Chapter 16 – Reckoning

In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer. – Albert Camus

She didn’t recognize it the first time she saw it. Nor the second time.

It was on the third time she picked her way down the little side street — the shortcut home, the one she had walked down all her life, the one that was only recognizable now by it’s oddly-shaped pavers peeking out from under the piles of rubble — that she realized what she was looking at.

Beneath the head-high jumbles of stone and twisted metal, broken roof tiles and smashed dishes, spilled the branches of an old tree. It sprawled grotesquely through the debris, jutting out all over as if an enormous hand had tried to claw it’s way out.

Sakura pinched her lips together in a thin line and forced down the fresh heartache.

The scenes of destruction in her village were nothing new, she had been clearing it away for weeks now. This should be no different, she told herself. But she couldn’t bring herself to feel it.

This little spot had been hers. She’d even shared it with Katsuro. The little park where she would study. The forgettable square of grass with it’s lone shade tree, now all but buried by the buildings that once surrounded it. The brutal attack on Konoha had nearly erased the once-tidy lane.

She had always loved the narrow, winding path, the way the buildings were crowded a little too closely along it, casting the street in perpetual shade. It was cool and tranquil even on the hottest days. In the middle of the lane, in an empty hole where a building once stood, there was instead the little park. The sun streamed lazily down through the wide branches, the grass was soft and inviting. In her mind, it always glittered like a jewel as she rounded the dark bend in the road, beckoning to her whether she was coming or going.

She blinked. The image was gone. The street was gone. At her feet were the shattered remains of the homes and shops, crushed under enormous chunks of Konoha’s wall.

She followed the line of debris back to the wall, which loomed over the whole scene without obstruction. The breach there had been massive, flattening row upon row of buildings. Repairs to the fortification were begun immediately, but even in the shadow of early evening the the huge gap filled in with pale stones stood out like a scar against the older, darker ones.

Without thinking, she wrapped her hand around the inside of her elbow, covering the arc of puckered skin that would forever mark her too.

Since her return, Sakura had thrown herself into the reconstruction efforts, dividing her time between the hospital and debris-clearing assignments with her team. Those were what amounted to D-rank missions in the aftermath. But even with all their hard work, with everyone who was left pitching in, there were still little pockets like this one that had yet to be tackled.

Sakura drew her hand away from her arm to wipe the sweat from her forehead. The smell of burning debris hung in the warm, stilted air. An ever-present reminder of the destruction. The stench snaked it’s way into the buildings that were left, clung to clothes and hair. A long grey plume from a burn pile scarred the hazy sunset. Mild Konoha had turned into a battlefield, and the sky took on the colors of a wound.

The breeze shifted momentarily, and acrid smoke drifted her way, burning her eyes until it shifted again. Dead, brown leaves rattled against each other, still clinging to the fallen tree.

Sakura sometimes wondered if she was simply in a nightmare or an unending genjutsu. Her mouth tugged into a frown. She sunk her hands down onto her hips, swallowed against the sudden tightness at her throat and toed a few chunks of rubble half-heartedly with her foot. As if not touching the rocks with her hands would make it less painful.

A large block fell to the side, revealing a slip of yellow. Sakura froze. The color was so bright, so out-of-place in the dark hollow created by the larger rocks. Her mind immediately leapt to the worst possible scenario: an unaccounted-for villager.

Sakura carefully leaned the rocks back to further inspect it, but was instantly flooded with relief.

“Flowers,” she said with a small laugh.

As the kunoichi reached down and dislodged the largest chunk, her fingers brushed the soft green grass of the old plot. She remembered now, wildflowers had always grown in clumps along the edge of it.

Hastily clearing the rest of the debris away, she stepped back to survey the last remnant of the park. The petals wavered gently in her wake.

Hands back on her hips, lips pinched in a tighter frown, Sakura was not as comforted as she expected to be. In fact, she found herself growing irrationally angry.

The flowers just nodded their ridiculously bright heads in spite of the wreckage lapping all around them. As if they were laughing at the destruction. As if the entire world they lived in, that safe square of grass hadn’t just been obliterated, never to return. The tree that gave it’s shade freely was gone; the flowers would perish in the blaze of full sun.

She huffed out a breath. Part of her felt like ripping the damn things out, making the destruction complete. But another, smaller voice told her to let it go. If they’d made it this long, let them live. Just go home.

She relented to reason. It didn’t matter what she wanted to do to them anyway, she told herself. She was exhausted. This was just one more heartbreak. Something else that was gone, never to return.

Sakura decided she wouldn’t take the shortcut again. Without another glance, she turned away and wearily picked her way back over the debris towards the village. Unfortunately, taking the long way home gave her too much time to think.

After the abduction, she had tried to slip back into her old life, tried to restore herself as she cleared away the shattered pieces of her village. Told herself she was safe, she was protected, she was home. But every day was harder and harder.

The destruction of her favorite park was nothing compared to the shock of seeing the village her first day home.

She learned of the attack during her interrogation, but she discounted it at first.

“There are some changes in the village that you should be aware of,” one ANBU said. She nodded dutifully.

“Another man, former Akatsuki, and former Konoha shinobi before that, returned to seek revenge on the village. He was stopped, but there was significant damage done, many lives lost,” the man paused. “One of those was the Hokage.”

Sakura simply gaped. She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. It couldn’t be true.

“The man, named Orochimaru, escaped, but he sustained massive injuries,” another ANBU cut in. “Teams are out to hunt him down and determine the location of the woman appointed as the new Hokage. After your recovery, we expect you to help out as best as you can. We have suffered great casualties to our shinobis. As soon as your able, you will need to help rebuild.”

“Of course,” she nodded emphatically, eyes wide.

At the time she couldn’t fully comprehend what he meant. But she knew now.

While they had been off on their “mission,” the forced team-building and punishment all wrapped into one, Konoha had been attacked. Somewhere in time, her abduction and the destruction of her village overlapped.

And it turned out Sasuke and Sai had searched for her, for the better part of two days, before trekking home alone to get their sensei. Not that she learned any of that from her teammates. They had barely spoken since her return. Kakashi was the one to fill in all those details.

Their reticent sensei had taken to checking up on them almost daily, dropping by, casually chatting about the day’s assignment. She suspected that her team’s lack of camaraderie must be so blatant that even he couldn’t ignore it.

Sasuke and Sai never gave him more than a one-word response. Sakura spoke only out of courtesy.

In reality, she was desperate to talk to her sensei. She had questions that only he could answer. But she never seemed to catch him alone. She had begun to wonder if it was intentional.

If he had been avoiding a conversation with her, hoping everything would just work itself out, then it was Kakashi’s misfortune to stop one day while the two others were gone. Sakura didn’t waste the opportunity.

“Kakashi-sensei, I want to ask…I need to know a few things,” Sakura said before he could retreat. He smiled, but it struck her as more of a grimace. She frowned. That confirmed it: Apparently he didn’t care whether they got along, just that they got the mission done.

“Did they look for me? At all?” The rest of the words died in her throat. There was so much she needed to know, and she was hoping he would fill in the blank spaces. But Kakashi looked horrified. She pushed on.

“Or did they— did they leave right away to come back?” Unexpected tears burned her eyes, but she blinked them away. Giving voice to her fears hurt more than she thought it would, but she refused to cry.

“No, of course not,” Kakashi said, astonished. “I should hope I’d taught them that much. But if you believed your teammates would have abandoned you, then I’ve failed you as a sensei,” he said quietly. She was about to disagree, be he continued.

“They searched for two days. There was simply no trace—” He stopped suddenly and shook his head. The studied nonchalance was gone. For the first time, Sakura saw a trace of pain.

Maybe she was wrong. Maybe it wasn’t reticence as much as it was something else, like guilt. She forgave him for not stopping to talk, for not knowing how to put the right words together. She could see now that he had been deeply concerned.

“When they came back to the village, without you, they returned to a battlefield,” he said, unable to meet her eye. He scanned the debris field that used to be residences. “There was no way I could go. And there was no one else to go either. We lost so many nins, and the Sandaime,” he paused, then looked back to her. “I could only hope that wherever you were, you were safer there than in the village.”

Sakura blew out a shaky breath. Now she knew for certain. She hadn’t been abandoned. There was more she wanted to say, more she wanted to know, but she just couldn’t continue. Her memories of that fear were still sharp. She pushed it away, shifting her focus to the village.

“And this,” she flung out a hand at the destruction. “Just a single man did this? Can one person be that powerful?”

“Yes,” Kakashi said with a grim laugh. He slung his hands loosely in his pockets. This was conversation he was more comfortable with. “Yes. There are people more powerful than you and I can imagine. And more powerful than the one who did this. Orochimaru summoned huge snakes to do most of this damage. But there are others in this world who have even more power trapped inside, at their ready disposal. Some of them good, some bad. And we have to be vigilant against the ones that would hurt us.”

Kakashi nodded to Sasuke and Sai as they approached. They silently returned to work.

“But why?” Sakura continued, curling her hair behind her ears. “Why would this Orochimaru attack his own village? What did he want?”

“We don’t really know. Vengeance against the Sandaime, his sensei, was certainly a motive. If he was looking for someone else,” Kakashi flicked a glance at Sasuke, who stilled his hands on the shovel, “then he didn’t fulfill that goal.” Kakashi glanced back at her with a smile.

“In that he was thwarted,” he said. “And we have you to thank for it. You managed to get your team out of the village,” he said, chuckling at the irony.

Sakura smiled but saw no humor in it. Sasuke pitched the shovel down onto the debris pile and left. Kakashi was pulled away by another shinobi with a request, and she silently returned to her work.

That had been days ago, but she still didn’t feel better. Maybe Kakashi’s explanation wasn’t the answer she needed.

Sakura stood in the middle of the road and tiredly scrubbed her hands over her face. Her thoughts had tripped and slid on the long walk home. And now she stood there, in the dark, stomach in a knot, certain that going home wasn’t the answer for her either.

She didn’t want to put on a smile for her parents, be the dutiful daughter, tell them she was ok, that the village was safe. Lie.

The civilian life she used to live may as well have been toppled under with the rest of the buildings. Her parents just wanted to hear that soon everything would be repaired, and life would go on as it had before. She didn’t have the heart to tell them that it would never be the same.

On one side of her, lights from residences spilled onto the street, illuminating the path to her home. On the other side, the road disappeared into darkness. Out there was the forest, the training grounds, the sparring field. She knew there had been heavy damages there, but it was blessedly empty. Clearing those grounds wouldn’t come until after the village proper was rebuilt.

She looked at the quiet, bending road and breathed in it’s stillness. It felt like a solace, to think of a place where you could fight back. Where blood was spilled, yet you still had a chance. Without another thought she turned toward the darkening street.

That night she simply wandered around, surveyed the damage, enjoyed the solitude. But the next night she thought that a little bit of training might do her good. At least it would give her thoughts somewhere to land. Each night after that it was routine. Training until she was bone tired. Too tired to think, too tired to answer questions. She didn’t feel better, but she was getting stronger. At least that was something.

It was also a relief from the long days with her teammates.

Though Kakashi’s assurance that she wasn’t abandoned smoothed over some things, each day seemed to get harder than the last. Sai was silent, automated, efficient in his actions. Her loss and recovery had been duly noted, and now it was back to business as usual. Sasuke, however, was different.

He actually seemed mad at her. Or angry that she’d returned. If what Kakashi said was true, if they had searched for her, then she knew she ought to be grateful. At least a little bit. But she couldn’t bring herself to speak to him. Which seemed to suit him just as well — he hadn’t made eye contact with her in weeks.

But there were others who were not so callous. Along with Kakashi’s daily visits, Sakura managed to see more friendly faces than she had in ages. Her classmates all stopped from time to time with a kind word or smile. As did many of Kakashi’s compatriots. They would all pass with a nod or a knowing look.

Sakura was relieved to discover that only a small circle knew about her abduction. In the chaotic aftermath of the attack, her absence from Team 7 wasn’t even noticed. She should have been able to slip back into her old life with relative ease.

But that was the trouble: She couldn’t find her old life. The safety was gone, the illusion of protection had evaporated.

She could see the tension in Kakashi’s face sometimes as he spoke. Occasionally she would catch a look of sympathy from one of the other senseis. She would smile, then they would smile, and she would return to her work. But the veil had been lifted.

Had they survived something unspeakable? Had they lost someone who didn’t return? Did they think of it when they looked at her? She told herself no, of course not, but she couldn’t shake that feeling no matter how hard she tried.

Day after day, she sifted through the broken pieces of her village, trying to salvage wood, stone, anything that could be used to rebuild. But her thoughts were treacherous. She didn’t think it would ever be restored. Not for her, anyway. She couldn’t go back to her life before. And she wasn’t sure how to go on.

Grit biting into her knees, Sakura was just leaning forward to dislodge a stubborn chunk of stone when a shadow stretched out over her particular corner of the debris pile. She sat back on her heels, blocked the sun with a hand and squinted up into the grinning face of her sensei.

“How’s it coming?” Kakashi said, rocking lightly onto the balls of his feet. Both wrists were carelessly propped on his hips so that his hands folded behind his back, out of sight.

Sakura just hitched up a shoulder in a half-hearted shrug. Her other teammates only acknowledged their sensei with a glance.

“That bad?” he said cheerfully. He squatted down beside her, dropping one arm to his knee. The other hand he kept tucked away behind his waist.

“What’s the point? Rebuilding this wall. Someone else will just tear it down again. And these things are gone forever. These people—” She shook her head and shut her eyes. She couldn’t go on.

But Kakashi understood. She wasn’t talking about rebuilding a wall, she was talking about rebuilding her life. It was territory he knew well.

“Aaah,” he said.

He was silent overly long. Sakura opened her eyes.

Head tipped up and elbow sunk into his knee, Kakashi scratched his chin, furrowed his brow, and looked as if he was pondering something deep to impart to his student.

“We rebuild because we are here to….” He started strong, but his voice thinned. He sighed. But another burst of inspiration had him raising his arm toward the rubble.

“The wall is not a single piece, it is many rocks….” His arm hung in mid-air, and the sentence died on his lips.

Sakura’s eyebrows hitched up. Kakashi caught her skeptical look. He cleared his throat and pushed ahead.

“Each generation must surpass the next, and for us that means….” He stopped this time with his hand dramatically splayed on his chest. But it was clear he didn’t know what he meant.

“Please stop,” Sakura said kindly. “Sensei,” she added with a smile.

He offered a lopsided grin and dropped his forearm lazily back across his knee.

“Fighting is hard,” he nodded. “But I think living through the aftermath is harder.” He glanced down at Sasuke, who had also stopped his work to listen. “So we do whatever it takes to survive, in the battle and afterwards. We don’t give up.”

Sakura’s mouth fell open slightly at Kakashi’s gem of wisdom. He surveyed the team wistfully for moment, his gaze falling to each one of them, but then in a blink his seriousness was gone, replaced with a wide grin.

“Dango?” he chirped, whipping out three skewers of dumplings he had kept hidden behind his back.

Sakura eyes were wide with astonishment. She silently accepted one out of reflex, then watched mystified as he walked to her other teammates and offered one to them as well.

As it was, she barely registered the sticky sweetness of the dumplings.

“Do what you have to do to get out of it. Just survive,” Katsuro’s voice echoed in her head.

Maybe that didn’t just apply to the battlefield, she thought as she watched Kakashi walk away. He stopped to speak to a few others, smiling briefly, nodding. One hand slung casually in his pocket. She silently pitched the dango stick onto the burn pile.

That man had seen more hardship, more warfare, more bloodshed, than she could ever imagine. And yet he could still get up in the morning. Walk around. Smile.

And so could Katsuro, for that matter. The rogue still kept some goodness in the midst of such a rough life.

Survive. Just live. Make it out. It doesn’t matter how. She licked the remaining sweetness from her lips, truly tasting it for the first time.

She couldn’t go back to her old life, but maybe that was ok. Wasn’t there always something gained with the pain? She felt more capable, more sure of herself. She had even stood up to the bullying ANBU. That was something she wouldn’t have done before. And she knew what friendship was. She’d been able to make that connection.

Sakura reached out to pry loose the stuck rock, when the scar on her arm caught her eye.

‘Katsuro,’ she thought with a small sigh. Her fingers traced the crescent of pink skin that permanently marked the inside of her forearm. She truly hated that scar, and now she was stuck with it.

She didn’t need a visual reminder of that painful time. But the young rogue had made the difference. He helped her survive, made her stronger.

She ran her fingers over the mark again. Maybe she didn’t have to hate it. She didn’t think she’d ever like it, but maybe she could will it into being a reminder of strength. It would be the only good thing she brought away from that experience. Well, beside her unexpected friendship with him, but that was something she could never—

“What happened to your arm,” Sasuke’s gruff voice cut across her thoughts. He jerked his head toward her arm and waited for her answer.

Sakura flattened her palm over the scar and looked up at him with wide eyes. When had he gotten so close to her? Had she been speaking out loud, revealed something?

“Nothing!” she said too quickly.

Sasuke narrowed his eyes. He had been working to free a building timber from beneath the pile of rubble and wound up beside her. He let the beam sag in his grasp and tipped his head slightly for better look at the mark.

“Nothing I want to talk about,” she stammered. She turned her back to him, focusing all her attention on the stubborn rock. Behind her, Sasuke silently dislodged the timber and carried it off to the salvage pile.

Though he was often close by, he did not speak to her again.

It was hours later before she looked back up, and this time to see a few ANBU approaching. Sakura scanned down the edge of the debris past Sasuke, to where Sai stood expectantly. The ANBU stopped next to him, speaking in low tones.

Sakura studied the masked shinobi. She wondered if one of them may have interrogated her, but the distraction was pointless, she decided. She didn’t remember any of them. And she didn’t want to. Sai nodded a few times to the men, and Sakura bent back to her work.

Footsteps soon ground to a halt behind her.

“Sakura-san, you are recovering well?” a voice called over her shoulder. It was more statement than question.

Apparently one of the ANBU did know her.

“Yes,” she said neutrally, looking back at the three inscrutable ninjas. She had a suspicion they still saw her as a traitor. Or at least a threat. There was no way to tell with those damn masks.

“And you are still training in the evenings?”

Sakura cleared her throat. Sasuke looked sharply at her. She hadn’t told anyone that she was using the mess of the old sparring field for training. She should’ve known ANBU would take notice.

“Yes,” she said stubbornly, refusing to meet their gaze. If they wanted her to quit then they could damn well order her to stop. Otherwise they could just go to—

“That area is unsecured,” the man stated. Sakura’s face snapped into a frown, but the ninja continued. “The captain has given express permission for you to train at the ANBU grounds until the sparring field is repaired.”

Sakura was completely surprised. “Th-Thanks,” she uttered. The ANBU nodded curtly and was gone.

Sakura sat back on her heels, stunned. Beside her, Sasuke attacked the debris pile with renewed vigor, his shovel chinking the rocks loudly with each scrape.

But Sakura paid no heed. She could only guess which captain the ANBU was referrering to. She only knew one, and he had been a thorn in her side during the interrogation. It was beyond her why he would offer the use of their grounds. Just for her. It wasn’t a compliment, more like an order. Maybe they wanted to monitor her, but she shook her head at the thought. No, there were easier ways to do that.

She continued working in silence, well into the evening. There was simply no resolving why they would offer her that privilege after the hard time they gave her. But ultimately, she didn’t have a choice. If she wanted to keep training, she’d have to do it there. She sat back and brushed the dirt from her sore hands. But she wouldn’t train tonight. The extra-long day and her unsettled thoughts left her exhausted. For the first time since she’d returned, she really just wanted to go home and rest.

Standing slowly, stretching her back and flicking bits of gravel from her knees, she was surprised to see Sasuke was also still there. Sai had been called away hours before. Seeing her, Sasuke swiftly finished and threw his shovel onto the salvaged rock pile, exuding more energy than she felt.

She turned to go, and was surprised again when he fell into step beside her. Outwardly they looked the part of teammates returning from their assignment, but Sakura knew it couldn’t be farther from the truth.

She said nothing, and tiredly walked toward her home, reminding herself not to take the shortcut. Sasuke would veer off soon enough.

But he didn’t.

She said nothing as he passed the road to his apartment and continued on with her. He could be going anywhere in the village, she told herself. But when they entered a long stretch of road, narrow and dimly lit, Sakura felt something was amiss.

This particular stretch of road was another reason she preferred the shortcut. It wasn’t destroyed, but had been evacuated for the duration of the reconstruction. She hated the feeling of emptiness around her. Tonight was no different, even with addition of a companion.

She cut a glance at Sasuke in the half-light. His face was tight, angry. She narrowed her eyes. Something was wrong here.

As if on cue, Sasuke’s voice ricocheted off the buildings.

“So ANBU really think you’re something, huh?”

Sakura stopped, blinking at him in the darkness. He walked a few paces ahead before he stopped too.

“But we know different don’t we?” He turned back slowly to face her.

“I heard what you said, out there, the night I found you. I heard you begging that guy to kill you, to ‘get it over with.’ And ANBU thinks you’re a hero,” he finished bitterly.

Sakura’s cheeks were enflamed. But Sasuke was cool and smug. He assumed her silence meant that he was right. He tipped his head and shot her an arrogant smirk.

“We’re all alone out here,” he said with false friendliness, spreading his fingers toward an empty building. “So why don’t you tell me the truth about what happened.”

But Sakura saw through him. It was as if she’d never really seen him before. He was no teammate. She knew what that bond was, and no one could ever take that away.

She put her hands on her hips and shook her head. She didn’t care if he was a prodigy, the only surviving member of his clan. She wanted to put him in his place.

“I heard you actually looked for me,” she said with a wry smile. “I was surprised. When no one came for me, day after day, I began to think maybe you hadn’t told anyone. That you had left me out there to die.”

His arrogant expression slipped. Her response wasn’t what he expected. But she was just getting started.

“I know exactly what you think of me. You’ve always made that perfectly clear. That I’ve never been good enough to be on your team,” she bit out.

“Well let me correct you,” she said, jabbing the air with her finger. “When I sat in front of your brother and he threatened me within an inch of my life to give up information about you, I gave him none. I was your teammate, and I did not give you up. It is you who have let me down.”

Her voice was unfamiliar and hard. She almost felt like she was channeling Katsuro. It felt good.

Sasuke’s face was comically slack.

“You have talents that most ninjas will never have, but you know nothing of bonds or of teamwork…or how to protect those who are depending on you.”

At that his expression darkened, but Sakura no longer cared. She found she was burning for a fight.

“Itachi at least knows that much, it’s why he’s so successful in his little empire. If you really do want to defeat him, you’ll have to be as strong as he is. And right, now you’re not,” she said. Then, just to provoke him, she added archly, “Itachi knows that, too.”

Sasuke’s face twisted with rage. “Shut up!” he roared, coming right for her.

He barreled at her openly, hands spread, ready to grab her shoulders, arms, anything he could reach just to shut her up. Blind rage had wiped out any strategic move he might have made. And he wasn’t suspecting any response from her at all.

Without thinking she dropped into her fighting stance, drawing on the strength from all those nights of training. Katsuro’s encouragements rang in her ears. She curled her fingers into tight fists. Chakra slipped effortlessly over her knuckles. They were warm and glowed faintly. The kunoichi turned her body to minimize his access, and braced for whatever he was going to deliver.

The rest just happened. He caught the first thing he could reach, her arm, and wrenched it horribly in an ill-conceived attempt to fling her down the street. But he’d left himself wide open.

Sakura ignored the pain and used the momentum to wield her fist like a hammer. She drove it straight up into Sasuke’s chin.

Teeth cracked loudly as his jaw slammed shut. Head blown back, he released her out of reflexes. He staggered a few steps backwards, fighting disorientation.

Sakura cringed from the pain but refused to cry out. Watching him cautiously, she returned to her stance, twisted her limp arm away, and waited. She had executed Katsuro’s self defense move perfectly.

Sasuke took another stabilizing step, clutching his chin. A thin trickle of blood seeped from the corner of his mouth. He cut her a vicious glare.

Sakura narrowed her eyes in return, making a tight fist with her good hand. Almost daring him to come at her again. She didn’t care about the pain, she had a point to prove. Things had changed. She had changed.

She wasn’t taking shit from him ever again.

A sudden push of wind and crunch of gravel near Sakura startled them both. In front of her Kakashi stepped out of a swirl of leaves.

He frowned deeply, looking from one student to the other, then nodded a dismissal toward the top of a building. Sakura glanced up. Silhouetted on the roofline were a few ANBU, watching them closely. This area was heavily patrolled, she remembered. They would have alerted their sensei immediately.

Kakashi looked over Sasuke, who was still holding his chin, then back to Sakura with her curled up arm. He shook his head incredulously.

“What are you two doing?”

“We were working on our teamwork,” Sakura said humorlessly. She tipped her head and waited for Sasuke’s response. He just scowled at her.

Kakashi shook his head again. He was glad he arrived when he did. He was sure one of his students would be in the hospital if he hadn’t come, although now he wasn’t sure which one.

Sasuke was rubbing his chin, watching her. He was obviously surprised at her attack. Kakashi was too.

‘That might be just what Sasuke needs,’ he thought.

He looked to Sakura again, cradling her hurt arm but showing no other signs of giving even an inch.

‘Something about her is different,’ Kakashi decided. ‘Good.’

But they really should use their energy to fight enemies, not each other, he thought, lifting an eyebrow. He put on his sternest look and cleared his throat.

“Both of you get to the med nin, now,” he ordered in a cold voice. The one he reserved for criminals. “I won’t have my students killing each other.”

Sakura nodded resignedly and fell into step next to Kakashi. They both walked up the road toward Sasuke, in the direction of the hospital. Sakura tipped her chin up and refused to look at the raven-haired nin.

Eyes dark, unreadable, Sasuke never moved as they approached. Never even looked at them.

Kakashi began to wonder if he was going to yield, follow the command and go with them to the hospital. But he could wait it out. Give him the chance to choose.

They walked around him, and continued a little ways up the road before Kakashi stopped and looked back at his other student. Sakura stopped, but didn’t turn.

Sasuke’s shoulders rose and fell with a deep breath. He slowly turned around and took a step in their direction.

Satisfied, Kakashi started again, giving the dark shinobi some space behind them. Sasuke didn’t have to be happy, but he did have to obey.

“Congratulations are in order, I think,” Kakashi said softly to Sakura once they’d resumed. “I heard that ANBU were quite impressed with you.”

Her shoulders sagged slightly. She shrugged, looking away from him. It was clear she’d rather not talk about it. But Kakashi waited patiently for her answer.

“I just did what I could out there. When I thought I might be able to stay alive, then I decided to try to bring back information as well,” she said finally, thinking he was asking about the interrogation.

“And you’ve been training at night?” Kakashi peered at her, clearing up her misunderstanding.

“Oh,” she said softly.

“Um, yeah,” she admitted. “Just a little bit.”

“Well your doing a good job,” he said. “Holding together after the kind of thing you’ve been through is hard, even for seasoned shinobi.”

From behind them, Sasuke snorted loudly in objection. Sakura frowned, threw her shoulders back and jutted her chin out angrily.

‘Interesting,’ he thought, slanting another glance at the kunoichi. But Kakashi let the matter drop and kept on walking as if he hadn’t even noticed his student’s dissension.

After all, he already had his own suspicions that there was more to her story. Only time would tell what had happened out there.

It really was a miracle she’d come home at all.

Sakura stopped in the light of the hospital doorway, rubbing a finger under the strap of the sling where it cut into her shoulder. Comfortably adjusted, she set off from the building with a greater sense of purpose than she’d had in weeks.

Sakura padded softly down the lit road, away from the hospital, and headed straight for the darkness, straight for her old shortcut.

Rubbing the strap again, she inched it down her shoulder. The thin sling was more a reminder not to move her hurt arm than an actual remedy. Neither she nor Sasuke had serious injuries. He was treated and released without a word. She didn’t care.

Ahead of her in the dim light of the reconstruction zone, odd-shaped pavers were coming into view. A lot of the destruction had already been removed. A lot more than she expected. Even the shortcut was recognizable again as a street, rather than just a few patches of pattern under piles and piles of stone.

She paced herself to the old park, afraid she might be too late. But it was still there, and mostly untouched. The little flowers bloomed happily beside a mountain of wreckage. The huge old tree still sprawled across the ground. And debris still covered most of the plot.

But it wouldn’t be that way for long. All around her were signs of progress. The street and building pads were nearly cleared. Tools and shovels were piled in the road, ready for the next day’s work. Even the faint smell of cooked food was threading through the smoky air. Lane by lane, the area was returning to life.

Sakura couldn’t help but notice the blades of axes glinting up from among the tools. It was a sad reminder that there would be no more life for the tree or her little park.

She pushed away the heartache and focused on her task.

Poking through the tools with her good hand, Sakura found a sturdy trowel. She sank it in half-moons around the clump of flowers, and easily pried both the plant and it’s earthen rootball from the ground. But Sakura frowned as she looked for something adequate to transport it with. Everything around her was broken. She dropped her gaze to her one free hand and sighed. She’d manage it, somehow.

Finished with her job, she walked back toward home in contented silence. Tomorrow, while someone was taking apart the tree and turning under the grass, readying the plot for a new store or a house, she would find another park to plant the flowers in.

Sakura adjusted the hurt arm folded over her stomach, reminding herself to keep it still. In the crook of her good arm, bright yellow flowers nodded from the safe transport of the sling.

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