There's a split second where Sasuke doesn't recognise her.
She is leaning closer to the man beside her, blithely tilting her head to listen to something he says and laughing in a way Sasuke knows to be genuine. There's no question that it's her. Yet Sasuke finds himself stuck between to competing emotions. Irritation, at his own lapse (relying on another person's looks is lazy and potentially dangerous, especially if it's another shinobi). And puzzlement, because he didn't realise he could recognise Sakura from the tilt of her chin and the shift of her shoulders alone.
Not that a normal person could be blamed for the oversight. Her usually rose-coloured hair is now as black as his own, cut in a thick, blunt bang across her forehead which he supposes is to better hide her byakugō. That might explain the thickly applied make-up, too. And her clothes look more like the sort he remembers Ino favouring rather than something Sakura would be comfortable wearing.
There's a lot more of her skin showing right now than he ever remembers seeing.
Mission, he decides as he takes a sip of the tea the server just brought to his table. It's more to have something to do with his hand than any actual thirst. He lost any interest in his drink the instant he noticed Sakura across the room. Probably information gathering.
It must be serious if Sakura's had to leave the hospital, and if Kakashi agreed to send her alone.
And if she needed a disguise.
It's not henge, either. There's no minor chakra fluctuation to suggest any ninjutsu, and there's absolutely no genjutsu being used right now. Which means her target is trained as a shinobi and probably a sensor-type. A strong one if they needed someone as adept as Sakura is at muting her own chakra.
The target wouldn't be as relaxed if he knew his dining companion was Sakura Haruno, hero of the Shinobi Allied Forces and inheritor of Tsunade Senju's monstrous strength.
Neither the target nor Sakura notice Sasuke watching from the shadows; espionage requires his chakra signature to stay hidden, and he is dressed the same at least a dozen other weary travellers who stopped here for a meal. It gives him the opportunity to watch her at work, something he has never had much of an opportunity to do.
His own fault, of course, but it never made him any less proud of her.
Sakura chats with her mark, the same friendly and warm Sakura with whom he has always been accustomed. He recognises mannerisms and facial expressions she's only made around Naruto and Kakashi, the kind that are a product of time spent with close friends. He wonders if they are who she is thinking of as she continues her charade.
Except, is it just him, or is there more physical contact happening here than she would normally show with Naruto or Kakashi?
Her fingers linger longer on the man's wrist than a casual brush, and she's angled herself farther into his personal space than most would consider polite. Body bowed inward, shoulders drawn in to make herself smaller; her entire demeanour suggests something like uncertainty, like she's seeking this man's protection.
As if she needs protection from the like of that, he thinks with uncharacteristic contempt as she allows the man to rest his knuckles on the back of her neck. Her eyes grow wider in response, her posture uncertain as a blush crosses her cheeks, but she beams at her mark encouragingly.
Sasuke is momentarily distracted because he's seen that behaviour before now.
Directed at him.
Which is about the time that Sasuke realises two things: the first, that Sakura's been assigned a seduction mission, and the second that he is not happy about it.
He's not quite sure what to do with that information, and so for now just settles on gripping his tea cup a little tighter. He is surprised to find himself torn between two instincts on how to react. The most prudent, of course, is to get out of here at once so he doesn't have to see the culmination of the mission. Then march back to Konoha and beat the shit out of Kakashi for approving this assignment.
There's also the irrational, primal urge to set Sakura's target on fire when thumbs a speck of soy sauce away from the corner of her mouth.
It's only knowing how Sakura would react to Sasuke's intervention which stops him. She'd be upset—embarrassed and insulted that he interfered in her work, maybe even angry. Probably even hurt, which would be even worse. He's been responsible for too much of Sakura's hurt feelings over the years, the last thing he wants to do is continue the trend.
And then there's the fact that she is on a mission, and the mission must come first.
Except for some reason, it seems to come in third, behind Sakura's anger and hurt.
Sasuke leans further back into the shadowed corner, trying to regain a measure of his usual composure and respect for protocol.
There's nothing about this situation which should bother him. He knows, in the abstract, that this is the type of assignment most kunoichi are sent on, that they receive training specifically for missions like this. Sparrows, they're called sometimes. The most successful of these women have iron hearts and the ability to detach conscience, mind and body from the goal of their mission.
Sakura has never been the sort to do that. It's what makes her such an excellent medic-nin.
She is not a wanton seductress, and it's not in her nature to be overtly coy or flirtatious. At least not without looking extremely awkward doing it, like when they were twelve. And, honestly, the way she looks right now.
The whole thing is strangely…endearing.
As this thought hits him, he understands that this is exactly why Kakashi must have sent her.
Most shinobi are overly suspicious and would be on the lookout for a suave seductress; they would be completely on their guard at all times. But with someone like Sakura—or at least her adopted persona—who fumbles awkwardly with the cup of sake in front of her and keeps wrinkling her nose at the taste (like she didn't drink Sasuke, Naruto and Kakashi under the table the night before he left Konoha!), they might be more at ease.
Coupled with her friendly smile and what to Sasuke appears to be genuine interest in what her target is saying, he can see why the whole thing is so effective. Her entire demeanour lulls the man into the belief that she needs a protector. Based on the target's expression, it's working.
In fact, he gazes down on her with a patronising amusement that hides calculation. Sasuke can practically see him plotting: slipping into that protective role even as he maps out how he can take advantage of the green-eyed woman.
Sasuke wants to stay and see how all of this turns out, if only for the look on the man's face when he realises how foolish he's been. Because Sakura's act is—while not completely false—only a facet of the whole which makes her attractive.
He watches her apologise profusely for putting her elbow in a rice dish and fanning herself as her face from the spicy food before realisation sets in.
He thinks Sakura is attractive.
That's not exactly news—he's been aware of her as a woman for some time, but that's always been secondary to her abilities. It's never been a factor he'd considered when he'd been…considering.
To find that it is a factor now is surprising.
Just like he's surprised that he's bothered by the sight of her with this other man. Logically speaking he knows it's for a mission and none of this reflects her feelings for him. Sasuke is secure in the knowledge that he carries Sakura's heart with him wherever he goes. He's also accepted that somehow his ended up in her possession a long time ago (longer than most people might be surprised to know).
But it does bother him.
Possibly because he's never been in such close quarters with Sakura before now. After returning to the village, the only times he's ever seen her she's been busy with work or with Ino. Or they've been accompanied by Naruto or Kakashi or both. And then he was sent on this recent mission, which put paid to any plans he might have entertained about spending time with her alone.
That this nondescript man is so close within her personal space and enjoying that time with her—even if he is an unknowing mark—grates at him.
Sasuke's next logical observation is that he's jealous.
That she's looking at the other man from under hooded eyes the way she always has with him. That she's biting her lip worriedly, which draws her mark's attention (and Sasuke's!).
He's been jealous before: of Itachi getting all of Father's attention, of Naruto for becoming strong so fast.
This feels different. This feels oddly…possessive.
Which it shouldn't, because whatever their feelings might be, Sakura does not belong to him—as if she were an object or something equally banal. And he doesn't belong to anyone either.
Yet, even as he continues to observe, a small part of him he has long ignored raises its hackles, as if in response to something being taken from him. Because even though he knows the scene playing out is an act—just a part of how Sakura shows her interest, tailored for this assignment, and completely lacking her boisterous laughter and witty sense of humour and bursts of temper and well-meaning bossiness and every other part of her that she shares with him whenever he is home—it irritates him that someone else is the target of that interest.
And as the whole thing slowly progresses into more incursions into personal space, laughing nudges of shoulder to shoulder, hands wandering progressively lower—
He realises how much he doesn't want to watch this.
Before he can slip away, though, the target's hand pauses over Sakura's drink as he passes it to her, something dripping into it. Sasuke tenses, narrowing his eyes as Sakura accepts the cup and takes a sip; even if she saw what the guy did, refusing the cup could break her cover.
Well, now leaving isn't an option.
Even if he didn't trust that Sakura could get herself out of such a situation, he knows better than anyone that even meticulously planned missions. On the off chance that happens…
He hopes Sakura's gotten whatever information out of her mark that she needs. There won't be much left of him once Sasuke gets through with him.
As the next half hour goes by, Sakura's bouncy, laughing energy diminishes and she appears to sway. Based on her target's increased closeness, and the way he's murmuring in her ear, gesturing to leave, whatever drug was in her drink is working.
The man strokes her jawline in a way that makes Sasuke's teeth clench together and he begins mentally counting down. He is fast approaching the point where he won't be able to just sit by anymore.
Then the target reaches up to brush her bangs off her forehead. Though Sakura wobbles drunkenly to one side to hide her face, it's apparently not fast enough to hide her seal, even covered with thick make-up.
The man goes pale and recoils, panicked.
Shoving her away from him, he stumbles to his feet, eyes wild and mouth twisted in a sneer as the startled patrons look up in shock. "My information's only good if I'm alive."
His jaw jerks to the right, like he's loosening something caught in his teeth, and Sasuke mentally curses.
Sakura is apparently thinking on the same lines, because her eyes flash and in a swift movement that Sasuke only sees because of his Sharingan, her hand snaps out; two fingers shoving straight into the mark's mouth as be bites down, stopping him from doing anything.
It obviously wasn't a problem for her to metabolise the drug.
The target gags in surprise, the momentary lapse giving Sakura a chance to lash out her other hand, pressing something to the man's forehead. A spiral of black symbols and kanji radiate across his skin, and the mark's eyes go blank.
Fuinjutsu, Sasuke thinks in admiration; he hadn't seen that coming.
"You're right, it's preferable that you're alive," Sakura tells her target, even though he is beyond hearing now. She uses her fingers to dig something out of his mouth before it can go down his throat. She pockets it. "Luckily, the Analysis Team doesn't need you awake to get your information."
There's blood trailing down her wrist from where her target's teeth broke skin, but she is unphased by the injury. She digs into her other pocket and removes a small piece of plastic, which she fits into her ear.
"Target acquired, guys," she says brightly into her earpiece. "He's ready for transport whenever you are."
ANBU, Sasuke determines, a judgement confirmed a minute later when two masked figured enter the establishment and make a beeline for the stationary prisoner. The other patrons are whispering in excitement and disbelief at everything that has just happened, probably because it's so rare these days to have any dealings with ANBU.
While they cart the man out of the common area, Sakura approaches the keeper of the inn. From what Sasuke can tell, she's apologising for the disturbance and leaving contact information for the Hokage's office in case any compensation is needed. Sasuke doesn't stay to listen, instead slipping outside once her back is turned.
It's not his business, really, and he doesn't want to get caught up in someone else's capture.
The courtyard of the rest-stop is barely there, a straggly mess of weeds and wildflowers that abruptly turns into forest. There's no sign of ANBU—they've already headed back with their bounty—and Sasuke's way is free and clear to continue his journey.
It would be an easy thing, to open a portal here and just disappear. He has his own mission, and he should leave her to finish hers. It's not exactly the best time right now to stand around catching up with former teammates. And it has nothing to do with the sudden bout of nerves at the idea of facing Sakura again.
Before he can disappear, though, the afternoon's quiet is broken by a soft call.
It seems Sakura has taken the choice out of his hands.
He turns slowly toward her, noting the smile that lights up her face and the way her eyes shine. It hits him that he hasn't seen her look like that in a while. Even when she was charming her target, the utter joy in her gaze was completely absent.
Something warms in his chest.
"Were you…were you in there long?" she asks, rubbing self-consciously at her forehead; smudges of colour come away from her seal.
"Hm," he nods. "It's rare for you to be out of the village on assignment."
"Oh…yeah, I know. I haven't done field work in a while," she admits with a laugh. "But this was sort of…happenstance. I was requested to train medical personal in a village out this way, and ANBU was closing in on this guy, so Kakashi suggested I go along."
"It looked like you were an integral part of their mission, not just a tagalong," Sasuke points out. He's surprised to note the difficulty in keeping his observation neutral in that respect.
"Well, I was the best one for the job," Sakura replies, tossing her uncharacteristically dark hair. "It wasn't just a retrieval mission, you know, this has been in the works for months. A new poison showed up in Konoha. Black-market drugs, we thought, but after the first few deaths we realised it was a bio-weapon whose origins no one could trace."
Sasuke nods, unsurprised.
War might be over, but criminals still exist; there's still a thriving black-market it most regions, where weapons, drugs and even humans are still trafficked. Part of Sasuke's job is to put a stop to that.
"It took me a while to figure out how it was made so that we could track down the creator," she goes on and Sasuke raises an eyebrow at this; it's no mean feat to challenge Sakura's poison-making skills. "Anyway, Kakashi-sensei had people hunting this guy down for months, but no one could get close to him. He kept spotting everyone we sent after him, and he left them in pretty bad condition."
"They needed someone more resilient."
"Um…exactly," she says, ducking her head at his acknowledgement. "And someone who knew poisons if he talked about his business or could handle themselves in a crisis if he pulled something."
"And someone who could fool a sensor-type."
"Right. That's why the…" she trails off and gestures at her hair. "Thankfully this will wash out in a week or so."
Sasuke is oddly relieved to hear that.
"Anyhow, my part in this is done. ANBU will hand him over to Ibiki without a fuss now."
Sasuke nods again. "I wasn't aware you knew any fuinjutsu."
"You'd be amazed at some of the stuff I learned while you were away," she says with a smug grin. "Maybe I'll show you some time."
There's something in her tone that rings almost…flirtatious?
He blinks, wondering if he's deciphered that right.
She can't possible mean…?
No, he must be imagining it. The whole situation of seeing Sakura enticing another man has simply added another dimension to what he knows about her, and his mind is still processing. Seeing and hearing things he has no evidence for.
Why is he disappointed about that?
Rather than ask that, he opts for another question. "Where are you going now?"
"The village is on the other side of the forest, at the base of the mountain where the Naka river starts," she tells him, and shrugs. "They don't have an official name yet. The place started out as a refugee camp after the war and they're still waiting on official recognition."
He mentally orients the landmarks she mentioned with the geography he knows. "That's far northwest of here."
"Yeah," Sakura nods, and then glances away from him. Her voice rings with badly suppressed curiosity as she asks, "And where are you headed now? I mean, if you can tell me…"
Sasuke considers her for a moment, recognising this as the denouement of their short reunion.
It strikes him then, with absolute certainty, that he doesn't want this to be goodbye yet.
"Northwest of here," he tells her, looking away and hoping he doesn't sound as foolish as he feels. Why he ought to feel foolish, he doesn't know, because it's true. His next mission is taking him northwest…only, it's in another country and not in another village.
He briefly lets his eyes flick to Sakura, taking in disbelieving wide eyes and red cheeks, remembering another time she looked like that—
"Well, what if…I asked you to…take me with you…?"
—and then looks away again, staring up at the sun.
"To get there by nightfall, we should leave now," he continues, careful to keep any specific inflexion out of his voice.
"'We'?" she repeats in something akin to a whisper, an unspoken question hanging heavy in the air.
"It seems a waste to go there separately," he points out—quite reasonably, too, he thinks, even with the steadily creeping heat across the back of his neck. "It's supposed to rain tonight. Your refugee village will likely have a place to sleep. I'd rather not travel through a storm."
Sakura continues to look gobsmacked as if trying to understand what just happened. He can't blame her; he's actively struggling with the actual words he wants to say. But they ring too much like a plea, and he's not yet ready to admit what that might mean.
So instead, he adds casually, "And you tell me everything that moron has been up to back home."
Sakura's entire countenance lights up. He's not sure if it's the invitation to travel with him, or calling the village 'home', but it's clear he's said the right thing for once.
"Alright, then," she says, and falls into step beside him. "It'll be nice to catch up with each other before you have to leave again."
As her voice washes over him, relaying the latest gossip from Konoha, they set off into the forest together. Every so often, Sasuke's eyes drift to her, taking in her animated eyes and pink cheeks and the pleased curl of her smile. He has the very certain presentment that he won't be leaving her again any time soon.
He's surprisingly comfortable with that.