to love what is mortal
Team 7 takes the long way home after the war.
“Change of plans!” Sakura cries out. “We’re going to get lost on the road of life, sensei!”
...To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
to let it go.
In Blackwater Woods
Obito’s skin is deathly pale, with a grayish cast that only comes from extreme chakra exhaustion. He looks like a dingy old dishrag, wrung out and set out to dry. Dying, Sakura has come to learn, is nothing like the movies, with heroic warriors passing peacefully in a field of their slain enemies. It is ugly and dirty and all too real.
“Is it all over?” Obito asks, voice faint and whispery.
Sakura bends down and instinctively presses a glowing green hand on Obito’s chest. His body hungrily sucks in her chakra, but it’s no use; it slips out again as quickly as it goes in, his chakra coils riddled with hundred of microscopic holes from overuse. She pulls her hand away, green glow slowly flickering and then dying away.
“Yes, it’s done now. The war is over,” Kakashi-sensei says, voice husky. A trembling finger traces the line of Obito’s brow and Sakura looks away, suddenly feeling as if she’s intruded on something private.
“Are they alive?”
A pale fingertip following the strong line of Obito’s nose. “All of us, all my students.”
“Good,” Obito sighs and it seems as if all his remaining strength flows out of him in that one breath. “Then I can give you this one last thing, at least. I can send you all home.”
Kakashi-sensei’s shoulders stiffen, back curved over Obito’s head, cradling his teammate in his lap. “Obito--”
“Sakura,” Obito commands, and even on his deathbed, his voice makes the hair on the back of her neck rise.
“Sir,” Sakura salutes, inclining her head respectfully.
“Bring the boys over here.”
Kakashi-sensei says nothing but his fingers continue their slow, delicate exploration of Obito’s face. Sakura notices that he hasn’t put his Sharingan away, tomoe spinning lazily.
It’s the work of a moment to bring Sasuke and Naruto over to Obito’s side. Sakura carries their stretchers herself and settles them down, mere inches away from Obito’s ravaged chest. For a brief second, they look like a line of corpses, so still and pale, ready to be blessed and honored for a proper burial.
Sakura swallows the faintest hint of bile in her throat and forces her attention back to Obito and her sensei.
“Good, good,” Obito smiles and looks up at Kakashi. “You’re going to have to let go of me,” he says, gentle.
“What if I refuse your gift?” Kakashi’s voice is ragged and he bends down even more, until his masked nose almost grazes Obito’s jaw. “What if I want to just stay here with you?”
“I died a long time ago,” Obito says and his eyes are soft. “Let go of me and go on with the living.”
Kakashi-sensei’s silent for a long while, so still and quiet that he looks like a marble carving, chiseled out of stone to reveal weary shoulders and a bent back. He looks old and tired and ready to give up.
Then, in one smooth motion, he drags his mask down and Sakura’s too shocked to register more than skin skin skin before Kakashi-sensei presses his mouth against Obito’s. It’s over in less than a heartbeat’s span and sensei’s properly covered up again before Sakura can draw in a sharp breath of surprise.
“Sakura-chan, will you get our packs ready?”
Kakashi-sensei’s hoarse voice snaps her to attention and Sakura nods woodenly, flagging down a passing Konoha chuunin with orders to bring General Hatake and Uzumaki Naruto’s personal belongings, as well as enough travel supplies to service four people. Another genin, drawn by the unusual gathering, has orders to bring Sakura’s trauma bag over to medics for a full restock. Recognizing her hair and the seal on her forehead, they fairly fly across the devastated battlefield.
“You’re going to have to be standing, I’m afraid,” Obito says softly and he struggles for a brief moment, trying to sit up. Kakashi-sensei braces his shoulders and lifts him up, letting Obito rest against his own chest.
“What about the boys?” Sakura asks, staring determinedly at a spot over Kakashi-sensei’s shoulder and trying not to flush at the gentle way her sensei is holding him.
“We’ll have to carry them,” Kakashi-sensei answers and calls over a shinobi with a terse jerk of his head. Instantly, a jounin from Iwa appears at Obito’s side, kneeling respectfully.
“You may have the honor of holding him,” Kakashi-sensei tells her, voice low and intense. The jounin bows, pressing her right fist against her heart.
Slowly, carefully, Kakashi-sensei shifts away from Obito, and the jounin takes his place, inch by precarious inch, until she’s the one holding Obito in her lap, the top of his head almost grazing her chin. By then, the ninja have returned with her supplies and Sakura is busy going through the packs, re-organizing everything to her satisfaction. She hands Kakashi-sensei his bag as well as Sasuke’s and takes Naruto’s.
“Pick them up now,” Obito murmurs, face even grayer than before.
“Naruto and Sasuke?”
Obito nods a fraction of an inch, eyes fluttering closed. Sakura bites her lip and carefully does not look at Kakashi-sensei, instead bending down and slowly lifting Naruto in her arms. His skin is hot and flushed, signs of a fever well on its course. In the corner of her eye, she can see Kakashi-sensei take up Sasuke, dark head lolling from the movement.
“We’re ready,” Kakashi-sensei says.
Obito’s eye snaps open and the familiar pinwheel is revealed. He smiles up at them all, the years falling away from his face in one brief, radiant moment. “Goodbye, Kakashi.”
And the world dissolves away, leaving nothing but a blood-red eye, spinning and spinning in the air, until that too fades away.
For once, Kakashi-sensei is well enough to be walking, cradling Sasuke against his chest, bending down every so often to check up on his breathing, like Sakura instructed him to. Naruto is practically a furnace on her back, radiating enough heat that Sakura starts to sweat, even in the cold, wintery night.
The heavens above are strange and unfamiliar, with none of the ordinary constellations to guide their way home. But Kakashi-sensei takes it all in stride, his walk steady, his face unreadable. She asks him, at the beginning, if he knows where they were, in this cold and desolate wasteland.
“We’re on our way home,” he says, head tilted as he looks at her blankly.
“Wasn’t he supposed to send us there?” Sakura growls, knee-deep in snow.
“I guess we’re just taking the long way,” he says in that reasonable voice of his and continues to trudge through drifts of snow. Sakura has no choice but to follow in his footsteps.
They pick their way through the snow through the long night, guided by strange starlight, clutching tight to their boys.
Sasuke wakes up first.
Only the slightest change in his breath, the faintest flicker of chakra, and he slides into the waking world with a grace that makes Sakura feel ugly and embarrassed of her thick knuckles and blood-stained vest and her wide, pale forehead. In all these years, she forgot how small and clumsy Sasuke makes her feel, inadequate and fierce with longing.
He coughs, wet and slick with blood, and Sakura cracks her neck, calling up chakra to her hands in an instant.
Crimson flares in his dark eyes for a brief second, before fading away.
Sakura holds her hands up in the air, letting the firelight illuminate the wispy green aura clinging to her fingers. “I just want to check up on you,” she says quietly.
He stares at her hands, pale face unreadable.
“You had several broken ribs and one of them punctured your left lung,” Sakura says, voice slow and measured. “I healed as much as I could on the field but there’s still some residual damage.”
Sasuke’s eyes flutter closed and he jerks his head away from her, revealing the stark line of his throat. Sakura can see the distended curve of his jugular, the bony ridge of his Adam’s apple. It’s enough. She moves with deliberation, taking care to make noise with every step.
“I’m going to need to press my hands against your chest, right near your collarbone. You’ll feel a faint tingling sensation while I run a diagnostic on you.” She shifts the blanket aside, stripping him to the waist. He lies unnaturally still, an immobile statue with hawk-like eyes, carefully watching her every move.
It’s easy to let the familiar motions carry her through. The man beneath her is just another patient, just another hurt to be carefully evaluated and fixed. Her chakra seeps into his skin and radiates everywhere, following the rush of his chakra. She lets it guide her through his body, following it deep into his lungs and the newly healed tissue, hungry and still multiplying. It’s good work. All her work is.
“I need to listen to your lung sounds,” she says, a little sharper than she means it to be.
Sakura can feel the fluid in his lungs crackle and burn, catalogues the slight flinch when he breathes out. “Residual blood and interstitial fluid,” Sakura murmurs and burns it out with just a flick of her finger. She re-inflates alveoli with a nudge and carefully rebuilds the walls of his bronchi, shoring them up with dainty flecks of chakra.
His ribs are soft, still developing and Sakura encourages them with a gentle touch, feeling them harden and even out under her fingers. She leaves alone the old scars on his chest. It’s over in just a few minutes and Sakura draws her hands away, skin instantly protesting the loss of heat. She quietens it by shoving her gloves back on.
He never stops watching her.
“I’ve fixed up as much as I can in your lungs for now,” she says, not quite looking at him. “The rest, your body’s just going to have to do on its own.” She rocks back onto her heels, brushing the dirt off her knees.
It’s the silence that hurts, more than anything.
Sakura draws herself back up and walks over to her side of the fire, where Naruto is still sleeping, firelight casting strange shadows over his golden face, shifting and changing with every blink. She presses a gentle hand against his forehead, feeling the warmth even through the thick leather of her glove, so different and so similar to Sasuke.
She draws her hand away and settles back into her bedding, prodding the fire with a long stick. “You’re going to have to sit up.”
Sakura can almost feel the way Sasuke’s gaze hardens, two black coals burning, searing deep into her skin.
“It’ll be better for your breathing,” she says and does not offer to help.
Kakashi-sensei comes back with two rabbits slung over his shoulder, blood dripping from his fingers and staining his mask. They’re properly bled out and gutted, thick white winter coats still visible under dirty brown patches of dried blood.
By then, Naruto is awake and squirming under Sakura’s touch, bright blue eyes flicking between the Sasuke-shaped lump on the far side of the fire and the open mouth of the cave, half-enclosed by drifts of snow as tall as he is.
“Good morning,” Kakashi-sensei says, tilting his head in acknowledgement.
“Sensei!” Naruto beams excitedly and Sakura’s hand tightens in warning on his shoulder. Naruto subsides almost immediately, to Kakashi-sensei’s bemusement.
“Sakura-chan said she’d wallop me all the way to the Land of Noodles if I woke Sasuke up,” Naruto explains, rubbing the back of his head.
“Don’t even think about getting up,” Sakura warns as she moves closer to the fire, pulling her gloves on and hauling the melted pot of snow onto the fire. Kakashi-sensei grins at her underneath his mask and starts skinning the rabbits with a sharp knife from his boot.
“Aw come on, you know I’m almost all healed up,” Naruto says, scratching furiously at the wad of bandages circling his head. They’re dingy and more than a little blood-stained, but Sakura can’t afford to change them out yet. They’re only a couple of rolls away from ripping clothing and they need every layer they can get in this weather.
“People who had their hearts torn out and demons extracted do not get to walk around and exert themselves!”
“But I hate just sitting around and doing nothin’!”
Sakura throws a kunai at Naruto, who catches it easily with two fingers. “Start skinning,” she says, a touch dangerously.
Kakashi-sensei tosses the second rabbit over to Naruto and the two of them devolve into a subtle competition that Sakura ignores, busy poking at the pot and trying to make it boil faster. The water remains serenely calm in the face of her impatience.
A pelt drops at her feet and Sakura contains her flinch, instead raising a single eyebrow in the face of her implacable sensei.
“I win,” he says.
“You had a head start!” Naruto shouts furiously and turns his attention back to his own rabbit, a streak of blood marring his cheek.
Kakashi-sensei gives him a one-shoulder shrug. “So?”
Sakura accepts the plate of rabbit chunks and dumps them into the pot along with a packet of ramen soup base she found in Naruto’s pack. She also adds a handful of wild rice grains, to add a little more substance. The meat sinks to the bottom and she pokes at it with a long stick, stirring it all up together.
“How is he?” It’s soft, quiet enough that even Sakura can barely hear him.
“He’s not dead,” Sakura says dryly, careful not to move her lips too much. She pokes harder at the ramen rabbit stew.
“I gathered as much.” Kakashi sinks to his haunches, spreading his knobby fingers in front of the fire to warm them up. “Is he talking?”
Sakura stares at the tiny little cookpot, dented and worn thin with years of use. She used it once to hold a man’s liver, packed in conjured ice and carried over a battlefield with kunai raining down over her head. It was a successful transplant, but the man died all the same.
Kakashi-sensei makes a thoughtful noise and shucks off his boots. They’re black and well cared for, patched up and wrinkled with age. One of shoes fall over and Sakura catches a brief glimpse of a embossed spiral flame on the sole, worn smooth, before Kakashi-sensei tugs it back upright.
“It won’t be easy,” Kakashi-sensei says and peels his socks off to dry in the heat.
Sakura risks a quick glance at Naruto, but he’s still focused on his task. “Are you…?” She stops, unsure how to phrase her words. Are you okay? I’m sorry about the loss of-- of-- of whoever Obito had been to you. It sounds awkward enough in her head; she can only imagine the embarrassment of speaking it aloud.
The shadows of his mask shift, enough to tell Sakura that Kakashi-sensei is giving her a small smile underneath it. “I’ll be fine,” he says.
“If you need--”
Sakura’s cut off by Naruto’s triumphant shout. He waddles over to the fire, clutching a plate full of dead rabbit and dumps it into the pot, delighting in the burbling splashes they make as they sink to the bottom. He’s bundled up to his nose in blankets and what little skin she can see is bruised and battered, with great dark smudges under his eyes.
“Gotta ask old man Ichiraku when we get back if he’ll try making miso and rabbit ramen,” Naruto smiles and Sakura looks away, blinking rapidly. Her leather gloves creak a little when she tightens her fists, fingernails digging into her palm.
Kakashi-sensei pats the ground next to him. “Sit before you make Sakura angry, Naruto.”
“Aw sh*t, I forgot about that.” Naruto squeezes between the tight space between Sakura and Kakashi-sensei, knees banging and blankets flying everywhere. “Sakura-chan, it was only a little walk and I didn’t mean to go against you, honest! And I don’t even hurt much anymore!”
“Idiot,” she says, voice a little rough, and cuffs him round the head. But she leans into his warmth and the three of them sit together, pressed tight, Sakura’s head pillowed on Naruto’s shoulder, Naruto leaning on Kakashi-sensei and Kakashi’s arm slung around their shoulders, holding them close.
Naruto breaks the silence first. “How long has he been sleeping?”
Sakura closes her eyes, listening the faint heartbeats of her team echo through her body. “Not a peep since we got here,” she says, sleepily. It’s not quite a lie.
“He’ll wake up soon enough,” Kakashi-sensei says.
A pause and then: “Do you think he’s afraid?”
“Afraid of what?” Sakura yawns and reaches out to stir the stew, fatigue making her arm slow and clumsy.
“Afraid that this was the wrong choice to make.”
The stick stills in Sakura’s hand.
“What makes you say that?” Kakashi-sensei’s asks, voice almost too bland.
“It must be scary, to come back and not know how much has changed,” Naruto says quietly, looking down at his fingers. “The villagers probably don’t like him much, after what happened.”
His voice is too low, small and worn thin and everything Naruto is not and it makes Sakura want to rise up with chakra flaring in her fists and kill everyone who ever made Naruto so sad and his eyes so old. Instead she presses closer and breathes in the smell of his sweat and blood and his cheap dollar store shampoo. It just makes her eyes sting more.
“Every choice comes with its price.” Kakashi-sensei’s hair droops forward, still damp with half-melted snow, and he brushes it back with a careless hand.
“Do you think we made the right one?” Sakura asks, rubbing furiously at her eyes. Her fingers come away wet and she hurriedly wipes them on her pants before Naruto can see.
“Of course we did,” Naruto says fiercely, blue eyes radiant. The years fall away from his face and he looks more like himself again. “There’s no doubt about it.”
Sakura carefully watches Sasuke from the corner of her eyes and wonders what price they will have to pay.
Naruto’s the one who finally coaxes Sasuke into eating a bowl of food, the two of them sitting close enough that it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins, black and blond hair falling together in the flickering firelight. Naruto whispers something into Sasuke’s ear, his idea of a quiet voice loud enough to send ripples through Sakura’s bowl of ‘tea’ (really just hot water and and some evergreen needles Kakashi-sensei had found while hunting, but she’ll take what she can get).
“Wait til you get a look at old lady’s mug up on the mountain. Ever since I saw it, I’ve been planning the best prank ever for it.”
Sasuke mutters something inaudible, lips hidden by a pale hand and Naruto laughs, bright and clean and it cuts straight into Sakura’s heart. She jerks her head away from them and down at her kit, sheets of leather unrolled at her feet, revealing rows of gleaming steel blades and needles as thin as a single strand of hair.
They were always close.
Sakura worries at her bottom lip and puts her tea down, stomach suddenly too tight and uneasy. Instead, she picks up a scalpel and an oiled rag and sets to cleaning her tools, hands steadying as she falls into the familiar routine.
More laughter and the sound of blankets rustling as bodies jostle against each other.
Sakura presses her lips together, concentrating on the keen edges of the blades, sharp enough to cut with only the slightest of pressure, parting flesh so quickly that there is no pain at first touch. It’s been six months since she’s earned her medic kit at the end of her apprenticeship and it’s seen plenty of use already, handles worn smooth by the weight of her hands.
“Well, Sakura-chan told me this crazy story that Obito-not-actually-Madara sent us all here with his mangekyou thingy in his eye, which is just like Kakashi-sensei’s, ‘cept apparently he was almost dead when he did it, so that’s why we’re probably up north somewhere instead of back in Konoha.”
There’s a brief pause and Sasuke murmurs something indistinct.
“--oh yeah, Kakashi-sensei left out a whole buncha stuff about his past. Did you know that Uchiha Obito was his teammate? And when he almost died during the last war, he gave Kakashi-sensei his Sharingan and everything when he died, which is why sensei has it. Then he came back to life I guess and pretended to be Madara, but that’s where the stuff gets really weird.”
Sasuke doesn’t respond, not vocally, and Sakura is left to fill in the spaces of the quiet with her own thoughts. Number ten, for cutting straight through. Number eleven, to pierce and stab. Number fifteen, for precision. Tsunade-shishou has hundreds of scalpels in her personal library, kit upon kit upon kit stacked in boxes sitting in the dark, most of them too rusty and dull to cut human flesh. Sakura practiced with them during her apprenticeship, balancing the handles on her fingertips, pressing them against her anatomy notes and pretending to dissect the hidden secrets of the heart.
From beneath her lashes, Sakura can make out the two huddled figures by the fire, positioned so that the only thing she can see is the outline of their shoulders, broad and distinct even under a pile of blankets and mismatched bits of clothing.
For a brief moment, she is twelve and long-haired again, watching her teammates run far, far ahead of her, leaving her only with the shadow of their backs.
Sakura moves automatically, scalpel flying through the air and hitting the stone wall with a clatter.
Kakashi-sensei raises an eyebrow.
Sakura’s cheeks flush. “Sorry, I was. Distracted.”
“It is my fault, a little bit.” When he raises a hand to touch his cheek, his fingertips come away bright red. There’s a clean line of blood against the black of his mask. “I should know by now not to startle people when they’re holding sharp objects.”
Sakura winces and moves to get up but Kakashi-sensei just flaps a hand at her, easily picking up the scalpel and handing it off to her, handle first. The body is only a little scuffed, but the blade is blunted, the very tip of it chipped off. Sakura’s mouth twists. Wasteful.
“Hey, is everything ok?”
Sakura puts it down, carefully, before looking up at Naruto and rolling her eyes. “Yeah, Kakashi-sensei was just being stupid again.”
“I’m going senile in my old age,” Kakashi-sensei says cheerfully, curling up on his bedroll with a battered copy of Icha Icha Tactics, a wad of dirty cloth pressed against the cut on his cheek. Sakura gives him a disgusted look but he ignores her, flipping the book open and sticking his nose in it.
“Tell me something new,” Naruto hmphs and turns back to the fire, ladling another bowlful of stew. Another conversation strikes up, marked by the low murmurs of Naruto’s voice and the occasional sound of Sasuke’s grunts. Sakura ignores it all and prepares to face the winter.
She rolls up the leather cases, broken blade and all, and stows it away it in her trauma bag, cushioned by rolls of pressure bandages and vials of blood pills wrapped in tape and gauze. Socks, then another pair, then her standard issue boots, given to every shinobi to outfit them for war. Leather gloves with armored backings. A mask filched from Kakashi sensei, a scarf over all of that and as many layers of clothes as she can fit on underneath her baggy chuunin blues and flak vest.
“You know there’s no one around for miles. No reason to be so jumpy.”
Sakura is busy lacing up the front of her boots, tucking her uniform pants in. “No reason not to be on alert,” she corrects him.
The sound of a page turning. “Have a little faith, Sakura-chan.”
“We’re down two people and I have to conserve my strength to both fight and heal those idiots over there.” The laces are long enough to wrap around her ankle twice over and she double knots them, pulling tight enough that they’ll leave marks on her skin in the morning.
“I’m starting to think Naruto was talking about the wrong person.”
Sakura looks up sharply from her boots but Kakashi-sensei’s still hidden behind his book, lying boneless in his nest of blankets.
“I’m not afraid.”
“Sure, sure,” he says affably, and turns another page. “The wind is getting worse, coming in from the northeast so the lee’s probably half-filled with snow by now. Have a fun watch.”
Sakura tries not to stomp out of the cave.
A week drags on before the boys grow strong enough to last a full day’s travel, the dark hollows of their cheeks slowly filling out.
Sakura pulls her hands away from Sasuke’s chest, faint rays of green light still clinging stubbornly to his skin like bits of sticky candy. She snaps them off with an irritated flick of her wrist and dunks her hands in a vat of steaming hot water, boiled with special herbs, to cleanse them of any lingering sickness.
“Well?” Naruto demands.
“As can be expected,” Sakura says, intent on scrubbing her hands. Her skin turns a bright, angry red before she’s satisfied, drying it off with cloths marked with seals to preserve health and ward against contamination.
“And that means?” Sasuke’s voice is quiet, but no less forceful.
“It means what it means,” she says and dumps the leftover water into the fire, killing it instantly. “None of you are back at a hundred percent yet. We still have weeks of supplementary healing to go.”
“It means we’ll be leaving after breakfast,” Kakashi drawls, already helping himself to a second bowl of gruel.
Naruto gets up with a shout and makes motions to hug her but Sakura wards him off with a grumpy look. He settles for beaming at her instead. “I always knew you were gonna be the best.”
“Oh hush,” Sakura mutters, feeling heat rise in her cheeks. “And get moving, we’re losing daylight.”
They break camp in less than an hour and if Naruto looks a little less steady on his feet than normal, Sakura doesn’t say anything but makes a note to push for an early midday rest. Sasuke, clad in spare chuunin blues and an oilcloth cloak, lurks at his side like a dark shadow, pale face unreadable. They both have full packs slung over their shoulders. Naruto wouldn’t accept anything else.
“We’re about a day from the coast,” Kakashi-sensei announces from the mouth of the cave, just as Sakura finishes packing up her medical supplies. “We’ll stay for the night at an inn and catch a boat from there to Fang Country.”
“You knew where we were all along?” Naruto howls and would have done much worse if he hadn’t overbalanced and almost tripped over his feet.
“Oh, uh,” Kakashi-sensei says, scratching the back of his head. “Did I forget to tell you all?”
Sasuke grabs the back of Naruto’s collar when he makes an attempt to throttle Kakashi with his bare hands. “We’re in Frost, idiot.”
“You knew too?” Naruto looks like a kicked puppy, blue eyes wide and filling up with alligator tears.
“Yes.” Sasuke’s mouth curls up in a familiar smirk and he tugs harder against Naruto’s shirt.
“Why didn’t you tell me?!”
“You never asked.”
Sakura narrows her eyes. “How did you know?”
The conversation abruptly falls silent and Sasuke lets go of Naruto’s collar.
He avoids her look, instead staring intently at the streak of blue sky revealed by the opening of the cave, a cold and metallic sort of color that Sakura saw only once before, when she visited Lightning Country in the depths of winter. It is a color that is more felt than seen, striking like the keen edge of a blade.
“I’ve been here before,” Sasuke says, very stiffly, and his face closes off, returning to its usual pale smoothness.
Sakura hefts her bag over a shoulder and walks out of the cave, taking care not to brush Sasuke’s shoulder. Kakashi-sensei’s single gray eye watches her, impassive, as she passes by.
“So tell me more about the Land of Frost!” Naruto says behind her, voice cracking.
They would have passed by quietly, the group of rogue ninja slipping through the forest in ignorance of the four little cardinals perched upon a tree branch up high, if it hadn’t been for that one little mistake.
Sakura feels the subtle flicker of chakra next to her, and when she turns her head a fraction of an inch, she catches sight of Sasuke’s face, bone white and shiny with sweat. The faint afterimage of a sharp beak and quick dark eyes lingers at the edges of her periphery, the illusion clinging tight to the four of them.
Kakashi-sensei jerks his head, Sharingan spinning lazily with the effort of maintaining the genjutsu. No chakra use allowed, he signs with his hands, fingers almost too swift to make out.
On her other side, Naruto twitches a little, craning his neck around her and giving Sasuke a worried look. He okay?, he signs awkwardly, with none of Kakashi-sensei’s casual grace.
Sakura peels her glove off her right hand with her teeth and presses it against Sasuke’s forehead. He turns his head away from her slightly, dark strands of hair clinging to his sweaty skin. He’s only slighter warmer than usual, but her palm grows slick.
Look at me, she signs with her free hand and gently tugs his chin towards her. He resists a little and she puts a little more pressure on it.
Sasuke’s wide dark eyes look up at her, almost too big for his pale face, with faint purple shadows smudged underneath. A single red tear drips unsteadily from the corner of one eye and down his cheek, stark against the white flesh.
His eyes blossom into bloody pinwheels.
“Oh you idiot,” Sakura swears through gritted teeth, not caring that she’s gripping his face hard enough to leave bruises. “Let it go, you’re not strong enough to use it--”
Sasuke shudders and his eyes fluttered closed. “You have no right,” he says through numb lips.
“I have every right as the medic on this team,” Sakura snaps back, ignoring Naruto’s cautionary hand on her shoulder. “Release the Sharingan before I make you.”
Sasuke raises his arm and his hand flashes a brilliant white for a brief second, leaving behind a trace of ozone. It’s enough. Sakura automatically unholsters her kunai and sets the keen edge of it against Sasuke’s eyes, close enough to brush his lashes.
“Just try me,” Sakura says coldly.
“Well, there goes our cover,” Kakashi-sensei says placidly and closes his left eye, peering down below the branch as three chakra signatures flare bright in alarm. “If you hadn’t pulled that elemental trick, they wouldn’t have caught the chakra spike.”
Sasuke snarls. “If she hadn’t interfered, none of this would have happened.”
“We’ll discuss this later,” Kakashi-sensei says, voice hardening. “Sakura, take the boys and go on ahead. I’ll catch up.”
The chakra signatures below are strong and unruly. Sakura pegs at least two of them as chuunin-level ninja, the third just short of jounin in terms of raw power; they feel untrained and wild. “Sensei, are you sure?”
He looks down at the group of missing-nin prowling beneath the tree, growing ever closer.
“Quite sure,” he says, mild. “We have only a little bit before-- ah, here they come.” One of the ninja tilts his head towards the sky, dark eyes flashing. The sun glitters off the hard metal band of his forehead protector, but even from this distance, Sakura can make out the single musical note etched into steel.
“Sound,” Naruto growls.
“Go.” Kakashi looks at all three of them, his single gray eye unreadable. “I’ll catch up.”
Sakura bows her head. “Understood, sensei. Naruto, get on my back.”
“Sakura-chan, we can’t just leave him here by himself!”
“We must,” she says, looking down at the ninja, her heart growing cold. “We have to. You and Sasuke will only be liabilities in a fight and I have to protect the two of you. It’s the only way.”
“I’m really not that feeble,” Kakashi-sensei says and he reaches over, his hand patting Sasuke’s head, then Sakura’s, and finally Naruto’s. Even through her hood and the thick leather glove, his touch is warm.
“If you don’t come, I’ll kick your ass all the way to the frog mountain.” Naruto gives him a fierce grin.
“I’m shaking in my boots,” Kakashi-sensei says dryly. “Now, hurry, before they catch your scent.”
Naruto clambers awkwardly onto her back, muttering apologies about his weight under his breath.
Sakura rolls her eyes and beckons impatiently towards Sasuke. “In my arms.”
He looks at her, his dark eyes furious. Twin bloody tear tracks cut through his cheekbones, still fresh and wet. “I can go on my own two legs.”
“Too bad,” Sakura says, and she grabs the scruff of his cloak. It’s the surprise that helps more than anything and she has him in an awkward half carry within a moment, his head side by side with Naruto’s, the rest of his long body cradled in her arms.
Quietly, hardly moving her lips, Sakura whispers into his ear. “If it were my choice, I would leave you here.”
He doesn’t move at all, but Sakura knows he heard it.
“Go,” Kakashi-sensei says again, his voice urgent, and Sakura leaps off the branch and into the clear blue sky. Behind her, she can feel Kakashi-sensei’s coiled signature dive off the branch and below at the group of ninja, chakra burning bright in his clenched fist.
She’s barely two tree branches away when she hears a ragged scream that tears the deep silence of the forest into shreds.
Naruto’s breath hitches in her ear.
Sakura runs. She runs until the wind whistling around her turns into silence, until the chakra flowing in her legs turns thick and heavy and burns like fire, until the weight of her boys on her back feels like the world upon her shoulders, bowing her back. She runs and runs and runs. She runs until she can no longer feel herself anymore, until the edges of her soul fade away and all she can taste is ash and dust.
She runs until she is no longer running.
“Sakura-chan,” Naruto croaks into her ear, his arms clamped tight around her neck. “Are you okay?”
She comes back to herself in slow pieces and finds herself kneeling in the snow, Sasuke cradled in her arms, Naruto hanging off her back.
“I can’t feel anyone,” Naruto coughs. “Not the ninjas and not even Kakashi-sensei. I think it’s safe now.”
Sakura blinks, then blinks again, slowly relearning all the different parts of her body, so strange in stillness after what seemed like an eternity in motion. She unsticks her tongue from the roof of her mouth and works her mouth open.
“Safe?” she rasps.
“Safe,” Naruto confirms.
Sakura sighs and her arms suddenly collapse, Sasuke’s body sliding down onto the ground before he jerks himself away, his body stiff and uncertain.
Naruto’s arms slowly unlock themselves around her neck and he too slides away.
Sakura feels almost too light now without their weight, as if she will now float away into the sky without her anchors. She shivers and wraps her arms around herself.
“Here,” Naruto says, holding out a small canteen. His hands are shaking. “Drink.”
Sakura takes it with clumsy fingers, sloshing water all over her front. It doesn’t matter-- the water is the sweetest thing she’s ever tasted, bone achingly cold and wet and everything she’s ever wanted in her life. She drinks it all in one go and takes the other canteen Naruto offers her, finishing it off as well.
“How many soldier pills?”
Sakura shakes her head, setting the canteen down. She takes the ration bar he offers her, tearing into it. “Don’t know,” she says. “Three or four.”
“I don’t think you should be taking any more.”
Sakura swallows the last of the bar and tears open a soldier pill from a wrapper. “I’m fine,” she says sharply.
“But if you take too much, you can get the sickness--”
“I know what I’m doing.” Sakura bites down onto the pill, feeling smoke and phantom fire wash through her coils. It’s enough. It has to be enough.
“We need a shelter and fire and a place to wait for sensei,” Naruto announces and he stands up shakily, brushing snow from his cloak. “There’s no forest, but there should be some kind of rock thing we can camp out under for a little bit since we’re so close to the mountains.
Sasuke stirs from his place on the ground and Sakura catches the twin trails of dried blood on his face, like strange warrior markings. The sight of it sends a fresh stab of anger deep in her heart.
“It’s called a cave, dumbass,” Sasuke says hoarsely, contempt edging his voice. “Not a rock thing.”
“Cave rock whatever.” Naruto scratches the back of his head. “We should get moving though.”
“He’s not a dumbass,” Sakura says quietly.
Sasuke starts and looks at her with his black eyes. “What?”
“I said he’s not a dumbass,” she says louder, forcefully. “He’s not, so stop calling him that.”
“Oi, Sakura-chan, you know he doesn’t mean anything--”
“Doesn’t he?” Sakura says dangerously, narrowing her green eyes, heat running through her veins and blood pounding in her head, driving her ever onward, ever forward. “How do we know that he doesn’t mean it? He’s tried to kill you and sensei more times than I’d like to count, how do I know that he won’t try again? That the Sound ninjas Kakashi-sensei’s fighting aren’t his own men, searching for him? Maybe you planned this whole thing, set up the trap.”
Naruto’s face whitens. “Sakura, you can’t say things like that.”
“Can’t I? Isn’t it suspicious, how he’s the one who blew our cover and that we just happened to run into Orochimaru’s ninja?”
“It’s not true, right Sasuke?” Naruto asks, his fists clenched tight, almost desperate. “Tell her it’s not!”
Sasuke says nothing, his eyes twin embers burning in his white face.
“I was right,” Sakura says softly. “You never wanted to come back with us after all.” It’s a confirmation of the suspicions she’s been harboring since the end of the battle, since even before that, when he suddenly turned up, dark eyed and scowling and Konoha’s newest ally, with several undead Hokages in tow. She wonders, a little, why it hurts so much, when she already knew.
“There’s no point in denying anything,” Sasuke retorts, rocking back on his heels as he struggles to rise from his crouch. “You won’t believe anything I say.”
“The bastard fought for Konoha, he helped us defeat Madara and the Ten Tails. He fought with us, Sakura-chan. He wouldn’t betray us like this.” Naruto stands in between them, his arms spread out, teetering awkwardly as he strains to be in two places at once.
“So you believe me?” Sasuke spits. “I thought you were in love with Sakura, why not take her side.”
“Because you’re my friend,” Naruto says simply. Sasuke reels back as if punched, his face whitening even more.
Sakura aches to see the pain etched in every line of Naruto’s face, his face pale underneath his tan. There are no more whisker marks on his cheeks, only hollows that no amount of healing can fill, and a regenerated heart that beats unsteadily beneath tattered flesh and bone carefully sewn back together. Naruto’s blue eyes are clearer than the sky above them, bright and filled with hope.
Sakura can’t bear looking at him any longer and turns her face away. “You can’t trust him. Not again. Not like this.”
“I made a promise to you, don’t you remember? I promised to bring him back, to make Team Seven whole again.”
“I released you from that promise,” Sakura says and she slowly gathers herself, standing up with care, clenching her trembling fingers tight. “You’re the one holding yourself to it, not me.”
Behind her, a wolf starts to howl.
“Truce,” Sasuke says unexpectedly, getting up slowly. “We need to find shelter, we can’t stay out in the open the entire night. A truce, until dawn.”
“And how do I know you’ll keep your word?” Sakura demands.
“Or my brother’s eyes as forfeit,” Sasuke says and he gives her a thin lipped smile. “If I attack your or Naruto during the night, you may take my brother’s eyes, like you threatened to before.”
Sakura unholsters the same kunai as before and twirls it in her hand, thinking it over. “Truce,” she says finally.
Naruto heaves a very deep sigh. “Couldn’t you guys have figured out all this before I got really cold?”
“No,” Sakura and Sasuke say at the same time. Sakura flinches a little, hearing his voice echo in time with hers, and resolutely does not meet his or Naruto’s gaze. She picks up her pack on the ground where Naruto had thrown it down and slings it over her shoulders.
“Alright,” Naruto says, sounding absurdly pleased. “Let’s get going then, I’m really craving some ramen.”
The night passes in quiet, as Sakura sits against the mouth of the cave, keeping watch against the relentless darkness.
It’s started to snow again, small little flurries that will be enough to hide their tracks in the snow from the Sound ninja, and perhaps even from Kakashi-sensei.
Sakura pokes idly at the small fire and adds another dry twig of firewood Naruto managed to scavenge.
“You can leave, you know,” Sakura says, conversationally. “I won’t stop you.”
Sasuke emerges from the shadows, his cloak fastened at his collar and his pack hanging from his side. “You’re letting me go.”
Sakura says nothing.
“You don’t want me here,” Sasuke corrects himself, firelight glinting off his black hair.
The wood snaps in her hands. Sakura feeds the shattered wood into the fire, hair falling over her eyes. “Do you want the honest truth? I’m angry at you because Naruto loves you so much it’s killing him. Every time you leave, every time you push him away, you hurt him and you hurt me. I don’t know if you’re the one who set the ninja on us-- at this point, I don’t even care anymore. Just go.”
She thinks of dappled sunlight falling across scarred brown cheeks, warmth pressed against her side, of certainty embodied in the stubborn line of his jaw. She thinks of the raging inhuman fire contained by fragile skin and bones and enough determination to keep the tattered threads of the world together.
Sakura turns away from the fire, away from Sasuke, and towards the pile of blankets just outside the glow of firelight.
Naruto snuffles a little in his sleep, arm casually draped over his face. Sakura reaches out, the tip of her finger just barely brushing his cheek. A spark of green chakra flickers to life as she delicately traces the lines of his old jinchuuriki whiskers on unmarked flesh.
His face gently smoothes out as he falls into a deeper, healing sleep.
Sakura looks up.
Sasuke's pale face is heartbreakingly young, his lips parted open in faint surprise. For a moment, he looks like a boy of twelve again, shock tearing away at the stiff arrogance he wears like a second skin.
“Idiot,” she says, fierce, his question cutting at the tender and vulnerable spots of her heart, the keen edge of it coming away slick with her blood. “He’s loved you from the very beginning.”
Sasuke turns his face away, his lips pressed into a thin line. “I--”
Life unfurls at the very edges of her senses, like a tiny sunburst of light slowly coming into existence. A chakra signature almost as familiar as her own, tasting of static and the air after rainstorms. “Kakashi-sensei,” Sakura breathes and she scrambles to her feet in a heartbeat.
Naruto sneezes loudly before his head pops up groggily from his mess of blankets.
“Izzat him?” he mutters, eyes narrowed in concentration. “His chakra always makes my nose feel itchy.”
“Stay there,” Sakura says automatically, pulling up a blade in both hands. “Let me go check it out first.”
When Kakashi-sensei ends up strolling through the entrance, with only wisps of snow lost amidst the gray shock of hair to mark his passage through the snowstorm, Sakura doesn’t know whether to hug or stab him.
“Hello, everyone,” he says, saluting all three of them cheerily. There’s a single jagged scar running along the line of his cheekbone, above his mask, sticky and almost entirely scabbed over.
“Sensei,” Naruto starts before he scrubs his bright eyes with the back of his hand. “Sensei, you’re-- you’re--”
“You’re late,” Sasuke finishes, black eyes glittering.
Kakashi-sensei rubs the back of his head sheepishly. “Sorry, I got a little lost on the way here. I wish you had left better trail marks, Sakura.”
Sakura gives him a shaky smile, relief flooding her with warmth. “I’ll take that into consideration the next time we flee an ambush of ninja.”
“Oh, that reminds me,” Kakashi-sensei says, and he digs something out from the pocket of his flak vest.
“Courtesy of the surprise party.” He draws out a hank of dirty red hair, damp from the snow and stiff with old blood. “Look familiar to anyone?”
He throws it down onto the ground, strands scattering at Sasuke’s feet.
Sasuke’s face is frozen still, the elegant lines of his face sculpted out of marble and stone. Sakura’s heart stutters to a stop, caught in the taut space between the red curls of hair and his fathomless eyes.
“Is she dead?”
“Not quite, though I assure you, I put my best effort in. She begged for a chance to meet you, one last time.” Kakashi-sensei’s pleasant smile fades away into something harder and distant.
Naruto draws in a ragged breath, almost too loud and personal in the tense silence winding tight between the four of them. “It’s Karin, isn’t it?” He’s loved you from the very beginning. Hot tears prick the corners of her eyes and Sakura turns her face away, unable to look at the shattered remnants of Naruto’s face.
“She said she’ll wait for you by the forking river, nearby Orochimaru’s base.”
Sasuke closes his eyes.
“Will you come back?” Naruto asks, and the uncertainty in his voice shakes Sakura to the core.
Sasuke bows his head and gathers the folds of the cloak around him.
Sakura watches him leave, blades hanging loosely from her fingertips, his slender back growing smaller and smaller until it disappears; try as she might, the only thing she can see is the snow falling from the sky, unceasing, covering the faint trail of footprints until that too fades away into oblivion.
The beach doesn’t look much like the ones she’s seen in magazines, of the resorts dotting the southern coast of the Land of Fire, filled with deeply tanned people dressed in skimpy clothing, drinking brightly colored drinks topped off with fruit sticks and paper umbrellas.
It’s bitterly cold and gray and yet the sea is still the most beautiful thing Sakura’s seen in her life, waves crashing upon the pebbled sand, the white foam swirling around her ankles and chilling her to the bone.
Her cloak’s whipping wildly in the wind and Sakura digs out her old blue Konoha headband from the bottom of her back, using it to tie her hair back like in her genin days.
“Huh,” Naruto says quietly, reaching out with a brown finger to tug at one end of the knot. “I didn’t know you had it with you.”
“When I was packing my things for the war, I brought it along.” Sakura looks over at the endless churning expanse of water, stretching until what seems like the edge of the world. “As a reminder, I guess, of what we’re fighting for.”
“Half an hour before the boat leaves,” Kakashi-sensei calls out faintly from behind them, his gray hair standing up even more from the relentless wind. One of his summoned dogs is sitting by his side, sunglasses perched on the end of its snout. A pair of bright orange goggles hangs from its mouth, straps wet with drool.
Sakura waves at the the two of them. Kakashi holds up a hand, lone eye curved cheerfully.
“Do you think everyone’s back yet?”
“From the front lines?” Sakura turns back, adjusting her headband. “Only the Kages and the injured, I think. I remember Tsunade-shishou and Shizune going over exit plans and how to best send the troops back home. But we've been gone for weeks now, who knows how many have come back home by now. She might actually kill us for taking so long. Kakashi-sensei sent Pakkun along with a message when we first realized Obito didn’t exactly send us back to the right place and Pakkun came right back with a bloody nose.”
“That’s the old lady alright,” Naruto grins and it’s too flashy, too broad, too much like an exaggerated version of himself.
Sakura’s hand reaches out in the air for a moment before she draws it back, fingers clenched into a tight fist.
“Do you remember what Kakashi-sensei said, Sakura-chan?”
She tilts her head. “Kakashi-sensei said a lot things,” she says, dry.
“He said, ‘Every choice comes with its price.’” Naruto looks up at her, his blue eyes clear and piercing. “I’ve made my choice. And it’s okay if it hurts because it’s worth it, it’s worth waiting for him.”
He holds out a hand, worn and brown from the sun. “We’re Team Seven, remember? We’re in it together. Wait with me.”
She’s seen his hands burn bright with demon chakra, grow jagged claws sharp enough to disembowel; she’s seen his hands curled into furious fists, flickering through hand seals; she’s healed his hands, her chakra washing through him in delicate harmony.
She thinks of Sasuke’s pale, scarred hands, intertwined with his.
“Aren’t you scared? Of him hurting you-- us again?” she whispers, her voice catching in her throat.
Naruto smiles at her, and it’s a real smile this time, soft around the edges and filled with a brightness that makes Sakura’s heart ache. “You can always heal us, right?”
“That’s not how it works,” she laughs, tears glittering in the corner of her eyes, and takes his hand.
Naruto pulls her into a tight hug, his chin resting on the top of her head. “I’m really scared,” he breathes. “Really, really, really scared he won’t come back. But I want to try this anyway, because I can’t give this up. I won’t give it up. That’s my ninja way.”
“I remember,” Sakura says, thinking of snow falling from the sky and on Sasuke’s still body, lying at Naruto’s feet, of yellow and black hair woven together by firelight that night in the cave. Her boys, lying side by side on the battlefield, like two corpses waiting to be blessed and honored for a proper burial.
Sakura draws away from him, breaking the hug, but she clasps his hand tight.
“Sensei!” she calls, waving furiously at the lone figure standing by the shore, dog sitting by his side.
“KAKASHI-SENSEI!” Naruto bellows helpfully.
Kakashi turns around, somehow projecting bemusement under ten layers of clothes and a facemask.
“Change of plans!” Sakura cries out. “We’re going to get lost on the road of life, sensei!”
He cannot remember a time when he hasn’t felt cold; it seeps deep into his bones and his blood, curling razor sharp fingers around his beating heart. His cloak is heavy with frost and old blood and he draws it closer around himself, chasing a phantom warmth he remembers only distantly.
Ahead, he can see smoke rise up in the air in faint spirals.
Fire, he thinks, and his heart beats a little quicker.
He has been walking for a long time, and he walks on still for a little longer, anticipation blooming inside of his chest as the smoke grows clearer, stronger. He can smell the ash in the air, charred wood, and heat bringing along with it wisps of warm memories.
The forest parts and slowly gives away to a small clearing, lit up by the glow of a small, bright fire and two small figures, crouched over a small bubbling pot and a man lounging casually on a bedroll with a sleeping dog.
He uncoils his chakra carefully, letting it shine from within himself again, cracks of light filtering through his carefully guarded walls and burning away the cold.
“I’m back,” Sasuke says.