Woohoo! New chapter! Notes about the chapter, the long interim between updates, and big-big-big thank yous in my profile. Onward!
The forest was as dark as it had ever been, and she had spent countless nights in transit in its depths for comparison. It was not the arboreal highway that bothered her, the sinister air it exuded, especially at night, but rather, an unearthly quiet that surrounded them. She felt nervous as she laid out her bedroll.
Even with his knowing eye, Izumo had not stopped them. Kotetsu had slept on obliviously, or made a good show of sleeping. For all their apathy, apparently they were still protectors of the Will of Fire.
Once again, it was Sakura who had set their pace, even to the point of stopping for the night, more for practicality than urgency. Naruto did not know their exact destination. Of course, any Leaf nin knew how to get to Rain Village. But once there, it would be up to her to lead. It was easier to take lead from the start. Before too much travel, though, they needed rest. She knew her limits, and she knew if they pressed much further, she would break.
"This whole escape seems a little easy," she murmured, venting concern.
"That's because no one cares that we're gone," he answered with the same volume. There was levity in his quiet, though, something broaching chipper. Perky, even.
She sighed, and then muttered, "I'm glad you're confident." With a quick glance, she found him grinning. Tanned fingers were nimbly tucking his blanket into his bedroll, thoughts far from their campsite.
Her annoyed judgment eased. How many years had he felt confined and stifled in the village she thought of as home, grounding his dreams before they could take flight?
"Well, it's been this way since we were genin." He snorted. "Or chuunin at any rate…"
No fire marked their campsite. Easy as their escape was, and Sakura was only half-convinced that they were not being followed, neither wanted to tempt fate with such an easy signal.
Her thin mat was calling her name, and she stretched out before dropping onto it gently. Almost unconsciously her fingers laced together over her abdomen; a casual pose, but quietly analytical just the same. Yes, far too close to breaking.
Naruto dropped onto his mat and mimicked her pose. In the dark, his hair looked like a torch light. He closed his eyes and was asleep almost instantly.
Sakura sighed gently and turned her eyes skyward. She was more tired than she had been in months. When she thought about her teammates, her emotions felt as tightly stretched as tripwire. Everything that had happened over the past few days, waking in the hospital, and the revelation that her injuries had worse origins than she could have imagined… Then Naruto and Ino rejecting her, only to embrace her all over again. It had been a roller coaster of the worst kind, and she was still riding it.
Thinking about Sasuke was even worse.
All she had to do was close her eyes and she could see him smiling softly at her. The husband she knew and the one she had endured. When she thought of him, thought of what was at stake, and what she was about to attempt, everything seemed far beyond reach. That soft smile wanted to guide her, a painfully bright light on a dark horizon.
When she opened her eyes, the smile had faded, but Sasuke's face lingered. She blinked slowly, but still his face did not disappear. He stood above her pale and stoic.
"Sasuke-kun?" she asked sleepily.
He was on her before she could roll out of the way, two hands gripping her throat. Groggy sleep disappeared like smoke in the wind as her hands reflexively clawed at the trapping fingers, then at his face
"Sasuke!" she gasped.
"You're not her," he intoned calmly, nimbly outmaneuvering her gloved fingers. "She would have known better." The words did not penetrate her panic, and her fingers were still scrabbling over his when black spots began to enter her vision. "The way things are, though, you can't leave." His arms were just too damned long!
She felt more than saw the blond tackle their teammate, felt the force as Sasuke was blown off of her. Air entered her lungs at a slow trickle, the crushed skin bruised and burning tender. She clasped Shousen around her throat before her trachea could swell further. Far away she could hear scuffling, scrapping sounds, skin against skin. They sounded dim, shadows beneath stars.
All at once air and awareness came rushing into her and she pushed herself to a sit, one hand protectively at her throat. It burned still, but she wouldn't die. Wind from Naruto's attack had twisted hair into her face, obscuring even what she had hoped to see of her teammates. For the first moments of the reprieve, all she could do was catch her breath.
Sasuke was not supposed to be here. She climbed to her feet, still rubbing her throat. He was still supposed to be incapacitated, left on the floor of the family shrine to sleep off the paralysis her poison had put him in. The buzzing in her ears faded too slowly, the roar of fighting rising.
When she lifted her head, sight and sound were fully clarified. The two ninja were making enough noise to sound like wild beasts as they broke through the undergrowth. She followed after them, stumbling until she caught her feet, at which point she pushed chakra to her extremities and raced. An explosion of detritus rained as far as her destination.
Her eyes were readjusting to the darkness again when she heard, more than saw, Naruto bounce against the ground. He rolled through the fall back to his feet, but Sasuke was still pursuing and even Naruto needed time to recover. Sasuke had always made the time seem so much shorter.
Sakura threw herself into the gap, whipping out her kunai at their pursuer's face. He blocked as she knew he would, but the deflection gave Naruto enough time to get back to both of him.
Sasuke's speed and reaction were as though nothing had crippled his body just hours before. The poison had worked, hadn't it? She had seen his impotence as he laid on the tatami, the way his angry eyes had tried to capture hers. It was impossible to overcome such maladies by sheer will, wasn't it?
Her back bent to avoid a swipe of his knife, thankfully not kusanagi or its reach. When she came back to standing, her arm blocked his return swing, darting in close enough to feel the sweat on his skin. It was heavy and slippery, nearly sheeting from him.
Green eyes widened as she pressed even closer. He was sweating furiously, sweating the poison out. He had managed to reach the white antidote, after all. He had to be exhausted, tired beyond belief. But then again, she had expected him to still be lying on his back, waiting out his fate, not fighting as if he were freshly rested. For all their differences, the man in front of her had a will to match her husband's.
"When did you become so strong?" he grunted as Sakura came between the combatants again. Naruto withdrew, a severe cut in his neck healing as she threw her first punch. Her fingers met the flat of Sasuke's kunai as he blocked her. The metal warped but did not splinter as both retreated. She fled the question as much as his attack. She did not want the words to reach her even as she pressed forward again. He was still sweating.
Sasuke held his ground as Naruto closed the distance between them, the former's body suddenly as still as a statue. Sakura froze with sudden wariness, and Naruto darted into the empty space in front of him, his fist cocked to knock him out the old-fashioned way. His black eyes closed slowly.
Before he had even opened the dark irises, she shouted out. Naruto knew better. He knew better! Her friend had a brief moment of alarm, confusion as to what was happening and why he did not have the same fear she had. By the time he understood, it was too late.
Sasuke opened his eyes as she pitched forward for back up. There would be no time for intervention. Naruto saw the first gleam of red before he felt the impact. Real panic hit her first. Naruto's momentum halted, and his body pitched forward with gravity, his mind caught by something far more insidious.
She had glanced away from Sasuke for just a moment, preparing to catch Naruto before he could completely crumple. Her body touched down next to him, heart racing, arms outstretched. Her eyes cut back to Sasuke, who cast a shadow of movement. She lifted her arm to block whatever he might throw at her, but it was not a throw. It was his foot, kicking beneath her arm to thrust the block away.
The booted ball of his foot hit her cheekbone, forcing her away from Naruto. The world spun as she tumbled feet over head, crashing to a stop in the undergrowth and dirt. Her lungs inflated slowly, she felt confused, and then she heard a whimper that she only distantly recognized as her own. Her face was singing with sting. She tried to work her jaw, but could not tell if it was responding or not.
"Move," she heard faintly, as she blinked against the wavering color of Sasuke's face. Pale and hazy, gray and clear. How had he gotten so close so quickly? She shifted and pressed a hand to the ground. Fingers splayed, and she tried to lift her weight, but even through the air-deprived haze in her mind, her body felt sluggish. The singing turned into ringing, and she could feel the dull edges of pain creeping into her face and neck. "Move," she heard again, intensely.
"Don't boss me around," she wheezed.
The ground rushed away, leaving her body in vertigo. Pain blossomed in her throat and chin again, and Sasuke stared up at her from the end of an outstretched arm. His expression was twisted into an ugly thing that she had seen only a few times before-in the Forest of Death, in the Iron Country… Never had he turned that stare directly on her. Until now.
"No," she protested. "It's not supposed to be this way." Fingers tugged at his wrist uselessly, but their motions were weak and clumsy. Her vision began blurring, not from lack of air but with tears. Sadness seemed to always be one synapse away. Even so, his grip was tightening and she could not breathe.
"It's not supposed to be this way," he echoed her thought, voice cold with fury, and she wondered if she had spoken the words. Or maybe he could hear her thoughts. The fingers around her throat trembled.
As she cursed his history and insecurities and anger, she could not help but wonder how they had come to this point. Even with all of her strength, with all of her will, she had not been able to get through to his heart. Not the man in front of her, anyway. She closed her eyes, trying to remember better days. If this was the end, she did not want her last thoughts to be of him, angry and vengeful.
Her feet hit the ground, neck released, and she gasped greedily, her earlier healing undone, and her energy spent. Slowly, too slowly, her head turned in his direction, even as she scrabbled backward, catching on rocks and brush. He did not pursue her, seemingly content to hold his ground. And his eyes… They stared at her with unbridled concern. The change distracted her so much that she almost forgot to keep breathing.
Was he letting her go? Was this some kind of ploy? Why now? Why hurt her and then release her? What were all of these fucking mind games?
The answer was almost as painful as the necessity that had predicated it.
"Forehead girl," he spoke in a tone more concerned than she had ever heard from him, even her Sasuke. "Do what needs to be done," was his stern command.
Thoughts hazy, she asked, "What are you…" Sasuke grimaced, his body trembling, but his clear black eyes did not leave. She glanced quickly to Naruto, face buried in the dirt, who had yet to stir from his prone position on the ground. He needed help badly. They both needed help. All of three of them needed healing of some variety, and it all seemed so far from reach.
"Sakura!" Sasuke shouted, and when she glanced back she saw it. It was in the set of his expression, and the way the words rolled over her awareness. Understanding pierced her to the heart. She rolled to her feet, still clutching her neck, and stared at him with wide eyes.
"Ino?" she asked, coughing.
"I don't have much time, Sakura," her best, and oldest, friend gritted out from behind bared teeth. "The bastard's got a little bit of fight in him," she added with a chuckle, shaking her head. The movement cost her, though, and she winced, gripping at the bruises that Naruto and Sakura had put on Sasuke's body. Sakura's own frown deepened. It was incredulous to see Ino struggling so much on a mind control technique that she had perfected before she could buy alcohol.
Was Sasuke really so strong, even now? Was it the strength of will that determined strength against this technique?
"Do it!" she ordered, breaking through the haze in Sakura's head.
The sharp tone startled her out of her complacency, and she dropped the hand at her throat. Still staring at Ino-Sasuke, she took a shaky step towards Naruto. He was wounded. The sharingan could do the same kind of damage to the mind as a severed artery to the physical body. She just needed Ino to hold on for a minute. Just a minute.
"Where are you? Did you follow us?" Sakura croaked.
"Don't ask stupid questions!" Ino barked with Sasuke's voice. The volume and tone made her hesitate again. Even knowing it was Ino. "Kill him now," she demanded. Sakura turned and stared at her friend. She had seen this before, had seen Ino place her life on the line during the Chuunin exams.
What Ino demanded was the clearest option, and the only one that she could think of at the moment. It would be the simplest end of their problem. Their problem. Hers and Naruto's. Not Sasuke's. And certainly not…
"If I do that you'll die," she returned flatly, unable to conjure the emotion to her voice that was raging in her chest. She felt so drained already. But that was the truth of it. Sasuke's darkly beautiful face smirked at her. It tugged at her heart and for a moment she felt the full pain she had tried to ignore. Sasuke smirking at her. A dear friend wearing the face that she treasured so deeply. If only Sasuke had looked at her with such affection…
"Don't you dare underestimate me now," Ino objected, breaking into her thoughts. "I'm not the same girl you knew when we were twelve. All this time you-" A pause as she caught her breath, and then a groan cut her words. Sakura watched Sasuke's head dip forward, eyes cloaked with pain. How much time did they have left? How much time was Ino buying them? She hadn't even gotten Naruto up yet!
"Ino?" she asked, turning back towards her struggling friend.
"Sakura, I hear him," she muttered. "If you don't do it now, he's going to kill Naruto. He's going to make you watch and then he's going to kill you, too." She broke off, breathing raspy.
"I can't," she protested, shaking her head.
"I love him!" she interrupted, sharply. Ino stared at her, eyes too wide to be anyone but Ino.
It was the worst time, and the worst place possible, but it was true, and it would not hold back anymore. Naruto and Ino, and Kakashi to some extent, had tried to look out for her. She had seen it in their eyes that she would be better off giving up on him. That they had wanted her safe she could understand, but here was the rub. She loved Sasuke.
Ino winced at her from Sasuke's face, but Sakura only shook her head, unwilling to do as she asked. It was why she had only incapacitated him to begin with at their compound. "I know what he is here, what he's always been."
Sasuke was Sasuke. She loved him. She had always loved him, and she would defend him to anyone who thought he was anything less than… less than… less than himself. She loved the man she had married.
Shaking her head wildly, she nearly sobbed, "I can't live like this, but please don't ask me to kill him!" And she did not.
Ino did not protest again. Her shoulders, wrapped in Sasuke's frame and form, sank inward. There was a low, keening sound as her struggle finished. Sasuke's shoulders trembled inward.
Sakura glanced from Sasuke toward Naruto. Ino took a slow, deep breath that caught Sakura's attention, and she did not tremble again.
"I'm going to kill her," Sasuke spoke lowly, and when she looked at him, she saw a trickle of blood running from his nose. It careened over the rise of his lips and dribbled thickly down his chin. She watched it, horrified, mesmerized.
Ino was out of time. Ino, who had never wavered in her friendship, and had done nothing but support Sakura.
"I'm going to kill Naruto, then that bitch, and when we get back to the village I'm going to kill Kakashi," Sasuke spoke silkily, taking a slow step forward. One step was all he moved, then he stopped, pulling his torso upright and into a firmer posture. "You are going to come home, and I'm going to make sure you never even think about pulling a stunt like this again."
She heard his words, felt the truth in their intent, but all she could see was the weariness in every motion and pause in his body. He took another step forward, beautiful even in exhaustion. He was not completely over the effects of the poison. He was just too damned proud to let it hold him down.
His black eyes turned to Naruto, narrowed, and then he sprinted, his knife once more in his hand as he made for the prone ninja.
Sakura knew his intent. She had always known him, better than he had ever cared to credit her. Before he and Naruto had known how to communicate via battle, before Kakashi had seen the fear and hate in his heart, Sakura had known him. She had known he would leave, had known he would return. She knew him.
She loved him.
Her fingers and calves flexed. She moved.
It was meant to feel emotional, and not so rushed. I'm not sure this chapter succeeded on the whole, but if you have any specific pointers on how to make something feel slower and on what points I could improve here, I'd appreciate it. Thanks!