Chapter 31:

Peeling Layers


The rooster's crowing
In the middle of the night
Deceived the hearers;
But at Osaka's gateway
The guards are never fooled.

-Lady Sei Shonagon






It was the one word she would use to describe the young man she was currently cooped up with in the stuffy gym (if you could even call it that). In moments like these, she could see how and why he’d be one of the most feared officers in a place like Byaku-Shinkyou. She could also see more of a resemblance to his older brother; both men seemed to scowl the same way when concentrating. Sasuke’s brows were furrowed as if in deep thought, even while performing the simple task of wrapping wads of athletic tape around his hands and wrists. She sat on the floor and watched him perch on the bench; shamelessly admiring the way the gray tank top – now drenched with sweat – molded to his well-toned chest and shoulders. Although his healing time wasn’t as fast as Naruto’s, it was still good to see that must of the bruises and wounds he had sustained, the first time she saw him, were now nothing more than faded scars. She could take pride in knowing it was thanks to her treatments (for the most part) that he was relatively back to his former self.


Her gaze drifted lower to the black sweatpants, which hid the scar on his thigh but did little to mask the strength within them. For the past hour or so, she had watched those powerful legs kick at the punching bag, hardly betraying that they were still not quite at a hundred percent. Though she knew he was in pain – at least in the latter stages of the exercise – he wouldn’t give up; simply gritting his teeth and kicking even harder until she was sure the bag would collapse in resignation.


She had done her best to keep up with him, going as far as obliging his request to be a sparring partner. He was careful not to hit her too hard, and he had taken her punches and kicks with hardly a wince (though it had been a pain to even get a single hit in because the guy was so light on his feet and could dodge effortlessly). Still, she felt she wasn’t exactly what he needed when it came to that particular part of his training. He would need a stronger partner; maybe Shikamaru or Haku or hell even Naruto despite his ‘disappearance’ again with that Sergei character. His sudden reliance on her was wonderful, but she had to admit that the past week – or at least since the night of her outburst/confession to Sasuke – things have been a little strange around here.


(strange? Or just not ‘normal’?)


She absently wiped her face with the towel (God, this gym was so damn hot!), and leaned against the wall to watch him begin lifting the weights. How he had the energy to do that after all that kick boxing and sparring was beyond her comprehension, but then again, the men she now lived with could not be considered ordinary, could they? They were each so strong in their own way, and keeping up with them - to show she was not just going to be an extra baggage to their goals - was what kept her going day after day.


Are we really friends, Sasuke? Or are you just using me? And if you are using me...why? For what purpose? For whose benefit?


She bit her lower lip and eyed her legs with an inner sigh. She had worn her shortest of gym shorts and her tank top was to show off her boobs (well what little she had). Still, she might have worn a sack cloth for all the attention Sasuke paid to her physical appearance. Sure he complimented her on some of the outfits she wore whenever they went out, but it had felt obligatory – like something that had to be said. In fact, she was damn sure if she hadn’t opened her big fat mouth that night, he wouldn’t have bothered paying that much extra attention to her. She knew he was only doing this because of the guilt trip she had put him through. Maybe he resented her for it but was doing his best to hide it beneath the layer of politeness and camaraderie he displayed when together.


In public, when she dared to wrap her arms around his, he wouldn’t push them off. When she planted kisses on his cheek, he didn’t wipe them off. And when she had finally dared to kiss him full on the lips yesterday after going to the movies (her date night idea), he hadn’t shuddered in repulsion. It had been a great kiss all things considered; warm, sweet, and enough to get her panties wet with desire. And yet, beneath the foggy cloud of passion, she would come to realize that he had simply tolerated it; not giving her the implication that he was enjoying or detesting the kiss. In her humble opinion, that was the worst kind of reaction to such an intimate act. It showed that he didn’t really care, but that he would simply play along to keep her happy. She was sure if she proposed that they have sex – right here, right now in the gym – he’d probably say “sure” just to shut her up.


(you insensitive bastard)


However, could she really blame him? She had brought this upon herself, hadn’t she? She had wanted him so much; rational thinking had flown out the window that night. She should have just let sleeping dogs lie and suffer her unrequited feelings in silence, but noooo, hurt, annoyed, crazy Karin had decided to show up. For goodness sakes, if even Haku could deal with such one-sided emotions, then why couldn’t she?


(but think...think a little harder Karin. Where is Haku? Where’s the one you’ve dubbed little brother? Since that night he’s hardly been around you, has he? You’ve been so busy living in the delusion that Sasuke wants you, you’ve forgotten all about him, haven’t you? And haven’t you noticed that ‘their’ relationship has cooled off as well? Don’t you think you have something to do with that?)


But what? She thought with a light frown. What did I say?


She wracked the memory banks to recall what exactly she must have said that night to contribute to whatever must have tapered off their close relationship. All she could remember was telling Sasuke about Haku’s feelings for Naruto, and how much Haku must have been suffering knowing his feelings would not be reciprocated. Was that the problem then? Was Sasuke angry at the knowledge that Haku was interested in another male? Was Sasuke homophobic after all? But...if he was, then how would he have managed to live in a place like Byaku-Shinkyou, where she had heard stories about Orochimaru not allowing females to work or live there? Sasuke had grown up in such a male-oriented environment where the idea of homosexuality shouldn’t be a surprise to him, so why was he so averse to such relationships? Haku had also revealed that he had always been attracted to males anyway, so Sasuke must have known all this time about his servant’s sexual preference, so why should it be such a big deal all of a sudden? Why would her declaration be the cause of the rift between them?


I’m just over thinking things, she thought with a slight shake of her head. I did nothing wrong. However, what better way to know why things are the way they are without hearing it from the horse’s mouth?


Except said horse could be a goddamn impenetrable fortress when it came to seeking answers.


“Sasuke?” she called out. When he didn’t answer (he was still lifting the weights, his exertion evident with the light grunts he gave with each lift of the heavy equipment), she called out a bit louder. “Sasuke?”


His response was a quick glance in her direction, and when he noticed that she intended to talk, he stopped long enough to return the equipment back into its position before sitting up with a light grunt and arch of his back. Reaching for a towel to mop off the sweat from his hair and face, he finally gave her his undivided attention.


“Something wrong?” he asked with a raised brow.


“No...not really,” she replied with a smile. “Just wanted to commend you on working so hard today.”


He had reached for a bottle of water, but stilled his movements to give her a look that was a mixture of exasperation and bemusement. She had stopped his exercise for this? Funny how she could almost read him well these days.


“” he replied with a light shrug and guzzled down almost half of the contents of the bottle. She licked her lips hungrily at the sight of his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down with every swallow; wishing she would be given the permission to kiss it or lick fact taste every sweat-drenched inch of that body. Ah, so not fair to have such wayward thoughts that would never come to fruition.


“Actually, I was wondering if you had seen Haku today,” she said. “I haven’t seen him much lately.”


He shrugged again and wiped his face – as if to buy a little more time before giving an answer. “He’s been going out a lot more,” he finally admitted. “Maybe he’s found another interest besides us.”


“You two didn’t have a fight, did you?”


“Why would we fight?” came the incredulous question though he wasn’t fast enough to hide the stiffening of his shoulders or the brief dark expression that had filled his visage.


“Or maybe...” Karin mused as this hit her. “Maybe he’s mad I’ve been spending more time with you and not him.”


“I doubt that very much,” Sasuke replied dryly. “Haku isn’t one to...” He stopped; seemed to mull over what he was about to say before shaking his head lightly and muttering a barely audible “never mind” beneath his breath.


“So he doesn’t tell you where he’s going?”


“Why should I care where he’s going?” Sasuke clipped back with slight impatience. “What he chooses to do is his business, Karin.” He made as if to lie on the bench again, but her words froze him.


“You didn’t tell him anything I said that night did you?”


He gave no response, but her sharp gaze had seen the quick flinch as he looked away. Bingo! He did probably confront Haku about his feelings for Naruto and now look what’s happened. She sighed and crossed her arms before her chest.


“All right, handsome. Just what did you say to him?”


“Forgive me if I’m no longer in the mood to continue this line of conversation,” came the clipped response that did not faze her. “You can leave if you’re tired -”


“Don’t patronize me,” she snapped impatiently. “You might no longer treat him like a friend or servant or whatever it is you guys do, but he’s my friend and I love him like a brother, all right? I could never forgive myself if it turns out my big mouth caused the rift between you -”


“There is no rift,” Sasuke interrupted calmly, though it was easy to tell he was really not too pleased with this. “We both came to a conclusion that we were no longer going to be master and servant. Haku is free to do as he pleases and under no obligation to be at my beck and call. That is all there is to it.”


Karin’s eyes narrowed. “Just like that? And he’s okay with it?”


“Apparently. You don’t see him around here, do you?”


“You sound pissed off about it -”


“I am not pissed off!”


“Ah, but you just raised your voice.”


“That’s because you insist on creating conflict where there isn’t!” He took a deep breath and sat up to pin a dark look on her. “Haku is old enough to take care of himself, Karin. I’m sure he appreciates all you’ve done for him so far, but he’s a big boy. He can handle whatever comes his way.”


“You know...if I haven’t lived with you guys for quite some time now, I’d almost believe that shit you just spilled to me.”


“I beg your pardon?”


She gave a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. “Look at you, Sasuke. Of course it’s bothering you, but you’re being too thickheaded to want to accept it. If that bench was a twig, it would have snapped in two with how hard you’re clutching it. You’re so defensive; it’s like a neon sign announcing that you’re just as worried about him as I am. I know Haku’s not a child, but at the same time, you’re all he’s known for so many years. Suddenly throwing him out there -”


“...I did not throw him out -”


“...would be kind of a shock to him, wouldn’t it? Knowing you, I’ll bet you didn’t have a good long talk about easing the transition into his ‘freedom’, did you?”


“A long talk?” Sasuke snorted in derision. “What could we possibly talk about? You seem to have mistaken our relationship for the kind where we spend hours sharing our innermost darkest secrets like you women.” He ignored the angry look on her visage and continued firmly, almost as if trying to convince himself of what he was saying. “Haku knows that our relationship was never really based on that but purely that of a master over his servant. Even slaves – when granted their freedoms – do not usually feel the need to remain in the presence of the ones who imprisoned them. They spread the wings that have longed remained unfurled or clipped in an attempt to fly. Haku is simply making use of them for the first time in his life. Who am I to prevent him from doing so?”


“Even hatchlings need guidance to find their skies,” Karin whispered as she raised her knees to her chest. She couldn’t look at him now for she had felt it; the heavy sadness laced in every bitter word uttered from his lips. For all his bravado, he was clearly hurt about something and she felt powerless at her inability to break through that wall between them. That despite his ‘friendliness’ and ‘charm’ over the past week, she really had no idea who Uchiha Sasuke was at all. It would take more than mere flirtations and throwing oneself at him to thaw his heart, and as she lowered her head to her knees and heard him leaving the room (with a loud slam of the door behind him), she knew – without a doubt -that their little game of emotional chess was finally over.






“I screwed up,” she whined as she folded the pillow case slowly.


“How so?” Temari shook out the tangled pair of socks and did her best to figure out which went with what.


Around them the laundromart bustled with its usual activity; the now familiar churn, whine and groans of the washing machines and dryers mingling with the lively talk from the other customers eager to get their weekend laundry complete. Though Karin would have liked to have done the washing on a weekday (Saturdays were always so busy), she had been too engrossed with her ‘fling’ with Sasuke. And besides, there had been no Haku to keep her company anyway.


“I tried to become his psychotherapist and he shut me out,” Karin explained with a roll of her eyes. “I should have just kept my mouth shut and enjoyed the false ride while it lasted.”


“The false ride? I thought you two were getting along so well.”


“I wish!” Karin snorted and reached for the kimono to smoothen out. “I mean the outings and dates were great. He was the perfect gentlemen at all times, you know? Sure there were some things he didn’t get or wouldn’t do, but otherwise, he was game for everything. I thought for sure he’d push me away or tell me to stop touching him and all that, even almost got to first base on movie night.” She sighed dreamily and pressed the kimono to her chest. “He is such a great kisser, TemTem. God, it’s like damn!”


Temari chuckled. “And yet you broke If everything sounds great, why would he walk away from it?”


“Because he was only going through the motions,” Karin pouted and lowered the dress to begin folding it. “It later hit me that night, while taking a bath, that he might have been all lovey dovey, but there was feeling behind it, you know? I mean, the kisses were passionate, but it was just...not all there.”


“He was distracted?”


“Something like that. Urgh. I was so damn busy being too happy about being with him, and I really didn’t notice it until it was too late.”


“So you think he was just dating you for the heck of it? To make you happy?”


Karin nodded glumly. “I think it might have been due to something I said to him the other night about how much of a jerk he was.” She proceeded to tell Temari of the conversation that night and Sasuke’s reaction to it. She also voiced her concerns over his relationship with Haku.


“Sucks to see them act like this. It was so cute when Haku was all over him though. Sasuke-sama this and Sasuke-sama that. I mean, you couldn’t say anything bad about his precious master. He’d literally cut you with his eyes.”


The girls giggled at the imagery this conjured up. Haku, for all his sweetness, could reveal a much deadlier side to him when provoked.


“I see what you mean,” Temari agreed. “But don’t you think that same relationship woe applies to Naruto as well?”


“How do you mean?”


“Remember the other day when Naruto came back and you asked Sasuke to come greet him and he refused? What was that all about?”


Karin shook her head. “Meh, those two seem to argue every other fucking day, so that was no real surprise to me. I’ll bet they argued over something dumb again. Makes you want to knock their heads together and make them wake up, doesn’t it?”


“I thought they were getting along just fine until Sergei came into the picture.”


“He’s hot, isn’t he?”






The women looked at each other for a long minute before bursting into loud laughter that had some of the other customers glancing at them with raised brows.


“You are so bad, Karin!” Temari snickered. “That muscle-bound freak is your type? And he’s old, isn’t he?”


“Old? Please! He must be in his early thirties at least. That’s not old,” Karin argued though she was still trying to stifle her giggles. “Sure his accent is a little weird, and he’s all “I’m going to make a man out of you and you and you” and he can be a jerk with the way he talks to us, but you’ve gotta admit that face isn’t bad to look at.”


“I don’t know. I’ve never really found myself that attracted to foreigners,” Temari confessed. “Besides, I’ve got my man, so everyone else looks like crap compared to him.”


Karin laughed and nudged Temari gently. “You are so in love with that guy, it’s sickening, but I’m so excited about the wedding!”


The talk promptly went into plans for it, and what dress she planned to wear and so on and so forth. However, it wasn’t until when Karin shuffled toward the dryer to remove the last batch of clothes did something finally catch her attention. She would have looked away – since there was nothing really strange about people peering into the laundromart through the grimy windows – but there was something about that pale face and low haircut which had her doing a double take.


(seen him before)


She looked again, but the man was gone. It still didn’t stop the sudden chill that went down her spine, and completely on instinct, she abandoned her basket of clothes and dashed toward the exit. She could barely hear Temari’s concerned call of her name as she pushed open the door – nearly running into new customers with their baskets of laundry – and dashed out to the street. In the hot afternoon, the entire block seemed to swim and waver before her frantic gaze, but she squinted and ran around the building toward the area she had last seen him.




“Did I imagine him there then?”


“ Sung?”


She spun around with her heart in her throat, but immediately felt a flood of relief at the sight of that familiar sweet face.


“Haku,” she cried out; arms expanding before engulfing him in a big hug. His low giggle was like music to her ears, and she was embarrassed to find tears filling her eyes as she pulled back to really look at him. He hadn’t changed, which was stupid to think he would considering they hadn’t been apart for that long, and yet it felt like she wasn’t seeing someone different. She couldn’t really explain it if asked, but there was an expression in his eyes (though they smiled now) that gave off vibes of being empty and sad. Surprisingly he was dressed in western clothing today; a rock band tee-shirt, a pair of black jeans, matching sneakers and his hair in its usual bun and loose ponytail. He scratched his nose with a sheepish expression on his visage; perhaps noticing her silent appraisal.


“I felt like it today,” he explained to her unspoken question. “Much more comfortable to walk around in this than my kimono -”


Where have you been?” she queried.


“To the zoo,” he replied, while holding up the bag filled with souvenirs he picked up. “I went with a friend of mine.”


“Friend? What friend?” She looked around him; unaware of how tight her grip was becoming on his shoulders.


“His name is Sai,” Haku winced and tried to duck from her touch. “We met at the park the other day, remember? The one I tried to show you -”


“Not your imaginary friend?”


“He’s not imaginary,” Haku pouted. “He was here too. The only reason we stopped was because I noticed you and Temari-chan through the window, so I wanted to say hello.” As if on cue, he waved to someone causing her to turn. Temari was waving at them from inside. Karin lifted her hand in salute.


“But where is he then?” Karin insisted with a raised brow. “Looks like this friend of yours doesn’t like me. This is the second time he’s pulled the disappearing act.”


“He’s just shy. He’s not used to making friends easily,” Haku reasoned with a light shrug. He pulled out what looked like a carved statue of a panda. “Hey, look at this. It’s supposed to bring you good luck. Isn’t it cute?”


Karin accepted the panda with a small smile. It fit into her palm nicely. However, there was something still bugging her. “Your friend,” she began carefully. “What does he look like?”


“Hmm?” Haku was still digging through his bag. “Oh, he’s about my height...short black hair...pale...”


“I see.”


He looked up then; his gaze sharp and somewhat wary. “What do you mean by that?”


“What do I mean?” she replied just as warily. “I mean for a guy who was so shy, he had no problems peering into the laundromart some time ago.”


“That’s because I was showing you to him, and he wanted to make sure of what he was seeing,” Haku replied tightly.


“Don’t you find it odd that your friend wouldn’t want to meet us? We don’t bite, do we?”


“I told you already, he’s shy.”


“Some excuse.”


Haku straightened up; his brown eyes now cold and distant. It broke Karin’s heart to see him act this way, but after hearing Sasuke’s concerns about a plant amongst them, it was difficult to reconcile Haku’s new ‘friend’ slipping into their lives so conveniently. She told herself it wasn’t just jealousy at someone else taking her place, but concern for all their lives.


“Invite him over for dinner,” she said calmly. “Even he can’t refuse that, can he?”


“I thought you wouldn’t want him to see us since you’re so damn suspicious of him.”


“Then tell him we’re all going to be having dinner at the restaurant down the street. I guess with you bringing him here, he already knows where we live.”


Haku’s jaw worked, but she could tell that this was something that was beginning to sink in. The brief flash of uncertainty in his eyes told the story.


“I didn’t exactly specify our apartment building,” he argued weakly. “And I haven’t really revealed much about us anyway -”


“But you just showed him who I am...who Temari is -”


“It doesn’t matter -”


“Did you tell him you lived with us?”


Haku’s glance shifted and Karin sucked in a deep breath. “I don’t believe it.”


“I didn’t say it like that,” Haku argued. “I just said I know those two women in the laundromart. I want to stop over and say “hi” that’s all. Honest.”


Karin narrowed her gaze, and in a voice she was careful to keep flat and firm, she spoke her intentions. “I know you’re eager to make friends, Haku, and I realize just how lonely it can be here when those you care about seem to have abandoned you...myself included, and I sincerely apologize for that. However, we must be extremely careful from now on as Itachi has given us a warning that Orochimaru has someone working for him here in town already. I am not, in any way, saying that this Sai could be the spy, but you’re going to have to be more discreet and vigilant around him. I want you to go back to your apartment and really think about this guy you’ve been seeing so far. Think about all the conversation you’ve had and how he behaves and acts around you. Try to put the pieces together and if you see anything out of place, do not hesitate to let me know, do you understand?”


Haku looked as if he had no intention of doing any such thing; his lips thinning and his features looking resolute.


“Haku!” Karin snapped impatiently.


“Fine,” he replied coldly. “I’ll do as you request. However, you should be more careful too. It’s because you used my real name like this in public that he was able to tell I wasn’t Chung-hee.”


At the rush of color to her cheeks, he lowered his gaze and withdrew from her touch. “I’ll be going now. Sorry for interrupting your activities.”


“Hak...Chung-hee...” Karin began, but was stopped as Haku – who had begun to walk away – looked over his shoulder with a penetrating stare.


“There’s one other thing that’s been bothering me,” he said quietly. “Since you and Sasuke-sama are quite close didn’t reveal anything about me to him, did you?”


She opened her mouth to deny it, but he must have seen something on her expression because he gave a small sad smile. “I figured as much. How else would he have put two and two together?”


“What are you talking -?”


“Have a good day,” Haku interrupted with a polite bow of his head.


She could only watch helplessly as he jogged across the street, narrowly escaping being run over by a disgruntled taxi driver. Her hands formed tight fists at her side; her initial reaction to scream at him for being such a goddamn jerk! Why the hell were all them so immature?! What had she done wrong besides try to make him see reason? Why was he so –?


(he’s here!)


She spun around as the hairs on the back of her neck prickled in awareness. She was being watched. She was sure of it. Tentatively, she made her way toward the direction she felt sure he was hiding, knowing she ought to let Temari know what was happening. She also had no weapon on her, but if it came to a fist-fight, she was sure she could hold her own with him – at least until she had to scream for help.


At the turn, she was confronted with a narrow alley behind the buildings on the main street, with its dumpsters, overflowing garbage cans or bags simply left to decay beneath the sun. Back here, one could see the effects of the machinery in the laundromart with the billowing cloud of smoke and louder roar of the engines from pipes stretching to the heavens. A stray cat sat on a slatted roof, licking its paws with no care in the world. Another dashed right between her legs; making her squeal in surprise (and fear) before she gave a light laugh to chide herself.


“Too jumpy,” she whispered. “I should just go back and...argh!”


“Don’t make a sound,” came the hoarse, wet whisper as a strong arm wrapped itself around her neck to squeeze until she felt her airway constrict with the pressure. Her eyes watered but she could at least make out from the ghastly veiny tattooed arm that this guy was definitely not who or what she had been expecting. He smelled like rotten fish and the gross out factor reached an all time high as he licked her cheek with a heavy trail of saliva left behind.




She heaved herself up with every bit of strength she had left and lifted her legs to push herself off the wall causing the man to give a grunt of surprise as she flung herself back with the weight of her body. Her neck was, mercifully, released and she felt the world spin a little even as she settled back to earth to get her bearings. She spun to confront her attacker and found herself tossed like a sack of potatoes against one of the dumpsters, which sent her glasses flying off. The collision was agonizing, but she was still alert enough to duck out of the way as he came charging towards her again. Desperately she struck out a leg, glad to hear his grunt of pain as she made contact with his torso. Unfortunately, the slimy bastard grabbed the extended appendage to sink his teeth into her shin eliciting a howl of pain. This creep was planning to eat her alive! He was tugging quite hard and just as she felt herself about to lose her footing, something dark and incredibly fast dashed out from nowhere to send her attacker flying into the opposite wall with a thunderous crash.


What the...?!


She staggered to her feet, gasping for breath as she watched the exchange before her. Her attacker was on the ground, but straddling him - with what looked like a knife clutched in his hand - was none other than Haku’s ‘shy’ friend. The hand with the knife descended with such authority, hearing the attacker’s grunt and then blood-filled gurgle into silence made Karin’s stomach churn with revulsion. And still it wasn’t enough for this ‘Sai’ for he punched the attacker again and again and again...


“Karin!” came the sudden cry that had both of them looking up quickly.


It was Temari, who promptly slapped her hands over her mouth as she took in the situation. She ran – stopped as she had almost stepped on Karin’s glasses, picked it up and made her way to her trembling friend. “Are you all right? I saw you running back here and didn’t know what was going on...?”


Karin shook her head and pointed instead to the young man who was now getting off the much bigger prone figure. Sai looked no older than Haku, but with the blood stains on his face, hands and clothes, he looked wild...insane even. On closer inspection, however, the weapon she had assumed was a knife was actually nothing more than a paintbrush that he was tucking away into a pouch around his waist.


“Are you all right?” he asked in a quiet voice dispelling the illusion of insanity. He looked at his hands in distaste before lifting his gaze again to give the stunned women an apologetic smile. “Sorry...I think I went a bit overboard with him.”


“ he dead?” Temari asked warily. All they could see of the man’s face was a bloody pulp. Clearly this Sai packed a punch, and it make Karin’s blood run cold. She knew she owed him his life, but there was still something not quite...


“I don’t think so,” Sai was saying. He reached out to kick the man’s side gently. “I should probably call the police to take him away. It’s a good thing I was on my way back and heard the commotion.”


“On your way back from where?” Karin asked. She hated the way her voice sounded out of breath and still shaky, but she still watched him carefully.


He gave a smile that felt slightly forced to her. “I was on my way to the bus stop, but I took the wrong turn. I was heading in the opposite direction when I heard your scream.”


As did several others apparently as a few back doors opened along the alley to reveal curious heads and gazes now trained on them.


“Can someone please call the police? My friend was attacked,” Sai called out in perfect Hangul; a reminder that he had been speaking to them in Japanese all this time and neither of them had blinked or bothered querying how he had figured they weren’t Korean in the first place. Probably Haku telling him, Karen deduced bitterly.


“You should get cleaned up,” Temari suggested. “They might suspect you as being the one responsible for -”


“It’s okay,” Sai reassured them as one of the onlookers began screeching something to them. Sai turned to the woman, bowed and said something to her which seemed to appease her for all but a minute because she was back to complaining about something else. “I think she wants us off her property, but you should see about your leg.”


Both Karin and Temari looked down to see what he meant. Sure enough, the bite marks on Karin’s left shin looked ugly and in need of medical attention. Her quick assessment showed that he hadn’t gotten in too deep, so nothing a good cleansing and application of basic first aid couldn’t handle when she got back to her apartment.


“Thank you,” she muttered as she allowed Temari to steady her while slipping on her glasses. “For helping me and all that.”


Sai bowed. “It was no problem. I just wish I was here earlier.”


“Well, you are a lifesaver all the same,” Temari insisted with a firm nod. “We really appreciate it. Come on, Karin,” she whispered softly. “Let’s get out of here.”


Karin nodded in agreement, but not before looking over her shoulder one last time. Her eyes met the watchful dark ones, and she shuddered as he gave that same weird smile that was neither genuine nor faked. At the slight nod of his head in acknowledgement, she reciprocated the gesture before turning away with a bite of her lip in thought.


“Don’t like him,” she muttered.


“What? What’s that?” Temari queried as they stepped onto the main street again.


“That guy...he...he creeps me out.”


“The guy who attacked you?”






Karin took a deep breath and gave her friend a wan smile. “It’s a long story, TemTem. I’ll tell you everything when I put my damn feet up and get some ice on it, okay?”


“All right...”


“Good. Now, let’s get the fuck out of here. I’ve had just about enough excitement for one day.”







He didn’t wait for the police to arrive.


There would be questions asked, forms to fill, and unnecessary protocol he was in no mood to deal with. Waiting until a good crowd of curious onlookers had surrounded the comatose body, he slipped into the shadows and away from the scene as quickly as he arrived.


As he walked briskly between the buildings, he peeled off his stained shirt and wiped his hands and face as best he could. He balled the useless clothing and tossed it into a garbage can before bursting out into the opposite side of the street. He spied the playground and public restrooms, where he slipped into before grabbing the attention of anyone wondering why there was a half-naked man in the vicinity.


Lucky for him it was empty, though it wasn’t exactly high on the hygienic scale. However, he was used to such grimy, graffiti-infested conditions and as he turned on the tap to begin washing himself, he ruminated over what he had accomplished so far today.


His outing with Haku had been the highpoint of his day; something he had looked forward to the moment he was given this assignment.


(just like the old days)


He rinsed his face and peered at his reflection in the grimy mirror; an act that no longer brought about the same emotions as it did in the earlier days. It had taken a while, but he had finally come to terms that he was no longer the one formerly known as Shin (or in Haku’s loving terms – Shin-chan). His name was Sai, one of the best – if not the best – undercover agents for Orochimaru’s secret watchdog organization. It was one thing to be torn away from all that you knew as a child, but another to become an indispensible member of an organization set out to do good for society.


Never forget who you are. You are the shadow of justice; created and trained to make this nation a better place to live one dangerous mission at a time.


Taken into custody at eleven years old, just because he shoplifted a few times to fend for himself, Sai could still recall the day Orochimaru had visited the local police station and the frenzy the great man’s presence had caused. No one had expected to see him there on that day, and Sai could still remember how the powerful but elusive leader had looked when the light shone on him in a particular way. Wide-eyed and mesmerized by that hypnotic serpent-like gaze, Orochimaru’s gentle touch and words of encouragement still resonated with Sai until this day.


“You have so much potential,” Orochimaru had said with one of the rare warm smiles ever thrown his way. “How would you like to become a change for good and all that is just, my dear?”


“Yes...yes, sir, I will.”


Anything to get out of the wretched life he lived. What good came out of living day to day like a street urchin, never knowing when you were going to end up dead? Lord Orochimaru had given him a new life, and within the walls of Byaku-Shinkyou, Sai had found a new home. The only problem was that he didn’t do well with others and found it difficult to make new friends. He kept to himself most of the time, only becoming animated when it was time to train at the dojo. He had considered it an honor to become Uchiha Sasuke’s sparring partner; secretly considering the stoic kid his rival even though Sasuke had not given a damn about such things. To Sasuke, Sai had been nothing more than another wannabe officer-in-training, not worthy of his time for his goals and sights were much loftier than Sai could ever hope to attain.


Sai did not resent it, for he knew where his place was, and besides, when things were not so busy around the headquarters, he was content to spend hours working on his art techniques. He knew he had an innate gift, for some of his sketches had fetched him a yen or two while hawking them on the streets back home. However, showing off his skills here would have brought him no looks of admiration. At least he had assumed it wouldn’t until the young boy with the long hair and girlish looks had approached him.




Sai knew that Haku was one of Orochimaru’s personal servants; those special select few chosen to serve the great master at all times. Sai sometimes envied that position for he would have loved to be by Orochimaru’s side whenever needed. However, it was a rarity to see his personal servants around the grounds, so one could imagine Sai’s shock to have Haku peering at his art and praising him for a job well done. To say the rest of his week had felt like floating on air would have been an understatement. Sai found himself looking forward to Haku’s impromptu visits; finding pleasure in listening to that sing-song voice, smelling the sweet perfumes that seemed to radiate off that perfect skin in waves, or simply staring and memorizing that beautiful face until Sai was able to draw it even in his sleep. Haku became the closest thing he had to a friend in Byaku-Shinkyou and for the next four years they maintained a relationship that meant a lot to him. It didn’t matter that Haku was three years his junior. All that mattered was that there was someone who saw past the exterior and could accept him for who he was.


His only regret was that he never got a chance to say goodbye.


“Hold on, man! I’ll be right back. Gotta take a leak,” came the sudden loud call from someone outside the restrooms. Sai pressed himself against the wall and waited until the shadow of the newcomer flickered past before he appeared whistling happily. The guy was a little on the stocky side, but Sai needed a shirt and this would have to do.


Moving swiftly, he wrapped his arm around the unsuspecting man’s neck and squeezed just hard enough to send him unconscious without so much as a pip escaping the victim’s lips. He slid the man to the floor and took off the leather jacket. After debating, for all of ten seconds, on whether or not to wear just the jacket or take the shirt beneath, he settled for leaving the man the jacket and wearing the tee shirt. It stunk of his sweat and cologne (something cheap), but it would have to do for now.


“Excuse me,” he apologized to the still comatose man. “You should be awake in about five minutes give or take. Thanks for the shirt.”


He stepped outside, fully expecting to have the man’s friend accost him, but noticing that he was too busy trying to chat up a girl, Sai blended with the crowd easily; his mind racing with what possible story he could feed Kimimaro tonight.


So far, he had managed to be vague with his responses to the impatient man, hoping he could at least savor a few more outings and visits with Haku before he gave his final report. All things considered, this mission had been relatively easy as following the trail left by Itachi and Shisui – with their band of misfits – wasn’t as difficult as once imagined. It really was amazing how much one could accomplish with just the right monetary exchange or violent negotiations. He arrived just as Itachi and Shisui were leaving for Japan again, and since then, he had bided his time; waiting for just the right opportunity to strike.


Meeting Jiraiya – of all people – had been a pleasant surprise; an icing on the cake if you will. His stint at the host club was just to provide him with extra cover and a means of gathering information. How would he have guessed that the former oyabun of a faction of the Bakufu Syndicate would come waltzing in with two of his surveillance subjects? His initial plan had been to remain silent while Sasuke and Naruto were attacked, but in an effort to gain their trust, Sai knew he’d have to blow his cover a little. He had really thought Sasuke would have recognized him, but was pleased (though somewhat irritated) when he didn’t.


(guess I really was a nobody to him back then)


A short bus ride brought him to his next destination, where he hopped off at the intersection and made his way down the quiet but well-tended corporate boulevard. It really was funny how this side of town gave the illusion of being the hub-nub of industry and commerce, but just two blocks over were derelict buildings in need of serious renovations. He shook his head and made his way into one of the offices, where he was greeted by the security with a familiar nod of recognition. Again, the power of money at play. He took the elevator to the highest floor, walked past several offices whose occupants were too busy to bother staring at the young man in the blood-stained pants (he had tried to wipe those off as best he could). Pushing open the door with the words ‘PERSONNEL ONLY’, Sai locked it behind him and set himself into position. It was a cluttered room filled with broken or unused office equipment but perfect for what he had been doing the past few days. He dug around one of the top shelves for the high-powered binoculars and positioned himself by the window.




There were still at it.


He adjusted the lens of the binoculars to see better. The Russian and the blond guy – Uzumaki Naruto. Sai already had a dossier about Sergei Mutko and could rattle off his stats if need be. However, his main interest was Naruto; one who – according to Kimimaro – was of interest as well to Orochimaru-sama. Why? Kimimaro had not told him, but Sai had gone digging on his own and what he had learned was quite intriguing. No wonder Orochimaru (and probably Ikegami) wanted him dead. Sai would happily do the deed – and would have had many opportunities to take Naruto out – but a part of him really did want to see what would happen should Naruto survive and confront those who sought his head. Sometimes it really as worth sitting back and watching the shit hit the fan.


Something clattered to the floor from his pouch, breaking his concentration. He leaned down to pick it up, only for his fingers to tighten around the carved dolphin as memories of his day with Haku came back to him. He lowered the binoculars – Sergei and Naruto forgotten – to caress the small figurine gently. He could still remember Haku’s beautiful smile as they came across the stall that sold the cheap souvenirs. Sai hadn’t wanted any, but how could he deny Haku’s plea for them to get the objects for his collection? Seeing that face break into a genuine smile had been worth the humiliation of paying so much for something so amateur. Aside from that, their zoo excursion had been a blast. Sai couldn’t remember the last time he had so much fun with someone he cared about, though a part of him had still been moping over the sob story about his love for Uzumaki Naruto.


(what do you see in that doofus?)


More than once he had been tempted to ask Haku that question, but in an effort to remain neutral in the matter, Sai had kept his peace and given advice as best he could. His secret hope was that things would not work out between them, for it seemed like Naruto was more content to spend his time with the Russian than deal with Haku and his feelings.


You could do so much better, he thought with a rueful smile, but not with someone like me. I will betray you eventually, Haku. What you have done to Orochimaru and Kimimaro-sama is unforgivable. They both took care of you when no one else would, and for you to turn your back on them like cannot be forgiven. Though Kimimaro-sama says you must be returned unharmed, I will have to teach you a lesson first before giving you to him. Betrayal is inexcusable. No matter how much it hurts me to have to do this to you.


 He smashed the figurine against the window sill until nothing remained but flakes of wood. He took a deep breath and cleared his mind and thoughts from all things Haku. For now, he had a job to do and in Sai’s world, there was simply nothing more important than loyalty and duty.


Goodness knew he had more than plenty of that to spare.







He sneezed and wondered if he was coming down with a cold. Hoping he didn’t, as it would mean having to visit Karin for medication, Haku sniffled and rearranged the figurines on the window sill. He had given Sai the dolphin, but with the bear, panda, whale, lion, gorilla, monkey and zebra in place, he had to admit that they looked quite colorful and added a certain flair to the apartment.


/ I know you’re eager to make friends, Haku, and I realize just how lonely it can be here when those you care about seem to have abandoned you...myself included, and I sincerely apologize for that. /


Like you really care, he thought bitterly. She had barely spared him a glance while in her fantasy world with Sasuke-sama, and now all of a sudden she was pretending to give a damn about him? He rolled his eyes and pushed himself away from the window. This was no time to be mulling over what that woman had spewed earlier. He had to begin making dinner with the hope that Sasuke would want to eat something when he returned. So far he seemed more content sharing his meals with Karin and hadn’t bothered touching much of what Haku prepared these days. It still didn’t stop him from making meals for two. If it wasn’t finished tonight, he could always have the leftovers tomorrow.


(or drop them off in Naruto-kun’s apartment. I think Shikamaru-san has a spare set of keys...)


/ However, we must be extremely careful from now on as Itachi has given us a warning that Orochimaru has someone working for him here in town already. I am not, in any way, saying that this Sai could be the spy, but you’re going to have to be more discreet and vigilant around him. /


His once rapid chopping of leeks, for the broth, became slower and more thoughtful.


/ I want you to go back to your apartment and really think about this guy you’ve been seeing so far. Think about all the conversation you’ve had and how he behaves and acts around you. Try to put the pieces together and if you see anything out of place, do not hesitate to let me know, do you understand?” /


Put together the pieces.


He grabbed the large white onion and began to peel it slowly.


Put together the pieces.


He didn’t want to. He didn’t want Karin’s words to affect him so much. He didn’t want to be mired in her false concerns, but if what she said about a plant being sent to scope them out was true...then had he been so blinded by his need for companionship he had deliberately avoided all the warning signs? How could he live with himself if Sai really did turn out to be the spy all this time? How could he explain to the others his rationale for being with him? How could he look Sasuke-sama in the eye and admit his failures? How could he....?


Wait! Wait! Wait! Why are you already indicting him without giving him a chance to explain himself?! Just because Karin’s planted the seed of doubt in you doesn’t mean that Sai’s actually the spy. It could be anyone. It could be -


“He knew my name but claimed he had overheard Karin saying it public, making it seem like he’s been watching me for quite a while.”


And why?


“Because he says he was too shy to approach me.”


He frowned and put the pot of water to boil.


“He looks so much like Shin-chan and yet claims he doesn’t know who Shin-chan is.”


He tossed the chopped leeks, onions, tomatoes and garlic into the bubbling liquid; absently reaching for the slab of beef he’d have to slice thinly.


“He draws...but like an amateur compared to Shin-chan and yet...”


The knife froze in mid-air.


Sai had been drawing with his left hand. Of course it was natural for the left to be considerably weaker than the right especially if you were a natural rightie. So Sai must have been smart enough to use his left giving the illusion he was a terrible artist. How the hell had all this escaped him then?!


(oh right, you were too busy moping to really pay attention at the time, remember?)


“Still,” he whispered feverishly; feeling his head begin to pound as everything he had so blindly ignored began to unravel like a spool of thread. “ doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t mean...”


/ “You really shouldn’t over think this, Haku. I mean if your master really hated you, he’d have kicked you out of the apartment by now, right? /


“...doesn’t mean...anything,” he finished in a croak as Sai’s words came back to haunt him. Sai had mentioned the apartment. Sai had known he lived in an apartment...but he didn’t recall ever telling Sai he lived in such a place. Why would Sai assume that? Haku had mentioned living with a woman during his diatribe, so why hadn’t Sai assumed they all lived together in a house?


(because he knows. He knows everything. He’s been watching you all this time, playing you for a fool, toying with your emotions, exploiting your weaknesses and drawing out information because you were such an idiot for trusting so easily and he knowsheknowsheknowshe....!)


“Haku? Are you...whoa! Easy now...”


He had spun around so fast with the knife in hand; ready to bury it deeply into someone when he met the bemused and cautious gaze of his (ex) master standing at the doorway. He had been so lost in his thoughts he hadn’t even heard Sasuke walk in!


“Sor...sorry, Sasuke-sama,” he panted breathlessly as he lowered the knife. “I thought...” He swallowed and tried to control his trembling. “I just thought you were someone else, that’s all.”


“I hope so,” Sasuke replied warily. “You aren’t going to make me start sleeping with my eyes open, are you?”


Haku blushed darkly and shook his head in embarrassment; only to look up shyly to notice there was a semblance of a smile on Sasuke’s face. For some reason, seeing that little gesture, coupled with the newfound knowledge that he might have been seeing a spy all this time and the added stress of the past few days altogether, bubbled to the surface in a flood which had him bursting into uncontrollable tears. Needless to say, this sudden outburst of emotion left his master stunned, and it nearly took a whole minute before Haku felt the strong arm around his shoulder in comfort.


That didn’t help in the slightest.


He wailed even louder, burying his face against Sasuke’s strong chest for he realized just how much he had missed and needed this contact with his former master. Haku’s misery was so palpable; Sasuke actually had to bite his lower lip to control the unexpected surge of empathy within him. He had never seen his former servant this distraught over anything.  


“It’s okay,” he tried to reassure Haku as he rubbed the younger man’s shoulders gently. “It’s going to be okay.”


“, it’s not,” Haku sniffled miserably. He looked up with reddened eyes and a face streaked with tears. “I think...I think I might have been seeing the spy Orochimaru sent to us, Sasuke-sama!”




Half-an-hour later, when the waterworks had stopped and both men had managed to get a few spoonfuls of dinner into their stomachs, they mused over what Haku had recounted over the meal. And though he was thrilled that Sasuke had accepted his dinner invitation, seeing those handsome features creased in a frown was enough to make him lose his appetite. He had – in the words of Naruto-kun – fucked up big time, and if turned out that Sai really was the plant then –


(I owe all of them an apology especially Karin-chan)


“You will have to see him again,” Sasuke finally said with a slight nod.


“But...why?” Haku gasped in shock. “If I see him -!”


“If you suddenly stop seeing him, he’ll figure out that you know the truth already. You have to keep giving him the illusion that you are unaware of what he might be and try to see if you can get him to slip up to confirm your theories.”


“Slip up...?”


“Try to bring up more conversation about Shin and Byaku-Shinkyou,” Sasuke stated firmly. “Subtle references here and there and make sure you watch his body language this time. If I know people like Sai, they are well trained in hiding their true emotions. It was how he managed to fool you all this time. Though I must admit that you not being too observant is quite unlike you, Haku.”


“Not my fault,” came the low mumble that had Sasuke straining to hear him.


“What was that?”


“I said it’s not really my fault,” Haku whispered. “I’ve been...I’ve not been feeling like myself all week and it’s because of...of...”


Sasuke watched the lowered head with a heavy pang in his chest; realizing now how true Karin’s words had been. He had honestly assumed his decision to sever their master-servant relationship would have worked out for the best. Yet watching Haku pine away or disappear to seek refuge in the arms of someone who might end up being a traitor, had been harder than he thought.


I should have eased his transition, he thought wearily. Not made it seem like I didn’t need him ever again.


“Haku...” he began as he took a deep breath and sought for a way to say this clearly. “Look...I don’t hate or despise you...or at least I couldn’t for very long. I was just...taken aback by what you said that night and just felt you needed your space and time to grow without me, do you understand? You mean way too much to me than what you think.”


Tear-filled brown eyes met and held his, and Sasuke could feel his cheeks burn at the pure gratitude within them. “I thought you hated me for telling you about my feelings for Naruto-kun,” Haku admitted. “That I wanted us to become rivals over -”


“And I told you there would be no argument from me about that,” Sasuke interrupted with a wave of his hand, though he found he couldn’t meet those eyes again as he said this. “He is yours and I will not interfere -”


“But why not?” Haku asked incredulously. “Do you not have any feelings at all for him? Are you really content watching me woo him even if he doesn’t reciprocate my feelings?”


“Haku, I -”


“If Naruto-kun was to take me in his arms right now and kiss me or decides he wants to consummate our relationship sexually...will you be okay with that?”


Sasuke parted his lips; ready to state that none of that would bother him in the slightest, and yet meeting the earnest gaze told him that whatever lie he could conjure up would not be believed. It was bad enough he still found himself imagining how Haku had gone down on Naruto, imagining if Naruto had enjoyed being with Haku more than with him, as well as wondering how and if Naruto would have been more faithful if he had gone that far with him in his apartment. Not that he even had an idea or clue on how to even begin initiating the concept of taking that thing within his mouth -


“I’ll have to be,” he finally admitted with a small smile, while clearing his throat and forcing himself out of the mental image that made him squirm with discomfort. “Because I broke things off with Naruto for you.”


Haku’s eyes widened at this news. “You...I don’t understand.”


“Naruto and I will no longer be doing anything intimate,” Sasuke explained as an inexplicable lump came to his throat. “We both came to a mutual agreement about it, and that’s all there is to it, Haku. So you are free to pursue him for as long as you want. You have my blessing.”


He had meant the last bit to come out as a light-hearted joke, but in the deafening silence that followed, it seemed like he had given a death knell instead. He sighed and rubbed his aching forehead.


“Look, can we not talk about Naruto now? We still have to deal with Sai and what this means to us. You said Karin knows about him already, yes?”


Haku nodded slowly. “Did she tell you anything about him?”


“I haven’t seen her since we left the gym in the morning,” Sasuke replied in a way that told Haku that there was something amiss with that relationship. Did they have an argument?


“Besides, I just got back home,” Sasuke admitted with a shrug. “I’ve been...around.”


Taking a very long walk in an attempt to find their goddamn training ground, but no luck. Anyway –


“When next do you see him?”


“We didn’t make any real plans,” Haku admitted. “But I did say I’d be at the park tomorrow. Maybe he’ll show up then.”


Sasuke nodded in satisfaction and reached for another slice of beef, which was dipped in the delicious broth. God, how he had missed Haku’s cooking. Karin wasn’t bad, but she paled in comparison to the tenderness and rich flavor always savored in his former servant’s meals.


“Remember your training, Haku,” he warned with a light frown. “You are just as good as Sai if not better at being able to mask your emotions. Do not give away that you are wary of him, for if he senses even the slightest hesitation, he will strike. Again, we are simply going on hunches here, so I need you to make sure he’s definitely who we are looking for. In the interim, I’ll let the others know as well as Jiraiya when he arrives. He should want to know about this guy since he’s the one who told Jiraiya about the fight.”


“You think he set it all up?”


“Doubt it,” Sasuke mused. “But I wouldn’t put it past him anyway. Damn it.” He stuck his chopsticks into his plate with barely constrained irritation.


“I’m sorry, Sasuke-sama,” Haku muttered with a bowed head. “This is all my faul -”


“Don’t apologize again...for anything,” he added with a knowing look in his eyes. “We have all slipped up due to ...the past events of the week, so it’s understandable. What matters now is how we handle things from now on.”




They both stiffened as they heard the sudden sound outside their door. It sounded like someone or something falling to the ground. Haku would have risen to find out what it was, when the undeniable sound of Naruto’s voice (barely audible) apologizing to Shikamaru (or whoever else was out there)...and then muffled laughter...had him half-sitting/kneeling with his heart pounding hard in his chest. Unbeknownst to him, his earlier gloom seemed to have dissipated in that moment; his eyes alight with a glow that had been missing for quite a while. He hadn’t seen Naruto in so long, and just the very thought of –


“Well?” came the quiet question from Sasuke that brought him rudely back to reality.


Haku looked back with his cheeks burning. He tried to read the expression on Sasuke’s face but could tell nothing from it. Besides, it still felt a little ‘strange’ to be this happy though his (ex) master had obviously stated he was no longer vying for Naruto’s attention.


 “I...uh...” he began in a weak stutter.


“You want to see him, don’t you?” Sasuke said with a small smile. “So go. I’ll clean up.”


“Oh, no!” came the immediate reaction. “Let me do it -”


“Haku,” Sasuke growled in warning. “I won’t fall to pieces from washing dishes. You might not get this opportunity again, so go. You have my permission.”


At the familiar command, Haku gave a tremulous smile of gratitude, bowed his head and finally left the room with seemingly an extra skip in his step. The door would barely close before Sasuke overhead the joyful cry of “Naruto-kun!” from his Haku’s lips, and envy – like molten lava – within his heart had him biting his lower lip to squash down the unwarranted emotion.


The freedom to be that honest...


He doubted there would ever come a day he’d say that name with so much joy and happiness, but for now he’d have to keep his improbable fantasies aside. Haku’s story about Sai was a lot more worrisome than he let on. He knew he should have suspected something the night they had been dropped off from the station and he had noticed Sai watching him carefully. If Haku’s investigation turned out to be the truth...then just how much trouble were they in? If Sai was already sending information to Orochimaru, who knew just how many more secret agents were lurking around the city waiting to strike when they least expected?


No longer safe here...


He eyed the tiny apartment he had called home for the past two months, studying every corner, crack, and décor thanks to Haku’s whimsical attempts to make it look cheerful before allowing his gaze to drift out to the twinkling lights of the city at dusk. It was bound to be inevitable when he made the call to Itachi and told Jiraiya about this latest development. There was simply no other option left on the table when all possibilities were considered.


Their stay in Buk-gu was rapidly coming to an end.




Chapter 32

Naruto Home













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