an answer, and pushing his collar aside, she bit down playfully into his shoulder.

A small expression of discomfort flickered across his face, but he continued the task. She licked at the quivering drop of blood, and beads of sweat sitting on the tiny pores in his skin, that oozed out of the wound. She passed her tongue over her lips and looked at the ceiling. Her face had a dreamy expression now. "Poison?" she said, rather thoughtfully. "Not really a potent one. A weak—very weak one to build immunity, I think."

Sasuke breathed in deeply till he could take no more air in and pushed the brush into the bottle again. He shook it above the bottle after pulling it out and resumed the task. He was so angry with his brother, and silence was the best medicine—for now. Karin emitted a short girly laugh against his ear. "Your brother is probably slipping it into your tea. He's so lovely," she said in a musical voice and rested her chin on his shoulder.

No reply came from him as he continued to write. Dry sounds of smooth brush strokes magnified in silence after the persistent blasts of thunder. An angry expression was upon his face. He clenched his jaw and moved the brush faster as he wrote with trembling hands; the letters looked a little untidy, a little shaky on the scroll.

Karin slipped her hand under his Kimono's collar and circled her finger around his nipple playfully. "Don't be angry with me, Sasuke. I promised you that my brothers will find the hideout. Don't you trust me?" she asked in a needy voice and nuzzled his neck. "Don't you—" she stopped and flicked her head up, looking fearful.

Not a second passed and Itachi slid open the door. A sudden puff of cool air rushed in that disturbed the flame glowing in the lantern. His harsh red eyes fell upon her and she squirmed. "Leave," he spoke in a calm voice, "now."

Karin scrambled to her feet and flew out of the room, her long ponytail whipping behind her. She disappeared into the guest-room down the corridor. Itachi gave the door a slight push to the right and it slid closed. He brought his eyes to his brother and they softened. He kept looking at him for a few moments, but Sasuke gave no indication that he had heard his brother come into the office.

Itachi took in a burdened breath and spoke, "the Mizukage has been persistent with her requests. She wants you and no other to oversee the final Chūnin trials. I have sent in several recommendations, but her answers remain the same. Now, I am beginning to wonder why." He looked around the office. It was neat like his with just a few touches of unruliness, of passions that set Sasuke apart from himself. A thick shadow stood behind Sasuke as though waiting to attack and injure him, an ominous enemy, and the thought made Itachi uneasy.

Sasuke did not reply. He pushed the brush rather angrily into the ink bottle again and started writing the final lines on the scroll. Itachi waited for him to speak. At last, he sighed a deep sigh. "Why is she asking for you? She seems to want no other. I want to know why." he asked in a gentle voice. His eyes narrowed on the shadow that flickered with the flame guttering upon the wick as though alive behind his brother's back—he was seeing things.

His words were only met with more silence. "Sasuke, I am speaking to you," he spoke in a firm commanding voice this time, his brow frowning. "Are you so angry with me that you have decided to cast aside all etiquettes?"

The sharpness of his voice compelled Sasuke to raise his head to look back at his brother. Itachi's stern eyes lost their intensity just for a split second at the sight of his gaunt face: he looked so ill, frail, and weak. He had not seen him for four days. Looking at him now . . . it was making his heart trip with guilt. He had been too harsh on him.

"I don't know. Maybe, you should ask her," Sasuke replied harshly with a lopsided smile on his face.

He brushed aside the insulting tone and spoke by injecting softness into his voice this time: "were you intimate with her? Tell me it is not so." His gentle eyes roamed on his face that displayed the formation of a rage-filled expression.

"I was." He threw the brush aside on the table and stood up and bored his angry eyes deep into Itachi’s. "Why, are you going to punish me again, Nii-Sama?" Taking two steps, he stood close to him. He moved his head up with a look of challenge in his eyes. Itachi was shocked.

"Sasuke," he breathed out, meeting his hateful expression with a changing incredulous countenance, "what is the matter with you? Why do you never listen to me? Why did you—for Sage's sake—" he stopped and gritted his teeth, his face hidden behind his hand. A wall of shadow stood before him now like an eerie partition.

He pulled his hand away to look at Sasuke whose expression and rage had yet to melt. "Stop being such a disobedient child," he began in a firmer voice, "what should I do to make you listen—to make you understand? Tell me, for I do not know how to handle your growing stubbornness, your inability to heed my words, and your complete lack of judgment. Tell me, what should I do?" He looked down—that anger seemed to have just washed away from his young face. The burdens he carried were too much, too weighty for his young shoulders, and his beloved brother was only making things worse.

"Then let me go," Sasuke retorted heavily, his face shaking with the intensity of emotion, "I want to leave—get away from here." He panted, his body shivering with pain.

A shocked expression replaced concern on Itachi's face. "Stop," he said in a whisper and looked at his brother with a tasty glint of fear in his eyes, "stop and never speak of this again. You understand me? I never want to hear those words from your lips again. You have no idea of the trouble and mess you have made for me . . . and for yourself. You want to make matters worse by talking about becoming a Rouge-Nin on a silly whim?" He stepped a little closer to Sasuke, staring down at him with hard eyes.

Sasuke stared back at him defiantly, and red in his eyes resonated with his brother's with such musical precision. He may have fought against it at times, stubbornly denied it even, but they were still brothers—bound by the unshakable, sturdy cords of flesh, blood, and love that had forged and melded together their destinies since birth into an unbreakable chain. Try as they might, they would never be able to break free—forever bound, forever trapped in the lovely, unjust even, bond of blood and burdens.

"You have no idea, you disobedient, hateful child," Itachi scolded him, his face showing marks of anger, something Sasuke had not seen in a long time; and as if his burning eyes hurt him, he lowered his own, standing defeated before his older brother's heavy and searing gaze. His battered body longed for nothing but peace, rest. He had no desire to argue with him any longer. He was forever the younger brother, trapped beneath his older brother's tall shadow.

After a few moments of silence, he felt Itachi's hand tenderly brush the side of his cheek. Sasuke's skin felt damp and hot beneath Itachi's gentle fingers. Itachi leant his head down slightly, grabbed his face between his hands, and planted a kiss on his forehead. "Go to your room. I will speak to you tomorrow," he spoke in a low voice.

Sasuke did not raise his eyes to look back at him. He opened the door and left the office in silence. When he reached his room, his futon looked so inviting. He flung himself down upon it and stretched his hand to grab the sleeping draught from the table. He emptied it at a draught and drifted off to a deep sleep within a few seconds.

# # # # # #

It was a dull morning marred by grey and sombre colours stretched loose across the sky. A cold breeze was blowing in from the north. Soon, autumn would have it all in its grasp: the killing season had begun. It was a gentle reaper that killed all flowers and leaves and left a few behind. They bloomed under the false, pallid sun in blue colours. Only purple lilies would survive its reaping, staying young through the harsh winter . . .

It was a strange and rare flower that only opened its mouth wide before the slivers of moonlight. It shied away from the harsh light of the sun. "Petal shedder" is what people called it. It shed its pretty limbs and drooped in summer and spring and burrowed under the soft ground the way animals did; then it poked out as new fresh buds once autumn came to reap again. It saw the ritual of death and survived to tell the tale—always.

His eyes wandered around the office he found to be a bit too untidy for the ruler of the village, but it was hardly his concern. A bottle of sake stood next to a half-full cup. Tsunade moved her hand absentmindedly to grab hold of it, her eyes upon the scroll on the table. She made quite the show of draining it in one gulp and pouring out another one. He could never quite understand her eccentricities.

She coughed and grabbed the cup again and lifted her eyes to meet his. "Is there any reason for you to take another one of your brother's missions, Itachi?" she asked and took a short and quick sip from the cup, her cheeks ruddy with mild intoxication.

Itachi steered his gaze to the window. "He is ill," he said coolly.

She placed the cup on the table with a loud clink and knotted her fingers together on the table. "He was enthusiastic enough to get back on duty today," she said with a small smile. "Though I would agree with you that he looks weak, I am afraid you cannot have his mission."

Itachi returned his gaze to her, his eyes narrowed almost dangerously. "Why?" he asked in a voice that sounded firm and direct.

"Because I want you here. Emissaries from Cloud will come a day after tomorrow, and I have to send Sakura to treat one of their men. He was poisoned by someone on his way here. It is lethal—he could die by morning. I want you to make sure she reaches there in one piece. You were already going to take her on a small training mission. It is a small matter of a team's reformation. Hardly an impossible task," she explained and started rolling up the scroll on the table.

A ghostly, bewitching smile pulled at the corner of his lips, cracking his displeased expression ever so slightly. "An Anbu Captain reduced to a guard-duty for a mere Chūnin? Your student is . . . truly precious," he said with a frosty look in his eyes that glowed with the fierceness of Sharingan.

She flashed her brown eyes on him, her gaze level with his, though they hid a certain fear beyond the fragile veil of authority that mechanically hovered in and out of her eyes. It was not enough to fool him—she was not experienced enough to fool him.

"I am not insulting you, Itachi, nor am I trying to give special treatment to Sakura. But the mission is too important. I can trust no one these days. You know how things are with Root and Danzō. The old geezer would never want a good alliance with Cloud. If this emissary is healed, you can imagine how it will work for us," she said with a look of calm on her face.

He smiled, finding so much irony in her words, but he chose not to spill that secret now. "Why not send in extra men? I can appoint a few. They can handle the task just fine. I do not see why a Captain should indulge a struggling Chūnin any longer. It would only give her more ego when she already believes you to be under her thumb," he said, eyes still glowing dangerously under the black hair.

"I understand she should not have gone to you for the Jōnin trials. That was unbecoming of her. Your displeasure is not misplaced," Tsunade sighed and leant back into the comfy chair and eyed him with a peculiar look on her face. "But is there any reason why you are so adamant to busy your brother with another mission, when you can just send him home to rest?" she asked, holding her gaze.

He remained silent for a fleeting moment with a blank look in his eyes. "It is a personal matter that does not concern the military," he answered in a flat, uncompromising tone.

"It isn't personal any longer when you’re refusing me your cooperation," she said quickly and curled her fingers around the sake cup—half her mind was still bent on that sake.

"Then I would like to take my brother along. I do not desire to leave him alone in the village to his own devices for now," he said in a voice with a strong undercurrent of finality.

Tsunade let out a soft laugh, eyeing him from behind the cup raised high to her painted lips that curled in a smile. "So disobedient, isn't he? Even you can't seem to control him. Love is such a silly thing," she remarked and took a long, thoughtful whiff of the strong sake. Itachi remained silent; his face gave no hint of emotion, though his eyes made it seem as though he was angered by her thoughtless remark.

"You can't take him with you. He’s ill and would only prove to be a hindrance," she stopped to pour out another cup, "your attention will be divided and I don't want that. We both know you would worry more about Sasuke than the mission."

"My brother is impossibly more capable than your student—even in his present state. He will do well," he assured her in a heavy voice laced with a faint firmness of his arrogance.

The rough branches of trees scraped across the window pane on the outside with an eerie sound, but both of them did not turn their eyes to look at them. "I'm not even worried about Sasuke—I’m worried about you. It's your full attention I want. With Sasuke around," she paused to turn the cup in her delicate hand as if it demanded her attention again, "your worry will get the best of you. If danger presented itself, you will protect Sasuke first, and I don't want that. And it's only natural. He’s your brother and he's very dear to you. I would've done the same for Nawaki if he was alive . . . " A look of grief came to her face suddenly, but she looked away to preserve her pride.

Itachi emitted a deep breath. "Then what would you have me do?" he asked and got to his feet. It was no use arguing with her any longer. He would have to send Sasuke to Mei. There was no other way.

The branches outside smacked themselves repeatedly against the window pane. She could see a few drops of rain running down the clean window-glass, whitened by the evening mist from outside. They cut their own path with determination. Letting her thoughts guide her mind for a second longer, she cut them short and brought her attention back to the young Anbu Captain.

"I'm giving you permission to make his team for him as you see fit. You can even make the guidelines for his three-day stay there. Make them as strict as possible. I won't stop you. If you finish the mission early, you can even go and join him. That is as much leeway I can give you. But," she broke off and raised a firm finger in the air, "I want your undivided attention on this, Itachi. Don't disappoint me."

Itachi looked at her for a second or two, and then he left the office in silence. He looked displeased, angry even. The red had not left the whites in his clever eyes. Tsunade poured out the last few drops of sake and raised the cup to look at the yellowish liquid. She put the cup down and felt pain in her heart. "Love is such a silly thing . . . " she whispered and felt tears run down her cheeks.

# # # # # #

By the time Itachi reached the small Rice Village—located just on the outskirts of Rain's flimsy border—with his team, it was already evening. A little drizzle was falling down on the ground outside. Endless dots covered the dried-up rice paddy. A vast ground at the edge of the village had been raked and several furrows were made to plant seeds for the next season. He saw a few crows cawing on the bare tree branches just beyond the room: they were picking at the insects burrowing beneath the soft ground.

An old man's low moans filled the space around them. He turned his gaze to look at the man's face contorted with excruciating pain. A mop of blond hair of one of the Jōnin guards shone under the light from the dirtiest lantern he had ever laid his eyes on. When he moved his gaze to investigate the rest of the room, he wished he had not: the sides of the door had fungus growing unhindered out of its cracks; a thick pile of dust caked the floor; and the curtains were so old, so dirty that they barely moved despite the strength of the breeze. A look of disgust flickered across his face—he would never have come here had it not been for the delicate situation.

Sakura was bent over the man as she drew the poison out of his heart, with a flowing layer of chakra focused around her right hand. She deposited the dirty-looking liquid into a large cup that was set on a lopsided table. She pressed her hand over the many great folds in his wrinkly skin and pulled out thick tendrils of poison from his body. He would scream over and over again whenever the poison was forcefully dragged from his body. Another guard with a messy mop of grey hair held his thrashing body down.

The young man with blond hair made his way to him; he stopped by the door and spoke with a nervous look on his face: "I'm Shī. I came with—"

"I know who you are," Itachi cut him off coldly. "Who poisoned him?"

Shī blinked once and stood straight. He appeared to be a man of meagre emotions. "We don't know," he said, and the nervousness on his face melted into another mild expression. "They didn't have any headbands on them. They were probably hired by someone."

"You killed all of them?" Itachi asked in mild surprised. "It never occurred to you to keep one alive for interrogation?"

A blush of embarrassment burnt on the younger man's cheeks. He scratched his head and looked up at Itachi again. "We wanted to, but Kuma-Sama wanted them all dead. We had to obey his orders," he mumbled as if displeased by the foolishness of his superior.

"A lesson learnt," he said with concealed contempt in that smooth voice as he moved his gaze to the man still wriggling under Darui's strong arms. "How much of it is left?" he asked, gazing at Sakura's back.

She looked over her shoulder, her face sweaty from work. "I'm done, Itachi-Sama," she replied and wiped her forehead on her arm. "The poison’s out and I've just administered the antidote. It was a regular poison found in the wings of a bird in Cloud Village." She stood up from her perch and removed the gloves from her hands.

Twisting around, she stood still to look back at him with an expression as if she was seeing him fully for the first time. Her eyes surveyed his white face. He had such a youthful appearance for someone just a year shy of thirty. He looked only a year, maybe two, older than Sasuke: a man eight years his junior. He even shared the fine contours of his face. The small mistakes made by Nature were enough to just barely tell them apart.

Her gaze moved down his eyes, and down and down it went, drinking in the smooth curve of his white throat and lips reddened by the heat from the flames, which crackled just by his feet in a hearth. They continued to wither away as the cold wind touched their dancing tips. Her gaze lingered on the lithe body that did not look as though it had ever experienced the hard life of a shinobi. He was a bit taller than Sasuke, too.

She stole a fleeting gaze at his narrow waist and the young loins and her face burnt. It was so girlish the way she was behaving. Her heart danced and tripped with silly excitement. He would prove to be a fine replacement for Sasuke. He would make her forget Sasuke's sharp tongue—but how to make him hers? Sakura's questioning eyes stared at him from under the flop of pink hair. They provided that apt hiding spot for her prying eyes.

He was talking to Shī, and she obediently stood next to the whining emissary, waiting for his next order. That exquisite, slow-burning feel of his chakra that day . . . she wanted him to melt into her, burn her skin with its heat. It was as delicious as the feathery touch of Sasuke's lips against the shell of her ear—lips that left a pain of longing in her body. The fever, it had risen in her skin with such urgency that she wanted to mollify it, expunge it from her body; but Naruto was not around to satisfy it today.

Sakura heaved a sigh and looked back at his intense eyes that made her shiver—there was just something strange about him. She was falling too soon on him. Too soon. But the desire Sasuke had unwittingly roused in her yesterday could only be soothed by this medicine. It was foolish, she knew, but her excited flesh was not in a mood to heed her protests. She wished that she could tear that desire out of it, throw it away, and never look back. How hard it was to fight against this demon; only Sasuke had made her realize that.

Clenching her teeth together, she breathed heavily. She would make him to pay. He would hurt her no more. And yet, a part of her still fought a terrible battle against this new resolve. She felt it getting weaker against her hatred. He did not love her. He did not love her at all. The words echoed in the deep chambers of her mind, rose and fell in rhythm with the dance of flames that licked at her body and gave it more pain, more lust. She gulped down the sounds in her throat that tried to form another kind of reason: Itachi is . . . a man. He must have desires? He must! All men do. They can't stay away from women for long, can they?

The question bothered her. There were rumours that he satisfied himself with the finest of harlots, but they were only rumours. No one really knew him to say for sure. What was his seduction like? Sakura tilted her head to the left and looked at his face intently. Was it all passion and fiery lust like Sasuke exuded? Was he quiet, dark, and secretive? She did not know, but a part of her agreed with her heart that she wanted to see it for herself.

"Go and get some rest," his voice shattered her thoughts. "We will leave first thing in the morning." She stared at him absentmindedly, gave a slow nod, and left . . .

A few crows still cawed, as though singing of omens, outside her window at this time of the hour. The room they gave her was a lot tidy than the hall. The ceiling was cracked, and water dripped from one of the pipes in the corner. It had made quite the puddle there. She had not bothered to mop it up. It was not her job.

Sakura sat on the creaky bed in knee-length kimono robes. Her nipples were tight from the cold in the room. She moved her hand thoughtlessly on the old sheets spread underneath her . . . so, tomorrow? the words made her frown. Just one night and they would part? The blissful thoughts had spun something much more. How cruel!

Someone knocked, and she hastily made her way to the door. When she opened it, she quickly hugged herself to hide the visible roundness of her small breasts. Itachi did not lower his gaze, nor did he seem stirred by her. "Change of plans. We will leave before dawn. Write your report on this scroll and hand it to me before we leave," he said firmly and held out the scroll.

There it was again, the brush of his finger and the mad rise in lust from that sudden rush of strong chakra. Her young loins were wet with longing. Moments stretched painfully long for her, bearing her young heart and mind down. She did not even know what she was doing as her shaking hands dropped the scroll, shot forward to firmly grasp at his right arm, and pulled him inside.

When she looked up to find some familiar touch of desire on his face, it disappointed her. His face . . . it suggested nothing, and then a flood of shame washed down her whole body. "I'm sorry, Itachi-Sama. P-Please, forgive me," she whimpered, letting go of his arm, her hands convulsing. What had she done? What was she thinking? She admonished herself and cursed her own desperation and lust to claim him for he was the next best thing. The shame was too much to bear.

The tears were warm on her cheeks. He did not move for a fleeting moment; then he pushed the door back with his sandal, and it closed with a click. Sakura looked up, surprised. His eyes were so red, so magnificent as he walked forward with slow steps. Consumed by an odd mixture of fear and unfamiliar passion, her shaky, uncertain feet propelled her back. Moving his hand forward, he pushed her back roughly with just the tip of his right hand's fingers. The old bed gave a swoop and a loud creak when she fell down upon it; she looked somewhere between lustful and fearful.

Itachi knelt between her parted legs, his face enveloped by a layer of such cool indifference. Her arms flew forward to grasp his hands, but he grabbed both of them in his and smacked them down on the bed as though she was being disobedient. A moist flood graced her folds, and he entered her without warning, without care. She winched, his pace slow, deliberate, so exquisitely torturous. It made her grunt with uneasiness.

Lust exploded into waves of pleasures as he kept it up in the same methodic manner. Her fair hands contorted and wriggled in his grasp, but he did not let go. Her sweaty legs shook and dangled from the edge of the bed. She had no fight in her to pull them up and wrap them around his narrow waist. Her moist inner thighs spasmed madly, violently, so deliciously. Ah, such mad lust that coursed through her veins as she strained her misty eyes to look upon that haunting, beautiful visage of mimicry still mocking her, and she half-whispered the name she so desperately wanted to say: "S-Sasuke . . . "

He looked so like him: the next best thing. She kept reasoning with herself. It was so foolish, but it did not matter. It was never going to matter as this was what cooled that beautiful fever aching in her gut and limbs, gnawing its way out of her skin. Yes, only this would satisfy her.

She did not know if he heard it. Her half-lidded, desire-beaten eyes, tainted by human lust, looked at him from behind the partial curtains of pink hair. His face still suggested nothing. His eyes red, surveyed her as if weighing her worth. He looked at her with mild interest and a slight tilt of his head as her robes came loose and those small breasts bounced out. The pink nipples peaked painfully under his cold gaze.

She did not know how long he went on. Her insides burnt with pleasure that gathered in waves deep inside her gut. And her body suddenly erupted in a single crushing wave that battered her, extinguishing that high fever with such finesse that she finally felt . . . satisfied. Her breaths came out quick, and when the haze cleared from her eyes, she found herself to be alone. He had already left . . .

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"We have another mission?" Itachi asked and fell into step beside Shisui.

Shisui smiled. Sun was hot on their young skins and the shade cool. Boughs of lush trees shook ever so slightly in the gentle breeze. Autumn was upon them, but the white-hot light of the sun burnt through their jackets and made them sweat profusely.

"We do," he said and wiped at his forehead. "It's just a small training mission with a few young ones from the Genin Academy."

Itachi looked ahead, walking under the shades of the trees. Few unlit lanterns swung from their boughs. Next to the rough path, a stream spilt from between the gaps in the rocks. It came from up in the mountains and bent sharply towards the river.

"How long will it take?" he asked, his voice smooth and so young.

Shisui let out a small laugh and turned his head to look at him. Itachi was a bit shorter than he. "Sasuke's asking you to spend time with him again? He really doesn't like sharing you, does he?" he asked, his eyes squinting under the blazing sun.

"I promised him that I'll be back before evening," he replied, shading his eyes. "If I don't make it back, he . . . he will just be unhappy." He created a smile on his boyish face.

"I guess, we’ll just have to—" He could not quite say more as his sandal sank into the soft sand and a thin, sharp needle went straight through the soft underside of his foot.

"Shisui-San, are you all right?" Itachi asked in a tense voice and grabbed hold of Shisui's arm to keep him from falling.

Shisui winced and sank down to the ground; then he pulled his foot out of the hole with great difficulty. His sandal was broken. The needle was still jabbed in his foot. "Damn, it went straight through my foot. What is this?" he grunted, pulled out the needle, and looked at the small hole in the path. "It looks like a trap . . . or something."

Itachi bent his head down and looked into the hole: it was small and had a trap mechanism to shoot a needle upwards. A small, now broken, wooden apparatus, a thread, and a tiny spring lay about at the bottom. "Probably made for a small animal," Itachi said, tilting his head to look back at Shisui.

Shisui squeezed his right eye shut and grabbed his foot. Twisting his back a little, he bent forward and turned his foot into his eyes' focus. "It's just a small hole. It isn't even bleeding badly. Don't think I’ll be able to walk for a few days—it had a bit of chakra around it to damage the tissues," he said and picked up the needle and turned it around.

Itachi took the needle from his hand. It had a trace of a familiar chakra on its tip that was smeared red with fresh blood. He thrust it into his pocket and stood up. "Let me help you up," he said and stretched out a hand.

Shisui took it and got to his feet. He favoured his left leg and kept the injured right foot above the ground. "I think I'll go to the infirmary and give the mission to someone else," he said and clamped his hand on Itachi's shoulder to steady himself.

"But you’re in no condition to walk." Itachi looked around and found Serizawa and Kai walking towards them. "You two, help Shisui-San. He's injured."

Both of them broke into a jog and stopped close to them. "What happened?" Serizawa asked and circled his arm around Shisui's waist.

"Nothing, just an animal trap. Someone had set it up in the path," Itachi explained and turned his head to the hole in the ground. "They probably forgot about it, I suppose."

Kai pulled the broken apparatus out of the hole and twisted his head to look up at Itachi. "This could've really hurt a small child. So careless," he whispered and shoved his hand into the hole again to pull out the spring and the broken thread.

Itachi brought his eyes upon Serizawa. "Take him to the infirmary. There was chakra on the needle, too. It's mostly gone now but it could damage his foot," he said, looking at him as he nodded and walked away with Shisui.

"I'm taking this to the infirmary," Kai said and walked after them.

Itachi watched them till they turned a corner and disappeared behind a large house. A cool wind hit his sweaty skin, and he raised his eyes to look at the dark clouds coming into the large clear space overhead. It would rain soon. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the needle again. Residual chakra still glowed on the tip, shimmering in the pallid light of the sun: it was so like his own. His Sharingan told him all.

He half-turned and saw a child's face slip back quickly behind the shadows of the leaves about fifty feet away. He would recognise those rosy plump cheeks and big eyes anywhere. He flashed to the branches and grabbed the unsuspecting child from behind. The child let out a tiny squeak of surprise and jumped up in his arms.

"I caught you, Sasuke," Itachi whispered in his ear, sat down, and turned Sasuke around.

Sasuke rubbed at his right eye with that small hand, his face splitting into a broad smile. "Nii-San, you're staying?" he asked in a happy voice. His face lit up in excitement.

Itachi brushed the sweaty hair away from Sasuke's forehead and smiled. "I have to, now that you left that trap in the road for Shisui-San," he said with a flicker of a smile and wiped away a smudge of dirt on Sasuke's white forehead carefully with his thumb.

Sasuke sucked his cheek in and frowned. "He doesn't let you stay, Nii-San. He always takes you away. It's not fair," he complained with a red colour of anger in his small face.

"He could've been hurt. That's not nice," he said in a gentle voice and cupped Sasuke's cheek, "you know that, right?"

"He's mean, and—and," he stopped, and his face twisted into a look of concentration, "it was just a little game! He said yesterday that I can't make traps because I'm four. I showed him." He raised his tiny knuckle into the air and shook it. Itachi had an urge to pinch his cheeks, but he realised that it was hardly something to congratulate him on.

"Making traps is a dangerous pastime for such a little boy. I can't be here all the time to watch over you. What if you get hurt? Sasuke, don't do this again," he said, his voice gentle.

Sasuke stared down at the ground, his small feet dirty from all the dust and dirt around him. He was not even wearing any sandals. "Am I a pest to you, Nii-San?" he asked suddenly, the expression on his face melting into a look of complete sadness.

"Of course not. Why would you say that?" he asked and lifted Sasuke's chin up. "You know that's not true."

Sasuke averted his gaze, his small pink mouth shuddering now. His big black eyes misted over that he looked on the verge of tears. "You don't ever spend time with me. You always go away. You don't play with me. You're my only brother. It isn't fair, Nii-San—it isn't fair," he protested in such a small voice that it barely made it to Itachi's ears.

"Sasuke," Itachi sighed and bent his head a little to look at Sasuke's face losing its white colour under a thin layer of shadows. A ghost of a smile played about Itachi’s lips. "I would never do it on purpose. I always try my best. But you know how busy I am. I promise I’ll make it up to you over the weekend."

Sasuke lifted his head. A soft happy expression came back into his face, and his cheeks burnt with a blush of happiness. "You promise?" he asked and tiptoed to put his tiny hands on Itachi's shoulders.

"I promise," he assured, "but you’ll have to apologise to Shisui-San."

Sasuke twisted his cheek in anger again. "I don't want to. He's mean. He does this on purpose. He knows I love you, Nii-San," he protested with a subtle twist of his mouth.

Itachi smiled in response, feigning surprise. "Oh, you love me?" he asked, pinching Sasuke's cheek and looking at the return of that same happy expression again. It danced in his eyes like fire.

"I do. I love you the most. Much more than Otō-Sama and Okā-San—much, much more. I'll do anything for you!" he said with such confidence and a big smile, bouncing on the spot as if to make a point. His hands were up in the air to show him how big and vast his love was.

"But you won't apologise?" Itachi asked, and his smile widened as he saw the look of realisation on Sasuke's face.

"No fair, Nii-San. You tricked me," he said and pulled away; he looked a little hurt.

"I didn't," he began and pulled Sasuke closer, "but if you love me, you won't do this small thing for me?" He looked into those eyes, a smile still lingering on his young face.

Sasuke rolled his eyes as if deep in thought and then looked back with a look of defeat on his face. "Okay," he said and emitted a deep sigh. "But only because you asked, and only because I love you." He pulled an angry face again, pouting.

"You're a good boy, Sasuke. Such a good boy. Come on, let me take you home," he said and wrapped his arms around Sasuke. He squeezed him to himself and stood up. He started walking against the cool breeze that blew down on them from the clouds.

Sasuke reached into his pocket and pulled something out. "I made this, Nii-San. Do you like it?" he asked and held up a silver necklace.

Itachi stopped and took it from his hand. "You made this yourself?" he asked and passed his thumb over the silver rings.

Sasuke nodded excitedly. "I couldn't give it to you on your twelfth birthday, but old man, Kora, helped me for three months. So, I made it," he told him in that same voice filled with wonder.

"The blacksmith?" he asked, looking from the necklace to Sasuke's eyes glinting with warmth.

Sasuke nodded again. "You like it, Nii-San? I can make it better if you don't," he said and curled his plump arms around Itachi's neck.

"No, Sasuke, it's beautiful. Thank you," he said and brushed his lips against Sasuke’s forehead.

Sasuke leant his head against his breast and closed his eyes.

Itachi blinked and the dirty window of Rice Village's guest room greeted him. Another memory faded away. "Just a little game," he whispered and touched the cold necklace still draped around his neck. Rain fell down hard on the ground outside. Earth smelt sweet and musky. He felt the smell crawl up his nostrils, and he breathed in loudly, closing his eyes. "Just a little game."

"Itachi-Sama?" a voice came from behind him.

He turned around and brought his hard gaze upon Sakura. She lowered her eyes immediately, and a warm blush rose to her cheeks. It was so easy to trap this prey. Had he been a lesser man, he would have laughed when no eyes would see, no ears would hear, no one would bear witness to his tricks; but he was above that—secretive, hard, and cold. He did not celebrate his victories that way. No, he relished the feel of triumph that made his heart skip beats. It was a delicious feeling, fleeting, yet powerful . . .

Laying traps and catching prey was something he knew, his mind awash with so many possibilities and schemes. And he loved to put them to the test, watch as the unsuspecting prey landed there and bloodied itself with a needless struggle. It was always humane to put it out of its misery.

A deliberate brush of his chakra and a few soft expressions . . . is that all it took? All he had to do was push her towards Sasuke after those meagre flirtations. Itachi knew his brother would be predictable: she came on strong, and he rejected her so brutally. Such a child he was, and Itachi loved and adored him so for being such an easy read.

The muscles around his mouth desired to twitch, but he ignored it, ignored the very nature of Man to enjoy what he found amusing. He walked around the chair and sat down. Slipping his one leg over the other, he looked at her . . . and she shivered.

"What else have you found?" he asked and moved his hand to grab the hilt of his sword leant against the chair.

Sakura gulped down the damp air in the room and looked down at the scroll again. "The bird’s also found in other areas—close to the mountains that make the southern border of Rain, and—" she broke off quite suddenly, "—and I-I couldn't find anything on the ninjas. They could be rogues. I don't know." She raised her eyes and peered through the curtain of messy hair.

"Unfortunate," he sighed and held out his hand. "Give that to me." He wore a blank face, his eyes cold, and her heart could not bear to look at him any longer. He made their encounter seem so trivial, so pointless. Did she really lay with this man? She pressed her lips into a thin line, her cheeks sweaty as she took one step and placed the scroll in his hand.

Itachi curled his fingers around it and stretched his arm to put it on the small table on his right. Then he turned his frigid face up to her, his eyes still empty and without a touch of anything soft. Sakura did not know what possessed her, but she took in a shuddering breath and stooped down a little, her green eyes overshadowed by a flare of lust.

Memories of last night came crashing down on her. The feel of him inside her . . . it was exquisite, wild, nearly divine. So what if he was cold? She was bold enough to pursue him. She could smell the scent of his hot breath on her lips, so close and so warm: it was cold iron on fire. Her lips were but an inch away from his when he parted his mouth to speak: "are you trying to seduce me?" The warm breath fell upon her lips and the sensation ran through her.

As if his question burnt her, she swiftly pulled back and stood a few feet away from him. Her gaze fell desperately on his beautiful face and the subtle, ghostly smile now dancing deliciously on his lips. He looked a little surprised. "I really would not recommend this," he remarked, tilting his head a bit to the left. His eyes were so cunning, so red suddenly.

Moments passed, and as she crossed a span of five heartbeats; she sucked in the stale air loudly and looked him in the eye and her skin tingled from his intense gaze. "Why? You slept with me yesterday. I don't think it's polite to simply forget," she said, her voice bold, unwavering, her face resolute that wore that heated expression upon it, like an unsightly red stain on a white Anbu-jacket.

Itachi looked at her for a few fleeting moments. He had that faint look of mockery on his face now—something only he could create in such a manner. "I have really not forgotten anything. I can assure you, I have an excellent memory. I simply indulged you with a show, for you desired it quite desperately. Is that not so?" he asked, letting the smile overpower his urge to remain emotionless.

"I did," she retorted, breathing louder and feeling bolder with each word, "there’s nothing wrong with that. You didn't exactly refuse me, either."

He straightened in his chair, and his gaze slid over to her lips that shivered in response, as if touched by something so palpable and hot. "Of course, it is hardly a sin to want another. I just believe you are too young, too inexperienced to try to seduce me."

Sakura sniffed at the air again, hearing the drumming sounds of rain on the corrugated roof. The smell of earth rushed at her, and she breathed in again to cool her senses. She took that cold gaze head-on. "I'm only four years younger than you—don't treat me like a child," she said, her loud voice falling down to a sharp hiss, her face overtaken by a grim look of anger and a bright red blush.

"Few years can be a lifetime. You really are very young to know how intricate and dangerous sex can be. It can be sinister, exquisite, soft even . . . if one allows oneself such moments of fancy," he spoke in a deep voice, and his eyes changed their outward appearance like a fidgety chameleon: one moment they looked clever, the next, so hollow and dangerous.

Lightning whipped the sky, and the underbelly of clouds burnt blue. The floor beneath her sandals shook and squeaked, but she did not break the contact of their eyes. "What was it to you, then?" she asked in a harsh tone, and her face worked feverishly with anger.

"Ah, that interests you so?" he asked with an uncaring smile upon his lips and that white face that showed a subtle red hue from the cold. "Perhaps a bit of curiosity given that you whispered my brother's name as though in a dream."

The angry expression disappeared from her face and shame came into her eyes. She shivered. "I . . . I . . . " She lost her voice and tore her eyes away from his.

"There is no need to be shy," he went on, pulling her eyes up with the power of his strange voice, "the next best things can prove to be quite the thrilling experience." He pulled the sword onto his lap and turned it around in his hands.

"You don't have to insult me. You didn't refuse me, and now look at you? Taking the higher ground! Both of you brothers, you’re the same—cold and unkind," she said in a shaky voice and suppressed the tears on the verge of escaping.

His arm twitched a little, a reflex action, and suddenly the sword’s tip was moving up between her naked legs, slowly. Her skin trembled as the cold edge dragged along the tiny hairs. "Do not move, or you will cut yourself," he whispered as he moved it higher and higher till it touched the hem of the short skirt and the soft swell of her inner thigh.

Sakura's eyes widened, her spine tingled, and a sudden rush of lust struck her core, and she felt moist between her legs. She looked down and hissed as the sharp tip cut into her skin. He pulled the sword back with a quick movement of his hand; then he shook it once to throw away a tiny spider and a single drop of blood clinging to its tip. "I told you not to move. Now you have cut yourself. How clumsy, Sakura," he said, his voice deep as he pinned the sword into the wooden floor.

She kept staring at him, the character of her features harsh under the assault of shame and anger. When she did not say anything, he spoke again in a heavy voice: "what do you want, Sakura? Do you want me to take you sweetly on the floor, push you unkindly against the wall, or bend you over this table in a wanton manner? You seem to be in a mood to play. Though, I must warn you, I have no desire to dirty my clothes in such a filthy place."

His words created a sting on her skin . . . and it burnt. "Is that all sex is to you, an—an act? A habit?" she asked, shocked.

He merely smiled. "You put so much value on this act. Sex is just an experience. An act of pleasure. Something delicious, exquisite, and seductive. It is hardly a prayer from Sage's holy teachings of that union of souls. I even call it a habitual release of social pressures. A mere spill after the high. Nothing more," he paused and his eyes darkened under the shroud of something she could not even understand, "you may think it to be some delightful folktale passion. Two souls joining together and whatever other foolishness people indulge in. I can assure you, it is not true."

Sakura's breath hitched in her breast, her eyes wide aghast. She felt denuded before him, spread wide open like an eager lover. The shame was too much. Her lips shuddered and she snarled, "you don't know anything about me. You know nothing!"

He moved his eyes to the grimy, dark books in the rotting shelf on the left. A fleeting look of disgust invaded his eyes, but it vanished as quickly as a sudden flash of light. He returned his gaze to her and something in his eyes changed. "You consider it some divine act of liberation. That is something I know about your young mind. I wonder," he broke off, thinking, "where does this notion stem from? Is that what compelled you to reach out to me? So foolish—and yet you believe you have gained such maturity as you are only four years younger than I?"

"Stop!" she screamed, and her voice carried over wind’s roars and lightning’s lashes. Her body shook all over. The anger had become unbearable to contain behind that thin mask on her face.

Itachi's eyes grew sinister, and they made her soul shiver with fear. "Lower your voice," he warned, his voice icier than the wind. "Do not forget you are speaking to me. I will not abide such behaviour because you were entertained." Then his face morphed back into expressionlessness, and he spoke no more.

Sakura's anger subsided to a longing, and she quieted her loud breaths. "I know you’ll be married in the future. All the Clan-Heads are. Is that what you’ll think of your wife—someone to repeat an act with?" she asked, her mouth trembling with emotions.

He considered her for a moment and spoke, "yes, she would be no different. She will give me an heir, and I will keep her satisfied. Marriage is done for many reasons. Love is just a foolish dream between strangers and is certainly not a prerequisite for many marriages. Is that what they teach you at home—fancy notions of the one? I will respect her and will demand the same in return. That is all what that arrangement will be. And that is all what marriage is about. Life is not a few inky words on a folktale scroll you so adore." Then he fixed her with a disinterested gaze. "Are you satisfied with the answer? Your curiosity in my would-be wife is . . . astounding."

"Sasuke, he . . . he really takes a lot after you," she finally burst out loudly as if unburdening herself of the words she had in store for him.

He pressed his knuckle to his lips and his breast shook with the flutter of suppressed laughter. He looked amused. "Does my honesty wound your heart?" he asked, unable to keep a slight quiver of amusement out of his flat tone. "Do you want me to admonish Sasuke because he seeks pleasure? Rest assured, women flock to him—so many of them. I will not demean him for that. Should I belittle him for enjoying pleasure?"

Sakura stepped forward, her eyes brimming with tears now. "You don't think it is wrong that he—" she choked out, grasping at her chest as if it pained her, "—he doesn't care about anyone? That he doesn't—"

"—care for you?" Itachi spoke before she could put her thoughts into words, and it took her breath away. "Why be so dishonest and weave yarns when you can just speak the truth? I find this whole thing so strange, Sakura. I will not punish him for something so trivial. He does not love you. Do you want me to force him to? You ask for something I will never do. Even an eternity would feel but a mere blink of an eye for your preposterous requests."

"You," she began, feeling as if her voice left her, and she felt weak, striving unsuccessfully to keep herself calm, "you're the reason why he is like this. So uncaring. So unkind. He doesn't care for anyone but you. Why did you do this to him? Why?"

Itachi got to his feet, and his face hardened like an unyielding stone beneath a cascade. "You do not know my brother. You just pursue him blindly out of wild lust. He is but an object to you—an object you so desperately want to possess. Your frenzy is what led you to pursue me. Tell me something, what do you really know about him? Why do you love him?" he asked in a dark tone, and his face came under the shadows, his body a dangerous silhouette before her against the dull light behind his back.

"I don't need any reason to love him. You wouldn't understand," she bit out and gritted her teeth. That lust felt like a dull pain in her body now.

"Ah," he breathed out and crossed his arms, "but you are so arrogant to assume that I do not love. I love more deeply than the limits of your shallow imagination. What you feel for him is not real. It is lust—a mad pursuit of ecstasy. And you will perish once it wounds you to your core. Do not say no one ever warned you."

"What are you—" she stopped and staggered back, her face ashen, her eyes wide with nothing but fear.

"I am merely showing you a mirror. Lights do not ever reach the roots beneath the ground. Whatever gets trapped, wriggles and dies in their grasp—but sometimes, an opportunity comes by. A miracle occurs and someone digs up a hole to allow that unfortunate animal to escape. If it chooses to stay, the roots become its final grave. How unlucky for that prey in a trap . . .  it is so foolish to see the signs," he said and watched her expression subtly change into a look of confusion.

"I don't understand. I . . . " she let out a tiny whisper, looking defeated.

Itachi did not entertain her with an explanation and resumed that creaking chair again. "Prepare the final report. We will leave in an hour," he commanded. She looked hesitant at first, but eventually nodded and left the room in silence.

Once she left, he leant his head back and listened to the soft sounds of the wind and the rain's patter against the cracked walls. His thoughts went back to Sasuke. Did he really pay a band of thugs to poison an emissary? He closed his eyes and sighed. He needed Itachi out of his affairs for a day or two, and he managed just that.

Sasuke wanted to go to Mist, and he allowed him. Kai and Serizawa would be so foolish to guess his games. "Such a child, Sasuke," he let out a whisper, looking at his warm breath hanging in the air, "you still enjoy these little games? You still want your brother to figure them out, do you not?" He felt the chill of breeze on his back, and the fine hairs quivered on his neck. "Your brother is weary, and if it is just a little game, then it needs to end now."

And for him, everything became silent . . .

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He felt the blood in his body heat. His neck grew hot and red beneath her lips. They brushed kisses against the curve of his neck, her hands sliding down to the expanse of his taut muscles. He could not control the flutter of his lashes, the deep shudder moving through him—so violent and delicious.

His hot gaze locked onto her as he took her in from head to the point where their bodies connected in a wanton union. His hand went up, and her nipples peaked under his fingers. His eyes slid heatedly across her body, looking at the red hair spread haphazardly over her white skin, dotted with the most peculiar of freckles.

He slid his hand down and passed it over her damp skin, snaking his fingers around just because he enjoyed the shiver of her beautiful skin. Down and down they went, stopping to curl around her narrow waist. He circled her navel with the tip of his fingers and went further down. Then they threaded teasingly into the coarse red pubic hairs, and he rolled her clit between his fingers, feeling the damp wash of her arousal stick to their tips.

Her breaths came out quick, and she jerked her hips forward, causing him to fill her some more. He never liked women to ride him, but he would be damned if he did not like the sight of her damp body, that beautiful face contorted in passion, and those lithe, plump thighs spread wildly just over his hips.

His black eyes were dilated and cloudy, and when she moved her hips, his back arched off the mattress as though he was riding a violent, stormy wave. A sharp hiss escaped his clenched teeth as her tight heat sucked him in more and more. His eager hands grasped at her legs, and she rocked her hips deliciously. He had not experienced sex like this for months—so raw . . . so wild. He was invited to stay in her room, and he had not left it for a whole day. It did not matter to him that she liked to play. No, he loved this playtime and all its wantonness.

So he let her ride him, let her rock her hips over and over again with an odd kind of frenzy that his lusty body loved so much. Her sweaty thighs gripped his waist with such strength and she clenched hard, and he felt himself spill a little in her wet, tight sheath. The pleasure mounted, and he practically gasped through his raspy throat.

That little control . . . it was slipping further and further away. His desire to take her hard and fast was overtaking his mind as rationality and reason slipped back and primal instincts took over. She bent down, and he welcomed the heat of her mouth, his tongue dancing with hers like an old, old ritual. When she backed away, a string of saliva hung between their mouths. He dragged his lips along her jaw and felt the quiver of her quick pulse there.

She squeezed him playfully again with a powerful jerk of her hips, and something inside him snapped: he flipped her over, and then he drove into her ruthlessly. He rode her hard and he rode her rough, feeling those walls drag along his length so exquisitely. His veins throbbed violently with hot blood, and his teeth scraped along her throat; she panted loudly and twined her legs about his waist, pulling him closer . . . and he went in deep, her walls, so hot and slick—tight, so tight.

He did not know what he was doing, his mind blank. It was just the violent jerk of his hips as he propelled her back on the bed. The grunts that tore from his throat were loud and wild, his breathing heavy, but he did not stop. The ruthlessness of it all spurred him on as he thrust into her with such force that she cried out.

That pleasure, like a hot-iron whiplash, right at the base of his tingling spine, the spasms rocking his whole body. It was so delicious. Her heat, an iron-tight grip, and he loved every inch of it. He pumped in and out of her in frenzied movements. Her walls clamped down hard on him and sucked him in with such force. Damn, she was so tight.

It did not take long, and she clenched with such strength that he felt a hot release erupt out of her. Her warm walls quivered and fluttered in answer around him. He felt the tremors of her powerful orgasm, and he, too, erupted with a groan of completion and collapsed on top of her. He pulled out, his lips shaking against the soft lobe of her ear.

It took long for him to cool his lingering passions. His breathing still hissed in and out of his teeth. Her legs wound tightly around his hips, but he felt her loosen her grip, and then she finally unwrapped them. His pants were wet from their sweat; they felt itchy on his skin now.

"So rough, Sasuke-Kun," she spoke against his shivering skin, her lips on his sweaty throat again . . . and damn it to hell, he was still hard as an evil rock.

Her lilting voice sent tremors down his length, and he found himself working into her again, their bodies still slicked with sweat; then he felt her bucking upwards, and he began matching her pace. It did not take long for it to turn into a jerking, frenzied, clawing affair  . . .

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Lying on his back, Sasuke stared absentmindedly at the ceiling. It was night. The moon hung high in the sky. Its white shafts barely made it in through the open window. A cold autumn breeze rustled the dry bushes outside, and the crickets chirped noisily—their sounds sharp and intermittent in the dead of the night.

He took in a shaking breath and filled his lungs with fresh air. His fever was cooling—that delicious feeling throbbed dully in his veins now. The sweat on his bare breast quivered down the sides. He sat up, his eyes roving slightly in Mei's direction. She was sleeping peacefully under the rumpled sheets. His Sharingan could tell. He swung out of bed, stretched, and stumbled over to the door, picking up his discarded shirt along the way.

The house was quiet. The guards had left the area for another round about the village. He could never believe them to be so foolish. Stepping outside, his eyes turned skyward, and the shadows changed to dark clouds overhead. They barely hid the moon behind them. A small stream spilt from next to the well, bubbling up and sending cool sprays to make the grass soggy.

Sasuke bent down, made a scoop of his hands, and splashed his face several times. The heat still lingered in his body like a steam on a tempered blade, but he would manage. He slumped down next to the well and leant his head back, his ears filling with the plashing patter of light drizzle that dotted his face and soaked through his clothes.

"So loud, Sasuke," a mischievous voice said from inside the well.

Sasuke did not turn his head and pushed his hair away from the forehead. "I thought I told you not to come till the moon was not on the other side. You don't ever listen, do you, Suigetsu?" he said and wiped his wet face with the back of his hand.

"Don'tcha worry. We have enough water here. No one will be able ta detect me, anyway," he replied and poked his watery head out of the mouth of the well. That wide smile was plastered across his face, complete with the over-efficient display of pointy teeth. "Jūgo is keepin' an eye on Chōjūrō and that Byakugan-hoardin' blow-hole."

Sasuke put his face in his hands and wiped away the droplets again. "Good," he said and looked down at the ripples in the small stream running just by his feet.

"Ya know she's a clever little slut, right? Can't believe ya keep fuckin' her like that," he remarked and propped his head up in both his hands. "She's such a screamer, too! I heard her ruts all the way over there by the lake. I’d just say that we should ambush her and cut her throat—the easy way. But ya just can't stop porkin' her."

Sasuke let out a soft laugh and bent his head, his body quivering. "In time we’ll do that, too," he said slowly and kept his eyes locked on the grey moon swallowed up by the dark clouds. "But she really is quite exquisite, no?"

"Bah, so what? Like hell ya will do it," Suigetsu shot back and pulled an annoyed look. "I think I've lost ya ta that deadly curse of Mist's slippery pussy."

Sasuke cocked his head up, amused. "Is that even a real thing?" he asked and twisted his head to look over his shoulder at him.

Suigetsu made a shocked face, his eyes bulging out. "Dear Sage's bloated nuts—ya didn't know?" he gasped and stretched his neck to look into Sasuke’s eyes. "These sluts use extra Chakra to make it all good. Artificial bullshit! It goes through yor pee-hole all the way ta yor kidney and does funny stuff ta yor head. It's scary! Ya better use Sharingan ta check your winkle."

"Kidney and then straight to the head . . . sounds elaborate," he said jokingly, smiling.

Clouds rumbled suddenly and thunder shook their bones. They both felt a sudden rush of cool wind. "Fine, don't believe me," he said, sucking on his teeth. "Ya know, ya should use it to yor advantage. Keep her busy."

He leant his head back and felt the pleasant chill of wind on the droplets clinging to his skin. "I'll keep that in mind," he replied and closed his eyes. "So what did you find? I hope Jūgo’s Sensing skills proved useful."

"They did," Suigetsu said, the excitement in his voice rising, "we founds a trap door in the last hideout. The one yor brother couldn't see."

Sasuke twisted his back and turned to put his elbow on the wet, hard mouth of the well. "And?" he asked, his face showing a look of scepticism.

"It had natural energy mixed into the threads. Don't think a regular Mangekyō would've seen anythin'. He acted on my message just in time after I saw that nasty crow. Yor bro is scary, though. Do ya think he knows?" he asked and raised his eyebrows high.

Sasuke looked away for a moment and a look of innocent amusement came into his face. "He must have found out by now. I could only keep him busy for a day. Had that emissary died, things would've escalated and Nii-Sama would've been assigned to look into the matter. What a wasted opportunity," he scoffed, appearing disgruntled.

Suigetsu looked around and whispered, "where are Serizawa and Kai? Their bloody Sharingans will spot me."

"Spiked their drinks. They're out cold," he said and slanted his head against his closed fist.

"Heh, good!" Suigetsu jumped out of the well. He stretched and his joints popped. Then he looked down and spoke, "did ya see anythin' else in her head durin’ that trainin'? Pinky-Chan's, I mean . . . ?"

"No, just a recent memory about the Cloud emissary. I didn't want to dig deep. Last thing I want is her weeping before Tsunade that I’m digging inside the empty echo-chambers of her mind now. Tsunade would've sent her as a support medic anyway," he stopped and pinched his eyes closed. "Those thugs—did you do your job right? I don't want them tracing it back to us."

"’Course," Suigetsu said and put his hands on his hips in a manner as if he was about to argue against a game's foul. "Jūgo knew 'em through some loafer in Rain. They was always against Kuma's bullshit. I wore that chakra mask, so all is cool. They're all dead anyway. I mean, the ones who knew Jūgo are—a clean slate."

Sasuke did not say anything. He knew Itachi would be mad. His face was drawn and hard as he stared at the fluttering flowers by the stream. What kind of punishment awaited him this time? He did not want to think about it.

"It was a bold stunt, ya know. He would be so mad," Suigetsu said in a low voice, his face free of mischievousness. "Ya better tell me what ta do. The trap door? It only had a scroll about Kisame's accomplice in Rain. Some faggit named Kisuke. He's all the way over in a village close ta Cloud now. It's a small trade centre and no one's allowed in without a military permit. It's day's journey, at least. And I don't have the permit ta enter. What do ya have in mind?"

Sasuke bit his lower lip and found his breath. He had suspected that Kisame was hiding it out in villages. His decision was right—there was no going back now. He reached into his pocket and threw a small scroll at Suigetsu. He caught it and asked, "what's this?"

"It's a permit," he said and got to his feet.

"Did ya use his Anbu seal again?" he asked, a bit incredulously. "Sasuke, that's two times now. He's gonna be fuckin' ballistic. He didn't say anything last time because you was so damn mad. But he's not gonna let ya off this time. Not with the emissary thing. You know whatcha doin', right?" He looked at him with questioning purple eyes, his mouth elongated the wrong way.

Sasuke's face went tense, and he spoke with a strained voice: "you don't want to find out about Mangetsu and your father?"

"I didn't say that. I'm just—"

"Then what's the issue?" he cut him off in a harsh voice that trembled with an odd kind of vulnerability. "I know I’ll be in trouble. That was the fastest way to get you an entry. Nii-Sama will be back in a day at most, and I can only keep Mei busy with the trials for a day more to keep her mind off that Kisame business. If you don't find anything by then . . . then forget this whole thing. It's over." He jerked his head away; fear flickered across his face that was turned red by the chill. He loved his brother, but he scared him.

Try as he might, his mind had so many blank spaces, unfilled gaps, he could never understand. His illusions made his skin crawl with mortal fear and real agony. He felt as though he had died many times and was reborn again when he woke up after the fevers. And damn his mind, he could never remember a thing.

Suigetsu made a tsking sound and twisted his mouth. "Ya will be in trouble. Big trouble. What do ya want me ta do? This isn't as easy as ya think. Yor clever—very clever. The smartest guy I know, and I’ve known a lotta men, but damn," he paused and let out a loud sigh, "yor brother’s a fuckin' daemon! I don't even know what he'll do ta ya. Heck, he could kill me!"

A clever smile returned to Sasuke's face that pushed away that anxiety momentarily. "He won't," he said in a soft voice, his eyes growing red.

"Thanks for the huge reassurance," he retorted with a frown. "He loves ya, so yor safe. Me? He'll grill my flat, wet arse with Amaterasu. Just ya watch."

Sasuke chuckled and put his hand on his shoulder. "What's the worse he can do? He can't throw you out. He knows it'll be easy to get around that way. He won't kill you, because he knows I value you. He won't ever do it," he said with a hard, sure look on his face—a curl of innocent amusement in his smile.

"That's so adorable, but what about ya? Ya really think he's gonna kiss yor forehead, scold ya a little, and sing ya a little lullaby this time? If he punishes ya, then what the fuck am I gonna do with whatever that Kisuke guy tells me?" he asked, his eyes squinting with stress.

The fear came back to Sasuke’s face, but his muscles fought bravely to keep it at bay. He managed a smile and spoke—a little slowly this time: "don't worry about me. Meet up with that guy. That permit will let you through without any trouble. Use a mask to hide your face. Whatever you find, hide that information and don't tell me unless I ask about it. Don't tell Karin and Jūgo about it. Keep this between us. Nii-Sama can't read your head, but he can read mine. What he won't read, he wouldn't know." He narrowed his eyes dangerously, looking resolute to see this through to the end.

Lightning fulminated and a spark lit the place: it was like a shroud of pure white light. It suddenly disappeared and heavy rain came pouring down. Sasuke felt as though he was doused in ice-cold water. Suigetsu raised his cloak above his head, and rain drummed on the thick water-repellent cloth. He looked a little indecisive, staring into Sasuke's eyes that were wary under the thick shroud of doubt and fear.

Suigetsu remembered that white face struck by a cord of fear way back in the past, those empty eyes staring at him, telling him of an unsung tale of autumn moths going for purple lilies. He did not say anything and gave a slow nod. Then he stepped around Sasuke and looked back at him one last time before he jumped back down into the well . . .

# # # # # #

Chapter Text

Canon Manga Info: Sasuke's intellect is superior to Shikamaru's by quite some margin. This can be easily argued by considering his feats (unparalleled Hagoromo's level of Ninjutsu skill and Chakra Control; making and perfecting several Ninjutsus and Genjutsu, Shuriken-Jutsu, and Kenjutsu on his own; and his quicksilver mind, clever thinking, and the ability to form counter-strategies on the spot, with hundred-percent success rate), his opponents' intellect and Shikamaru's own statement ("among my peers, he (Sasuke) was outstanding in every respect. He was certainly superior to me") in the Viz (official) translation of the manga.

Some of his best strategic feats are luring Orochimaru (a rare prodigy) into a trap with Fuma-Shurikens in the "Forest of Death" through such a quick strategy that fooled him completely. He never saw it coming as he did end up getting caught in the trap and was burnt. His complete breakdown of Haku's tech with a counter-strategy, and his ability to force out his Sharingan shocked the young Ninja.

He learnt and perfected Chidori and Lee's weightless speed (something he hadn't even seen) in mere weeks that shocked both Gai and Lee as it takes "years (according to Gai and Lee)" to perfect that technique. He also perfected the art of learning and combining Nature and Spatial Transformation (a feat higher than A-Rank, which, according to Kakashi, takes years to hone) within a week, without any training, when he was just a five-year-old child. Sasuke's use of the full-power of Two-tomoe Sharingan, despite the Cursed Seal causing him pain, took Kakashi by surprise. I can post more, but Sasuke was only twelve then.

So whatever you have read or assumed about Sasuke being some kind of fool from the mouths (or hasty fingers) of the vocal, and very foolish, anti-Sasuke minority on the internet isn't canon nor is it even remotely true. Sasuke’s a rare prodigy/Genius and has been referred to as such by Haku (Viz Translation), Jiraiya, Kakashi, Orochimaru (who called him a greater genius than himself when he was Sasuke's age), Shī, etc. No amount of self-made facts fueled by an unhealthy (and comically idiotic) hatred for a fictional character and ridiculous assumptions alter anything about Sasuke's status as a rare prodigy/Genius in canon-manga.

# # # # # #

Sounds of so many voices . . . it was a great burden to bear—perhaps too great. He stood stock-still by the tree, his blue eyes dilating and swirling. He watched the weak sun as it got smothered by the clouds. Their anger was too great this afternoon.

The umbrage of trees by his feet stretched out. Long and crooked they looked, eerie, like an ominous evening before its rightful call. Sounds chased the sparks, quick and eager in their pursuit to cut the still cold air into pieces. The bark beneath his fingers shook as another bang resounded. Autumn was here. He moved his eyes, a little less eagerly, and found Sakura flowers dying on the trees.

A few puffs of wind tore them away from the dry branches. Their time was over. They would bloom next spring. He wanted to smile as though the wait for their new birth blossomed the desire to live in him, too, but the feeling of remorse and sorrow tore up his heart. He really was trapped. No matter how hard he tried to tear himself away from his life, the shackles felt too heavy, too sturdy to let him wander off as his heart desired.

His desires … little by little, he had killed them, murdered them all like a remorseless mad killer in pursuit of the innocent, bled them dry in the dim corners of his mind. There they ran like children, hiding away in some nook and corner behind the blanket of blackness that did not shield them. They let out such soul-chilling screams, and by Sage, it shivered in him—that black mass of malevolence.

The thing never left him alone and writhed just underneath a thin film of protection that was eroding away under its acidic touch, the landscape of his mind abraded by its stench. He knew, he just knew that soon he would find himself at its mercy again. He needed those red eyes to calm it, to push it back. Sasuke, where was he?

His face hardened, a carved stone under the drizzle. Where was Sasuke, now that he needed him the most? Needed him to soothe his demons? Needed him . . . to just be his brother? He knit his brow and looked skyward, the cold wind rushing at his face and he moved his feet without thinking, not paying any mind to the maw only a foot away from him.

A powerful hand seized him. "Naruto, stop. You almost fell in. Are you feeling all right?" Neji asked with a concerned face, holding Naruto's arm in a firm grasp.

Naruto cocked his head and managed a half-hearted, fake smile. "Yeah, I-I'm fine. Just something on my mind," he muttered and pulled away.

"It must be something grave if you decided to hurl yourself down into the pit. What's on your mind?" he asked and looked down into the deep hole: it led to a network of underground caves. Sasuke and he were assigned to check it every week. It was impossible to get in or out without the Dōjutsus. Many ninjas died there, looking for a way into Konoha . . . and even out of it.

"Nothing," he lied and looked away as though the Byakugan might pick apart his secrets. "I was just thinking about the Jōnin application. Wonder if Sasuke will even accept it." He put his hands upon his wet face and emitted a heavy sigh.

Neji looked unconvinced, but he chose not to press it. "I'm sure he will," he assured and turned on his Byakugan to check the wet rocks. It required a very precise chakra control to stick the feet to the rocks and not plummet down to one's death. They were slick and wet—too wet for Naruto's feet to find purchase upon them.

"You think so? I mean, are you sure I'm even ready?" Naruto asked and bent his head a little to look down. The darkness by his feet seemed to suck him in.

"I don't know. Sasuke-Sama had to oversee your training, but he got ill. Then, when the time came to train you again, he . . . he got busy, I suppose," Neji said and turned his head at Naruto's curious face. The blond looked inquisitive, slightly excited at the prospect to head down to the underground caves.

Neji straightened his back with surprise on his face. "You're not coming down with me. Stay here and watch the area," he said calmly, watching as a deep frown disturbed the blond's happy face.

"Why not? I can make Kage-Bunshins and scout out the area quickly. You underestimate me, Neji," he said and cocked his nose in a prideful manner.

Neji sighed. "It isn't about numbers. You use clones to make a single Rasengan, for Sage's sake. Your chakra control isn't precise enough to run down these rocks. They’re slippery and covered with fungi. One slip and you’ll just break your neck and bones," he reasoned and gathered chakra around his feet to run down the rocks.

"You can help me climb down, then. I'm not standing here, freezing my butt off while you take your sweet time wandering around the caves," he protested, sounding stubborn.

Neji let out another loud sigh. "It isn't exactly a picnic down there. It's dark and dank and it smells awful. Sasuke-Sama and I simply split the area and check it in a couple of minutes. Without Sharingan, it wouldn't be possible to give chakra a different colour. You can't help me down there, Naruto," he said with an air of annoyance and turned around to jump down.

"Neji, take me with you, or else, I will jump down and see where fate takes me. I mean it!" he warned and pressed his lips together into a thin line as if he was struggling to speak.

"Fine," he sighed and held out his hand, "just grab my hand and don't stop the chakra flow. It’ll even out yours and you might just make it down there—without breaking your neck in two."

Naruto grabbed his hand. "A ray of sunshine, aren't you," he retorted, a little annoyed. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a flare; when he rubbed it against his jacket, its end burst and sizzled into a thick flame.

"So I’ve been told," he said and took a long leap into the darkness with Naruto.

"Sasuke's mean-streak has rubbed off on you," he remarked and kept his legs steady as both of them stood at an odd angle upon a very wet rock.

Their feet clung to the slippery fungi, the chakra tearing through the thick layer to secure their passage. They leapt from rock to rock and roiled the mist hanging in the chasm. The red light bounced off the wet rocks and rent the shadows wavering about.

At last, Neji landed down into the mud. Naruto slipped beside him but caught his balance. He craned his neck to look up; he could still see the opening some five hundred feet above their heads. Few trickles fell down upon his face, and he wiped them away hastily.

"Has it?" Neji asked at length and gulped down the cold air in the maw—it was a heavy weight in his lungs.

Naruto fixed him with a curious look, and his mouth twisted into a smile. "'Course it has! Sasuke's a jerk. In fact, he can be a real asshole, sometimes. Imagine, sticking to him nearly all the time like you do as his assistant—it's gotta be contagious," he remarked and gave a slow laugh.

Neji did not say anything and flicked his head to indicate that they had to go. "Just send a few Bunshins down the tunnels in the back. Make sure you check every nook and corner. I'll keep my Byakugan on—just in case," he said.

Naruto grinned and created three Kage-Bunshins. They mimicked Naruto's expression and created quite the din before they disappeared down the tunnels behind them—each with a flare in hand. The lights glowed for a few more feet, disturbing the darkness's rest, till they disappeared from sight. They could see the Bunshins no more.

"Say, Neji," he paused and wiped away an ice pellet with the back of his hand, "is your seal gone now—has the counter-seal really worked?"

Neji stopped and turned around. He looked a little surprised. "Did your father tell you?" he asked, staring at the artificial blush on Naruto's face in the red glow of the light. Even his blond hair appeared vivid red.

It was so cold here in the dark. The sun never shone on the rocks, and the smell of musk and dead plants suffused the air. It was a little hard to breathe. Naruto's breath whistled out of his nose; then he sniffed loudly and coughed to clear his nose and throat.

"Yeah, I know he's a little nosy. Who knows how he found out ’bout it. How did the Hokage approve, though—or your clan? I thought they said they never wanted to part with the Head family?" he asked and wiped at his face again. The cold drops that fell down from the rocks above stung his cold-bitten skin.

"Times change," he said and squeezed through a gap between the rocks.

Naruto followed him and stuck his arm through the gap first to let the light guide his way. "Good for you. At least, you're free. I'm just surprised the Hokage approved. You know the kind of influence Hiashi has on those old farts. They even try to force the Hokage's hand sometimes. They're all in on the most shady stuff," he said in a gruff voice and pulled his leg out of the gap, steadying himself.

"I don't know how, but Sasuke-Sama got it done," Neji said in a soft voice, his face softer still as the red light touched his sharp cheeks and made them glow.

Naruto coughed and put his hand on his head to scratch his scalp. "Sasuke? Really? But . . . how?" he asked in a confused voice—his features told the same story.

Neji put his hand on the wet rock beside him and turned his head a little to look at the area obscured by his blind spot. The whole world around him was still awash with monochromatic shades. He saw the glow of chakra in a centipede crawling into a crevice and a few crabs scuttling here and there, seeking water. They would find it just down the tunnel.

"He’d sent in a proposal to Itachi-Sama and Karin made the counter-seal. All I had to do was get the votes to remove the seals. Karin’s very talented. I didn't know it was even possible to make one," he explained, his eyes white, the veins popping visibly around them. "All it takes is a promise of freedom . . . perhaps that’s all my people needed." He turned his head away and took a few steps to stand beside a lone purple lily jutting out of a crevice. He touched it with the tip of his fingers, lost in thought.

Naruto leant against the rock and held the flare high. The shaft of light stretched out in front of them and so did their shadows that mingled eerily with the black everywhere. "I wonder how Sasuke got Itachi to give in. The dude’s a complete asshole. Not even the nice-asshole kind. He's just an asshole, period!" he said distastefully and wrinkled his nose as if he had just smelt something really rancid and foul.

"I get a feeling that you don't like Itachi-Sama. It wouldn't be the first time you’ve bad-mouthed him," he said with a smile and looked over his shoulder—half his face came under the sharp red light. "They're brothers. I’m sure Sasuke-Sama knows how to get things done."

Naruto looked incredulous, his blue eyes bulging out. "How can anyone like an asshole? Neji, you are too nice—and naïve," he said and made a silly face, looking somewhere between annoyed and angry. "And Sasuke? Bet he gave him the puppy-dog eyes, wept a little, and told him that he won't speak to him ever again if he didn't do as he says. His emotional blackmailing works every time—like a charm." He widened his eyes and created a toothy grin on his face.

Neji pressed his knuckle to his lips and suppressed the laughter vibrating in his chest. "You sure know how to put things into perspective," he remarked, wearing a smile on his wet face.

"Itachi’s weird. He either smothers him with unconditional love or kicks his ass with no care in the world. There’s no grey in-between. None at all. And Sasuke seems totally cool with these psychotic episodes. Been telling him for ages to put his foot down, but he starts breathing down my neck if I say one bad word about Nii-Sama. I swear it, Itachi’s fucked his mind. I get that feeling, sometimes," he ended with a loud, dramatic sigh.

"I'm sure," Neji remarked with a quirk of his eyebrow and started walking ahead, "shall we finish this? I have to get this done before Itachi-Sama comes back. He might require a report of the Team exercises, as well."

"Yeah, go ahead, avoid my analysis. You know it's true—Itachi’s creepy cock!" he said loudly behind him and listened to the caves echo and the words bounce back at them about a dozen times: creepy cock, creepy cock, creepy cock . . . then he took in a deep breath to fill up his lungs and looked up at the faint glimmer of light beyond the jutting rocks overhead. This was going to be a long day . . .

# # # # # #

It was afternoon when Suigetsu made it to the trade centre: it was a small village wedged between two tall mountains. Cloud village was close, hidden behind the blanket of clouds to the north. He turned his head and lifted his eyes to look in that direction. As expected, the clouds obscured his vision.

He adjusted his cloak and pulled the cowl down; it hung low over his eyes. He stood behind a scruffy looking man in a long line. The smell he gave off was churning his stomach. Tilting his head a little to the left, he looked over to the gate—only two more people left, and then it would be his turn. The gate was sturdy and few burly guards stood on either side, flanking the passage. An old man checked the entry permits.

Suigetsu squeezed the permit in his hand. Despite the reassurance Itachi's Anbu seal provided, he could not help but feel a little terror at the prospect of getting caught. The village's prison was notorious for its ill-treatment of prisoners: few died, murdered by the inmates, every month. There was never any inquiry. Damn, what had he gotten himself into?

Finally, the man in front showed the old man his permit and walked through the gate, taking that disgusting odour with him. "Hold on to yor sacks, dear Sage, here we go," he muttered and took a single, slow step to stand before the old man.

"The permit?" the man squeaked in a shrill little voice and held out a wrinkly hand. Suigetsu did not hesitate and quietly handed over the permit. The strange looking old man, with a great stoop to his back, adjusted his glasses and bent his head down, his long nose touching the paper. His eyes widened, and then he squinted them to look up at Suigetsu who did not flinch even though his heart was tripping with fear.

"An Anbu permit!" he squeaked again, sounding like a talking mouse in a hole. "You can find the weapons down the street. You’re allowed to stay at the inn free of charge. Enjoy your stay." He held the permit in his hand and gathered his crumpled face into a big smile; what he managed was truly a miracle for his sagging folds.

Suigetsu nodded and took the permit from his quivering greying hand. Sasuke was thorough. He had made a permit for weapons' purchase for the squads. He was to act like a new weapons' specialist who checked several shops in the trade centre. He was not obliged to buy anything; but the permit, a snobbish look, and the silence fitted the job.

Konoha's military men often came here to purchase weapons. He was this nameless guy, his name hidden under Anbu military protocols. With Karin's chakra mask in place, no one would know he was even here. Heck, men from Root frequented the centre, as well. It would be impossible for Itachi to lay the blame on him.

Suigetsu chuckled and walked to the inn about two hundred feet away behind the shops. The younger Uchiha really was a clever little imp. Sasuke never remembered what Itachi punished him with. His brother was clever to rewrite his memories. The strength of his cruel Genjutsu painted those incidents black, but somewhere in the back of his mind, he was sure his brother would not get inside his thoughts this time—and he was right. Itachi had punished him cruelly this time, and he did not want to risk hurting the tender chakra veins behind Sasuke’s eyes anymore.

Sasuke being Sasuke was unintentionally taking advantage of his brother's weakness. If all went well, he, too, would exact revenge upon Mist and Konoha higher ups that got his brother and father killed. All was well for him; but he could not help but feel guilty for lying to Sasuke. They had been friends ever since he came to Rain in his childhood. He remembered Sasuke, only ten then, sticking close to his brother, looking up with a smile on his face for reassurances, his small hand in Itachi's.

They had come to watch the local ninjas display their skills. It was a monthly show for influential families in the villages. A bit pitiful, but that was how the poor survived there—few lucky ones anyway. If they impressed someone, they would be labelled hired-hands, taken under their wings and off the market.

Sasuke clapped enthusiastically when Suigetsu finished demonstrating his Kenjutsu skills. He pulled at Itachi's hand to come with him. They talked and Sasuke introduced himself and his brother. He remembered the innocence on Sasuke's face and the cool look in Itachi's eyes. He could tell that he was a cold-hearted, remorseless man. His heart could only be thawed by his own flesh and blood.

Itachi's hand was buried protectively in Sasuke's messy hair. He was a parent to him—his mother and father. He requested his brother to make Suigetsu a ninja they could hire regularly for work. Itachi was reluctant, but looking at the unhappy look on Sasuke's face, he gave in. Suigetsu was so poor back then, his clothes tattered and torn. His skills with the sword impressed Sasuke. He took pity on him and his poverty, and Suigetsu could not say he hated him for it. No, he was secretly glad that someone did.

He had not eaten for three days. Alone and left to rot by Mist, his mother died; and his line ended, save for him. If Sasuke had not taken pity on him that day, perhaps, he would have died, too—alone and forgotten by the village that used and killed his family. Sasuke's favour saved him that day. He saved his life. He owed everything to him. That was why he hated lying to him. Would Sasuke even forgive him if he found out? He wondered, his face blank and his eyes downcast, looking at the countless tracks left in the path.

He breathed in the scents wafting to him from the inn, thinking. It was for Sasuke's own good. He did not want to break the brothers apart; it was something he himself had lost but craved for endlessly. He was not that heartless. Sasuke was so clever, but he was also naïve. He did not know what he had. Only Suigetsu could tell that how a cold hard man like Itachi suffered in anguish over his misdeeds. He loved him too much, but his love was dangerous.

He treated Sasuke like a fragile child he never wanted to part with. He felt as though he would break like a glass doll if he did not coddle him, indulge his every whim; but he was just as cruel when he did not obey. Itachi's cruel side always resurfaced when Sasuke did not heed his words and chose to disobey him, repeatedly. Suigetsu feared for Sasuke. He was prone to being very moody, very rash when Itachi did not listen to him. Perhaps he really was a child—just as Itachi always said.

Sasuke always wanted to have his way. He was stubborn and so innocent in his mannerisms to make Itachi give in to his requests. He used whatever means necessary to break Itachi’s hard resolve. One time in the past, he did not eat for days when Itachi refused to allow Team Taka to be a part of his squad. At last, he became feverish from the ordeal, and Itachi went back on his word.

Itachi did not want Naruto to be a part of Sasuke's team; so when Itachi did not listen, Sasuke left home. It took him days to find him, holed up in some cave close to Mist. The lies he told to be off Anbu Captain's duty then. He went back on his word again. By now, he was used to being put to the test by his little brother.

Oh, how Sasuke tested him over and over again. And the more angry Itachi got, the more moody Sasuke would become. It was a reaction that came to him naturally—ever so eager for his brother to accept his every demand. He continued his streak of innocent games as a new Captain, testing him over and over again. Finally, he lashed out and got punished over a lax security mission.

The prisoner got away, and the inquiry nearly cost Sasuke his freedom. Itachi was so angry with him. Sasuke had not listened to any of his warnings. He did as he pleased. That earned him a little time in Tsukuyomi. Delirious, he wandered out of the manor and disappeared into the night. Itachi searched and searched for him, but he could not find him.

He hired Suigetsu for a mission for the first time. He remembered the look on Itachi's face. For the first time, he saw a shroud of cold fear upon his eyes and great sorrow in his face. It was almost unbelievable to see such a stone-hearted man be moved towards the verge of sorrow.

Before that fateful day, Suigetsu used to do menial tasks for them. It was his first real mission. He searched Rain's border and found Sasuke slumped against the tree. His eyes . . . were so empty, and he was crying blood. Thin red lines went down his cheeks, diluted into a faint pink by the rain.

He kept whispering something about autumn moths and purple lilies. Suigetsu did not understand him. He could not say he ever understood why he said those words. Itachi was led there by his crow sitting on Suigetsu's shoulder. He sat down and crushed Sasuke to himself in a tight embrace, as though he had just found his lost child. A look of relief came to his face, and he would swear upon his mother's grave, he saw him shed a few tears of guilt and relief. He must have thought the light rain to be a clever curtain, but Suigetsu's eyes were keener than that.

Itachi whispered promises then—so many of them—that must have fallen on deaf ears. His brother's lips said nothing but the same tale of moths and purple lilies. His tamed madness frightened Suigetsu. He felt . . . pity for him. Suigetsu was fearful of the man he hardly knew, but he asked him anyway, unable to keep the words in his throat. "What have ya done to him?" he had asked fearfully, gazing upon Itachi's cold face broken by a lingering trace of grief. It was subtle, but the power that lay behind it shocked Suigetsu: he did feel something—he was not a walking, talking statue made of stone.

Itachi did not say a word, he pressed his finger against Sasuke's forehead and he fell asleep. Then he picked Sasuke up and left in silence. It was strange. His love was strange. Twisted. He could never understand him. Still lost in thoughts, he pushed open the door of the inn. The metallic bell hanging at the door chimed, and his memories got cut short.

He looked over to many men sitting around the tables and made his way to the counter. A fat man lumbered left and right, holding a cloth in hand. He was wiping a plate clean quite vigorously. Suigetsu settled himself on a chair and tapped his hand against the shiny wooden-counter. "I’d like a cup of sake. Make it strong," he rasped and adjusted his cowl a little thoughtlessly.

The man placed the cup before him. He downed the cup and looked at him and pulled the hood back. "I saw sharks the other day around Mist's ocean. They go there often?" he asked, watching the man's face change. He looked fearful and nearly dropped the glass in his hand. He tip-toed and put it on the top shelf and stretched his fat arm to its limit.

He stopped close to him, bent down, and moved his beady little eyes left and right. "What do you want? He doesn't come here anymore. Don't ask for trouble," he whispered in a shaky voice, the spit from his mouth clinging to the thick moustache. Its ends were so pointy. He had twirled it well.

Suigetsu leant forward and put both his hands on the counter. "Am lookin' for his right hand—he lost it here, I heard," he said, narrowed his eyes, stretched his lips wide into a smile.

The fat man wobbled a little and pursed his lips; they practically disappeared behind that great red moustache. "Upstairs," he whispered in that same thick voice again and moved his small, shiny eyes to the right.

Suigetsu flicked him a mischievous look and made his way up a very narrow stairway. He was shocked the fat man even managed to squeeze through the tight space; but, apparently, he could see bottles upstairs and footprints on the creaking stairs. It was probably a storage space. He cast one last look behind him and opened the only door when he made it to the top.

When he opened it, a strong smell of alcohol rushed at him. It was a dimly lit room with bottles of sake sitting on the shelves. Many had dead snakes in them. It seemed the villagers liked their drinks strong. He took one step and an arrow broke the vase into pieces just beside him. He narrowed his eyes and saw a man sitting with a crossbow in the shadows. It was aimed at him this time.

"Ah, Kisuke," he spoke in a playful tone and raised his hands slightly in the air, "yor a hard man ta find, though ya could improve that aim. It missed me by two feet."

"Who are you? What do you want?" he asked and stood up into the weak beam of light. He was a man around his mid-thirties—quite scruffy looking with that overgrown messy hair and a silly looking, fake beard. It had too many curly white hairs.

"Ya look like a man that has seen some serious shit. And—" he paused, catching a whiff of a nasty smell Kisuke gave off, "—ya smell like several men. They ain't got no showers here, buddy?" He waved his hand in front of his face. The puff of wind from the window must have sent the smell his way.

Kisuke aimed the crossbow higher this time, his eyes two dangerous pinpricks of black. "I asked you something," he said, his voice gruff and threatening.

"Hōzuki Suigetsu. The fishy knows me," he answered with a grin.

"You look nothing like the fifteen-year-old youth I saw a decade ago. I don't even sense your clan's chakra in you. Who sent you?" he asked in a grave voice, and his hands shook this time with fear and anger.

"Whoa there, sonny! It's me. Let me show it ta ya," he said and put his hand on his face. The mask was stuck to his skin like a glue. He pulled at it and it peeled off and revealed his true face. "See? This handsome face’s hard ta forget."

Kisuke lowered the bow, his face enveloped by shock, and his eyes widened in amazement. "What on earth? I can . . . I can sense your clan's chakra again. W-What’s that mask? It's brilliant!" he exclaimed, almost jumping on the spot with excitement.

"A friend made it. Ya want it?" he asked and smiled as he watched Kisuke nod several times. It looked as though he was jerking his head back and forth like a hungry cock. Suigetsu closed the door behind and took a seat by the table. The lantern overhead swayed back and forth, and its beam followed it with precision.

Kisuke sat opposite him and stretched his hand to touch the mask when Suigetsu pulled it back. "Not so fast there, buddy. Ya want it? Well, you gotta earn it. Where's Kisame? He’s got somethin' I want, and he's bein’ a wild lil’ fishy these days, jumpin' from pond ta pond. It's not even possible ta find that son of a bitch—or whatever monstrosity his mum was. Ya was so cosy with 'im. Where has he run off ta? I need ta know," he asked and opened the buckle on the sheath and put the massive sword against the old table.

"He told me you would come, but I don't know where he is. The bird I sent to him hasn't come back in weeks. I'm not even sure if he's still alive," he said and passed his hands across his sweaty face. He was sweating by the buckets.

Suigetsu groaned. "What a waste of me time. Boss’s gonna get his lil’ fanny whipped for nothin'," he said, irked.

"You're here for the Tulip Squad business?" he asked, leaning forward over the table, his face sliding in and out of view. And by Sage, his hair was crawling with lice! He scratched his lice-bitten neck, and Suigetsu flinched a little.

"No shit! And man, your head’s crawlin' with life. Sit away from me. Those things can jump high and long," he paused and created a disgusted look on his face, "and take a bath, will ya?"

Kisuke grabbed hold of his dirty shirt and stared back at him with hard eyes. "You think I like this? Living like a dog, eating leftovers, and not showering for days? Mist dogs have been sniffing around here. The hunger, the stench, and the smell of alcohol hide my clan's chakra. That's the only thing that’s kept me alive. I need that mask to get outta here. Or else, they’ll kill me. I just know it. I—" he whispered, shaking. A gob of spit hung from his mouth.

"What do ya know, then?" Suigetsu asked, and his eyes roamed across the pitiful state of the man's blackened clothes. They might have been white in the past. He could not really say for sure.

Kisuke wiped away the spit and took in a deep breath. "I know that Kisame and others were hired to arrange for a Mangekyō Sharingan for Root," he lowered his voice to a mere whisper, and his eyes moved back and forth between and door and Suigetsu’s face like a pendulum.

Suigetsu was surprised. "A Mangekyō? Danzō could get dime a dozen of those—diggin' 'em straight from the bloody graves after the massacre. Why would he hire such expensive mum-fuckers to get one? What're ya snortin', buddy?" he asked and slapped his hand on the table. A cloud of dust rose up into the air and made him cough.

Kisuke emitted a low growl. He did not look as though he was in a mood to argue. "I'm telling you what I know. Danzō made a hefty payment and gifted Mist Isobu’s essence and the Jutsu to contain it. It happened before the damned massacre," he said, and his eyes shrank under clumps of dirty hair.

“ . . . what? They gave them the essence? I thought they already had it?" Suigetsu asked incredulously, his eyes wide with shock. This was something new.

Kisuke shook his head. "No, Danzō gave it to them with the Jutsu. Minato's wife made it for them. It was a proper deal. Yagura sat down with them. The squad. Everyone was there. The deal was made to get a pair of Mangekyō Sharingan—a rare one. That's all I know." His gruff voice subsided to a low mumble, and then he fell silent, his eyes looking hopefully at the mask on the table.

Suigetsu ran his hand through his hair. It made no sense. Why did they want a pair of eyes so many had? Maybe Sasuke knew more than him? He was an Uchiha, and they guarded their Dōjutsu secrets well. He got to his feet and reached into his bag, still hanging from his shoulder.

He pulled out a much smaller bag and threw it on the table. Kisuke jumped up as if he meant to attack him. "Take this. It has a mask and a permit outta this village and into Rain. Take the road the long way around. Stop nowhere other than a few villages the permit allows. Don't ever take that mask off. Yor life depends on it. Reach Rain and contact the Uzumaki family as the scroll says," he explained, keeping his voice low.

Kisuke kept looking at him for more. After a few seconds, Suigetsu frowned and raised his hands in the air. "What’re you waitin' for, ya fleabag? Grab the stuff and let's go," he said in an annoyed, sharp voice.

"Hey, I don't have to listen to you! And what's this?" he broke off and opened a small pouch in the bag, "is this gold?" He bit the coin to check its authenticity, and his face suddenly brightened with greed, his eyes shining now.

"Ya gotta. Boss's orders, ya know. He planned the whole thing. If ya don't listen, he told me ta cut yor throat right here and march out the front gate. And there would be no more gold for ya," he said in a chirpy voice, his features adjusting themselves to that same mischievous look again.

"I have to come with you—now?" Kisuke asked, his hand still fumbling in the bag, his eyes blinking rapidly.

"There’re no more gold pouches in there, ya flea-packing idiot! Take a shower, put the mask on, and let's leave. I'll drop ya off at the next border. Don't stray from the route the Boss mapped for ya. He practically highlighted it with fancy brush strokes. Even a jackarse can't miss the signs," he said with impatience.

"All right, all right—but this gold better be enough." He put the pouch back inside the bag and closed it with a resentful look on his face.

"Or what, my lice-lovin' friend?" Suigetsu asked with a horrible grin on his mouth. When Kisuke muttered something in response, Suigetsu tilted his head to the right and placed his hand close to his right ear. "What was that? Yeah, thought so. Get movin'!"

Kisuke's mouth was clamped shut. He wanted to say something but did not.

# # # # # #

It was morning when Itachi made it to his office. The emissary was transferred to Shizune's care, and Tsunade was overseeing the medical procedure. Kuma survived, but the poison weakened his heart. It was not anything fatal—nothing a little chakra heavy pill or a long sleep could not fix.

He sat in his office, looking at the clock. It was just past five a.m. He had not slept a wink in two days. He was a hard man but he was human. He felt his body weaken from these long hauls without any rest; and he had yet another mess waiting for him. He turned his eyes and stretched his hand to brush Kirin's breast. It had been screeching in its cage all morning. It missed Sasuke.

He had taken it out of its cage in Sasuke's room and brought it to the office with him. It was quiet now, making low sounds after every few minutes, its eyes locked with his as if it did not enjoy his company. It sat on the table and pecked at the brush hard as it rolled back and forth. It was, apparently, annoying it. A knock came upon the door.

"Come in, Neji," he said softly, his Sharingan on to look at his chakra.

Neji stepped into the room. He always looked nervous in his presence. He bowed and placed the scroll on the table. "I apologize, Itachi-Sama. Naruto slipped down a tunnel. It took me a while to get him back up," he explained, a little breathlessly, his cheeks red and hot from excretion.

"Your report is fifteen minutes late. Would it have come early had Naruto not . . . slipped?" he asked, his tone unusually frosty. Neji did not say anything. His eyes were downcast, and he looked embarrassed.

Itachi petted Kirin again, but it responded by pecking irritably at his fingers. "Where is Sasuke?" he asked as he continued to stroke the bird's smooth feathers.

Neji looked up, his eyes wary. "Kai-San sent in a hawk an hour ago. They were sixty kilometres past the last Village's border then. He should be back in two hours," he said and dropped his eyes down to his feet again.

Itachi grabbed Kirin from the table and brushed his fingers against its smooth breast. "Of course he will be," he said in such a soft, whispery voice as though he was talking to himself. Neji thought he saw a faint smile playing about his lips. He put the bird back down on the table and looked at Neji's sweaty face. "Tell Tetsu outside to inform all Squad-Captains to bring their weekly-missions' report to my office within three hours, including Sasuke."

Neji nodded in silence. He made to leave when Itachi spoke again: "Forget about Shizune’s. She is busy with another task. Tell Sai to bring Kiba along. I need to speak to that shinobi. He sounds . . . quite interesting," he said after a long pause, and his mouth twisted in a strange, but faint, smile. "And do ask Serizawa to bring my Anbu seal from home when he gets back. Talk to him alone. Let us not make this another odd, untimely slip." His face lost that smile; it appeared hard and uncaring again. He returned back to the idle task of petting the bird.

Neji did not stick around. He bowed and left in silence, leaving Itachi to whisper something odd to the bird—something about Sasuke . . .

# # # # # #

Chapter Text

# # # # # #

Try as he might to control that heart, it rumbled along with an erratic thump. Konoha's gates loomed into view: the tall thick pillars exuded the typical smell of chakra infused wood he was so accustomed to by now. That damned Yamato and his knock-off Mokuton tricks. He could not say he ever liked him. He took a few more steps and came under a weak strip of shadow thrown by the pillar as it caught the light of the morning sun.

He stopped and raised his head towards the light. It was pallid, weak. Autumn sun never could burn on one's skin; and yet, he felt cool sweat oozing out of his pores. Sweat drops quivered and tingled on his skin, and he gulped down the dry lump in his throat. He was passing through the gate to his judgment . . .

He felt a heavy slap on his back and Kai's face suddenly occupied his vision. "Come along, Sasuke—Itachi-Sama’s asked us to bring our reports in. Yours is required as well, and we’re already half an hour late. Hurry up," he said and slapped his back again.

"I heard you," Sasuke said. Pangs of dread and gloom assailed his mind. He wanted to be anywhere but here, but there was no use hiding. How long would he elude his cunning brother? As if the thought made him accept this defeat, his black eyes dimmed, and his face turned sad.

He felt like a child—afraid of being caught and punished for his games. He had disobeyed his brother, and now was the time to brave up to him and suffer through whatever he had in store for him. He knew this day would come the moment he touched that Anbu seal. His fingers had brushed that wooden part, and a delightful shiver of fear went skittering through him. He was defiant then, a wayward young man his brother thought to be no more than a child.

Sasuke's feet moved, and each step weighed heavily upon his mind. He walked through the gates. His Sharingan, feeling the anxiety in him, resurfaced as if trying to shield his body and mind from any assaults that awaited him; it whirled with determination in his eyes. He saw dust collected in the leaf symbol cut in two now as the heavy gate lay open in front.

Few ninjas stood by the gate—the cowed fools that guarded these walls. How he hated the lot of them now. A shower of a chakra-shield fell over him as he crossed the line of invisible chakra on the ground, his body awash in tingles that scurried down his spine: it was an old defence mechanism. Most bypassed it through the underground caves. Even a common Sensor could sniff it out. Those decrepit fools that controlled the policies had grown senile.

Sakura stood with Neji a couple of feet away from the guards, watching him. Their eyes met for just the smallest moment, and he read her completely. That desperation . . . he saw see it in their depths. It was like they never relinquished it—a hot fire that never went out. Sakura flowers may have wilted, but her wild desires knew no bounds. It was such an affair for her; it was bereft of logic.

When would she learn her lesson? His harsh words that day had not taught her to let things go. He had the sudden urge to mock her for her foolishness to pursue him, but it was hardly the time to think of such things. He had worse things on his mind, grave things, and he did not want to crowd his thoughts. Not now.

He paused in his steps when he saw Neji make his way to him. He looked a bit worried today. He stopped and gave a bow. "I hope your work went well. Itachi-Sama, he," he paused and coughed, his brow sweating, "he’s asked for reports on Suigetsu, Jūgo, and Karin, as well. You sent them all on holidays and altered their duty roster. I don't think Itachi-Sama knows about it." He looked at Sasuke, his eyes unusually dim. He seemed deeply concerned.

Sasuke shoved his hands into his pockets. He looked away to the sky, his face creating an artificial look of indifference. It was just an act. Itachi knew how to nail him to the wall. He was just going to use it to break him, and that punishment would not be that far behind. "Let me worry about that. You can finalize the rest of them. Meet me in the office in twenty minutes," he said and looked in the direction of the melodious sound that came to him from behind the trees.

He blinked and saw a white orb whoosh toward him. In the next moment, Kirin landed on his shoulder. It screeched loudly to tell him of something. He titled his head back and let out a soft laugh, feeling it press its tiny feathery body against the crook of his neck. It suddenly fell silent and made tiny, soft sounds that filled his right ear. "You missed me?" he asked and grabbed hold of its tiny body.

Its small eyes stared at him from over his fist. Sasuke bent his head down and brushed his nose against its breast. It made another melodious sound in response. "I brought you treats all the way from Mist. You like pink fish, don't you? I got these for you," he said and unzipped his jacket to put Kirin in that small pocket on the inside. He fumbled inside his pants pocket and took out a small packet. Kirin screeched loudly when it saw a small piece of dried up meat held between his fingers.

Sasuke did not say anything more to Neji. He started walking to his office. He had a calm, innocent smile on his face as he fed Kirin. He felt Sakura's eyes follow him, but he did not turn to say anything to her. He needed missions' reports from her, but she was on a mission with his brother. Let it be Itachi's own headache.

# # # # # #

"Woof woof . . . " Kiba paused, chuckling with that big grin on his husky face, ". . . woof woof, and then he pissed straight into his eyes. His aim has greatly improved, Itachi-Sama."

The way Itachi stared back at him was quite amusing: his stone-cold sober face was devoid of even a hint of a smile, his eyes two stones that could wither a man in one glance. The monstrous effort it took to suppress that laughter, Sasuke was surprised he kept it lodged deep in his throat. He merely bit his lower lip and bent his head down, a smidgen of a smile stretching his lips.

Itachi stayed silent, his eyes taming Kiba's laugh. He turned it into a hacking cough, and then he suddenly fell silent with a sheepish grin about his lips. That happy smile slid off his face, and he wore a really stupid expression now, his face erupting in sweat. He licked his mouth in a very dog-like manner. Itachi merely looked down to the scroll. He seemed mildly disgusted.

"Let me put this into perspective," he said and put the scroll aside, "your dog urinated on one of the guards of an emissary during training? In a public area? Inuzuka clan is known for such bold and uncouth behaviour?" He feigned surprise, mocking him.

"Itachi-Sama, Akamaru didn't—"

Itachi raised a silencing hand and Sai fell silent. Kiba's grin came and went. He was embarrassed. Neji stood next to Sasuke; both of them had their heads bent. Shikamaru had a lit cigarette that hung from his mouth. A trail of smoke went up into the air from its tip. When he saw Itachi's eyes on him, he swallowed it whole. That bored expression disappeared from his face for just a moment, and then it returned after a slow deliberation. His face could not function without it.

Chōji stood behind him, his legs shaking. Itachi scared the life out of him. His stomach was bloated today. He had eaten too many chips out of anxiety in the morning. The prospect of handing Itachi that weekly report always did that to him. He could not say standing behind Shikamaru hid him well. Ino stood next to Sai, her eyes moving between Kiba and her Captain. She was an assistant Jōnin like Chōji.

"Akamaru's still a pup, Itachi-Sama. He made a mistake," Kiba said in a throaty, fire-crackling voice. His face burnt with shame.

"You let him loose in a public place and the animal is at fault? Common sense envies stupidity," he said and got to his feet. "You are his Captain. Is this the way you want to proceed with your captaincy, letting your Team do as they please like the animals they keep? What a fun, motley bunch that must seem like." He looked over to Sai. The young Captain's head was bowed.

"I apologize, Itachi-Sama. Kiba is training Akamaru well. It probably acted out as it was locked up for two days after the injury. None of us expected it. I’ll write a letter of apology. It won't happen again. You have my word," he said and put his hand to his breast. He appeared sincere in his apology. His pasty face was tinged red with embarrassment.

"There will be no next time," he said and leant against the table. He was unmoved. "Leave. All of you. I do not want any of you around the premises before today's exercises end." All of them bowed and turned around to leave. "Not you, Sasuke. Stay."

Sasuke stopped and turned around. His eyes caught the angry glint of the sun moving away from the window. Then he stood still, his head down, eyes fixed upon the clean wooden floor. He listened to the sounds of their steps leave the building. It was so quiet all of a sudden. Only Kirin's soft sounds speared the air. It was sleeping in the inside-pocket of his half unzipped office jacket.

The silence prolonged. Sasuke could actually feel his brother was looking at him, but he did not raise his eyes to meet his. The searing intensity of his gaze was making him shiver. At last, he spoke in a soft voice, "come here. Sit." He pointed to the chair.

Sasuke did not lift his eyes to stare back. He drew the chair and sat down. Itachi stretched his arm and pulled at the drawer. He snapped it shut and put the seal on the table with a loud thunk. The sound resonated in the room. Kirin let out a sleepy, startled cry but subsided to a soft patter of melodious sounds.

"You know what this is?" Itachi asked, his hand on Sasuke's damp forehead as he brushed the unkempt, tar-black hair back, stroking Sasuke's head slowly as though he was a small child.

Sasuke was quiet, his eyes downcast. "It is my Anbu seal. No one is allowed to touch it, use it, or move it without my permission. But you achieved all of that . . . twice. May I inquire why?" he asked, his voice still incredibly soft. "Your chakra lingered longer the second time. What did you use it for? I am sure you can humour your brother."

Sasuke's shallow breaths were stuck in his throat. He could not speak. His lips quivered with emotion. He was afraid. His brother terrified him today. He found his tone to be … fake, mocking. His eyes were starting to mist over. Did Itachi hate him that much to mock him?

Sasuke did not move his eyes, and they remained directed to his ashen hands. It was as if fear had sucked the blood dry from his body. He could see the green veins throbbing just beneath the white skin. He rubbed at his wrist and the shivering flesh there turned pink, but he was still . . . silent.

"So silent," Itachi said, his voice a little deep, breathy. "You think I do not know what you have done?" his voice rose a little, yet it still maintained that patient and soft tone. "You nearly got the emissary killed through a band of thugs just to send me away. Did you read Sakura's mind to find out about the mission? Her mind and body are so precarious—nothing stays hidden there." His face became a little hard. A muscle twitched on the side of his jaw as though he was disgusted by her name, though his eyes were soft as they roamed across Sasuke’s young face.

Sasuke's countenance was deathly pale and not a single heavy breath greatly moved his breast; his tongue, a trained animal in his mouth. He could still wriggle out of this if he did not say anything. It was better not to speak.

"Why did you do this? Did you expect those men to get killed? Why make such an elaborate plan just to send me away? I could have asked Suigetsu, but we both know he is not apt at playing these games. You are," he said, looking down at his face. "You come up with these tricks, these games just to have your way. You thought I would never find out? Such a child, Sasuke." He shook his head.

The wind hissed outside the window and overpowered the soft sounds of their breaths. "You are not leaving till you tell me what you used this seal for. This was—what you have done—it is unthinkable. You have no idea what you have done, you disobedient child. You nearly got a political official killed." He bent down a little and let out a heavy whisper: "if anyone finds out, you will be put to death. And you do not even care. You have never cared about yourself—or me. You are not leaving. Not today. I am not letting you off this time. Not till you tell me what you did." A small look of worry flickered across his face, but his worry gave way to tamed anger that glinted in his eyes.

The sounds outside did not distract his hard gaze that was settled upon Sasuke like a warm, heavy blanket in winter. Sasuke still did not speak, words . . . just clinging to the tip of his tongue. He did not let them spill and tumble out of his mouth. Moments passed and stretched to a long lull between Itachi's words. He spoke gently again with a command in his voice, "look at me, Sasuke."

And despite himself, Sasuke raised his eyes. When their gazes met to battle, his brother's eyes pierced into his, and he felt a great pang of fear in his heart that was left so fragile at the sight of his dreaded shurikens that spun with a faceless fury. His heart tripped, a stalled bird. Something in the darkness of his mind stirred violently, and his body convulsed reflexively. He stood up with a sudden jerk. The chair fell back with a loud thud behind him, his eyes wide as if he was already in Tsukuyomi; his whole body quivered, his lips sealed tight as if cruelly sewn together with stitches.

Sasuke staggered back and that fearful heart raced madly, painfully. His foot knocked against the chair, and it skidded to the right. Unbeknownst to him, a few tears moved down from the side of his red eyes. They burnt on his skin, his breaths quick and loud as though he had been running. Sasuke looked so terrified . . . afraid that Itachi was going to do something to him again. Itachi only stared, his face covered by such a thin layer of shock and remorse.

"I will not punish you. You have my word," Itachi said and stretched his arm to touch him, but Sasuke staggered further back; Sasuke cringed away from Itachi’s touch, his eyes still fixed on his as if he was trapped in a painful illusion, struggling to tear free.

Sasuke's lips trembled open and he spoke, fighting with emotions: "I'm not telling you anything. I won't tell you anything." His breast heaved. His face was whipped red around his nose and cheeks.

"Do not be a child—do not be stubborn. Tell me what you did. At least, I would know how to protect you if someone finds out about this. Do not do this. Do not test me," he warned, the Mangekyō Sharingan pulsing in his eyes, threatening him like a dangerous predator with its claws out. The fear mounted on Sasuke's face. His eyes were terrifying Itachi. He had never seen him so afraid. It was tormenting him to use it to rouse fear in him, but it was for his own good . . .

"I won't. You can't make me," Sasuke said in a defiant voice filled with such anger, trembling, "you’ll ruin everything. I won't let you. I won't—" He staggered back and turned around to rush out of the door.

"Sasuke, your fingers so much as touch that door and this will be your last day as a shinobi. You do not want to test me—not now," Itachi said in a harsh voice behind him. "Then you can weep and protest and I will not budge. This I promise you." Itachi's face was hard like an iron-mask. He stood straight—anger washed over him. Sasuke had to be disciplined.

Sasuke's fingers were close to the handle. They trembled with the desire to touch it, but Itachi's threat had a greater affect upon him; he pulled his hand back and stood with his head bowed, defeated. "Come to me," Itachi spoke, his voice tamed by softness again. His hands stretched out as he moved his fingers slightly to call Sasuke to him.

As if under the power of hypnosis, Sasuke's feet moved before he could stop himself. He stopped close to Itachi. He took Sasuke's face between his hands and tilted it up to him. His thumbs worked with such precision as he wiped away the tears drying around Sasuke’s eyes. "Such a child," he spoke in a calm voice, hoping that it would soften his brother's anger.

"Just tell me. You have my word. I will not say anything to you. I will not punish you. What did you use that seal for? Did you make something for Suigetsu, for someone else? A permit—some kind of permission? What did you do with it? Just tell me," he whispered close to his face, his warm breath fanning out on his cool forehead. "You are a good boy, Sasuke. You are such a good boy." He bent his head and pressed his lips to his forehead, his eyes looking at the nearly ruined chakra veins behind Sasuke's eyes. If he used Genjutsu now, he would drive him mad. It pained his heart. He had been too cruel to him . . .

Sasuke looked back at him, his eyes wearing a cover of defiance now, pushing back the fear. "I won't tell you anything. You'll just have to kill me to get it out of my head. Do as you please. I won't tell you," he said in a shaky voice, and a smile trembled on his fearful face.

Itachi's hands slid down. He looked at him with an expression of disappointment. "All right, if that is what you wish," he said and walked around the table. Then he pulled out a scroll from inside a drawer and placed it on the table. "You are dismissed from your duty. I will decide when you get to join again. You cannot leave the confines of Uchiha manor. You are not allowed to contact any of your team members. If I catch you disobeying me, it will result in your permanent discharge from service." He cast his cool gaze upon the bewildering expression on Sasuke's face.

"You can't do that—you can't," he spoke with difficulty as if he was out of breaths. The wind was knocked out of him.

A cold smile stretched Itachi's lips—just a little. "You are such a lovable child. You always forget that I am more than just your brother," he said and drew closer, his eyes fixed upon his. "I will forget this whole affair. All you have to do is tell me, and I will burn this scroll right now. Your emotional tricks are not affecting me this time. You are not getting out of this. So either you leave for home and consider yourself discharged for as long as I deem it necessary, or you tell me the truth. What will it be, Sasuke?" He crossed his arms and looked back at the flare of anger in Sasuke's eyes.

Sasuke lifted his head, his face shaking with anger, his cheeks red-hot with fury, and his eyes wild with the raging heat of Sharingan. "Damn you," he hissed through trembling lips in cold anger, with contempt on his face. Then he spun away and stormed out of the office. Not a moment later, Kai rushed into the room. Itachi breathed out a loud sigh and leant back against the table.

"Itachi-Sama, should I—"

"Let him go. Let him cool off," he said and pinched his eyes closed. He was tired . . .

Night had fallen and Sasuke had not come back. Itachi sat in his chair, looking outside the window at the sombre sky. Wind had eased up, but now, light rain was pattering outside. The door to his office opened with a loud creak and Kai stepped in. These hinges needed oiling; autumn and rains had rusted them beyond use.

"You called, Itachi-Sama?" he asked and bowed.

"Where is Sasuke?" he asked and put his elbows upon the table.

"He abandoned his duties and left for home. I haven't seen him all day," he said and clasped his hands behind his back.

"He did not even complete his duties . . . this child," he whispered and buried his face in his hands. "Call him back. I was too harsh on him. He will do something rash. I should not have been too hard. Tell him that he can come back to his duties."

Kai looked at him hesitantly. "There’s something more important that requires your attention," he said and put the scroll in his hand upon the table. "Danzō has asked for a hearing concerning that Byakugan investigation and Mist prisoner's mysterious death. Sasuke has to show himself before the Hokage, elders, and him in three days."

Slight shock disturbed Itachi's composure. "This man . . . what does he want with my brother?" he said in a heavy voice, and his eyes grew cold. He flashed his eyes to Kai and stood up and grabbed the scroll from the table. "Cancel all of my missions. I am going home to talk to Sasuke."

Kai bowed and watched him leave.

The night was cool and pleasant, wind calm. Thunder roared loudly in the sky a few times, but the rain remained gentle. It took him a few minutes to reach home with the scroll in his pocket. A large Uchiha lantern was lit in front of the symbol of the clan. The lantern moved back and forth as the wind snuck in.

Itachi closed the door behind him and listened to the rush of feet across the wooden floor. An old servant, Tanaka, came before him; his hands, knotted with veins, were shaking from cold. "Welcome home, Itachi-Sama. Shall I get you dinner?" he asked, his small eyes shining. He was a kind-looking old man.

"No, I need to speak to Sasuke first. Where is he?" he asked and took off his sandals.

His head snapped in the direction of Sasuke's room. He was swaying now. It was difficult for him to stand for such a long period of time. "I haven't seen him since evening. What's the matter, Itachi-Sama?" he asked, his voice raspy and old.

Itachi turned on his Sharingan and found the whole house empty save for Serizawa crumpled on the floor in Sasuke's room. He rushed to the room. When he opened the door, a smell of burnt flesh went up his nose like fire. Serizawa's body still trembled with the electrical charge. Sasuke had used a mild Chidori on him. He could see Serizawa’s heart beat slowly in his breast. He was alive, with minor burn wounds all over his body.

Itachi drew closer to the low table when he saw Sasuke's headband abandoned upon a scroll. He stooped down and picked it up. It was a resignation letter: Sasuke had resigned and left home. "Sasuke, you child . . . " he said through clenched teeth, " . . . what have you done?" He sank down to the floor and put his hand upon his face. Where would he find him . . . in three days?

# # # # # #

Chapter Text

# # # # # #

The sun was high and the weather cool. Two days without any sleep, and another night with no rest, had left him so irritable and exhausted. He was human, after all. His body was tired. His mind could not work like it normally did. A dull fever gripped him. It burnt like a smouldering coal left overnight in the hearth. There was a glimpse of fever in his eyes, and a tinge of red in his cheeks.

He took long stiff strides to her office. A crowd of shinobis standing in the hall parted away. Many of them shouted honorifics. As always, he showed them nothing but indifference. He opened the door to Tsunade's office, his hard eyes falling on her fair face. He closed the door behind him. The sound of the click made her look up at him.

"What is the meaning of this?" he asked, his voice so deep and heavy. It had a subtle undercurrent of anger that was a little hard to miss. He approached the table, a scroll held tightly in his hand.

Tsunade slowly stood up from her perch, her hands on the large table. Few cushions were put on the chair to give her that much-needed lift. She frowned, and her eyes locked to the shurikens spinning in his dangerous eyes. "Is there any reason for you to use such a tone and grace me with your untimely visit?" she asked and her mouth twisted in irritation, an angry colour rising in her cheeks.

He put the scroll on the table, his eyes heavy on her face. Her eyes yielded before the foreboding, turbid darkness in their depths. Then she lowered her eyes, picked up the scroll, and read it. Anger slipped from her face and was replaced with worry. He could even see a flicker of subtle shame race across her face.

"Is there any reason for this political trick? Now of all the times—" he stopped himself before he could say any more. His waxen face trembled for just a heartbeat with controlled fury. Then that hot anger slipped back to the empty corner from where it had briefly broken out.

Tsunade raised her eyes and anger returned to her face with a sudden swiftness. She did not like his tone. "That's the first I’m hearing of this," she said as she tightened her jaws and lips and rolled up the scroll. A scowl was on her face now. "This order didn't come to my table. He must’ve gone straight to the Elders for this." She put it back on the table with force and it wobbled.

He crossed his arms and looked at her with a hint of mockery on his face and the ever-latent arrogance in his eyes. "Are you playing the apt role of a woman of secondary value to the higher-ups? I thought them to be beneath you in such affairs? Surprises, you are full of them, are you not, Hokage-Sama?" he said, elongating the word slowly and enticingly to bruise her ego.

Tsunade's eyes sparked with anger, her knuckles shaking. "Itachi," she hissed, and her eyes squinted against the menacing aura that floated to her from his accursed eyes, "how dare you use such a tone with me? Sasuke's immature attitude has rubbed off on you, or do you both take perverse pleasure in the showcase of this disgusting arrogance?" The breath hissed noisily from her mouth. Her nostrils flared. That fair face was deep red and contorted in anger.

A cold smile came to his lips, settling on his face like an eerie mirage. "My honesty should not wound you. How did he give this order without your consent? Or are you in on this, playing a game with me to corner my brother?" he asked, threat dripping from his lips. His mask was slightly broken by anger—but for him to show even this much? It surprised her.

Tsunade's eyes widened, anger still flickering across her face. She looked somewhere between shocked and livid. Her red mouth curled in rage, of which she had yet to let go. "What are you talking about? Don't talk in riddles," she said and gazed intently at that young, haughty face. He really looked just like his brother: if only Nature had fixed those small mistakes, it would have been impossible to tell them apart.

Itachi shook his head in amusement—that frosty smile apparent on his face now. "It is a simple question. It would be better if you did not elude it. Though I wonder," he paused and narrowed his eyes on her face, "how much that precious student of yours will gain from this? Another Uchiha caught by Root. Brilliant, they would say."

Raspy breaths left her lips. The red in his eyes was picking at her sanity, like a crow at a dead-man's rotten-eye. "What does Sakura have to do with this?" she asked, her lips dry. He sounded so cruel . . . so inhuman when he spoke her name as though there was something of a liquid malice swirling in his mouth, and he so desired to spit it down into the gutters.

The corner of his mouth twitched. That mocking look melted into something no less intense. He reached into his pocket, pulled a scroll out, and threw it at the table as if he was playing fetch with a whelp. It bounced off her stomach and landed before her—right between the stacks of scrolls. She stared down, then up, livid.

"This menagerie pays her well for her foolish ways. How well will it end for her if she loses her life in such a petty scheme," he said, his voice coming out in a cold, whispery manner that made her hairs stand on end.

"What are you—" Tsunade stopped; her breaths had gone shallow. She looked terrified of what he was suggesting so freely. Her eyes left his gaze that held hers in an invisible shackle and dropped to the scroll. With trembling hands, she unrolled it, and the details brought a thin film of tears across her eyes.

She slumped back into the chair, and her mouth trembled. She found it difficult to speak. "What is this? Where did you find this? Sakura can't—she’ll never—" she fumbled with words and put her hand to her breast, and her heart throbbed painfully.

"She has been working for him for about two years—passing on information concerning my brother. A hopeful lover . . . that is all she is. A scorned woman. Well, I will show her scorn," he said a little disdainfully, looking back at her sorrowful and shocked eyes. The intensity in the red there, in his eyes, was something else. She had never seen it before, and it chilled her to her bones.

Tsunade finally found her wind, her bosom moving with deep breaths. "What does this have anything to do with Danzō asking for an inquiry now?" she asked and rose to her feet. They shook with emotions that stirred in her heart and mind.

Itachi clenched his jaws. A small muscle twitched close to his nose, and he spoke, his tone still so frosty: "Sasuke has left home. He was angry with me. I spent the entire night and all morning looking for him around the borders close to Waves and Rain villages. I do not know where he is—I cannot find him. This came in not long after he left my office in anger. No one knew he would leave home. This miraculously appeared just in the nick of time. But, oh," he paused and took in a long breath, and his mouth showed a sweet curl of contempt, "your student trained to become a Sensor. She so adores to pursue my brother. Distance matters little to her. It all fits so perfectly. Her foolish mind is hardly a puzzle. Who knows what she has in store for you, following the orders of a madman in the shadows."

She hunched her shoulders and circled her arms around herself as if she was cold and tired. Her eyes roamed all over the room. Anxiety was etched in her face. "Danzō must've put her up to this. She would never betray me. She would never hurt Sasuke. She—she adores your brother," she said and looked him in the eye, beseeching him to calm his anger.

"I do not care what she adores, guided by her lust for him and nothing more. That despicable girl is conspiring with Root to trap him in some elaborate scheme. I can easily pluck things out of her head and give her the punishment she deserves. It would be so easy for me," he said, his tone hard and firm. "Your higher-ups claimed half of my kin over an accusation, and now they are after my brother? I put that aside years ago for this village, but my flesh and blood? I will not stand for it."

"Are you blackmailing me? You want time, is that it?" she asked, changing her tone into that of persuasion. She approached him. His cold words resounded in her head, making her steps wobbly, unsteady. When he remained silent, she spoke again: "I'll help you and buy you some time. Just don't hurt Sakura. She's young and naïve. I can't allow you do that, Itachi. I won’t! Danzō's must have trapped her somehow. I’ll get to the bottom of this without arousing her suspicions. You have my word."

He bent his head down and let her see and feel the sharp glare of his murderous eyes. "You better pray I find him soon, and she is not involved in this mystery. Or I will make her taste her own medicine—let the black flames of her selfish hatred lick at her body till nothing of her remains. If I find that anyone was involved in this, and if something, anything, happens to my brother, I will grant them no quarter. And I will reserve remorse for another eternity. You have not seen my anger yet," he whispered coldly in her face, his eyes tinged mad-red, and he gave the look that he meant what he said. When his hot breath hit her, it stabbed at her skin.

Tsunade raised her hand and parted her lips to speak but nothing came out. He left just as quickly as he had come; and she just stood there silently, sobbing in agony . . .

# # # # # #

The whole afternoon had gone by as he gave chase to his brother. He went from border to border and looked inside dark caves and places he knew from his travels as a Captain—dirty inns and small villages. It was all for nothing. It was as if earth had swallowed him. He had simply vanished. Last time, when Sasuke went away over an argument, he was easy to find. He left small clues, marks of his presence. He wanted Itachi to find him.

Not this time. He was like a ghost now that left nothing behind for Itachi's eyes to see. He really did not want to be found. His crows flew north and south, east and west. They were just as hasty to find him as he was. He had been using his Mangekyō Sharingan for more than twenty hours with no rest. It had taken such a toll on his mind and body.

He felt the rise in mild heat around him, and the sea of fog dispersed. He was a wanderer in its vast ghostly shape—lost and sad. Night was gone, a sober traveller. When he lifted his dimming eyes to the changing sky, dawn set the dusky cover ablaze. A new morn broke out on the dark forest at the outskirts of a village close to the Land of Waves, and Sasuke was still missing. The rays shimmered on the branches left dry and withering by autumn. They had little life in them now.

The fever, it was burning his whole body with such exquisite intensity now. It burnt in his limbs, and his skin tingled under the floating drops of mist. They slid down his shivering arms that were left bare below the elbows, and he hissed with pain. Relying on his Sharingan so much was killing him. Mangekyōs were terrible allies: they took the light away for months and punished the body when called upon for use more than once. It was a price Uchihas had to pay for such an awesome power. His beloved brother was eternally free from such punishments.

Itachi steadied himself beside a tree. His fingers trembled upon the rough bark. His eyes stubbornly looked through his crows. Four of them flew across the borders, and Sasuke was nowhere in sight. Kai and Serizawa stood about sixty feet behind him. Kai had put a few animals under Genjutsu. It was his speciality. He used them for infiltration. They could not be kept under Genjutsu to do his bidding for more than a few hours. Sharingan proved too much for their fragile minds, and they always died so brutally, bleeding to death from their nostrils, eyes, and ears. It was a classic case of brain haemorrhaging.

Serizawa extended his Sharingan's field of vision through Sensing. He could see in one direction for about five kilometres. All Sharingans had an ability to look far off into the distance, but it did not extend beyond a few hundred meters. It was an ability he developed for himself. He was Itachi's assistant like Kai. Both of them were highly skilled, trained ninjas. They were privy to almost everything that went on in the clan and between the brothers. They were the secret keepers of their Clan—trustworthy and infallible to their cores. They were loyal men.

The hypnotized bird in the sky suddenly stalled from a great height and plummeted to a gruesome death some hundred kilometres away. Kai saw the whole thing: the ground grew bigger and bigger, and suddenly, it went dark. He blinked. His heart skipped a beat. It was always ghastly to look through their eyes just before they died. The dimming light and the soul escaping their bodies . . . it always chilled him.

He looked at Serizawa who turned off his Sharingan and shook his head, disappointed. Kai turned his eyes to Itachi. He had his back to them with his hand still upon the tree. His head tilted up as though he was fascinated by the autumn flowers blossoming on the rough barks. A deep frown appeared on Kai's forehead, and he returned his eyes back to Serizawa. "Sasuke’s such a handful," he said lowly and crossed his arms.

Serizawa made a tsking sound and shook his head. "Not this again. Can't you let this go?" he said and half-turned to look behind his back at Itachi: he had been standing silently for a whole hour now.

"Let this go? Itachi-Sama will become the Clan's Head soon. The ceremony’s not far. Yet he hardly has time for anyone beyond Sasuke's foolish behaviour. This is not the way to behave when he knows his older brother has a responsibility to the Clan," he said, wearing an annoyed look on his face. "He does this all the time. When will this end?"

Serizawa stepped closer. "Why do you even care? It's between them. And I am quite fond of our young cousin. He's just rash and moody. Heck, we all have our faults. It's not a big deal. Let's not pretend you are some Sage incarnate, Kai. Your self-important attitude shocks me sometimes," he said and wiped his face with his hand. Morning mist-drops covered his face and shone in the morning light. He looked like some strange-looking divine creature before Serizawa.

"Oh? You liked it when he hit you with a Chidori? You're too kind to him," he said, his voice stubborn, and his face gave the same impression.

"Like I said, we all have our faults. It was a very low-powered Chidori. It's not like it hurt me. Even the burns were so mild. All it took was a cheap balm from the store to heal them in an hour. He simply knocked me out. And where are you taking this anyway?" he asked and stole a quick glance at Itachi.

"Between you and me," he began and lowered his voice, "I wish Sasuke doesn't come back at all. Then we can finally get past this and move on. I'm tired of this—I'm tired of Sasuke."

"Are you mad?" he hissed in retort and his face became hard. "I really wish you had kept this to yourself. Do you really think Itachi-Sama would be in a right state of mind if something happened to Sasuke? I can't believe you’re this foolish."

Kai gave a slight tilt of his head to Itachi. "He’ll move on. He knows he has a big responsibility towards his own people. You're not looking at the big picture here," he said and fell silent.

"Are you?" he asked, raising his eyebrows. He looked positively shocked. "Itachi-Sama’s a cold-hearted, ruthless man with little compassion. Time’s changed him. It changes all of us. It’s have made him hard. The only person that keeps him grounded, human is Sasuke. I don't want a leader like that who has a heart made of stone. And if you dropped that foolishness for just a moment, then you’ll see value in my words as well."

"Sasuke’s not his only family. They still have a grandmother. Surely, you are—"

"You don't understand, do you?" Serizawa cut him off. "I'm willing to pluck my eyes out of my head and spend my life as a blind man if he isn't driven mad by Sasuke's death. He would never survive it. He brought him up as if he was his own child. You grossly underestimate Sasuke's value in his eyes. You always have, and I am shocked you don't see it."

Kai stared at him. He was at loss for words. Their conversation never made it to Itachi's ears. His senses had greatly diminished. His whole body shook and convulsed. "Sasuke, how do I find you? Why don't you come home?" he whispered in a shaky voice. He was distressed and aggrieved beyond measure for his wayward brother. His body was just on the verge of a breakdown.

His vision blurred suddenly and all of his crows disappeared; and before he could steady himself to preserve his dignity, he fell down onto his knees and slumped back against the tree. His eyes were bleeding, and he breathed loudly with his eyes upon the bleeding sky. He was simply staring up with his head tipped back—delirious. Kai and Serizawa shouted his name, but he could hardly hear their voices.

"Sui-Suigetsu—c-call him—" he barely managed and gripped Serizawa's arm tightly as he sat beside him. He curled an arm behind Itachi's back to pull him forward.

"Itachi-Sama, take it easy. You haven't eaten anything or taken a drop of water for almost three days. You're over-using your Mangekyō. Please, get some rest—you need it," Kai said and looked at Serizawa for some support.

"He's right, Itachi-Sama," he broke off, looking from the blood that fell from Itachi’s reddened lips to his dimming vision, "get some rest. You don't have to worry. I'm making three Kage-Bunshins to scout out the areas close to Sound village. Kai can cover the borders next to Sand. The birds will cover the areas quickly."

"No, I-I have to—" he stopped to inhale sharply as he tried to get up, "Sasuke, where—where— " He could not quite complete his sentence. He tried to get up, but his head suddenly fell forward, and he could not arouse himself this time.

"Itachi-Sama!" Kai shouted and leant towards him. He looked to Serizawa, his eyes widening.

"It's all right. He's just fainted," he said and put his hand against his forehead. "He's burning. It's no use. We have to take him back to Konoha. Sage knows what will happen to him if he keeps this up. I don't even want to think about it."

Kai looked back at him, his face turning hesitant. "He’ll be furious when he wakes up," he said and put Itachi's limp arm over his shoulders.

"Let's just leave our Kage-Bunshins here. I don't want to waste time. Sasuke needs to be found. Sage knows what those snakes want with him and the Clan again," he said and opened the buckles of Itachi's jacket. He pulled it away from his body to let the cold air hit his skin beneath the drenched shirt. "He would move on if Sasuke died, huh, Kai?" he asked, flashing his meaningful eyes to Kai.

Kai averted his eyes and did not say anything . . .

# # # # # #

Sasuke took a few more steps. Then he suddenly stopped and looked back at Karin. "Are you coming?" He seemed irritated. Night was nearly upon them, and they had yet to find the second hideout. The first one turned out to be a waste.

Her pink mouth curled into a leer. "I’d really love to come on your hand and face—all day long," she rasped and licked her lips.

He wiped at his face and pulled the cowl back. His face was rigid. "This is the umpteenth time you’ve said that—mature," he said with irritation and started walking again.

"Dear Sage, you're so uptight. Hey, wait up!" she called out and broke into a jog. "We’ll find it, a’right? You’re so mean, Sasuke. The things I do for you and I hardly get anything out of it." She skipped a step and tried to match his long stride. She was not a very tall woman.

"You mean you get paid?" he said without looking at her. His lips elongated into a thin line.

"That's not what I meant and you know it. And look—" she stopped and paused in her steps, "—we just walked around in a circle." She scowled and pursed her lips to look up at him.

He stopped, too, and then walked to the right and sat down on a fallen tree. "I can see that guardian-deity statue. I'm not blind. I needed to double-check if we missed anything," he said and took out the map from a bag hanging from his shoulder.

Karin followed him and stood by the lopsided, withered deity statue just close to his feet. "Sasuke, I'm tired. Look at the sky. It's almost night and it might rain, too. I can hardly sense anything beyond a kilometre. I need to rest and so do you."

"Why are you so irritated? You knew this would be hard. I didn't force you to come with me," he said and shook the map to smooth out the crinkles in the paper.

"Well, sleeping in a guest room in your manor for a whole month and not getting laid would do that to any woman," she scoffed and fingered her glasses.

"If we find that hideout, I can remedy that," he said and looked to her with a smile on his face.

"Hah! That's what you said last time and I don't remember you keeping your promise!" she said in a mean cold voice. "You might find some time for me if you stopped fucking that floozy. Still a damned Genin, isn't she? She's so stupid, honestly. No wonder Hiashi threw her out." She put her hands on her hips in a huff.

A husky chuckle burst from Sasuke's lips, and he rolled up the map. "You're so angry today. I told you, I haven't gone near her since last week. There was no need for me to," he said with a reassuring look on his face. He got to his feet and looked up at the angry clouds. His cloak flapped behind him. The wind was blowing fast and hard now.

Karin snatched the map from his hand and unrolled it. "Look, there’s an inn nearby and I'm going," she said with finality and rolled up the scroll.

"Karin, we have to—" he broke off as the rain came pouring down on them.

Karin yelped and jumped under his waterproof cloak. "Come on, please, Sasuke," she pleaded in a childish tone and curled her arms around his waist.

"Damn it—fine," he said with resignation and started walking with Karin clinging to him under his long cloak.

When they made it to the inn, a plump woman at the reception gave him the look. He disregarded her rude expression. "Two rooms," he said and heard a moan of disapproval from Karin behind him.

"No empty rooms, young man. Just one," she spoke with her mouth full. She was chewing on something.

"I'll take it," he said and took the key from her stubby hand. Her nails were painted in the most bizarre colour patterns. The woman, whom he assumed to be a landlady, pointed to a room down the corridor to the left. When he reached the door, he opened the flower-shaped padlock and slid it open. It was a nice room: two futons were placed close to each other upon the wooden floor, and a wooden dresser sat at the other corner—the mirror on it was clean.

Karin laughed and ran into the room. She threw herself on the futon and spread her legs and arms wide like a child. He shook his head a little and threw her a smile and closed the door behind him. She propped her head in her hand and rested her elbow on a pillow.

"Sasuke, when we find him, can we go back? You don't need to stay away from Konoha after that, right?" she asked, looking serious.

"I'm not going back. I'm done with Konoha, with Nii-Sama, with everyone there. Suigetsu and Jūgo will find me soon. I'm not . . . I'm not going back," he said and his mouth looked hard. It was turned down in a look of mild anger.

"Your brother, he—" she stopped, trying to say what she wanted to, "—this isn't fair to him."

"Fair? He has done everything he can to humiliate me and cut my paths. I'm done with him and his games. He can weep now. This is what he wanted, isn't it? He always wanted me gone. I was always a burden to him. Well, he can live happily now—be a Head and all that. I don't give a damn about his ego," he bit out harshly.

"Sasuke," Karin began in shock and sat up straight, "you don't mean that . . . "

Sasuke looked at her with anger on his face. He remained silent and turned his head away.

"This isn't fair to him. He must be worried sick about you. I know what he does isn't fair, but he's trying to protect you in his own way. He doesn't want you to be branded as a traitor. He adores you so much. He would never want that. Sasuke, you . . . you're not being fair to him—or yourself. Just think over it. That's all I'm saying," she said softly and fell silent, her eyes downcast.

Sasuke breathed out a loud sigh, and his hard eyes softened. He took off his cloak and threw it on the floor. Then he climbed onto the futon next to her. He felt Karin throw her arms around his waist, her mouth hard against his throat, but he did not say anything to push her away.

When morning came he could tell that the landlady was not happy. She had this big frown on her fat face, and she kept mumbling about taboos, shame, and horny-customers. Perhaps it was because Karin was uncharacteristically wild and loud, or that he had shouted that there was still a damned zipper on his pants when she got too excited. He gave her the money and left with a chirpy Karin with him. It was easy to lift her spirits and mood.

They made their way to the next hideout: it was located on an island beyond the Land of Waves. Fishermen had abandoned their boats; tides were high and winds strong. They went into the thick forest. The branches swayed, and trees moved back and forth, thrashing like fish caught in a net.

Karin was still Sensing, and he had his Sharingan out. A little rest really did them good. They walked and walked, crossed streams swollen by rains, their steps firm against the wind blowing at them. They went beyond the blanket of storm clouds overhead and came across a vast forest; it was calm under the drizzle.

Sasuke jumped down from a cliff with Karin behind him. When he leapt down, her eyes stretched as if she saw a ghost. "Sasuke, there’s someone with a really large chakra running south. He's fast. It could be him!" she said and made a surprised sound when he grabbed her and started running.

He ran so fast with her in his arms. He knew she was too slow to follow him. All she saw was a blur of colours. He closed the vast distance between them in two beats, allowing his Sharingan to track him down. There was no need for her Sensing now. He ran and ran, following him like a hawk, with his keen eyes on the chakra in the large man's body—even his sword.

At last, he jumped into a clearing just behind a group of small, treacherous mountains. But it was not much of any task for his chakra control to create a footing for himself on their slippery surface. A waterfall was behind him, which created a loud gurgling sound that filled his ears. He set Karin down and took out his sword.

In the next moment, a tall—very tall—man appeared from the shadows in the mouth of the cave. His skin had a strange blue colour, and his teeth were small and pointy. He could easily count them all in his broad mischievous smile. He gave Sasuke the impression of a predatory shark. He held a puffer-fish-like large sword in his hand.

He chuckled and sat down on a pile of rocks and leant the sword against his right knee, his small eyes upon him. "Littlest Uchiha, you have grown," he said and there was an unmistakable smile in his rough voice.

"You," Sasuke spoke in the grip of shock and surprise, "you’re Kisame . . . "

The man only chuckled in response . . .

# # # # # #

Chapter Text

# # # # # #

He let out a wheezing chuckle that turned into a dry laugh. There was just something about the young Uchiha before him that was so amusing. He chose not to share his thoughts. He spat at the stones to the right, his white eyes shining against the cold light of day. His blue skin was slick—almost wet.

Sun shone on that skin and into his eyes like a cheap yellow light from an old bulb. He narrowed his small eyes, and the gashes around his eyes contracted. A realization sent a quick wave of disgust through Sasuke: those were gills!

"Like what you see, littlest Uchiha?" Kisame asked and barked with laughter. The gills around his eyes fluttered. Sasuke had never seen anything like him—It? He could not really understand what he was.

The sword by his feet wriggled and grinned. Its pointy teeth were big, shiny, and dangerous. It swelled out and snapped its big mouth towards Sasuke, licking the borders he thought to be its lips. It was like a big puffer-fish pulled straight out of water.

"Samehada, is it?" Sasuke asked and looked curiously at the sword that slithered a little to the left and a little to the right. It seemed impatient.

"I hope the littlest Uchiha didn't come here to make a pitch for Suigetsu. He can be so vulgar with his swords," Kisame said, the smile firm on his face.

"Sasuke," Sasuke said and crossed his arms, his brow frowning.

Samehada let out a low sound and deflated. Kisame petted it and it went completely still. "A’right, I’ll call you little Sasuke," he said, turning his eyes to him. "Is that fine?"

Sasuke let out a small sigh but did not press him anymore. "You know why I'm here?" he asked, and a dark look came into his eyes.

"I know . . . " he paused, looking at him as though he was deep in thought, " . . . do you want to know everything? Truth can be a bad thing, a huge burden, little Sasuke. Don't ever forget that."

A look of confusion flickered across Sasuke’s face. "I don't think there’s any time for riddles—and I don't believe it was a coincidence that you made yourself known to me through Karin. You're not a Sensor. Suigetsu told me as much. Is it the sword? I've heard some strange stories about it. But stories are . . . stories," he said and brought his gaze upon the sword that lay slumbering by Kisame's feet now.

Kisame gave a few rough chuckles, his white eyes upon him, and there was something in them that made him afraid. How much did he know?

"Clever little Sasuke. Everyone must be proud—especially your brother. Yes, Samehada found you. It likes strong chakra and yours is one of a kind—so powerful, tasty, and tempting." He stroked his fingers against a long spike jutting out of Samehada’s back, and it vibrated against his finger like a common cat, almost purring at the contact.

"Is Itachi-San still in Anbu? I heard he has quite the hold over Konoha now. He can be a scary man. With all the resources he has, I'm surprised he hasn't found you yet," he said and bared his pointy teeth in a grotesque smile. "Ran away from home, didn't you, little Sasuke? Wouldn't he be worried sick!"

The way his jaws jutted out, he looked just like a shark—a predator. "How do you know my brother? If you came here to play games—" he broke off, anger rushing through him.

"No, no, little Sasuke. I don't know him personally. I may have seen him way back in the past. He was a youngling then. His limbs had yet to develop. His bones were too long for that body. He wasn’t a man, but not a small boy, either. But he was so tough, so cold—yet, so selfish, so soft. Such strange odd boy," he said in amusement, his words breaking into a humorous laugh, ". . . some things just make us like that." He tilted his head a little and cracked his neck from left to right.

"What are you—"

"Time's a wasting, little Sasuke. Mist guards were looking in these forests. I’ll have to leave through the Land of Rivers' border soon," he said and tightened his fingers around the hilt of that odd sword.

"I laid a few traps about five kilometres away. I'll go and trigger them myself if someone approaches this area. There’s only one way out of here—the other one’s through the water. You'll just have to swim fast," he said and flicked his head to indicate that Karin was still Sensing.

"An Uzumaki girl under your wing," he said, smiling that hideous smile of his. "The little Uchiha is clever."

"You were a part of the Tulip Squad Elite from the start. What do you know about the massacre?" he asked. There was no need to beat around the bush.

"From the start? That’s a bold claim, little Sasuke," he said, his eyes on Sasuke's confused face. When the Sasuke did not say anything, he continued: "it was never Tulip Squad way back when I was recruited. They called it the Mist Elite Force. Two groups. Two tiers. Five or six men each. Most of 'em died—killed by higher-ups, or the missions killed them. It was always the same. Old tools were thrown out. New tools were brought in. The squad kept going." The smile slid from his face. He looked serious now, almost sober.

There was a note of bitterness in his voice, and Sasuke understood: they chased after him like hungry hounds. He hid wherever he could and survived on scraps. He was trying hard to get back to his old life—when there must have been calm, a little peace for him. An elite ninja reduced to this? A part of him pitied the fate Mist handed to him.

Kisame pulled in a loud breath, and his shoulders dropped as though he was tired of all the running. "About twenty years ago, before you were born, most elite members of the Squad were hired to get a rare pair of eyes from somewhere around hidden Waterfall Village," he said, his eyes growing bigger and bigger, the elastic skin around his eyes stretching the gills into deep, straight lines in his face.

"You were not a part of the top Elite?" Sasuke asked, shock creeping over his white face.

"No," he said, "but they were good men—just Shinobi doing their jobs. Yagura was a young leader then. Only fifteen. The village had nothing but money. Everyone was a rich bastard, but money can't make a good army. You need more for that. That made him afraid. Paranoid. He wanted power to rule, but he didn't have any. He found out through Hōzuki Sosuke about that place—a place that hid their ticket to form an alliance with Danzō and Konoha Elite. Those rare eyes . . . only you Uchiha are gifted with them." He slowly shifted his gaze to the red pulsing in Sasuke's eyes.

"A Sharingan? Somewhere around Waterfall village?" he asked, finding it hard to speak. Emotions burst forth upon his face through his eyes, and he could not quite contain them. He was shocked.

"Yes, a very rare pair of Mangekyō. Suigetsu's father knew where they were hidden. He led them there and found another scroll—something of great value to the eyes. All Yagura needed was a buyer," he said with a smile on his face.

"Danzō . . . Mangekyō Sharingan . . . " Sasuke whispered, talking to himself. It made no sense. Why would Danzō want a Mangekyō Sharingan? His eyes roved around the area and stopped on the sword for just a brief moment before he returned them to Kisame's face.

"But being young . . . well," he paused and let out a dry laugh, "he was desperate and he was stupid. Everyone knows how shady that Root bastard is. Only Danzō could get Yagura what he wanted. So he approached the Root's Head through Suigetsu's father, Sosuke, and made a proposition. All they had to do was relinquish Three-Tails, an Uzumaki seal to contain it, some money, and Byakugans—and the eyes, and that scroll, would be theirs."

"It was with Konoha back then?" Sasuke asked and his face betrayed everything he felt. There was no point in guarding his emotions now. His charades were not needed today, not now.

"Konoha's lobby sat on quite a few of them. They were bartered for money and Jutsus. Your village has always been greedy," he rasped in a rough voice. "Some Uzumaki woman made the seal. We all sat down in Mist when the moon was high. And it was such a cold autumn night. Danzō, Minato, Hiashi, and the surviving members of the Elite—we were all there. Yagura's reign was ensured. The new power made it possible. He was so happy then—the stupid kid."

"How did Danzō convince Hiashi and Minato? Those eyes never belonged to them. They were my Clan's. They had no right," he grated in a loud voice. His breaths came out heavy and hard. His mouth contorted in anger. He was livid.

"Wars weakened these two clans. Hyūga were but a shadow of their former selves and Namikaze were left with but a few heirs. Minato was one of them," he said with an ugly grin pasted on his face and continued, "Hyūgas were poor. They never could get out of that rut, but Minato was rich. They gave what Yagura asked—eyes for the Elite and money to make a new alliance. An alliance between the Head of the Hyūga Clan, Namikaze, the shady scum of Root, and the power-hungry kid, Yagura."

Shock came over Sasuke’s face and he opened his trembling mouth to speak: "the Tulip Squad . . . " It was as if his breaths suddenly left him. Streaks of heat went straight to his heart and it pained him. It was burning with hatred. They were all in on it all along—every single one of them!

A loud peal of laughter burst from Kisame's breast. "So clever, little Uchiha. I like your nimble mind," he said with a note of laughter in his voice. "Yes, the Tulip Squad was an alliance. It ensured Yagura's reign and gave Hiashi and Minato a lot of financial security. They were given special posts in the Squad, and they carried out Espionage missions from time to time. Imagine, an alliance between Mist and Root—it was such a powerful thing. But, alas, it was just not meant to be."

"Did something—"

"Sasuke, some ninjas are approaching this area and fast," Karin cut Sasuke off loudly, "they're about thirty kilometres away."

Kisame stood up from his perch and held the sword's hilt tightly in his hand. He looked at Sasuke with an odd expression; he was waiting for him to make a decision.

His eyes were still upon Kisame, his mind racing. When he did not respond, she spoke again, in a louder voice: "Sasuke!"

"Damn it," he hissed and clenched his jaws together. It was no use. He looked over to Kisame who was smiling at him. "Go—I'll trigger the trap and buy you some time. And don't tell me your next location. I'll find you myself."

Kisame narrowed his glassy eyes upon him. He was still wearing that meaningful smile and Sasuke felt like . . . he knew him, somehow. "Good luck, littlest Uchiha. Don't make your brother worry. He can get so sad without you," he said and turned around, and before Sasuke could ask him any more, he vanished.

"Stay here and keep Sensing," he said and vanished in the direction of the traps.

It took him a couple of seconds to cover the distance. The wind was cool upon his skin. His heart could not find its right pace, but now was not the time to worry. He stopped before the string buried under the mud. Sun had made the ground a bit hard. He pulled at it and sent a spark of current that travelled like a ripple through the moisture on the ground. It triggered several explosives some five kilometres away.

Then Sasuke rushed back to Karin. They had to make it out before someone sensed his Chakra; it was too powerful to be veiled by such a small distance. He did not stop running. He grabbed her and took a long leap into the ravine. Karin let out a loud scream. They were falling down and down at an immense speed. Then, suddenly, his hand shot out and threw a string towards a thick root jutting out of the rocks. It broke their fall and allowed him to swing across another gorge that opened up into an underground lake; his cloak flew behind him like wings.

His feet finally found purchase upon the ground. He went skidding to the right and ran some more to increase the gap between those men and himself. At last, he stopped when they came upon a thicket of trees. He put Karin down—whose mouth was still open in a silent scream, and her hair was tousled. He looked up towards the mountain that stood proudly under the sun. It was a hasty scramble to make it down in one piece, but they had left the clearing some fifteen kilometres behind them . . .

# # # # # #

Serizawa slid open the door, and his gaze fell down to Itachi lying beneath the sheets. A look of distress was plastered on Itachi’s sweaty face. His breaths were shallow. A thin film of sweat covered his face and breast. Kai was trying to bring the fever down with cold cloths placed on his breast, neck, and forehead.

Kai raised his eyes to look at Serizawa's tense face. "What did she say?" he asked and put a hot cloth back into the pail of cold water.

Serizawa quietly closed the door and sat down cross-legged beside him. "Two days," he said and looked at the autumn moth sneaking in through the tear in the window screen; it loved the purple glow of the lantern sitting beside Itachi.

"What? That means . . . " his voice trailed off. A look of shock and surprise came to his face.

"Yes, only two days are left. And Itachi-Sama is still so ill. She can't do much. The Elders are with Danzō. And he isn't there to vote in his brother's favour," he said in a low voice, stretching his hand to wipe away a bloody tear moving down Itachi's cheek.

Silence. It was not the peaceful kind but the deafening and painful sort. They could hear the flutters of the moth's delicate wings. The discordant sounds of Itachi's breaths and the wings . . . it felt eerie to their ears.

"We can wake him up," Kai suggested, "push a little chakra into his temples to soothe his eyes. He has been out since yesterday. It will be night soon. There's no telling when he’ll come to. It might be too late when he does. He won't forgive us. He'll never forgive us if something happens to Sasuke." He looked at Serizawa fearfully.

"There’s no need. Suigetsu will be back by nightfall. Sasuke only sent him away for two days. Let's wait," he said and touched Itachi's wrist to check his pulse and fever. The heat of his fever had cooled down just a bit. Even his pulse was a little steady, but it was far too soon.

"Aren't you the one who told me to take Sasuke seriously? Are you in a mood to abandon him now? I don't understand you, Serizawa," he said and gazed at the flutter of Itachi's lashes. His eyes moved left and right rapidly: he was dreaming.

"Of course I’d never want that," he said and leant forward, "but there’s no point in waking him up now. He is ill and he is weak. At the rate he was going, he would’ve gotten blind for months. He would’ve put himself into a coma. Who would’ve protected us all, then? Protected Sasuke? No one. It's all right to sacrifice a day or two."

"You believe in small sacrifices, do you?" Kai asked and pulled out the wet cloth from the pail. He wrung it out and put it on the side of Itachi's neck.

"I do. We can still push chakra into his temples and give him herbs to soothe his eyes. It would bring the fever down faster. It shouldn't take more than a few hours. And by the time he wakes up, his eyes will be good as new," he said and grabbed the moth from the lamp. It struggled between his fingers.

"He will be furious. Don't say I didn't warn you," Kai muttered and grabbed another cloth from Itachi's breast.

"Isn't he always?" he said with an amused chuckle. "He’s human. He's also young. Worry just made him a little hasty. That's the part of him I want. As long as he maintains a balance, between this side of himself and the cold other, he’ll become a great leader for our people. The kind we need."

Kai looked at him and the moth still caught between his fingers. There was a reassuring smile on Serizawa's face. It was a mild smile, and he returned it with a pleasant one of his own.

The sky was in the grasp of night and angry clouds. Thunder roared like a ravening beast, marking its territory. Itachi was left alone to sleep peacefully. His fever had broken; his heart was steady; he dreamt. The persistent sounds of thunder invaded his thoughts and plucked a memory from his childhood.

It was a night like this. The sky was no less angry. He slept peacefully in his room. He sat up with a start when he felt a small body shivering under the kakebuton with him. He pulled the kakebuton up and found Sasuke rolled up into a ball next to his leg.

"Sasuke, what's wrong?" he asked and pushed the kakebuton back. Sasuke lifted his head up, his eyes big and wide. He let out a little squeak when thunder shook the whole room. He buried his face in the kakebuton again, and his eyes closed tightly.

"Nii-San, I hate lightning. I hate thunder," he said, his voice muffled by the futon.

Itachi smiled and crossed his legs. He lifted Sasuke up by the arms and sat the child on his lap and held him that way. He poked his forehead and spoke: "it's so late. I have a mission tomorrow. Okā-San will be so angry if she finds you in my room. You've five and a big boy now. Isn't that what you told me last time when you requested for your own room?"

Lightning flashed, and before the rumbling sound of thunder came to them from across the sky, Sasuke pressed his hands against his ears and narrowed his eyes. His mouth pursed in concentration, and half of his upper body jerked forward when the roaring sound echoed through the house. "See, Nii-San, see? It's so scary. What if it falls down on my head?" he shouted over the long, crashing sound of thunder.

"Lightning?" Itachi asked and brushed Sasuke's messy hair away from his forehead.

"Yes! Thunder can't fall down on my head like that," he said in a small voice and stood up on his lap, his head barely making it to Itachi's forehead. He was still so small.

"Lightning won’t hit you. It's just an electrostatic discharge, remember? It can't just come inside the house," he said with a smile.

Sasuke frowned in response, making a face as if his brother was not taking him seriously. Then a smile broke out on his face, and he looked back at him. "Can you teach me, Nii-San?" he asked and sat back down again.

"Teach you what?" Itachi tilted his head a little and leant forward to pull the kakebuton over Sasuke's legs.

"Raiton, Nii-San," he said, "Shisui told me that I can make one when I grow up. Will you, Nii-San? Will you?" He pulled at Itachi's shirt. He did not know what to say in response.

"Shisui-San. You can't call older people by their names like that. It's not polite. You're a good boy, aren't you?" he corrected him in a kind voice. "Sasuke, I don't have a Raiton affinity. I can't teach that to you."

"Okay," he said in a low voice and bent his head down. He looked sad.

"But I can teach you Chakra-Control. You can learn anything with that. I promise you," he said and poked Sasuke's forehead again when he created a big smile on his small face. His plump cheeks were rosy-red. He was happy.

Itachi directed his eyes to the door when he heard soft steps on the other side. Not a second later, Mikoto slid open the door. A little light from the lantern in the corridor leaked into the room. "Sasuke, are you still bothering your brother? He has a mission tomorrow. If thunder still frightens you, then you can come and sleep with me. Come on, let your brother get some rest," she said with her hands on her hips. She looked a little angry.

Sasuke let out a small protesting sound and mumbled something incoherent. He frowned with a pout on his lips and slid further down under the kakebuton to cover his face. Itachi smiled down at him and then looked at his mother. "It's all right, Okā-San. He can sleep with me," he said and curled an arm around Sasuke's back.

"Itachi, you’re spoiling him," she sighed out and put her hand to her cheek. "Fine. But he's not going to learn to sleep alone if you keep coddling him." With that, she left the room.

Sasuke jumped up and hugged Itachi. "Nii-San, I love you. Tell me a story. The last one. You didn't finish it," he said and sat down, his big eyes fixed upon Itachi's face.

"Well, Kirin could tame lightning. He was brilliant, but he was impatient. He was also rash  . . . " his soft words fell upon Sasuke's ears. He listened to him eagerly. Those were the days. They were young and so in love with the idea that one would always protect the other.

A flash of lighting and a loud bang of thunder . . . and Itachi’s eyes fluttered open. With the lantern still lit, the details of the room swam into view. He sat up straight and buried his face in his hands. His eyes did not pain him any longer. His fever was gone. He felt a little weak, but that was expected.

When Itachi moved his eyes, he found the room empty. A cool wind snuck in through the tear in the partition screen. The winds had not been kind to it. As he pulled back his hands, his eyes fell upon the autumn moth moving on the white sheets. He put his fingers in its path and it climbed on his hand.

He brought his hand close to his face, his thoughts elsewhere. Lightning flashed again and he spoke, as if still caught in the delicate web of his powerful memories: "does lightning still frighten you, Sasuke?"

And somewhere far away, Sasuke sat close to the mouth of the cave. He moved his fingers and watched the current jump from one hand to the other with such delight. He looked up and saw the ferocious lightning fall down not far from him. A resounding roar shook him to his bones. He touched the ground with his fingers, and like starving snakes slithering across the ground, the charge ran towards his hand and he soaked it up.

"You don’t frighten me anymore. I’ve tamed you," he whispered, and there was a bold smile on his young face . . .

# # # # # #

Chapter Text

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Suigetsu walked into Itachi's office. He had a big grin on his face that was met with such an uncaring look from Itachi. He sat behind his large office table. The harsh morning light made his white skin appear a little sallow and accentuated the hollows of his eyes. He looked a little ill. Everything was still so neatly arranged on his table that it made Suigetsu flinch: the man was a bit obsessed with perfection.

"’Am right here, boss. Ya have been so pushy. Did ya miss me?" he asked and put his hands behind his head.

Kai frowned at his comment and Serizawa gave a smile. Itachi did not look any less frigid. He remained silent for few moments, looking at Suigetsu with mild interest in his face. "Leave. Both of you. I need to speak with this man," he said and waited for both of them to leave.

Suigetsu twisted his head to look back as the door closed with a click behind him. He brought his eyes back to Itachi; the light made sharp and apparent the angles of his face. He looked . . . so young without that visage of arrogance he wore daily. In that moment, he had thrown it away. Why? Suigetsu could not really say. The man was strange.

"Where's Sasuke? Was he actin' naughty again? He can be a meanie, too!" he said as Itachi's eyes were only making him feel more uncomfortable.

Itachi narrowed his hard eyes. His face suggested that he was not buying his lies. "That is why I asked you to come. Where is Sasuke?" he asked in a cool voice as he slowly tapped his fingers against the hard wooden surface of the table. That ashen face without emotions, those eyes without a glimmer of softness, and that mouth pressed shut as he worked hard to stop the words from leaving the tip of his cunning tongue.

Suigetsu's smile faded, and his face turned wary. He looked from Itachi's long drumming fingers to his cold-stone face, realizing that he had already punished Sasuke and he left home. "I was on a short leave. Did ya punish him? He didn't run away from home, did he?" he asked and watched as a cold smile broke the hard expression on Itachi's face.

"How touching that you care so much about my brother's wellbeing. Really, I am moved," he said with that ghostly smile still on his lips. "Are you trying to make me feel guilty? Oh, Suigetsu, still so foolish—still the feisty little boy from Rain in tatters. You have not changed much beyond your fancy garb."

"Likewise, I guess. Yor still the same man I knew from way back then. Still so cold, boss. Wouldn't hurtchya to tone it down a bit—for Sasuke, at least. But I know I'm stupid and ya hate my advice, so am just gonna shut my trap," he said in a choked voice and pressed his lips firmly together.

Itachi's narrowed his eyes to thin red slits. He seemed angry. "Where is Sasuke?" he asked again in a heavy voice and Suigetsu's insides filled with dread.

Suigetsu breathed out loudly and lowered his eyes. He counted his racing heartbeats and raised his head to meet Itachi’s daemonic red eyes that made him shiver. "I don't know," he said in an uncertain voice. Those eyes were getting to him.

"You do not know? Readymade excuses . . . you just adore them, do you not?" he mocked him in a slow voice, tilting his head just a little like a mannequin made of plaster. His smile barely disturbed the rest of his features. It looked so artificial. So inhuman. It was as though this whole thing was a pretence for him—a game he was loving.

Suigetsu swallowed hard and stared at his hands and feet. Fear gripped him. It was gnawing at his insides like a greedy animal. He held his breath and tried to quiet that speeding heart. It was starting to hurt him. What would he say to him? Genjutsu did not work, but would he be truly safe from Tsukuyomi? The question tumbled in his brain like an annoying disturbance, and his heart skipped beats.

"I-I'm not making excuses," he said and lifted his eyes to look him in the eye. "I really don't know. I swear it."

The cool look faded from Itachi's face. His mouth had that hint of cold anger. The corners of his lips trembled in such an exquisite start to an arrogant smile. "What do you think of me? Do you think of me as a fool?" Itachi asked, that insulting smile full on his white face now.

Suigetsu's face was sweating. His hands were sweating. His feet were sweating. His face was red with emotions and embarrassment. His eyes narrowed on Itachi's face, and then he quickly looked away. He did not know what to say. Itachi was very angry. He looked mad.

"I asked you something, Suigetsu. Do not be disrespectful," he said, maintaining that same intensity in his eyes.

"No," he mumbled and looked back up.

"Fascinating. Then you would know that I am not buying your nasty lies," he said and clenched his jaws together. "What did that stubborn child send you away for? That Missing-Nin business, I am sure. Did he make a permit? I am sure he did. I am not even asking you to tell me anything about that foul business concerning your dearly departed family—I am asking you to tell me where Sasuke asked you to meet him. That is all."

"Konoha," he whispered, taking in a heavy breath. He quickly averted Itachi's gaze when he watched his face change with mild loathing. Itachi’s mask was cracked, and there was nothing but contained rage upon his face that was licking at the fake cover before it—dying to get out.

Itachi slapped his hand on the table and stood up in one swift motion that Suigetsu barely saw him move. "Damn you, Suigetsu. I do not have time for your foolishness. Where is my brother?" he asked, his voice colder than he could have imagined. There was a note of threat in his voice, and it was making him afraid; he was afraid of the man he hardly knew.

Suigetsu's breath hissed from his lips, and he stepped back when Itachi approached him with the smooth movement of a predator. "I," he stopped, pulling in a deep, cool breath to calm his heart and nerves, "I don't know. I swear it."

"You liar," Itachi said in a hissing whisper, towering over him, his eyes hard and murderous—the look in them moulded by anger and impatience that rose from their depths with such force now. It was an uncanny sight. "You love to bite the hand that feeds you. Are you willing to sacrifice my brother, my child, for your own vengeance? Do you really think I will allow you to do so? You underestimate me, you foolish boy."

"Am not lyin'," he answered weakly, and then his voice found the strength to add, "I don't know where he is. Maybe ya shouldn't have punished him if ya didn't want this." And he immediately regretted what he said. Itachi's face was warped with rage. He glared at him coldly, clenching his trembling fingers. He really should not have said that.

"How dare you, you insolent fool," he said venomously, his voice slow and cold, his white teeth bared—his face hard as a rock, and his eyes filled with contempt. The veins on his temple stood out. Suigetsu had never seen him so angry.

"I-I'm sorry. Forgive me—I didn't mean that," he said quickly and took one step back to increase the distance between them. A shocked expression came over his face, and he felt a cold shiver rush down his spine. That was a stupid move.

"I will deal with you later. I need you to tell me the truth, or I will just try Tsukuyomi and see if I can actually pluck something from that feeble mind of yours," he said, pulling out that long Kunai from the sheath behind his back. "Where is he hiding? I will not ask you again."

"Damn it, man, I don't know!" he shouted. "He told me to come back and meet with him here. I had no idea he ran away. He stopped me from even sendin' 'im a message. So I don't know, damn it, I don't know—and I don't know what ya think of me, but I happen ta like Sasuke. He's my friend. I wouldn't sacrifice him for meself. But if it makes ya feel any better then try it on me. Ya will just lose one extra arm ta find him. Don't say I didn't warn ya."

Itachi considered him for a moment, his anger cooling only slightly and sinking to that deep maw inside him. "You think so highly of yourself, it is almost tragic," he said and put his Kunai away. "So you do know where he might be? I only have till nightfall to get him back. This better be worth my time."

"Nightfall? What do ya mean?" he asked, looking surprised.

"An Official Inquiry on the prisoner and Byakugan has been forwarded by the Root's head. There is a hearing tomorrow morning. I asked that woman to buy me time. And she . . . " he paused and took in a deep breath with a soft expression of irritation on his face, " . . . she only made matters worse. She forwarded an application that Sasuke is ill. A Sensor from the Yamanaka Clan will be here by midnight to check him. If he is satisfied, it will be delayed. Are you amused yet?"

"What the fuck?—I mean hell! This is bad—" he said aloud. His eyes were wide open.

"So, you see, I do not really have any more moments to spare for your petty shenanigans. If Sasuke is not home by midnight, he will be declared a Missing-Nin, and—" he stopped and looked away, his voice a little strained with anger.

Suigetsu looked at him intently. There was that same look of ghostly worry flickering across his face again—the same look he saw a few years ago. He took in a few whiffs of air redolent with the fragrance of purple lilies drying in the vase on the corner of Itachi's table. It was a beautiful smell. He breathed in again loudly and rubbed at his eyes with the back of his hand. Sasuke might not forgive him, but this was for his own good.

"I know where he might've gone. But," he broke off, finding it hard to continue, "just don't—don't punish 'im."

"Where?" he asked and turned around to face him fully.

"Somewhere close ta Hidden Waterfalls Village," he said, staring at the sceptical look on Itachi's face. "I'll send in some clones ta the Land of Waves, too. Just in case. And I'll ask Jūgo ta help me. He’ll be amassin' Natural Energy in that dark cave up in the mountains. He might even kill me if I go near 'im now. But he'll listen if I tell 'im that Sasuke's in trouble. Karin won't know which bird is followin' his orders, anyway."

"And why is he there?" he asked, and his eyebrows rose up. That hard look was replaced by the same mocking expression now.

"I thought ya didn't want ta waste time, boss?" he said with a bold smile on his face.

Itachi looked at him silently for a few seconds, and then he spoke: "get Jūgo and meet me by the lake in one hour."

Suigetsu nodded and left the office silently. "Scary guy," he muttered when he closed the heavy door of Itachi's office. He looked outside the window of the corridor. The sun was a little red. In a couple of hours, evening would descend upon the village. He had to find Sasuke . . . fast!

# # # # # #

Sun was streaming in through the partition screen, glinting in his black eyes. He took a few sips of sake. It was strong and tasted good. It was a shame how nasty the ones from Konoha tasted. He looked around and found the small restaurant mostly empty. One old man sat several tables across from him, with a group of four other middle-aged men. They were playing checkers.

A drunkard sat slumped by to the door. He was snoozing. His mouth was wide open, and a dribble of saliva hung out from one corner. He mumbled something incoherent and cackled in his sleep. Then he went completely still again. A straw hat hung low over more than half his face, and his legs were spread awkwardly on the wooden floor. He looked very silly.

Sasuke turned his eyes slightly and looked over to Karin who was talking to another woman. He imagined her to be in her early thirties. She was wearing a small amount of traditional makeup around her eyes and on her pretty mouth. Her features were sharp, her neck long and beautiful. She was a very pretty woman.

Karin dragged her to him, and she sat down beside him. "Morinaga-San, I know where the village is," she said, putting her hand before her lips. A red blush burnt her cheeks, and she bit her lower lip to stifle a giggle.

Sasuke brought his eyes on Karin. "Who’s she?" he asked and took another sip of the sake.

"Miku," Karin said and snatched the cup from his hand to take a sip. "She was my friend at the Night Flower Village. She knows this area. The village we're looking for is somewhere around the outskirts of Waterfalls Village."

"You can't get to it easily. It's difficult to find," Miku said and clasped her fingers together.

"What do you mean?" Sasuke asked and pulled the cowl over his head when he heard the chimes on the door hit the wall noisily. Another customer walked in and yelled an order as he sat down at a low table. He watched a young woman scramble to the back of the kitchen.

"It's protected by a powerful barrier, and the whirlpools there create a thick mist. The chakra from the barrier blends in with it. It’s impossible to see through it. A Sharingan or a Byakugan wouldn't be able to see a thing, either. And one wrong step on those treacherous paths? It's suicide to go there alone without an escort," she said and inched a little closer to touch his shoulder.

"How does a frail girl like you manage it, then? It seems like an impossible task," he said softly and gazed at the delightful laughter well up from the whitest throat he had ever seen (well, other than his brother’s throat, anyway—sometimes, Itachi just looked like a delightful corpse that needed to be aired in the sun!). She suppressed it immediately, her hand on her fluttering breast and her hot eyes upon him. She was a very pretty girl.

"I have a scroll. It disperses the mist by creating a small barrier around the user. A couple of people can fit into it. One needs to know the path to get to the village. It's in an underground cave. Its mouth is big, so farming is possible. It's a beautiful place, Morinaga-San. Would you like to stay there for a while—for free?" she asked in such a mellow voice and created a seductive look on her lovely face. She reminded him so of Kokoro: his lover for a year.

He was seventeen then, and she, a beautiful girl of twenty-five. He was a high-ranking Jōnin assigned as her guard by the Anbu branch. Her father personally requested Itachi to spare him an Uchiha for the task. His brother was reluctant, but to push Sasuke away from his steadfast pursuit of the thrills in Anbu branch, he granted his request. Sasuke was so annoyed with his brother.

She was the daughter of a wealthy noble family from Konoha's Capital. She did not belong to a powerful Clan like his, but they were good, honest people. She showed such lust for Sasuke when she met him, and he became her lover. Whether it was simply to get back at his brother for cutting him off from Anbu, or because his youthful loins madly stirred at the wild and free demeanour of a beautiful girl? He could not really say.

It was such a back and forth affair for him. She would make frequent trips from one village to the next, and her father always obliged. He only wanted to protect his daughter from his enemies; and he stayed with her during those long trips. He went away from home for weeks at a time. She willingly let him play with her, willingly gave up her virtue only on the third day of his assignment when she invited him to her guest room and took off her expensive kimono. She was a shy guarded lover, and he pawed the hell out of her as his heart desired.

He remembered how Kokoro laid down on the bed, her legs spread into a wide stance, her body nubile and bare. It took him a while to register her request. He just stood there, eyes wide open at her boldness, his loins burning at the sight of her. His brother would be furious if he found out, but Sasuke did not care or the thing getting hot and hard between his legs did not.

He remembered how he relished the feel of skin, smiled when she shyly pushed his head down between her legs. How she thrashed about and moaned when he tasted her. He spilt himself a little whilst he pleasured her, but he was impatient . . . the pain, the blood, and the remnants of her virtue on his arousal, it was a strange feeling. He did not go easy on her and she winced and wept. He was young and thoughtless then.

He kept going and she kept weeping, her eyes streaming with tears, but she did not stop him. At last, the pain subsided, and he saw her expressions change. The tight muscles in her face relaxed, and her eyes rolled back into her head . . . and she whimpered with a new emotion. It was a good thing her maids were in on it. Oh, how he had enjoyed her. He took her in so many ways and loved how her pliant body let him.

Sasuke thought it would be a onetime wild night for the foolish girl who was spoilt rotten—he was mistaken. Kokoro made up lies to drag him with her. He could not say he hated it. In fact, he loved to get away from home, get away from his brother who refused to let him back in Anbu. The more he refused him, the more inflamed he got. And he took it all out on Kokoro, pawing her. She never complained. She loved the bizarre nature of their arrangement. She did not even stop herself from going near him even when she was bleeding.

He got away with it for a whole year, fucking her as he pleased to ease his worries. It did not take long for it to come crashing down on him. It turned out that she was betrothed to another wealthy man from the Capital, and the marriage ceremony was not far; and he had taken her virtue, taken her in ways that would have made her father faint with shame. It was a crucial detail she never bothered to mention. The women from the other family were suspicious of her purity. Their maids examined her . . . and it was chaos!

It was such a scandal. The whole Uchiha Clan was in an uproar, lamenting over his unbecoming behaviour. Her father demanded an apology from Itachi and a compensation for his shame. His daughter was defiled and shamed. She was the talk of the whole village: a girl who betrayed her family and slept with a man for over a year. His brother had to bow before a lesser man and offer his apology and money to ease her family's suffering. And Lord Sage, he had never seen his brother so furious. It was the first time Itachi raised his hand to him. He slapped him hard enough to turn his face, knocking his headband off. It split his lip open and it bled badly.

The scolding he got and the shame he felt at being slapped like that before the Elders of his clan. It stung his cheek and his pride. He was taken off duty and Itachi did not speak to him for a month. Kokoro was wedded off in the family. They considered him the evil Uchiha imp who seduced and defiled their innocent, beautiful daughter, using the power of his Sharingan. He scoffed at the whole thing. Sasuke realized that she simply wanted to break off the marriage. She found him beautiful and virile and willing. That was all. Her plan did not work. They were separated, and he felt a little heartbroken by her lies. He never saw her again. Ah, the audacities of youth . . .

Sasuke smiled as his thoughts faded away. "I'll think about it when we get there, sweetheart," he said, "it's never a good thing to be too sure of oneself." He took out a pouch of gold from his pocket and put it in her hand.

She smiled and bowed before him. He did not stick around and walked out of the inn, with Karin in his wake. He walked for a few minutes and stopped by an old well. "Morinaga-San?" he said and took off his cowl.

"It was the only name I thought of. He was one of my customers," Karin said, leaning against the tree to the right.

"Was it even necessary to take a prostitute's services? Sage knows how many men she’s led there. Is she even reliable?" he asked and looked up at the evening sky. It was bleeding red on the horizon.

"I can sense if she lies. I've already placed a Seal on her. Once we get there, you can use Genjutsu on her to wipe her mind clean," she said. "Besides, she's a good friend and is letting us stay at her forest house, too. Just be nice to her. She's the only one I know about who sells wares there."

"Be nice to her?" he mused with a cold and lopsided smile on his face. "Are you planning on drugging me again for a three-way time? Behave yourself, Karin. I'm not in the mood." He started walking ahead.

"Hey, Sasuke, you—" she stopped when she heard the loud movement of the wings of a crow sitting way back in the bushes. She turned around and saw several birds sitting with it. She used her sensing but did not feel anything inside it. It was just like a chakra-less mirage!

"What is it?" Sasuke asked from about thirty feet away. He did not take out his Sharingan. He was in a strange land, pretending to be someone else.

Karin looked from the bushes to his face. She felt nervous, but she changed the look on her face from that of surprise to mischievousness. "Just thinking that it’d be fun. You almost liked it last time," she said with a leer on her pink lips. He shook his head in annoyance and started walking again, and she did not mention the crow to him . . .

They walked for few hours. The sky turned from red to sombre grey and then finally black. It was night and the forest was quiet. They could hear distant sounds of so many waterfalls: the village was close. Karin got tired halfway, and he had to sit down to let her climb on his back. He carried her all the way to the small forest house.

It started drizzling when they reached the house: it was small and sat amid a cluster of lush trees, with a big garden in front. She probably made it with all the money she got from Hidden Night Flower. A thick green moss grew on the side of the roof. It had made its way down the wall and grew big and thick on the wood. The bonsai trees were green and fresh. There was a lot of moisture in the air because of the lakes and waterfalls. Autumn had no effect on this place.

Karin opened the padlock on the door and made hand seals to remove the barrier. Miku had made it to protect her home and wares. She was a merchant now and was close to getting a citizenship in the Hidden village. He admired her tenacity and courage to make it out of that rut. She was a brave, hardworking woman.

When the door opened, a smell of spices rushed to him. Bags were piled up in the corner of the kitchen. He saw an old kettle putting out a whistling sound over the hearth: a jet of steam rushed out of its mouth. Karin rushed to it and put in on the side upon the matted floor. Then she flapped her hand and smiled at him. He closed the door and hung his cloak on the Kimono stand reared up against the wall. The room was dimly lit, and he could barely see a thing.

Not a moment passed when Miku popped up by the hearth. She had used a basic Teleportation Jutsu. She looked a little out of breath, her cheeks red. The same hot colour returned to her face when her eyes found him.

"Are you a Shinobi?" he asked and crossed his arms. The woman was surprisingly good with her techniques.

"No, Morinaga-San," she said and put her hands upon her heaving breast. "Karin taught me these when we worked in the village. I practiced to improve my chakra control and got better at it. I only know a few Jutsus to save my life in hairy situations. I'm a woman who lives alone, after all."

Sasuke looked at her, his face a little hard, but he did not say anything. It was always a foolish mistake to be too trusting of people. His mistakes had taught him that. He eyed her for a second longer before he flashed his eyes to Karin. She was still puffing at her reddened palm.

"Morinaga-San, why don't you freshen up in the room over there? I'll bring you dinner when it's ready," she said and pointed to a sliding door down the narrow corridor. He felt tired and left the sitting area in silence.

When night came, the house was filled with voices and sounds. Karin sure was a chirpy one. She talked so much, and it was the first time he was realizing it. She talked and talked, and the other woman barely responded with an occasional hum or um. The rain was strong. It whipped the leaves in the garden and the forest. It created such a din outside.

Sasuke ate dinner quietly in the guestroom. He wanted to be left alone. His thoughts wandered off to his brother, but he rejected them. He left him behind. In a few days, he would be declared a Missing-Nin. It was over . . . and he did not care. Itachi would probably weep for a day or two. Then he would hunt him down. He was so sure of this private thought, so sure of his brother's lesser love for him before the village—and it hurt him so much.

His fingers trembled around the teacup, and he tried hard to stifle his tears. They never materialized on his cheeks; they just sat in his soft eyes. He swallowed and gazed up as Karin walked into the room with a small cup in her hand. His eyes shone brightly on his face in the light of the lantern overhead.

"What's wrong?" she asked with concern and slid the door shut.

"Nothing," Sasuke said and bent his head down to hide his face. "How long are we staying here? We need to leave. Tell her that we leave first thing in the morning. I don't want to waste time." He put the cup down on the small table and leant his back against the wall. The futon felt soft beneath his legs: he wanted to sleep.

Karin sat down beside him and brushed his hair away from his cheek. "You miss Itachi, don't you?" she asked, holding the small cup tightly in her other hand.

Sasuke stared back at her. "I don't want to talk about it. Leave me alone. I want to sleep," he said coldly and closed his eyes.

Karin bit her lower lip and looked down at the cup. She gazed back at him, looking a little indecisive. She took in a loud intake of breath and spoke, "take this—it'll help you sleep."

Sasuke looked at the cup and then her face. "What's this?" he asked and took the cup from her hand.

"Chamomile tea," she said, smiling.

Sasuke took a whiff of the smell and downed the cup in one gulp. He stretched his arm to put the cup down when it slipped from his fingers. Heat pooled in his groin and his stomach. His breaths came out rough and hard. His vision became hazy and his touch unsure as he put his hand to his burning cheek.

"Karin—you!" he grunted as he tried to sit up straight. His head fell forward and his back bowed as if some terrible weight was put down on it. A thrilling sensation of lust coursed through his throbbing veins.

"Just wanted to have a little fun, Sasuke," she whispered in his ear and put out her tongue to lick at his lobe . . . and his whole body shivered at the contact. He could barely move. The fever was rising with a monstrous intensity under his skin, and he wanted to be rid of his clothes. The damned woman had drugged him again!

Sasuke heard the door slide open, and the same smell of spices crawled up his nostrils. He turned his head upon the futon to look in that direction, but a hazy veil was upon his eyes. Soft hands grasped his shoulders and pulled him back. He felt the woman stroke down the wide collar of his shirt and it slid down his shoulders.

He raised his head and turned it to look at the woman, and he felt her soft lips upon his, her kiss so demanding and hot. His opened his mouth, and her tongue slicked against his—that pleasure twisted into a hard ball inside his gut. He did not care about the drug anymore. He just wanted to release his tension, ease up the heat burning his body.

Sasuke kissed her long and hard, bit her lower lip, sighed at the touch of her hands against his sweaty breast. He hissed, jerking his head back at the feel of Karin's hand around his length. Her grip was like a vice. She stroked him and licked at the tip before she took him into her willing mouth. She watched his reactions as she swallowed him deeply.

He held a fistful of her hair. Her hungry, head-spinning draw was something. It did not take long, and he erupted into her mouth in pulsing spasms. He emptied into her. His breath was gone and his mouth open. Thick white trailed from the side of her pretty lips, and she pulled back and wiped the release clinging to her chin. At last, he found his wind and drew in a deep breath.

Miku removed herself from behind him, and his head fell back on the fluffed out makura. He felt the weight of her buttocks on his breast and the squeeze of her soft thighs around his face. Her thighs split open, and his lips were suddenly on her genitals . . . and she mewled, rocking back and forth on her heels.

His length was swallowed by Karin's sheath. Her sultry warmth sucked him in, and she rocked on his waist, moving up and down. Each thrust split her wide open, and he groaned against Miku's moist genitals, moving his tongue between her folds, her fingers tight in his hair. She moved and brushed her engorged clit against his tongue, and he obliged: he grasped her hips tightly and pulled her in. Her toes curled and the pressure intensified with the strokes of his tongue.

She went still with a jerk and spilt on his lips and down his throat. Karin continued to ride him, and after a few luxuriously long strokes, he spilt in her as well. She got off his length. He wiped at his mouth and face and tried to sit up, when she pushed him roughly back down and sat on his breast—with her thighs wide open before his face.

"Karin, stop!" he rasped in a shaky voice, trying to push her off himself, "enough. You have had your fun. Get off me."

Chains speared out of her back and bound his hands tightly. He did not even have the strength to fight back. That damn drug . . . this damned woman . . . "don't be so uptight and unfair, Morinaga. Miku-San has yet to have her share of fun. Just lie still," she cooed and bent down to lick at his lips.

Sasuke gasped and threw his head back, his spine arching in an involuntary reaction when he felt the delicious heat of Miku's cunt envelop his cock completely. His legs trembled and grunts tore from his lips as she rode him with such lust and wild movement of her hips. He felt the heat of Karin's mouth upon his lips, and he returned the kiss with half the intensity she desired. He was so tired. He did not protest when she pulled his head between her legs. He could taste his own arousal on her swollen lips. Dear Sage, it was going to be a long night . . .

Sasuke woke up to the loud, resounding sound of thunder. The whole room shook, and the storm's anger lingered for a few more seconds. He sat up and winced. His body ached, and his stomach was acting up. He looked around and found Karin and Miku sleeping beneath the sheets on the other Futon by the small hearth.

He was so angry at her audacity to pull it off at a time like this . . . taking turns throughout the night. He got up and put his shirt on. He felt dizzy. The drug still had not worn off—even his legs were weak. But at that moment, he felt vomit build up in his stomach. He rushed out of the door and the forest house. The vomit burst into his mouth, and he slumped down onto his knees and deposited it next to the well.

His fingers trembled on the wet stones as the vomit rifled up his throat. He hurled nosily. After what felt like ages, nausea faded, and he finally spat out the last of the tangy taste from his mouth. He grabbed the pail hanging down from the rope above the well's mouth and tipped it above his lips. He drank the water, cooling his burning throat. It went down his chin and soaked through his clothes.

The drizzle was cool and light. He sat back down and rested his back against the well and tried to drift off to sleep when the rustle of leaves roused him. He sprang to his feet, his Sharingan resonating with the other's who moved to him slowly from behind the darkness.

Sasuke’s eyes bulged out and his throat went dry, the obedient wheels spinning with such musical precision with the other. The disobedient darkness parted, and the taller man walked into the shaft of a clear moonlight: his hard face was like a lifeless stone and in his roiling eyes was the red devoid of the softness he had known since his childhood . . . and Sasuke just could not help himself from whispering in a fearful voice: "N-Nii-Sama . . . "

He had never seen his brother look so furious . . .

# # # # # #

Chapter Text

# # # # # #

A cool wind licked at Sasuke through his wet shirt, his eyes wide open, his mouth half open in shock. How did Itachi find him? Sasuke stared at those uncaring eyes with their glassy sheen and their red magnificence. The muscles contracted into a hard look on his brother's face. He did not know how to look away. It was as though he was in a trance.

Itachi did not say anything, his eyes on his and the whole world seemed to have stopped—just like that moon hanging still in the sky. The wind rushed suddenly at him from nowhere and lifted the leaves by his feet. A shushing sound filled the space. Sasuke took a single step to the right, unable to keep his cool.

Serizawa emerged from behind the long shadow cast by his brother. He cast a brief glance at Sasuke and quickly lowered his head. He looked nervous. He stopped by a small garden deity statue at the foot of a crooked tree. The deity’s head was missing—rains were only kind to life here. Sasuke's Adam's apple quivered, and he swallowed a gasp. Sweat broke out on his face despite the chill of the breeze.

His brother was still quiet. He was just . . . looking at him. The few seconds in the fetters of his gaze felt like a languid eternity to him. The wind sped past him again and the maddening sound of leaves rose, invading his guarded, secret thoughts. Itachi's long hair whipped wildly in the wind. They framed his white face, hitting against his sharp cheeks that did not even have a hint of rosiness despite the chill. He looked like a finely crafted statue of a lifeless deity—touched by the moonlight, enshrouded by the night. It was so uncanny for Sasuke.

He moved his cold eyes slightly to the right and gazed at the house as though it disgusted him. "Holed up here, were you?" he asked and brought his eyes back to him. "Did you enjoy your little game of hide and seek?"

Sasuke breathed in and out loudly, his mouth trembling, but he finally found his wind of small courage and spoke, "why are you here?"

Itachi looked at him up and down, and his mouth pulled into a half smile. There was a touch of coldness to it, a hint of impishness he had never seen before. "You enjoy playing games, do you not, you child?" he asked icily and dragged the tip of his sword forward against the hard rock jutting out of the ground. Sasuke had not even noticed it till now. The contact created a rough scraping sound that shot a wave of electricity down his spine, and the fine hairs on his neck stood on ends.

His eyes shot up to lock with Itachi's again when he took two steps forward, and he, two steps back in fear. His mouth was dry as sand. He gulped. "What do you want? I left because I didn't want to see you again. Why are you here?" he asked again, injecting a bit of his wild fearlessness into his voice.

Itachi’s smile widened, and it was such a cold smile. Then it suddenly slid from his face like the shadows moving on his skin, giving way to slivers of white light from the full moon. His face hardened like a stone, and his mouth drew together in cold anger. "I did not come here to play games with you," his words came out as a sharp, cool sound, "pack whatever silly things you brought with you and come with me."

"I'm not going anywhere with you, Nii-Sama," he hissed out the honorific through clenched teeth. That anger was rising just beneath his breast now. It overpowered that fear for just the briefest moment.

"Sasuke, you better listen to me and you better listen good—I really am not in the mood to coddle you tonight. You understand me? The mess you have left at home for me . . . you better move before anger gets the best of me. And believe you me, I will be remorseless today," he pronounced in abject anger. His face . . . it frightened Sasuke.

"Then you clean it up! I don't owe you anything," Sasuke snarled in response, his face shaking. "You're so clever, aren't you? Should be a small task for you. One more problem to bury. One more path to cut. That's all you do. That's all you’re so good at. I can bet Otō-Sama must be so proud of you—like he always was." He gave a sharp jerk of his head and created a cold, insulting smile on his face.

Itachi's fingers shook and clenched tightly around the hilt. His features set in the coldest anger. "Sasuke . . . " a hiss came from his trembling lips, "how dare you speak to me in this manner? You hateful, disobedient child. You—" His body desired to jerk forward in protest, but his anger subsided at the look of Sasuke's big wide eyes drenched in fear. He breathed in deeply and closed his eyes for a few moments—the anger receding slowly back like a snake's head retreating into a burrow.

He opened them, and his eyes followed the drift of Sasuke's tar-black hair against the cheeks reddened in anger and shame—even fear. He was still such a child. Itachi put the sword away and looked at him silently for a few moments. "What do you desire? Just tell me," he said in a calm voice, looking a little defeated before his younger sibling.

Sasuke stared back; he appeared sceptical. "Is this another one of your tricks? I'm not buying it. You always trick me and have your way. I'm not falling for it this time," he said with a weak smile on his face.

"No," he said, "no tricks. Just tell me what you desire and I will do it—for you. But for Sage's sake, let go of this stubbornness. I am tired. I do not want to quarrel with you anymore. You do not listen to me. You never listen to me. You have no idea of the trouble you have created for yourself, for me. Just . . . do not do this anymore. Do not be such a disobedient child." On his face, now, was a subtle look of desperation.

"Trouble?" he said and gave a small laugh. "Did they declare me a Missing-Nin? Are they about to? Is that why you are here, Nii-Sama? They’ll make you a Head—Head of a Missing-Nin's brother. Wouldn't you just loathe it, Nii-Sama? Everyone would just hate you. They would laugh at you. Brother of a Missing-Nin. The shame. It must be eating you from the inside. The wayward, bad brother. The shameful, foolish brother who creates messes for you. How he deserves to be punished. How he deserves to be humiliated—again and again and again!" His lips were trembling with emotions, his face, a mask of anger and anguish. He looked back defiantly at the shocked expression on Itachi's face.

Serizawa raised his head at the sound of Sasuke's shaking voice, his face showing like a white blur, shaded by the shadow of the leaves overhead. He could not see Itachi's face. They stood at a distance from each other. A well and a