Sasori had seen the brown haired Uchiha advancing on the waitstaff, had nodded at the caterer who had glanced his way. He had gone to great lengths for this evening, setting his pawns in place, greasing a few minor palms...was child’s play. With an internal smirk he saw the Uchiha’s eyes widen with the realization their waitress was leading them to his table, watched as Sakura ran into his back as a silent question was thrown over his shoulder to the Uchiha hier. A nod, that’s all it took to throw his whole plan into motion, and he hadn’t even been the one to give the signal.
‘Too easy’, his eyes followed Sakura as she sat down beside him.
Sakura’s little word play had amused him, apparently tonight was a night of revelation for her, and she wasn’t handling it as well as she had hoped. He could see the lines of worry, around her eyes and the tension in her mouth. Her hand was steady but light as it continually brought the glass to her lips. He watched in amusement as she drank, and continued to drink throughout the meal. She seemed not to realize...she had already drank three glasses on top of the shot Shisui had given her at the bar.
Yes, he had seen that as well. No matter who he was talking to, he knew where she was and who she was talking to.
Something had happened, he had seen her walk back into the hall escorted between the two Uchiha that now shared his table with him and his nephew. Her gate had been clipped, as though she were angry, her eyes had been quick as she had searched the hall for...someone unsavory. Madara...so the man had made his play and as Sasori had expected, it had failed.
So very interesting and yet, so very predictable...he had almost expected more from the Uchiha.
Sasori could tell that even though her thoughts still plagued her, she was relaxing in his presence, he was pleased to see that the two Uchiha beside her were open to a more or less normal conversation. They were all aware of the reality of their situation, there was no need for blind hostilities as far as Sasori was concerned, besides, it wouldn’t do him any good to antagonize the Uchiha in front of Sakura.
Dinner was served and they ate in relative silence, a sort of peace had settled over the table as Sasori continued to watch the Uchiha watch Sakura, his nephew calm and placid on his left.
Eventually Sakura rose to use the facilities and left the table, the Uchiha had offered to escort her, but Sasori knew she would refuse...did they not understand her at all? He had expected more from Itachi, it seemed he had over estimated the man...hum.
“I hear that Uchiha Industries has moved into Oto.” Sasori opened up a light conversation in Sakura’s absence with Itachi who nodded.
“By my own reports it seems our companies are not...getting along. That is unfortunate. It seems the problems of our past still haunt our futures.” Sasori shook his head in a mock sadness, his eyes glinting at Itachi’s bored expression.
“Problems, is that what you call six dead scientists and a gutted secretary who had no notion of the organization and was just at the wrong place at the wrong time?” Shisui set his fork down and gave the redhead a hard look.
“Collateral damage.” Sasori waved his hand in the air dismissing the interruption. “I gave no order for such a thing, if that’s what you're insinuating with that look of yours.”
Sasori paused to take a sip of his drink , then leveled cool eyes on Itachi. “Did you give the order to burn down my warehouses?”
Itachi cocked his head to the side. “I was unaware your warehouses were burned down, Akasuna San, may I ask when that happened?”
“An hour ago” Sasori said calmly, ignoring the choking noises from the other two occupants at the other end of the table.
“I know of no orders that may have been given to our contacts in Oto, we are experiencing problems of our own.” Itachi lowered his voice, looking from one redhead to the other.
“Yes, I had heard your scientists were dropping like flies.” Sasori smirked, giving Shisui a nod.
“It seems we have a common enemy.” Itachi sat back in his seat, his eyes passing over the table to the door Sakura had left the hall through.
“Or one of us is lying, but let’s assume, for courtesy's sake, that neither of us is lying…” Sasori waved his hand at his nephew who rose from his seat and left the hall under the careful eyes of Shisui. “I am sending a man to Oto soon, to look into my warehouses...I was also sending him to look into the scientists that were killed in your holding.”
Itachi stiffened. Sasori didn’t have to tell him this, it would have been assumed, he and Madara had already spoken of it, had expected him to do such a thing and had prepared for it but to hear it said by Sasori himself ...so openly…
“Why tell me this?” Itachi asked, careful to keep his tone relatively light.
“There is no room for more than one partnership in Oto. Wouldn’t you agree?” Sasori swirled the liquid around in his tumbler, giving Itachi time to consider his words.
“I agree, Akasuna San.” Itachi leaned forward in his chair and picked up his own drink. “Let us hear your proposal.”
Careful not to draw attention to himself by moving too quickly, Gaara made his way out of the hall to the ladies facilities. With his back against the wall, as though he were waiting for someone, he listened intently but heard no noise...she was no longer in the restroom. With a subtle glance up and down the corridor he turned and walked casually toward the stairwell. Her face had been flushed with alcohol, her thoughts an uneasy dinner companion, he had felt her distress from across the table...she would wish to compose herself before returning, she had gone to get some air.
He could have been quiet, he could have watched her through the small window, but he knew she would know, even if she was a bit intoxicated, he had seen her...in her apartment, head turning to the slightest noise, the most obscure change in pressure...he didn’t bother to mask the creak of the door as he pushed it open to join her on the small balcony.
“I apologize, I hadn’t realized someone else was out here. Forgive me.” Gaara turned, knowing she would invite him back out into the open space with her, she was just that kind of a person.
“You don’t have to leave, I just came out for a bit of fresh air.” Sakura nodded to the city lights in front of her. “...and to look at the city.”
“Beautiful.” Gaara murmured as he looked at her, finally, in person so close he could smell the lavender of her bath oils on her skin.
“Yes, beautiful.” Sakura said as she looked out over the rail unaware of the intensity of Gaara’s stare.
With little effort Gaara fixed a bland and indifferent expression on his face with every intention of drawing her into conversation as he and his Uncle had discussed, but standing there, so close to her, with her smell in the air and her beauty so...he could barely breathe much less speak.
He swallowed and said the first thing that came to his muddled mind.
“I like to look at the stars at night, they bring me peace.” He averted his eyes shyly as her gaze fell upon him.
Sakura smiled, he was blushing. Would a monster blush, she thought to herself as she took in the man beside her. He looked like Sasori, the red hair, the calm stillness of his posture, but a killer, a murderer? She just couldn’t fathom it. She sighed heavily and slumped over onto the rail.
“Sometimes, it’s easier to look at the stars, than it is to look at those around you. The stars, they shine and help you forget.” She looked up past the lights of the city to find the stars that even the night lights of Konoha couldn’t dull.
“To forget?” Gaara frowned. “What is it you wish to forget?”
Sakura laughed ruefully. “I don’t even know.”
Gaara nodded, he thought he understood. It was a lot to take in. Sasori had explained it to him in between pointless social conversations they were both forced to endure with their attendance to this pointless function. Tonight, she got to see into their world, a glimpse, a touch...her reality was growing, Sasori had told him. It was his job to make sure it continued to grow, that she continued to...realize what kind of world she was living in and what kind of world her association with the Uchiha drew her into.
“My mother died giving birth to me.” Gaara said in his calm monotone voice.
Her eyes left the stars to focus on the dark redhead beside her.
“My Uncle took me in.” Gaara’s deep voice washed over her, calming her nerves.
“There were many who didn’t understand me, who think I am...a monster.” Gaara looked at her seriously. “My Uncle never did though, he took me in, fed to my strengths. He believes in me.”
Sakura watched his eyes waver as he said those last words and her heart went out to him.
“His methods aren’t always gentle and sometimes...they are odd.” Gaara turned toward her and cocked his head to the side. “He believes in you, like he believes in me. He told me so.”
“Oh.” Sakura didn’t know what to say. This was a very unusual conversation. They stood in silence for so long that when Gaara moved again, it startled her.
“Do you need more time to gather your thoughts?” Gaara asked her quietly.
“I...yes, maybe a little.” She bit her bottom lip between her teeth.
She was worried still, Gaara supposed this was normal.
“Don’t worry.” He told her.
Sakura laughed. “Worry, I’m not sure if it is worry or fear that I feel, but I know I feel something. If that makes any sense.”
Gaara liked hearing her laugh like this, in person instead of through a video, a monitor.
“Better to feel something and not know what it is, than to feel nothing at all.” Gaara tipped his head back and looked up at the stars. “Until recently...the only time I felt anything, was when I killed.”
“Killed?” Sakura stiffen, the calming effect his voice had on her diminished with a pop.
Gaara turned his cool eyes back to hers and a cold shiver ran down her back. His eyes followed the movement of her skin and he licked his lips.
“That’s what I do. I kill for him.” Gaara’s deep voice clouded her mind.
“For Sasori?” Sakura wanted clarification.
Gaara nodded. His eyes focused on her face, his posture straight and unyielding.
“Who does he tell you to kill Gaara?” She asked him, speaking to him with a rare familiarity that pleased him.
“His enemies.” Gaara said easily.
Sakura closed her eyes, she didn’t want to hear anymore. Gaara’s voice came to her slow and steady, deep and calming.
“You’re safe with us Sakura. We would never hurt you.”
“Safe.” She murmured, her heart thumping in her chest.
“Safe.” Gaara took a silent step forward, his hand rising from his side.
She felt his touch, light, feather like against her cheek.
“Safe.” Gaara said again, much more gently, quieter than before.
She leaned into his hand and he sucked in a quick breath...no one had ever let him touch them before. He had always taken, nothing had ever been given to him.
“Thank you.” He dropped his hand from her cheek and took a polite step back. When she opened her eyes, he was gone.
“Thank you?” Sakura swallowed, what an odd thing to say.
Sasori watched his nephew enter the hall from a different door than he had left and wondered where he had gone, what had taken him so long...he had only wanted the boy to check on Sakura. A quick nod however told him everything he needed to know. She was okay, she would return shortly. Sasori sighed, good, he had been worried by the almost frantic look in her eye throughout dinner.
Itachi excused himself from the table as Sasori’s nephew returned. Sakura had been gone for quite some time and he had begun to worry about her.
Madara saw his nephew leave the hall and followed him out the side door. Hashirama grimaced but Tobirama glared, he knew the Uchiha were up to no good as usual and he wondered briefly if it had anything to do with Sakura. He wondered why he even cared.
“Itachi.” Madara called out to his nephew who was walking briskly toward the ladies room at the end of the corridor.
“Yes Uncle?” Itachi turned mid step.
“Where is Sakura?” Madara asked, looking past his nephew to the ladies room.
“I am checking on her now, she left for the facilities a while ago and should have returned to the table by now.” Itachi walked the rest of the way to the ladies restroom and tapped on the door calling Sakura’s name lightly.
Madara rolled his eyes, she wouldn’t hear that. He walked up to the door and pounded on it much harder than Itachi had and pushed it open and called Sakura’s name loudly. “Sakura?”
“There doesn’t appear to be anyone in there.” Madara stepped back from the door.
“I’ll check the stairs.” Itachi nodded to Madara and started walking toward the stairwell.
“Itachi.” Madara drew his nephew to the side. “I’ll not apologize, but it was a mistake.”
Itachi nodded and walked past his Uncle without a word. He needed to find Sakura, he and Madara could talk about what had happened earlier, later. Itachi stepped into the stairwell and looked around but Sakura was nowhere to be seen. With a small frown he ducked back out of the stairwell to see if she had returned to the table in his absence.
Sakura continued to lean against the railing on the small smoker’s balcony, she was starting to get really cold, she knew she should go back inside before she froze but even after taking her calming breaths and speaking with Gaara she really didn’t feel like going back inside.
She tilted her head back up to the sky and looked at the stars. Not much of anything anyone said, added up...expect for what Sasori had told her...and Gaara. They were the only ones who hadn’t...tried to protect her from the truth, or told her what to do or not to do.
She remembered how honest Sasori had been with her on the train when she had invited him back to her apartment for his coat.
“I am a businessman who does business with both good law abiding citizens and with those less inclined to obey the law. Not all of my business is legal, but not all of it is illegal.”
Wasn't that what Itachi had told her that the Uchiha did, only in different words? As far as Sakura could see Sasori and his nephew weren’t any different than the Uchiha.
“I have been trying to legitimize the Uchiha’s businesses for years, some just...can’t be maintained under legal structures, but that doesn’t make them criminal, only illegal in the fullest sense of the law.”
That’s what Itachi had said, he had also told her they made medicines for the poor and helped people outside of the law. A blurred line he had called it. She didn’t know what to think. Who was right and who was wrong. They all seemed to be a little of both to her, even the Senju. Not that she knew much about the Senju’s less than legal activities, having been shielded from it most of her life.
Tobirama had pulled a gun on her but also offered her an internship at his brother’s hospital that their family ran, a hospital that helped people, that was known for their generosity. She, like others in her field, had heard the stories about how no one who went to Konoha Hospital was turned away, that the Senju helped anyone who came to them for care. It was one of the things that had inspired her to become a surgeon, not just a doctor.
That and Madara. Sakura had come home with a binder from career day at school with a list and brief descriptions of all the professions that were popular and in demand at the time. Surgeon was one of the top ones, both in demand and the hardest to obtain. She had wanted to become one immediately after reading the summary. She had wanted to save lives, to help people, to be...special.
For a long time after her parents had died, she had felt alone. Many of her friends had stopped talking to her, because they didn’t understand her grief, or because they didn’t know how to talk to her anymore. Ino, Naruto and Sasuke were the only ones who stood beside her, the only ones who still...loved her.
Sasuke had fallen out of a tree while they were in the park. Itachi had been gone then, away with Shisui doing some training of some sort. Mikoto was supposed to be watching them, but her phone had rung, it had been Madara and she had walked a little ways away from them. She always walked away from them when Madara called.
Mikoto had told them, not to climb the trees, that it was dangerous, but Mikoto wasn’t paying attention, she was talking to Madara with her back turned to them...so they had climbed the tree. Sakura had been the best. She had climbed up to the top, the highest and the fastest of the three of them. Sasuke had scowled, frowned and pouted at her. He wanted to climb as high as Sakura had.
So he had been reckless...and had fallen.
Sakura had been terrified. Sasuke fell from the middle of the tree, too far up to land safely, too far away from her for her to help him. He fell and hit the ground, and didn’t get up...his eyes had been closed and he didn’t move.
She had dropped to the ground beside him and started CPR, that she had read about but had never been shown, had never practiced before...and after a few minutes of her performing what she had hoped was CPR, he coughed and began to move again.
Mikoto had screamed and ran over, dropping the phone onto the ground, and dropping down beside her son. Sakura had picked the phone up and had told Madara that Mikoto would be just a moment. When Madara had asked her what was happening and if anyone had died...an odd question Sakura had thought...she had told him what had happened and that she had saved Sasuke and not to worry everything was fine.
The line had gone quiet, Sakura thought he had hung up but he hadn’t. When he spoke again, he congratulated her and asked her how old she was. She had told him, she was twelve, he had been impressed. ‘You should be a doctor Sakura, to help protect the family’, he had told her. She agreed, and that day, she had decided she wanted to be a surgeon, to protect those she loved and to help anyone else who might need her help.
A week later, she had picked the lock to Madara’s mansion on a dare and had been thrown face down, her arms pulled behind her back by Madara who had come home…’unexpectedly’, to praise her again for her lock picking skills that she had learned from a book A book that she had found in her room after school one day. A book, no one had known about, or how it had made its way into her room.
Sakura swallowed her doubts as she closed her eyes, the stars suddenly too bright for her. Madara said he had groomed her from a distance to take over for him, but he had never given her a choice, he had never even asked her what she wanted.
Her parents had been taken from her at the age of twelve without her permission, without warning. Madara had decided she would be his successor without asking her if she even wanted to succeed him. Her whole life had been planned out without her.
Sakura opened her eyes. Sasori’s words came back to her from their second meeting, when she had invited him to her apartment for his coat.
“Are you sure that is wise Sakura? I wouldn’t wish to put you in an awkward situation with Madara Uchiha.”
They hadn’t known one another, Sasori had no reason to take her feelings into consideration other than that, he cared about her feelings...even then. He didn’t try to hide the fact he knew Madara and her association with him or his family...he had been honest with her, open with her.
She was grateful for everything the Uchiha had done for her but...it was time she found her own way. Sakura smiled up at the stars, they seemed brighter now, she hadn’t truly ever appreciated how beautiful they were before Gaara had pointed them out to her. She would have to take time to look at them more often.
Gaara. He wasn’t what she had been made to believe. Izuna was wrong, he wasn’t a monster, he was just...he was just a product of his environment. Sakura found him to be polite, shy and calming if she were honest. She liked the sound of his voice, so deep, so reassuring, it made her feel...safe.