“Sasuke-kun! Hold up, I –,” Sakura called out only to be abruptly cut-off by an incoming tree branch. It caught her right in the mouth, the pine needles tickling and scratching her cheeks. “Phew,” Sakura spat without slowing her stride or pulling her eyes from the billowing, black cloak whipping through the trees ahead of her.
She and Sasuke were darting through a dark forest at top speed (albeit at quite a slower pace than usual). It had been but a month since they had been travelling together, completing occasional missions for Konoha during their time abroad while Sasuke took the time to find peace with himself, who he used to be, and what he would become.
Unfortunately, today they experienced a setback.
After a long, exhausting day of travel on very little sleep, Sasuke and Sakura arrived at a no-name farm town bordering Kumogakure in pursuit of shelter for the night.
Sasuke’s reputation preceeded him upon their arrival, however.
When they approached the counter of the ramshackle, ten-unit inn, the man at the reception ignored Sakura’s request for a room and instead pulled out a tattered paper and slammed it flat onto the counter.
Wanted, the paper read in angry, black letters across the top. Below it was a familiar photo – a headshot of a far younger Sasuke from his Genin days. Sakura’s eyebrows shot up at the sight. It was like she was staring at a page right out of her old bingo book.
“Really, now,” Sakura tried while waving her arms apologetically, but her heart sank at the innkeeper’s ice cold stare. “You must know that this photo is outdated. Sasuke is a hero and was pardoned for his wrongdoings many years ago.” She cast an encouraging look to her travelling partner only to find that his gaze was still locked on the wanted poster, his dark bangs obscuring his face from view.
The man sneered and cracked the knuckles of his large hand. “Is that so?” he drawled. “On the contrary, I was instructed to kill this man on sight for a pretty penny.”
At this remark, Sasuke’s head tilted upwards, his dark eyes shifting to catch those of his companion. The unspoken words is he worth reasoning with? passed between them as Sasuke clenched his jaw and Sakura drummed her gloved fingers on her leg. The innkeeper was a burly, tall man, but as a civilian, he didn’t seem much of a threat.
But then, in a flash, the main whipped out an iron baton and launched it at Sasuke’s head.
The words “Sasuke-kun!” had barely left Sakura’s lips by the time Sasuke had dodged the attack by a fraction and the baton had smashed clean through the inn’s window.
“Let’s go,” Sasuke snapped and gripping onto Sakura’s arm to pull her back to the door through which they had come.
Their escape wasn’t a walk in the park, however, since the man seemed to have a number of heavy batons and other metal objects stored beneath his counter which he was more than willing to fire at the cloaked, prospective guests.
After deflecting and dodging several other assaults, they made it back to the safety of the streets. They turned on their heels and made a beeline for the village’s exit, hoping that if they just kept their heads low, they could leave this town unscathed.
“What was that about?” Sasuke mumbled while keeping his eyes trained on the dirt road and pulling on the hood of his black cloak.
Sakura shook her head in bemusement while lifting her own beige hood over her hair. “Talk about being behind in the times. Has anyone ever treated you like that before?”
Sasuke shook his head.
“Your name was cleared across the five great nations for saving the world,” Sakura continued to muse. “That man doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
“Maybe someone here has a vendetta against me,” Sasuke added, his eyebrows furrowing.
Sakura clicked her tongue. “Even so, that was a real disgraceful thing to –”
But she was cut short by the sound of a weapon whirring past her face.
She emitted a gasp and sprang to the side, towards Sasuke, and nearly collided with him. She traced her cheekbone with her index finger and when she pulled it back, it was spotted with blood.
They whirled around with surprise to a gathering of about twenty men bearing batons, knives and other gleaming, dangerous objects. Sasuke raised a protective arm in front of Sakura, prompting her to step behind him. Sure, they were just civilians, but bloodlust that potent only brought with it terrible things.
The men were shouting, and somewhere nearby, a blaring bell was chiming. Sakura suspected it was a signal that was calling for other villagers to assemble.
She gripped Sasuke’s arm. “I’m fine. Let’s keep going,” she urged.
She didn’t have to tell him twice.
“The trees,” he hissed to Sakura before shooting a menacing glare at the villagers and turning on his heel. Sakura leaped into the high branches first with Sasuke close on her tail, while narrowly dodging a few more assaulting weapons.
Wordlessly, they continued onwards, racing through the treetops to put as much distance between them and the town as possible. At this point, it was apparent that negotiations or reasoning with those villagers would be futile. And frankly neither Sasuke nor Sakura had the energy to do so. They just wanted to rest.
“Do you… feel that?”
Sasuke skidded to an abrupt halt. And Sakura nearly lost her footing at his unexpected question.
“Do I…?” she repeated while pausing. And then… “Chakra?” Her head snapped in the direction from which they had come. Several chakra signatures were approaching at a fast pace and converging from different angles. “They hired ninjas… to pursue us?”
“Great,” Sasuke bit out. He released a breath and stared into the distance, as if in contemplation about something, while Sakura reached into her weapon holster and readied herself for a fight.
But then Sasuke lunged at her, his arm catching her around the middle. “Ouff!” Sakura gasped as Sasuke pulled her clean off the branch. Her stomach flipped as she was overcome by the sensation of falling, but before she could call out and demand what was going on, the forest disappeared and the atmosphere shifted.
Sakura landed on her hands and knees on soft grass, with Sasuke’s steadying arm around her torso mitigating some of the impact. She caught her breath, and blinked her eyes to stop the world from spinning, and turned around just in time to glimpse a violet and black swirl of energy recede into nothingness.
“You… used your Rinnegan?” she asked as it dawned on her what had transpired in the past few seconds.
Sasuke, who was hunched over and breathing heavily, swallowed and nodded. It appeared he had taken them to a secluded place on a cliff encased by tall, thin trees, as illuminated by the starlight. The sounds of crickets chirping and rushing water could be heard from somewhere in the distance.
“We’ll rest here,” Sasuke said quietly.
Sakura nodded. “What’s another night of camping out?” she said with a soft smile and climbing to her feet. She noticed instantly, however, that Sasuke didn’t budge from his spot hunched over on the ground. “Sasuke-kun?” Sakura asked while crouching before her companion. She noticed the creases in his brow.
“I’ll have a look at your eye,” she announced calmly while pushing Sasuke’s hood back and raising a hand to his face. Sasuke’s eyes widened at her touch, probably because this was quite a bold move for Sakura with whom he rarely came in physical contact with. But Sakura reasoned that sometimes boundaries needed to be broken in a medical examination.
Sakura channeled delicate medical chakra to her fingertips and sent careful pulses into Sasuke’s temple to ease some of the strain that the Rinnegan might have caused.
“I’ll bring you back to Konoha tomorrow.”
“What?” Sakura said and retreating her hand. She blinked down at Sasuke with surprise.
“I’ll bring you back to Konoha tomorrow,” Sasuke repeated softly without meeting Sakura’s gaze.
Sakura opened her mouth and closed it again, at an utter loss for words. A mixture of hurt and disbelief swam through her.
After a short pause, Sasuke continued. “My whole life I’ve just attracted trouble. You shouldn’t be a part of this.” His eyes remained lowered, the creases in his brows never lifting.
“That’s nonsense,” Sakura said with a huff. “There was just something wrong with that village. If anything, someone needs to do a formal investigation of the place.”
She leaned back on the balls of her feet and Sasuke said nothing.
Sakura pursed her lips. A troubled expression was etched across Sasuke’s face. It was an expression that Sakura was quick to recognize as Sasuke hiding some kind of pain.
“Okay, where are you hurting?” she asked next and outstretching a hand towards him, ready at a moment’s notice to begin whatever healing procedure he needed.
What she didn’t expect was for Sasuke to take hold of her wrist and give it a tug. Sakura gasped as she lost her footing slightly and as her palm came to rest against Sasuke’s chest.
And Sasuke’s fingers held her hand there, resting over the left side of his chest, just beneath his shoulder, her thumb resting on his collar bone and her fingers grazing the insides of his arm. What her hand was met with, upon contact, was rhythmic vibration, a fast, urgent heartbeat.
Sasuke’s gaze remained directed at the ground.
Sakura felt tears collect in her lower eyelids when she realized what Sasuke was trying to communicate to her. And that this was his answer to her question.
Their faces were very close and it was only when Sakura tilted her head towards him to rest her forehead against his did Sasuke look up.
“Those villagers are living in the past, Sasuke,” she said softly. “But they’ll learn one day. Even misplaced hatred can be healed with time.”
He was watching her now and Sakura ignored the heat that rose in her face and chest because she and Sasuke had never been this close to each other before. She could feel his breath and his warmth and it was ridiculous that Sasuke thought she would be better off anywhere but here.
Bravely, she pried Sasuke’s fingers away from her wrist and gripped his wrist instead. Mirroring his motion, she brought his hand to her own heart, his fingers poking through his fingerless, black glove and curling around Sakura’s shoulder, the heel of his hand resting above her left breast, and his palm pressing against her own drumming heart.
His gaze carefully wandered from her chest to the cut on her cheek to her eyes, and there was something like awe and curiosity held in his own dark eyes.
“I-I,” Sakura started, and feeling her voice catch and her heart race a mile a minute, “I said I wanted to be by your side when I left Konoha with you. And I meant it.”
She felt Sasuke’s fingers twitch against her skin and small electric currents shot through her whole body at the motion. She swallowed and continued.
“And that means,” she said, “you’ll never be alone with your burdens. I feel them too and I’m here to help you face them.”
Her eyes flitted across Sasuke’s face, trying to gauge his response as he blinked and opened his mouth without saying a thing.
Finally, a long moment later, he said, quietly, “Why?”
At his question, Sakura frowned and shot him a disbelieving look. “Seriously?”
But Sasuke just continued to watch her.
Sakura sighed. “You know I still love you, right?” she said. Immediately, she regretted that Sasuke’s hand was still directly on her heart which gave her pounding, explosive heartbeats no where to hide. She was also certain that her face was as pink as her hair.
She quickly released Sasuke’s wrist, urging him to retreat his hand. But he didn’t. And then…
“I hoped,” Sasuke breathed, the smallest smirk tugging at his lips and the creases in his brow finally lifting.