Chapter 33 – Inner Demons

I am a wing….
I am the wing of a bird….
I am the wing of the bird that has left…and will not return.

Chapter 33 — Inner Demons

Inoichi stood in the middle of the barn and surveyed the haggard faces of the old farmers around him. Konoha’s interrogation team was methodically working the room: two anbu agents interviewed the old men, while two of his Yamanaka clansmen were performing the mental scans. A lone anbu was checking the perimeter of the building for any overlooked clues. He ducked down the line of stalls, opening each door and poking at the hay. But so far, nothing conclusive had been uncovered.

Sinking his hands in his pockets, Inoichi looked up at the rafters, trying to piece together everything in his mind.

Apparently after the fire at the nearby farm, the neighboring farmers had managed to find a survivor and drag him here to wait for help to arrive.

Inoichi closed his eyes and breathed deeply, inhaling everything he could about his surroundings. The sweet hay, the tang of animal sweat…and the singed smell of the whoever was brought here, probably bound and gagged, and dropped right where he stood. He shifted his feet in the straw and opened his eyes.

And those were all the facts he knew. The rest was conjecture.

They had canvassed the site looking for remains and a motive. But there were none. And the fire had burned so hot there was nothing left of the old couple that had lived there.

The neighbors gave wildly varying reports of the fiery scene. Sometimes there were many men, sometimes it was just one.

Tsunade’s hunch was that this was the work of shinobis, possibly from an unknown country targeting Konoha. And Inoichi’s team was sent to uncover proof, one way or the other. Certainly the survival of an assailant and his subsequent disappearance pointed to shinobis. But the memories attached to the event were conflicting, and that was a problem.

Some farmers remembered a black-haired man being hauled into the barn. Others recalled a brown-haired man. Inoichi himself conducted the scans of the most detailed memories, trying to decipher which version was true. But unfortunately, the mental images that came forth supported their all claims. Whatever they remembered, the old farmers were certain of it.

Whether it was accurate was another matter entirely.

But one memory stood out from the rest. And that still bothered him. It was different and buried so deep that he almost missed it. Almost.

Inoichi’s gaze roved over the interlocking beams inside the barn. His long ponytail swayed softly as he thought.

There was a blurry picture of a boy — a teen — being carried into a barn. Whether it was this barn, he knew not. Nor could he be certain it even had anything do with this situation. It might have even been from the old man’s youth. But the image was there nonetheless…a teen, bare-chested and lifeless, was hauled into a barn in the midst of a crowd of people. In the looping fragment of memory, a slant of torchlight cut across the youth. And for a moment his hair looked almost…yellow. Then the shoulders of men blocked out the view and the image faded away.

Inoichi returned to the memory several times, but it never changed, not in the slightest. That meant that, like the rest of them, the farmer believed in what he saw.

And that gave Inoichi pause.

In his experience, if he could find a pattern in the memories, it usually pointed to the truth. No matter how disjointed the images were. And he admitted to himself that it was probably the case here as well. The majority of these men believed the attacker was dark-haired. And it was probably just an anomaly….

But he couldn’t let it go.

Because for him it wasn’t just about finding signs of espionage as Tsunade had instructed. He was looking for someone else. A blond-haired boy, about his daughter’s age.

He shifted his feet on the dirt floor again. Could he have been here? Right where I’m standing?

Inoichi swiveled his gaze to the group around him. Old farmers and farm hands, tired and ready to go back to their lives.

Why would someone come here and tamper with their memories? What was worth that effort? And who could have done it so thoroughly, so quickly and completely that they didn’t leave a trace?

There was only one man who had the motive and, more importantly, the skill. But Inoichi had been more than thorough, and he’d not detected a trace of Itachi Uchiha’s presence. At least, not the Itachi he had known. But perhaps he had learned to mask it somehow. Perhaps he should look again—

A stall door slammed and a family of roosting pigeons suddenly burst out of the rafters toward the open loft door, shattering the light.

Inoichi relaxed his hands in the pockets of his long coat. Or was he simply projecting his own desires onto the witness, then getting back a false image of something he so desperately wanted to see—

The anbu agent dashed down the row of stalls, breathless. A headband fluttered from his hand. “Sir, I just found this under the hay at the last stall. It was near the back entrance. If they brought him through there, it might have fallen—”

Inoichi took the blood-soaked, soot-stained headband and flipped it over. The silver badge was filthy and scuffed as if it had been walked over, but the proof was etched clearly in the metal. “Mist.”

It was just as Tsunade suspected.

Inoichi dropped the headband into his pocket and refocused. “Alright, that’s it. We’ve got what we came for. Let’s wrap up.”

And he let the looping image of a lifeless blond boy being dragged into a barn fade from his mind.

The hospital door slowly creaked open. Sensing it wasn’t Tsunade or one of the nurses — who always seemed to throw back the door as if they lived there — Sasuke kept the hand curled over his face and pretended to still be asleep.

Two sets of feet shuffled in. He peered through the cracks in his fingers. Sakura’s parents. Now he was glad he had feigned sleep.

Sakura’s parents had come often those first two days. They’d looked at her prone figure, cried, lamented to each other her choice of career, thanked him — which he detested — then went away again. Sakura wasn’t aware of any of it.

He supposed this third night would be more of the same. He sunk down a little in the stiff chair, furthering his charade, and closed his eyes.

But as soon as he shut them, images splashed across his mind: The not-dead child, small and bloody in his arms. Sakura in the forest, hovering in front of him like a ghost. Then in the hospital, the way her limp hand fell off the gurney and he was sure she was dead. Sure he’d been to late again, too late to save her…or to save any of them…. Then Sakura’s face melded into a dead Uchiha’s, pale and blood-soaked and begging for his help…. But he was always too late….

Sasuke sucked in sharp breath and snapped open his eyes.

Sakura was in the bed. Her parents were there. She had lived. He blew out slowly.

Tsunade had ordered him to stay. “For observation,” she’d said. Even though he wasn’t wounded.

But he’d agreed. He found he didn’t want to leave anyway. So he’d had sat there, wearing the same clothes, smelling of her and covered in her blood. And he’d waited for Tsunade to miraculously put her back together again.

At one point Tsunade appeared in the doorway with a look of sympathy. “She’s strong. She’ll pull through,” she’d said. Even though he’d never asked.

But he guessed her medic skills must have extended to things unseen as well. She didn’t push him to change clothes or leave or get some sleep. She must have known the things even he didn’t want to admit. That he didn’t want to go to his apartment, so close to the old Uchiha compound. That he thought he was seeing things. That he didn’t want Sakura to die…alone….

But a day later, Sakura was finally brought back to the room. Tsunade was right. She had lived.

Bandaged and white, wiped clean of the blood and soot and death that she came in with, Sakura looked somewhat like herself again. Sasuke watched the rise and fall of the sheets, and somehow sleep finally claimed him.

The rest of the time was a blur of sleeping and waking, of checkups and visitors. Tsunade’s voice cut through his sleep-fog at some point. “Do not wake him. Let him stay where he is.”

The soft whimper of her parents was another oft-heard sound. He spoke to them the first time. But after they thanked him profusely — “You protected her! You saved her! She’s taken on too much. What would we have done if you weren’t there?” — he made sure he was “sleeping” whenever they came in again.

And this third night was no different. Sasuke watched them through his fingers, standing over her, talking softly, hands clasped in parental worry—

But this time there was a response. At first just a whisper of fabric on fabric. The sheets moved with her restless legs. Then, there was a deep gasp, as if someone had finally come up for air. Sasuke’s hand fell away from his face.

Sakura was awake.

“Okasan…Otosan….” she rasped.

They leaned over her excitedly, words of care and admonishment tumbling out in a rush.

“We were so worried. The Hokage herself came to see to you. She’s a great lady, and if she wasn’t here then, I don’t…I don’t know what might have….” The mother dissolved into tears. She put her hand to her mouth to stop a loud sob.

Her father continued. “Daughter, how do you feel?”

Sakura slowly touched her stomach, then exhaled as if winded by even that small movement. “Very sore,” she said weakly.

“The Hokage says it will take a long time to heal. But she is certain you will make a full recovery.”

“The little girl….”

“She is fine. Banged up, but fine. She’s in another part of the hospital.” Sakura smiled tiredly. But her father’s brows furrowed. “What were you doing out there? By yourself? You could have been—“

“If your teammate hadn’t saved you….” Her parent’s eyes drifted gratefully over to Sasuke.

Across the room, Sasuke stiffened. But it was no use. They knew he was awake now. He dropped his hand to his lap.

Sakura carefully turned her head. She blinked slowly. “Sasuke…. Thank you….”

He nodded once, but said nothing. He wished he didn’t see the purple under her eyes or the lingering rust of dried blood at her hairline that the nurses had missed when they cleaned her up. He selfishly wished she looked as strong as Tsunade said she was. But she didn’t. She looked frail and weak.

“Yes if it wasn’t for your friend….” Her mother’s voice broke again, but she rallied with a new thought. “Now will you believe us? Can’t you see this is foolish,” she pleaded, eyes shining. “This shinobi business is just not for you. You nearly got yourself killed.” The woman shook her head resolutely. “Just stay here, work in the hospital. Where you’re safe. Where you can save others, and not the other way around—“

“But Okasan…I saved a little girl….”

“And it nearly got you killed!” A maternal firmness was creeping into her voice. This was clearly well-worn topic. “What you did was too dangerous! You should have just left her there. I know you want always want to save everyone Sakura, but you just can’t…. You can’t even save yourself!“

Sasuke stood suddenly. “I should go.”

Her parents turned their heads together, suddenly remembering someone else was there. Sakura did not look up.

“I should, uh…. I mean, you should have some time alone your daughter.” The parents’ heaped more praise on him. Sasuke ducked under it and moved swiftly for the door, but he shot a last glance at Sakura. Her smile was gone, and it almost looked like a tear had streaked down her face. But it might have been a trick of the light. He didn’t stop to find out.

Finally outside the hospital, Sasuke felt like he could breathe again. Frustration was threatening to suffocate him in there. He looked up at the blackened sky with unexpected relief. Strangely the village surroundings seemed a little friendlier than they did a few days ago when felt like he was living a waking nightmare.

Now he was glad to be outside and thought for the first time that he didn’t really want to go back into the little hospital room. Even if Sakura was there.

He glanced back up at the building, picking out the light in her room. He saw the silhouettes of her parents. And especially if they were still there.

Sasuke frowned and found a dark bench to sit down and mull what he’d just witnessed.

He could probably count on one hand the number of times he’d seen Sakura’s parents. The were civilians, doing some modest job in the village, he couldn’t remember what…. But the thought that they might not support her as a shinobi came as a shock.

If they didn’t, then did that mean she had come all this way on her own? Her shinobi work? The exams? Her apprenticeship to Tsuande? All in the face of censure?

The idea was completely foreign to him.

The hospital doors slid open. Sasuke sat back into the shadows. Her parents walked out, so deep in quiet conversation they didn’t notice him, and turned towards their home.

Sasuke looked back up to Sakura’s still-glowing window and imagined here in there, alone. Again, he found himself growing irrationally angry with her parents.

How could they leave her? And how did they end that visit? Did they go happily? Give her a hug? Tell her they loved her? That they were glad she was even alive?

“They don’t even know what they have,” he muttered bitterly and turned away from the window to stare unseeing at the street.

He couldn’t remember if they’d even touched her. Sasuke folded his arms over his chest. That was the worst, he admitted to himself. When you were alone, no one ever touched you. He didn’t have it. And he knew Sai didn’t either.

He realized it had been strangely comforting to think Sakura was the normal one. That she had something they didn’t.

But maybe she had been alone all this time too. Underneath it all, maybe she was really just like them. But instead of turning to anger or isolation, she channeled her energy into her work.

He didn’t like thinking about these things. He wanted her to be healthy and stubbornly strong. Not scolded. Not weak and doubting. Not half-dead and looking like those old ghosts that were never far behind him….

Someone appeared at her window. Sasuke turned and caught sight of a nurse carrying a tray. It was dinner time. Someone was checking on her, bringing her food and folding her back into normal life. He felt less guilty about leaving her alone.

Which was good. Because he knew he really didn’t want to go in there again. Not right now anyway. He didn’t like these discoveries. And he didn’t like the thought that deep down maybe she was more like him than he cared to admit.

Sasuke stamped out the thoughts and walked back to his apartment in silence.

The brilliant midday sun streamed through the window. But it’s cheery light didn’t touch Sakura. She sat on the bed and stared out quietly. She was fully dressed, but only because it made her feel better. She still wasn’t discharged yet. Even with the daily exercises and healing therapies, she wasn’t making the progress everyone expected of her.

Although no one had actually told her that. They didn’t need to. She could see it in their faces. These were her coworkers, after all.

She didn’t care. Not really. She knew herself the real wound was too deep to be treated. She felt broken inside. And she didn’t know how she’d ever be whole again.

Tears brimmed in her eyes. The bright view of Konoha outside her window swam in front of her. She crushed her eyes shut and pushed the back on waves of regret….

“No one can know,” she told herself again. “No one can ever know.”

And she vowed to never speak his name again.

He was a rogue and she was a fool. But whose was the greater betrayal? That he had lied to her the whole time? Or that she had ruined lives because of her deception? The little girl…and her poor, sweet grandparents….

Sakura twisted her hand in the sheet and swallowed a sob. She was such a fool—

A sharp rap sounded at the door. Sakura swiped at her eyes and buried her emotions.

“Come in,” she called, forcing brightness into her voice and donning a false smile to match.

Sai entered, followed by Sasuke. Sakura’s smile turned brittle.

Sai frowned at her immediately. “Sakura-san, is this a bad time?” Sasuke looked up finally, his black eyes only darting to her face for a moment before the alighted on something else in the room.

Anything else. As long as it wasn’t her, she thought meanly.

She shifted her focus back to Sai and said breezily, “Oh just a hard therapy session this morning, that’s all.”

Sai shot her a skeptical look, but didn’t push for more. He came across the room and sat in the only chair. Sasuke stood stiffly, looking like had somewhere else to be.

Sakura growled inwardly. She hated it when he came. He always made her feel worse. Thankfully he didn’t come by very often. Usually it was either Sai or Kakashi or Ino. And only sometimes Sasuke came with them. Never alone. Thank goodness.

“Sasuke…uh, can I have the nurse bring you another chair?” Sakura said with veiled sarcasm. She knew his answer. He shook his head briskly.

She gave her full attention back to Sai and ignored Sasuke completely.

“So, any word on your release?”

Her polite smile fell.

“Next week, they say, if I’m showing more progress.” She shrugged.

“And do you think you will?”

She shrugged again, her shoulders slumping a little more.

“When you get out, I thought maybe we could train together. Make it a regular thing….”

Sakura hitched an eyebrow up at his request. It was suspiciously like what Ino had said when she dropped by the evening before. And neither of them were “train together” sort of people. Ino didn’t want to, and she knew for a fact that Sai didn’t ‘train’ with anyone. He had such specialized skills he didn’t need to.

Another thought occurred to her.

“Sai, did Kakashi-sensei put you up to this?” Ino had vehemently denied it, even though Sakura knew she hated training. But Sai—

“Yes, of course,” he said plainly.

Sakura shook her head at his lack of social graces. She rubbed a hand over her face. Anger and exhaustion sparked somewhere inside. The last thing she wanted was pity. She’d brought this all on herself—

“But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to,” he said, tilting his head and blinking and looking at her so earnestly that her anger left her.

“Fine,” she said grudgingly. “As long as I don’t slow you down—“

The floor nurse came to the open door. “Haruno-san, time for your afternoon meds.”

Sai stood quickly, promising they’d start next week. Sasuke was already out the door. She didn’t care. Sakura threw back the pills and gulped down the water. She’d rather be alone anyway.

But they did not start the next week. There was another setback. Some of the sutures reopened in her physical therapy, and she was back to wearing hospital clothes and having the bandages changed twice a day. And she was confined to the bed until the wound healed more sufficiently. Tsunade’s orders.

But the situation was worse than any of them knew. Sakura felt like she’d fallen down a well. She hated sitting in bed, she hated herself, and she told the nurses she didn’t want to see anyone else. Not until she was better. The nurses looked at her with sympathy, but they followed her wishes and put the yellow card by her name on the door with “No Visitors” written in thick black marker.

So it was a surprise to hear a quiet tap and look up to see Sasuke — and Sasuke alone — standing in the door on the fourth day of her bedrest.

It was not a surprise she wanted. “I told them no visitors,” she said flatly.

“I know,” he said quietly, and walked in the room as if she’d just asked him in instead. He sat down in Sai’s chair.

Sasuke looked at her, then looked around them room as if he’d never seen it before. The silence drew out and Sakura grew irritated. If he was just going to sit there then—

“How do you feel?”

She blinked. She felt like throwing something at him. But she didn’t. “It’s been three weeks. How do you think I feel?”

He didn’t answer.

More silence stretched out between them. Her anger mounted.

“Sai and Kakashi-sensei are on a mission.”

“Oh, are they.” Bitterness laced her words. “And you didn’t go?”

Sasuke didn’t seem to even notice her ire. “No, I’m not…. That is…I uh, wasn’t on the roster.” He glanced at her once, then cut his eyes away. “You know why,” he said quietly.

Sakura stared at him, wondering why he was here. And just how had he gotten past the front desk. Another thought struck her.

“You didn’t use your sharingan on the nurses did you?!”

“No! I would never—“

“Then why are you here? ‘No visitors allowed,’” Sakura said, biting off every word and pointing to her name on the door. But the yellow card had mysteriously disappeared. She did a double-take, then frowned thunderously as if somehow it was the door’s fault. “Well, it was there. And it was on my chart—“

“The nurse downstairs told me to come. In fact, she looked at your chart and said you needed some visitors.”

Those conspiring hens at the front desk. Sakura rolled her eyes. She was sick of being doted on. And worse was that she knew deep down she didn’t deserve it. She went to fold her arms in front of her in a huff, but then remembered her injury and dropped them back to her sides, more frustrated than before.

She glared at Sasuke. But when he said nothing, Sakura decided she’d had enough.

“Well…. So, thanks for the visit,” she said, mockingly polite. “I’m still here, as you can see. So…thanks for stopping by….”

But Sasuke didn’t budge.

“Sakura, I…I came to tell you that if you need help, you know…after all this….” He waved his hand vaguely at her, looking more uncomfortable with each word. “I’m available too. You know, like what Sai said.”

Outraged fury uncorked inside Sakura. “Did Kakashi put you up to this as well!? Well thanks, but I don’t need your pity—”

“Kakashi didn’t put me up to this!” Sasuke sputtered indignantly. “I came on my own!”

“Oh right, cause we’ve always gotten along so well together. Even Sai doesn’t want to work with me. Kakashi had to order him.” Sasuke finally looked like he always did. Mad. Which made some part of her feel better. She was sick of him walking on eggshells around her. “I don’t need your sympathy and…I don’t need your help,” she added viciously.

They glared at each other, but a sharp rap at the door broke their stalemate. Sasuke stood just as three nurses swept into the room with a rolling cart.

He backed against the wall to make room. “You’re fine where you are,” the first one said. “This will only take a moment.”

He glanced at the door like he might try to leave, but he was blocked in by the cart. So he stood there, looking ridiculous.

The last nurse chuckled. “Oh it’s not that bad. We just have to change her bandages. Have a seat.” She dropped her voice to a teasing whisper meant for Sakura to hear. “Besides, she could use the company.” But Sasuke didn’t move.

Sakura glared at all of them now. The three nurses only grinned back. So Sakura jutted her chin away from all of them, and hiked her shirt up her ribcage without a word.

Once the gauzy white bandage wrapped around her midsection was exposed, then all teasing ceased. The nurses went to work, moving around each other like a well-oiled machine.

The first nurse cut the bandage away, slowly revealing a puckered rust-colored wound across Sakura’s stomach. The second nurse inspected the wound, gently prodding the red and weeping spots where the sutures had worked free.

Biting her lip with each little stab of pain, Sakura turned her head back to the room. When the nurses moved she caught a glimpse of Sasuke, still standing against the back wall. His face was tight and he stared so hard at the ceiling he looked as if he expected an assailant to drop through at any moment.

Sakura watched him, her pain slowly fading to the background.

The nurse walked back with the old bandage, one side rusty with blood and medicinal ointments. Sasuke glanced down, then looked at the ceiling even harder.

The nurse must have noticed. “Oh it’s much better than it was!”

“I know,” he said, voice tight.

Sakura thought he looked like a family member of a patient. Not a hardened shinobi used to this sort of thing, even inflicting it—

She gasped at the sudden smear of cold across her middle. “Sorry,” the nurse in front of her said. Her hand was poised over the wound and slathered in a medical salves. “Should have warned you.”

Sakura grit her teeth for the next swipe and looked up again. This time Sasuke’s attention was fixed on her wound. The nurse moved her hand back to scoop up more of the salve and Sasuke winced. He quickly turned to the window.

Understanding crashed down on her. She’d seen it a thousand times with other patients. Sasuke didn’t like blood. That’s why he was acting so weird. And that’s why he hadn’t come.

Her view was blocked by the bustling nurses. They were finishing up, wiping everything down, then preparing for the rewrap. With one woman at either side, they wrapped a fresh length of gauzy material around Sakura’s waist, around and around, then tucked it in at the back.

“Alright, take it easy, Sakura-san,” the last nurse out said as she pushed the cart out the door. She glanced once at Sakura’s nameplate, but kept going.

Sasuke and Sakura were alone. The room was as uncomfortably quiet as it had been before. But Sakura’s anger had flown as fast as it had come on.

“Um, Sasuke?” she said haltingly. “You don’t like the sight of blood?”

He shrugged, but his slow response spoke volumes. “I guess I just saw enough of yours, that’s all.”

This time she saw through his deflection. Of course he wouldn’t, not after everything he’s been through—

Sasuke peeled himself off the wall. “I should go. Hope you feel better.” He didn’t look at her.

Guilt swamped her. Suddenly she felt like crying. What was wrong with her?

Sakura cleared her throat. “Sasuke, wait. About what I said earlier…. Maybe it could be a goal I work toward?” He looked back, perplexed. “Maybe I could train with you when I’m farther along? Like as a goal?”

Sasuke nodded. “Sure, I guess.”

“I think maybe I need something to work toward. Would that be okay?”

The corner of his mouth quirked up. There was the trace of something there, almost like a smile.

“Yeah, okay.” he said, looking at her full in the face for the first time since she’d been there.

She smiled back, unsure if that was what he was doing. She’d never seen him smile, so she wouldn’t know.

Another wave of emotion hit her. Gratitude or sadness or guilt, she didn’t know. But tears burned at her eyes. Embarrassed, she flashed a watery smile. “Thanks.”

One of the nurses appeared at the door again with the yellow card. “Don’t know how this fell out,” she said sheepishly and affixed it to the nameplate. Sasuke said a quick goodbye and ducked out past her.

Finished, the nurse lingered in the doorway. “He’s a nice kid, your teammate.”

Sakura was so emotional she didn’t trust herself to answer. She hoped the woman would just go—

But of course she didn’t. Instead the she leaned against doorframe. “He stayed here, you know. The whole time. Until you woke up.”

Sakura shook her head. The nurse must have mixed the them up. “That was probably the other one. Sai. He’s the one with short black hair.” Although Sai didn’t seem like he’d sit around hospital rooms either—

“Nope,” the nurse said matter-of-factly. “It was this one. I remember. The Uchiha. Slept in that chair for three days.” She tucked her clipboard under her arm. “He’s a good kid.” She closed the door quietly behind her.

Shocked, Sakura folded her hands in her lap and turned to stare out the window at the overlapping roofs of Konoha. Her wound hurt. But this blow struck deeper.

Was she bound to be wrong about everything?

She swiped away the fresh tears and pushed back on another wave of emotion.

Sakura wrapped a hand around the sudden pain in her side and panted. Across the grassy sparring pitch Sasuke frowned at her hand. The soft thunder of an autumn storm rumbled across the darkening sky.

“You’re going too easy on me,” she snapped.

“You’re holding your wound! How is that going too easy—”

“It’s just a spasm, perfectly natural. It has nothing to do with the injury.” She was lying. And Sasuke looked like he knew it, too.

But she had to keep going. The other option was just too…. She bit her lip and gripped her side, forcing the pain away.

After the questions had been asked and the reports had been filed and Sakura had been dismissed to finish her last bit of recuperation at home with the Hokage’s stern threat of house arrest if she didn’t take it easy, Sakura knew she was in trouble. The more she sat at home, trapped between her parents and her thoughts, the more sure she was that she had to get back on her feet.

If her recuperation in the hospital had been slow, then she more than made up for it by throwing herself back into training. First alone, just a kunai at a spot on the ground, over and over until she felt the familiar burn of exertion. After that she turned to Ino, then Sai. And when their schedules became to cluttered to entertain her, she turned to Sasuke.

It may have been a bit too optimistic, she thought as she pushed a little chakra into the wound to dull the ache over-worked muscles. But she had to—

Sasuke snorted dismissively then turned to retrieve his gear tat the edge of the pitch.

“Hey! I know how much my body can take!” But Sasuke ignored her. “I’m the medic here!!” Then she pulsed another round of chakra into the overtaxed muscles.

Sakura huffed for a moment. He wouldn’t understand of course. Going home, sitting in the same old house, the same old life, with parents who constantly nagged you to “just settle down, do something safe.” Telling her about their neighbors’ children who had gone on to choose happy civilian lives. And how pleased they all were…. And then the inevitable silence would creep into the spaces between their dinner conversation. Spaces that Sakura could never fill.

Like it wasn’t enough that she’d let herself down. Now she had to bear their disappointment as well.

Sakura knew she didn’t want to go back. Not just yet. She would train all night if she could. The punishing spars seemed to be the only way she felt better. Nothing else worked.

She tightened her fist. Fresh blood seeped from the dry cracks at her knuckles.

Her hands bore testament to her struggles. They were no longer the smooth hands of a medic. They were beat up and callused. They were the hands of a fighter. They were…hands like his—

She smothered the thought, but that familiar desperation was already bearing down on her. She suddenly wished for just one more round, one more spar to push everything out, just for a moment—

“Well, I have to stop and eat from time to time. I’m finished for tonight.” Sasuke toed her hip pack on the ground and looked at her expectantly.

Sakura ground her teeth and stretched her neck. She was just digging in her heels to stay when another peal of thunder rolled across the sky, this time much closer. The sound took a little of the edge off. Sasuke she could fight, nature she couldn’t. And the rain would soon be driving her inside anyway. Admitting defeat, she walked to the grassy edge and snatched up her pack.

Through the weeks of sparring since she’d been released, she had worked out a sort of harmony with Sasuke. They never spoke about anything personal. Always the task at hand. And he turned out to be a better training partner than Ino or Sai.

Sasuke took all her punches and relentlessly threw them back. Sakura had to work hard, so hard that she truly forgot about the things that were eating her up inside. But only while they were sparring.

They stepped through the small gate then turned up the path toward the village, leaving the sparring pitch and the shadowed forest behind them.

“Sai and Kakashi are up for a mission,” she said, glancing sideways at him. “Are you going out with them?” But as soon as the words left her mouth, she wished she hadn’t asked. She could see the answer on his face.

Sasuke shook his head slowly. “No. The Hokage does not think it’s safe right now.” No other explanation was needed. Sakura knew it was a knee-jerk reaction from her attack. Probably handed down from the council.

Her mood darkened. He was just one more person suffering from her mistakes. Her gaze dropped to the ground. Thunder rattled close by.

It was ironic that now she knew exactly how he’d felt all those years. Since her release from the hospital, she had been placed on inactive duty and couldn’t leave the village. Tsunade’s orders. For her own safety. But to Sakura it was a blow. She felt weak and ineffective and—

“So are you catching up on your medic hours then?” Sasuke rallied. “At the hospital?”

Sakura looked away. “Yeah. Some.” She could feel Sasuke’s eyes on her, but she didn’t elaborate.

And she knew she could count on him to not ask more than was necessary.

“Have you seen the little girl lately?”

“Yeah….” But she didn’t want to talk about that either.

So they walked on in silence. They came to the cross roads where they usually broke off. Fat rain drops were just starting to spatter across the dry ground. “So, tomorrow afternoon, then,” Sasuke asked. Sakura nodded, then turned for home.

“Something wrong?”

Sakura blinked. Tsunade looked from Sakura’s face to the dead fish under her clasped hands. Sakura’s fingers were interlaced, the chakra glowed green, but the medical seals around the table were still unmoving. And the fish was still dead.

“N-No. Nothing’s wrong.”

She refocused, bit her lip and, brows knitted together, squeezed her hands so tightly it hurt.

But her thoughts slipped quickly back to that night…and him. She growled inwardly, refusing to say his name. But the images would not stay buried.

Sakura shook it off and let the feeling flow through her limbs and down to her hands. In that moment, that grasping of the exact amount of chakra needed to complete the task, another voice echoed from somewhere deeper. You just have to survive. It doesn’t matter how….

Tears blurred her eyes. No, it didn’t matter, did it? It was all lies. She grit her teeth, pushing down her traitorous memories with everything she had.

Suddenly the scrawled marks blurred and wiggled. The tail of the fish flapped, once, twice, then it’s body pitched against the lab table.

“Excellent,” Tsunade said, hoisting the live specimen up by it’s wriggling tail and pitching it into the containment pond in the center of the room. The black marks dissolved from the table.

Sakura was too surprised to smile at her achievement.

“You are an excellent medic, you know that? You have a real knack for this,” Tsunade said, leaning back against the table. “You have that something that most people don’t have. I don’t know, like a spark. Something that drives you….”

She pinned her with a long gaze.

Sakura couldn’t hold it. She looked to the table. She had changed. In ways she never expected.

She suddenly felt awful. She had been lied to…and she had lied as well. She didn’t deserve Tsunade’s praise. Sakura pursed her lips. Maybe she should just come clean about all of it…tell her about him

“Hokage-sama?” Shizune called from the door.

Tsunade patted her arm, “Well, good work, Sakura,” then strode to the door.

“Thank you,” she said quietly.

In the end, she was a coward too, apparently. Because if they knew she’d put her faith in a rogue boy — an enemy nin, she corrected herself — she’d be branded a traitor.

Some medic, she thought viciously. The only reason she even worked the seal was because of this mess. Not some great spark, like Tsunade thought. She probably couldn’t even do it again….

Sakura scooped up another wriggling fish and flopped it on the table. It beat it’s tail against the cold metal, spraying water everywhere. Gills flared wider and wider, flashing crimson red, desperate for water, suffocating in the air.

Tsunade was wrong. Sakura squinted against another spray of water. This was no work ethic. More like desperation—

She clamped her hand down on its silver body, holding its fins flat against its middle. Narrowing her eyes, she focused her chakra into razor sharp threads. And in a single flash of green she severed the chakra connections around the creature’s heart. The silver tail went limp, the red gills fell flat. Only it’s big glassy eyes stared out at the room.

Sliding her hands back, Sakura took a breath. She had killed it.

But the more she looked at it, the more she realized she felt numb. There was no sense of accomplishment, no feeling of worth. It was all just…gone.

She had loved her work as a medic. She didn’t know she could ever lose that feeling. But it was as dead as the fish on the table.

Her deceit had tarnished everything she had worked for. Sakura’s throat closed with sudden emotion.

But she pushed it all back, clasped her hands and closed her eyes. She concentrated on the pool of warm chakra surrounding her hands. Just as before, images of her betrayal floated back up. A burning building, a masked assailant…a boy, smiling from underneath a black hood….

Sakura pressed her lips into a flat line and breathed through the ache in her chest, pushing more chakra into her hands—

The fish flopped once, twice….

Sakura opened her eyes. The fish wriggled desperately, alive again but still out of its element…and still dying.

She understood how it felt.

Sakura couldn’t stand to look at it. She grabbed it’s tail and pitched it back into the pond. Survive. For what it’s worth.

Sakura turned from the table, feeling…nothing. She knew for certain then that something inside had changed. Tsunade may still think she was a great medic, but Sakura wasn’t so sure any more. Saving a fish wasn’t the same as saving lives. Especially when she had ruined so many, including her own.

Kakashi was the first to spot them, slipping through the trees of Konoha’s dark training forest. But these nins weren’t trying to stay hidden. They were looking for someone. Them.

Sighting Kakashi, three anbu pivoted and dropped to the forest floor. Kakashi walked over to meet them, leaving Sai and Sakura in the clearing. Sasuke, seeing that their training session was at an end for a moment, sauntered out of his hiding spot.

Sasuke shoved his hands in his pockets. “You must have caught their eye,” he said snidely to Sakura.

Sakura snorted, but seeing the three white masks turn suddenly in her direction, she looked away.

“You mean you wouldn’t join up anbu if they came knocking on your door?”

But Sakura wasn’t as girlishly excited as he expected her to be.

“Well…. We can just hope they’re here for you now, can’t we,” she snapped back.

Sasuke hitched his eyebrows up in surprise, but shrugged off her bad attitude as bluster.

Sakura watched Kakashi and the anbu approach from under hooded eyes. If it was true, if the anbu were here for her, then they thought her near-constant training as some sort of screwed-up work ethic.

“Sakura, Sasuke,” Kakashi said, “the anbu division has expressed an interest in your skills. Before you are formally invited, it is tradition to speak with the team’s sensei, then discuss it with you.”

A male voice came out from behind one of the white masks. “Uchiha-san, your skills are very valuable to the Leaf. Anbu has a lot to offer someone of your caliber…but….”

“But….” Sasuke echoed bitterly. “Let me guess, there are some complications.”

“We are working to resolve them—”

Sasuke turned away, swearing viciously under his breath.

“Haruno-san,” a woman’s velvet voice came from the masked shinobi closest to Sakura. “We have followed your progress as well and have been very impressed.” Sakura stiffened. “Your medic knowledge is second to none and your strength as well as your mental fortitude are highly valued skills—“

“I failed my last mission.” Sakura’s throat closed suddenly. She locked her jaw and stared ahead.

“We understand,” said third anbu, an older man with a deep voice. “It is a pain all of us feel. In time you will move past it.”

Sakura couldn’t speak. It was as if the pain of all of it were right behind her throat, trying to leap out.

What progress? Her skills from her partnership with a rogue, someone who was under Itachi’s command. She didn’t want to be on an anbu team, and if they knew…if they only knew…then they wouldn’t want her either.

Sakura turned on her heel and walked away, not trusting her ability to hold back her thoughts. Tears suddenly burned at her eyes.

“Give her time,” Kakashi said into the silence when it was clear she wasn’t coming back. “I think it has been a goal of hers, but she’s a little adrift right now.”

“We understand,” the older anbu said. “Please consider what we have said.” Then they were gone.

At the edge of the tree line, Sakura drug her forearm ruthlessly across her face. Then she walked on into the shadowed woods.

Sai finally spoke up. “Should we go after her?”

Sasuke looked at him blankly. When did he start concerning himself with someone else’s emotional wellbeing? But Kakashi answered for all of them, “No, let her have some time. When she’s ready, she’ll talk about it.”

Sasuke looked at both of them, then to the trees where Sakura had disappeared and wondered when everyone around him had changed.

Kakashi descended on an evening spar just as Sasuke and Sakura were in their last rounds. He watched them, noting Sakura’s hesitancy on her wounded side. She still favored it. And that weakness could be exploited.

“Well, at least she wasn’t wrong about that,” Kakashi thought as he pulled out the Hokage’s scroll.

Both his students glanced up at the sound. But when the seal flopped open, Kakashi could read the disappointment in their faces. They had believed it to be a mission scroll.

He sighed inwardly. Best to get right to the point, then.

“The request from the anbu has been denied.” Both of his students straightened their shoulders. “The Hokage wants to keep you close, and with the instability in the territories lately…well, the missions required of anbu agents would have you out of the village far too often.”

Sakura and Sasuke said nothing.

“She is concerned you would be too much of a target,” he added, hoping to lessen the blow.

Sasuke whipped around indignantly and clanged his weapons back into his pack.

Sakura was more stoic. She shrugged once, then began putting her things away as well.

Kakashi sighed. “Sakura, the Hokage is concerned about your healing—“

“It’s fine,” she said firmly, not looking up.

But just as she stretched for a kunai at the edge of her grasp, her muscles on that wounded side knotted suddenly. She hunched for a moment, massaging her fingers into her side until the spasm passed, then straightened as if nothing had happened. But Kakashi didn’t miss it.

Tsunade had been right. It was minor, but in battle something like that could get her killed.

Sakura looked back over her shoulder at Kakashi. She knew he’d seen her. And she knew what he’d say.

So he spared her a lecture.

“I think it’s for the best right now.”

She shrugged. He let it go.

Kakashi nodded once. “Later.” Then in a flash of hand signals he was gone.

“Listen, I’ll be busy for the next few days. Maybe even the rest of the week,” Sasuke said. A chill autumn breeze chafed them as they walked home from sparring. Sasuke lowered his voice a nothc. “Tsunade has me doing some errands,” he said apologetically.

Sakura rolled her eyes. This meant that she was even being passed over for D-rank mission inside the village. Probably because Tsunade didn’t believe she was healing. Sakura huffed.

Sasuke wisely let it go.

“So I’ll just stop by your house when I get finished, then we can pick up with the spars—“

“I probably won’t be there,” Sakura said darkly. “I’m moving out.”

“Oh?” He looked at her with a frown, forming questions…. Sakura headed them all off.

“It’s been very stressful…with my parents.” Sasuke nodded with surprising understanding. “They really wanted me to quit this time. Were adamant. They even said they were even going to speak to Tsunade—“

“So they kicked you out!?”

“Oh no! They would never do that. They’re not happy with what I’m doing, but it didn’t come to that. They still love me.” She sighed. “They just don’t love what I want to do with my life.”

“But, you’re protecting your village.”

She nodded. “But they say I’m throwing my life away.” She shrugged. “It’s not their fault. They’re good people. They love me and want me to stay safe. But I think it will be easier if I’m in my own place where I’m not condemned for every scratch.”

Sasuke was quiet. A look of anger had stolen across his face.

Sakura didn’t know what to make of it, but she instantly felt guilty. “It’s complicated,” she backpedalled. “They are civilians. I’ve chosen to be a shinobi. And they’re parents, you know? They are supposed to be over-protective—”

“That’s crazy,” Sasuke said quietly. “My parents were so proud….”

Sakura’s excuses died on her lips. She had never heard him speak about his parents. Ever. Or even his clan, other than in terms of what he’d like to do to his brother.

She didn’t know what to say. A gulf opened up between them. They walked in heavy silence, until Sakura rallied herself to dispel the awkwardness. She let his family comment go untouched.

“Well, my parents are civilians. So, they just don’t understand. They think I should be happy in the hospital.” She grinned mockingly and hooked her fist. “That’s me! Protecting Konoha one bedpan at a time!”

A corner of Sasuke’s mouth hitched up into that small wry smile.

Sakura thought that since he was smiling — if that’s what it really was — it might be a good time to ask him for another favor. One she wasn’t entirely sure he’d go for.

“I’ve been meaning to ask you…. There are some other areas that I feel like I’m, uh…lacking in. Areas I was hoping you could help me with….” Sasuke tipped his head. Sakura gulped. “Like genjutsu.” His half-smile vanished.

“No,” he said firmly and turned immediately to go down another lane.

She stepped around in front of him. “I can fight all I want but if I don’t know how to defeat a genjutsu, then what good is a strong punch?”

“Go talk to someone else. Not me.” He stepped around her, but this time she didn’t follow.

“I— I don’t trust anyone else but you. Not for this.” He stopped. At least he was willing to hear her out. She wouldn’t waste this opportunity. “You’ve been under Itachi’s genjutsu, so you know what it’s like. But I don’t think I could fight back. I feel like I’m still weak, and I think I’m going out of my mind. So if I just learned how to fight it, just a little, then maybe I’d feel better—“

“What do you need to battle that for?” He turned to face her, irritated. “You’re not going to go fight him. You’ll probably never even see him again—“

Sakura blinked at him. “I’m your teammate. I probably am.”

Sasuke’s stern refusal thawed. He stood, watching her face, searching for something to refute it. But there was nothing. It made sense, and she knew it.

“So, I keep thinking that if I could just learn a little more, have time to practice, that I’ll be able to protect myself next time—“

“There’s not going to be a next time,” he said stubbornly.

“How do you know?!”

“Because I—

“Because you’ll be alone? It didn’t happen that way before. Itachi targeted me. The weak one on the team—”

Sasuke scowled and looked away. “You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” he muttered.

“It’s true! I….” She swallowed once, hearing Katsuro’s words echo in her head. “You’re expendable, replaceable…forgettable. Konoha put you on his team to be the target. They’ll kill you first so he can get away.”

She closed her eyes and blinked away tears. “I don’t ever want that to happen again. I’m on your team. I’m sure to meet him…I mean them again. And when I do I want to be ready.”

Sasuke raked a hand through his hair. “I don’t know…. Genjutsus are tricky….”

Please,” she pleaded earnestly, desperation leaking into her voice. “I feel like I’m loosing it. Even with all the training. And I think if I could just get a grip on how to stop a genjutsu then I’d feel…better.” She pushed away her wavering emotions, refusing them.

He blew out a breath. “It’s not like learning a strike or throwing a blade. Each genjutsu is different. They become a creation between the user and the subject. I can’t guarantee what might happen….“

Sakura remembered her first taste of a genjutsu with startling clarity. The smothering white petals, then her world going black….

“I just want to know how to fight it,” she said firmly. “That’s all.”

“Alright. But just once. And nothing like his.” There was a slight shudder when Sasuke said it, but it was gone again in an instant. “Just enough so that you know how to stop it. That’s all.” He sighed. “Meet me next Friday. At the sparring pitch.”

“Thanks, Sasuke.“


But once he instructed her, she proved so adept at dismantling the genjutsus that one session turned into two, then four. Then it became a regular part of their sparring through those dark fall nights.

They only worked on the genjutsus after dark. “Less people coming around,” he’d said. Sakura agreed, realizing for the first time that Sasuke was intensely private. It made her appreciate the training even more.

And surprisingly, she was really enjoying it. Both of them were, if she had to guess. Because Sasuke kept coming up with new illusions to stump her.

Sometimes they were seamless, like when he assembled the whole team within the genjutsu just as if it were real life. Kakashi and Sai casually walked up, giving Sasuke the appearance that he’d never cast the jutsu. They spoke to Sakura casually, normally, then produced a scroll from Tsunade, requesting she come immediately. If she left, then Sasuke knew she’d bought into the jutsu. But he was pleasantly surprised when she smirked across at him, brought her fingers together and with a firm “Kai” sent an outward burst of chakra to dispel the illusion like mist.

Sometimes they were built on surprise, with enemy nins jumping out from every tree and bush. Other times they were built on objects such as mission scrolls or kunai, with Sakura having to sort out which were real and which were false.

It was challenging, but it was clear that Sasuke was enjoying devising creative ways to trip her up.

One night he hid an explosive paper tag under a clump of grass, then cast a genjutsu of wounded shinobi begging for help on top of it. Sakura nearly fell for that one.

She got quite close, then suddenly stopped and peered at the man. His wails grew louder and his thrashing more violent. Sakura squinted hard. Blood started spurting from a wound at his neck—

But she ignored it and clapped her hands together for the release. He popped in a cloud of smoke, leaving just the corner of a paper tag sticking out from under the clod of grass.

“Pretty tricky,” she said smiling.

“It wasn’t live,” he smirked back. “It was just there to scare you.”

“Gee thanks,” she laughed.

He picked up the tag. “So the victim was to test how you handled something that tugged on your particular heartstrings—“

“Someone in need of medical attention,” she interjected.

“Right. And the tag was to see how you compensated for fear. Did your emotions fill in the gap and let the illusion be real, or would your mind process the difference and not lose sight of reality.”

“Interesting,” she breathed, stretching her neck from side to side and shaking off the slight dizziness that always accompanied a low-level genjutsu. Not the extreme genjutsu sickness….

Sakura frowned. “But…it’s not quite like I remember….” There was no easy way to say it, so she just plunged ahead. “I still feel like you’re holding back—”

“Of course I’m holding back!” His eyes were wide with angry disbelief. “If I did it wrong I could kill you!”

“But…you can control it? Can’t you?”

Sasuke looked at the sky, exasperated. “Of course. But it’s not like that. It’s not like a kunai, where it’s the same weapon every time I throw it.” He dropped his gaze back to her. “A genjutsu changes every time. It’s my influence on your fears. So I have to get in your mind and twist it. And to do that I have to put some of myself in there too.” He dropped his hands to the pockets of his fatigues. “If it goes too far, it can pull both of us into the illusion.”

“Oh…. Well, then how was Itachi so good at it?”

Sasuke smiled again, but this time it was dark, menacing. “Because he did it all the time.”

“Oh.” Sakura thought for a moment. “Then we both need to work on this….”

“What?! No!” Sasuke growled in frustration. He tried a different tack. “This makes me tired too you know, and the more we work at it the more danger there is of it going wrong.” He turned suddenly to walk off the pitch. “We’ve trained enough.”

Sakura stared at his back. She was beginning to wonder if maybe some of his general disdain for everyone wasn’t more personally rooted.

“You need this too,” she called across the pitch. “Right?”

He didn’t stop. She didn’t care. She’d yelled at his back before.

“To be able to fight Itachi, on his level, you need the practice too. Right?”

That stopped him.

“Please, let’s keep going. I’ve already had the worst — a genjutsu at enemy hands. There’s nothing you could do that I didn’t already see.” He turned slightly. “I want to know how to fight back. And you need to be ready for your brother when you face him again.”

He was considering her words.

“When we face him. Me and you and Sai.” He shook his head at her ploy. But he didn’t leave.

“Please, Sasuke, I really need this.” And she meant it. These training sessions were the only things keeping her afloat. Not the mindless work at the hospital. Not the heart-wrenching visits to the orphanage—

“Alright. But if it starts to goes too far, then that’s it. We’re done.”

He walked back to the flat grassy circle of the sparring pitch and they started again.

Hours later, they were still there.

Sakura stood completely still, eyes painfully wide and fixed on Sasuke. Only small beads of sweat pricked at upper lip.

Across from her, Sasuke kept his eyes pinned to hers, sharingans swirling. His brow was furrowed and his hands were clasped in front of him. He was perfectly still.

Suddenly Sakura unfroze. She gulped for air and immediately started swaying on her feet. Sasuke blinked slowly. Tired lines had etched themselves under his eyes.

He slowly lowered his hand while Sakura dropped to one knee, fighting vertigo. She pressed her fingers to her mouth and quelled her nausea. “Genjutsu sickness,” she repeated to herself. Finally it passed. She slowly stood up, wobbling for a moment before getting her feet solidly underneath her.

“Again,” she rasped.

“Sakura…” he said in tired warning. His eyes faded to black almost too quickly.

But her only response was a long, hard look. Sasuke frowned at her, hands on his hips, but her determination ended the standoff in her favor. He sighed, and concentrated on bringing the sharingan to the surface again.

“Last time,” he said, eyes bleeding red. “I can’t go much further, even if you think you can.”

Sakura fisted the sweat from her upper lip then looked into his spinning red eyes. It was not as dizzying as the first several times. Like when she had opened her eyes to find herself in her bed, Sasori’s skeleton tail hovering over her, ready to spear her through the chest. Or when she was suddenly suffocated by a murder of crows, their pounding wings sounding like the flapping of a canvas tent door. Or when she saw Konoha before her — the hospital, the Hokage’s tower…all of it — burning, burning in malicious orange flames.

She knew Sasuke was pulling out her fears — her nightmares — and using them against her. Each time she had to work harder to sense the separation, feel out the break between reality and illusion—

Sakura blinked. Suddenly she was alone on a road. It was dark, and Sasuke was gone. The gravel disappeared into a fog, so she couldn’t see anything she might recognize. There was no sound and no wind. Just a road.

The mist shifted and an outline of a shape slowly emerged. It was a lump on the side of the road. As if someone had thrown out their laundry. Sakura moved cautiously toward it.

But the more she looked, the more she saw. It was a body. Black hair. A young man. Sakura broke into a run.

He was on his side. An Uchiha fan was partially visible on the clothes and blood was seeping out from underneath him.

It was his body…. It was Sasuke.

Choking on an anguished cry, she ran toward him but she could not cover the ground fast enough. He still was too far away. Her heart raced, her mouth went dry.

More lumps where emerging, as well as the shadowy outlines of buildings. All the way down the road more bloody, clothed bumps were coming into view. Everywhere. Spread out across the lane, in doorways, clinging to each other or fallen alone.

W-What happened?

Sakura finally got closer to Sasuke, but somehow the form had changed. The hair was longer, the body different. It was not Sasuke, but some other black-haired man struck down on the side of the road.

The street crystallized out of the fog. Houses and stores. The Uchiha fan was painted on a long curving wall. And there were bodies. All of them Uchiha. All of them dead. Murdered.

Black hair and blood…. Women and children…. Fathers and mothers….

Sakura felt the weight of every stolen life. She dropped to her knees in the road. She felt dizzy. There seemed to be no more air.

Suddenly a warmth tore into her side. It was wet and wrong….

She looked down, feeling strangely disconnected, and saw her torn shirt and her shattered abdomen where her injury had nearly ripped her in two. Her hands, her arms, her clothes were covered with blood. She was drenched in her own life’s fluid.

Then suddenly she could feel again. The blood was heavy in her hair and plastered to her neck. Her once-pink tendrils hung in black curtains, sticking in places to her cheek and neck.

She shook her head slowly, slinging blood from the tips of her wet-black hair. No. This couldn’t be happening. She had survived. Sasuke had saved her—

But that seemed like a far off dream. Because she was here. Alone. And she was going to die like the rest of the Uchihas—

“Sakura!” Sasuke’s voice roared like a wind. The sound tore down the road and blasted everything away in great swirls of fog.

Sakura blinked. The blood, the bodies, the horror…it was all gone.

She was standing in the sparring pitch across from a deathly-pale Sasuke.

She only had an instant to align reality with the illusion she’d just suffered, when vertigo overwhelmed her and bile shot to her throat. She went down on all fours, and wretched violently.

Limp, Sasuke dropped to his knees. His face was chalk white. The sharingan had vanished immediately, but his dilated pupils made his eyes unnaturally black. His arms hung like dead weights. His hands were beginning to tremble.

Sakura cracked an eye at him. He was going into shock, but she was powerless to help him. The road and the bodies flashed in her brain again. Another wave of nausea hit her, followed by the image of her gaping wound, and the fear that she was watching her own death— The ground heaved, the sky swam over her and she wretched again.

If she thought that training or medic work would help her, then she was wrong. It was worse than ever.

She’d gained strength. She could fight any low level genjutsu thrown at her. She’d mastered some excellent healing jutsus. Tsunade had praised her. Even the anbu had taken notice.

But Sakura had never felt more hollow.

She knew why. And it wasn’t just through the wreckage of her own life.

Every time she visited the little girl, she knew the cost of what she’d done.

And it seemed the little girl was intent on making her pay.

Sakura folded her arms. Though the sun had been up for a few hours, it had not yet warmed the narrow, shadowed lanes. Winter was fast approaching.

She turned down a street cluttered with old buildings and residences, it’s state of dilapidation like a signpost that this was a less-desirable part of Konoha, then she turned again down an even less-desirable street. She walked past shabby storefronts and narrow alleys, until she came to a sprawling complex facing east. It was the only thing on this part of the lane, and it faced east, soaking up the morning sun. A wire fence ran down one side, and a large tree poked out from a courtyard tucked into the buildings wings.

Sakura walked up the dusty yellow lane, turned between two big planters and trudged up the steps. A dull plaque beside the door read Konoha Children’s Home.

She stopped, hand hovering about the handle for a moment. She really hated it here. Maybe she should come back later….

But she forced herself on and, snatching the door handle, yanked it open. Familiar smells hit her like a wall: over-cooked food and warm little bodies and too much disinfectant. She bit her cheek and headed straight for the check-in desk.

The matronly woman’s friendly greeting — “Here to see little Mai? Sign in, and I’ll take you back.” — and the sound of laughing children in the halls did nothing to ease Sakura’s growing feeling of unease.

Sakura put on the visitor sticker and followed the woman down the maze of corridors.

Sakura had come to see the little girl as soon as she’d been released from the hospital. But it had been disastrous. Mai shrieked at the sight of her. “No! No! No!” she screamed, clutching her head until her teachers were able to calm her down.

“She has lots of nightmares,” they all said reassuringly. “We see it often after traumas. She’ll get better! Don’t worry!”

But Sakura didn’t think this would just ‘get better.’ And she was right.

Mai did stop screaming at the sight of her, and the teachers all smiled fondly, encouraging their friendship, but Sakura could tell the little girl was retreating farther into her shell each time she came.

She brought gifts, she suggested games, she talked when the little girl said nothing…she even offered to let her play with her ninja weapons. She said anything and everything. But the little girl was still cold.

Mai never spoke. She just shook her head or turned away completely.

It shook Sakura to her core. Sometimes it made her so frustrated. She would storm back down the street, swiping away hot tears. Other times she would sit on at the picnic table in the courtyard under the great shade tree, watching the girl on the swing, her feet dragging circles in the dust, and just feel like such a failure.

“You can’t even save yourself….”

Sakura didn’t even know what she was doing here anymore. She didn’t think it was doing any good. But another part of her felt so responsible for this mess, that she didn’t what else to do. So she kept coming back.

She followed the woman down more halls. They were cleanly washed and pictures were pinned down the walls. It was a cheerful, happy place. The woman turned at an open exterior door and held her hand out to the courtyard. A long girl with fluttery black hair moved slowly in the swing under the tree. Around her, children played and ran. But she was immune to it.

Sakura sighed.

The woman heard her and laughed. “Yeah, she’s in one of her moods today. But maybe you can bring her around!”

Sakura didn’t see how that was possible. But she thanked her and went out anyway.

Mai turned her head slightly at the approaching footsteps, but she whipped her head back when she caught sight of who it was.

“Hi, Mai,” Sakura said softly.

Mai looked at the ground and continued swinging as if no one was there.

“I-I brought you some candy.” She reached in her pack and pulled at a handful of lemon candies. “I remembered they were your favorites.”

Sakura squatted down and held them out in her hand, directly in the Mai’s view. But she stared even harder at the ground.

Normally Sakura took the child’s signal and pulled back, letting her make the first move. A ‘first move’ which never came.

But Sakura’s turbulent emotions were robbing her of patience. She kept thinking if she could just make a connection, smooth over those wounds deep inside, then they could begin to heal together.

But Sakura didn’t know how much longer she could last. And today, desperation got the best of her.

Mai ignored her, but Sakura decided to wait her out. She left her hand extended, the candy there for her to take. Mai couldn’t swing or even slip out of the seat until she either took the candy…or told Sakura to get the hell out of the way.

Mai froze. Sakura watched her, feeling more and more sure that this was absolutely the wrong way to handle this.

Ashamed of herself, she was just about to pull her hand back, when she caught a fragment of a whisper.

“What!? Mai, I didn’t hear you, honey. Tell me again—“

“Not my favorite.”

Sakura pulled her hand back, in numb shock.

“I know,” she said in a watery voice. “I know….”

The candy wasn’t her favorite.

Sakura wasn’t her favorite.

She crushed her hand around the candy, blindly shoving it into her bag.

It was all about him. It always was. And there was nothing Sakura could do to fix it. Nothing.

She pushed down her urge to cry. “Listen, Mai. What happened was awful. But you’re here now, and we can move on. We can—” She didn’t even know what she was saying. “You can go to academy, and be a ninja like me…or…. Or be whatever you want to—“

“I don’t wanna be like you! I don’t wanna be a ninja— I want to go home!!”

“Mai, you can’t honey. You know that. I wish you could but—“ Sakura moved to put her arms around her, but Mai pushed her away.

“I don’t want you!”

“Sweetie, I—”

“You did this,” she screamed. Across the courtyard children and teachers looked up. “You killed them and…and…I hate you!!

The words hit her like a punch. She dropped a knee to the ground to steady herself. But now that the little girl had started, she wouldn’t be stopped. It all came out in a flood. “You killed them! And you left him there! And you did this! You did all of it! And I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!“

Still screaming, She flung herself at Sakura, pounding her with small fists. Sakura let her, saying over and over “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” thinking that maybe if Mai got it all out they’d both feel better. But in the next moment a teacher was scooping up the inconsolable child and carrying her back to the building. The woman from the front desk helped Sakura to her feet.

“It’s just hard for her right now,” she said, her matronly air turning crisp. “Don’t take it personally. She’ll get better, you’ll see. She just needs time…. And I think you do too.”

The woman was politely telling her to stay away. Leave the child alone.

Sakura bit her lip and nodded mutely.

She didn’t think it was possible to feel like more of a failure, but she did now. She hadn’t fixed anything — she’d somehow made it worse.

Sakura held in a sob and walked back to the building alone, the woman having left her to corral the children still in the courtyard.

Just like at the hospital, word traveled fast in the orphanage. The few teachers she passed in the halls offered her sympathetic smiles. And she felt worse with each one.

At the front desk, Sakura ripped off the visitor sticker and threw it in the trash. Gulping down sobs, she pushed hard on the door, bursting out of the building and rushing down the steps, trying to get away from the orphanage, the pain, everything, but she couldn’t…. She just couldn’t….

A dam had finally broken inside, and it all crashed down on her. She dropped down on the bottom step and wept into her hands.

What Mai said was true. It was her fault. All of it. She could never fix it. She could never bring them back.

And Katsuro…Katsuro….

Just saying his name brought some small relief…and more tears.

He was Mai’s favorite. And now he was gone too. She couldn’t even say anything about who he really was. Help her understand. No, to blame him would only be taking away something else from the poor child.

She couldn’t say anything. To anyone. Not about any part of it. Because to confess was to admit her guilt as well.

But worse than all that, was that he was gone. Even in the face of his betrayal — because that’s what it was, truly — she still missed him.

Katsuro was her favorite too.

Fat tears rolled down her cheeks. She told herself it couldn’t have all been lies. He must have felt something. She remembered that kiss….

And through that one memory, a door cracked open to the place inside where she had locked everything about him away. It all came back in a rush. She wept again for that loss. It felt like a death.

Even thought Sakura knew he wasn’t dead. Shhe knew he had made through that fiery inferno. Somehow, she just knew it.

Sakura palmed away the tears, remembering something Mai had said. She blamed her for “leaving him there.” Then she must have felt his life force. She blinked.

But it didn’t matter. He might as well be. He was gone. It was all a lie.


She was still making mistakes. And other people were still having to pay for it.

If she had never connected with Katsuro, sought out that shortcut, then Mai would be with her family today.

Mai was right. This was her fault. And there was no way she could fix it.

And she thought she’d come so far….

“You can’t even save yourself….”

The words haunted her now, like a curse. She stood shakily and stepped down to the sidewalk. She stopped, leaned against the one of the big planters and wiped her face again. The mid-sized trees shivered in the stiff breeze. The dusty yellow road glowed in the cold sunlight, hurting her eyes. A dry sob shuddered through her.

Sakura slowly walked back up the lane. She felt like she’d sprung a leak and everything she’d ever thought was important had just drained away. She felt empty. And she didn’t know how to go on.

Sakura stared at the dancing flames of the campfire so long that the sound of footsteps in the dark woods behind her was a surprise.

Sasuke dropped an armful of kindling, just enough to keep the small fire going for a while. Winter’s chill was slowly creeping across the land, and even though this night was mild, it could turn sharply cold without warning.

Although she couldn’t see him, Sakura knew his exasperated huff was aimed at her. He stomped off again.

Sakura didn’t care. She drooped her shoulders as if she carried a burden. And she supposed she did. It was crushing to suffer through these mindless missions. Tsunade was assigning them every manner of drudgery, all within the safety of the Fire Nation’s expansive borders.

She knew she ought to feel grateful that the Hokage had relented and had begun sending them out again. But she wasn’t grateful.

Instead, she thought Tsunade was probably just taking pity on them. All the other teams were out — being useful and chasing the specter of enemy nins across the territories — while she and Sasuke were left behind.

And since their spars had ceased after that disastrous genjutsu, there was nothing left to talk about. So they carried out their assignments in silence.

Sakura hung her head.

But silence was okay with her. She had nothing to say. There was nothing she wanted. When she was in the village, she wanted out. But when they were out, on nights like tonight, she felt as useless as when she was wandering around Konoha. And worse, it was even more clear that she had nothing to look forward to going back to—

“Is that all you’re going to do,” Sasuke spat out as he dumped another armload of branches on the pile. “Just sit there!?”

Sakura looked up in surprise. The pile was big enough now to last them several days. But they were just staying the one night….

Great, now he was mad too. Scowling, she rolled her eyes and turned back to the fire.

Sasuke stalked to the other side of the fire circle and into her line of vision.

“If you’re just going to sit around, feeling sorry for yourself,” Sakura glared at him, “then why even come out at all?!”

“It’s not like that,” she muttered under her breath.

“You think your the only one who has problems—“

“No, of course not. I—“

“Then get over yourself and get back to work!” Sasuke folded his arms over his chest. “You’re only making it harder on yourself,” he said, eyebrow hitching up in challenge. The corner of his mouth curled up. But his smile was mean. “You’re only making it harder on yourself, you know.”

Sakura’s glowering turned to shock. Was he throwing her own words back at her?! A long dormant fury swept through Sakura. She shot to her feet.

Across the fire, Sasuke looked smugly pleased with himself.

“You don’t understand. This isn’t just some botched mission. It’s all my fault.” Her words came out in angry rush. “I was targeted and because I was, I cost that little girl her family, and the life she would have had—“


Sakura sputtered. “Y-You don’t know what happened! You don’t know—”

“I don’t have to know!” There wasn’t a shred of sympathy in his voice. “So what if you were targeted? The moment you put on that headband you were a target. What matters is that when you had to…you fought back. You survived.”

Sakura grew very still. The words rang in her ears. “You just have to survive….”

Sasuke continued coldly. “And not only did you survive, you brought that damn girl back. Alive. Even though it almost killed you.” The corner of his mouth turned down then.

“But you won. They didn’t. And that’s all that matters. Nothing else.” He leveled his black eyes at Sakura. “So let her hate you. She’s got to hate someone.”

Sakura watched him, his words sinking in and her anger loosing it’s hold.

“But, how do I—“

“Get over it?”

Sakura nodded weakly.

“You don’t. You just move on.”


“You can’t change it, so don’t try to.” Sasuke cut his eyes away. “You can only change what you do going forward.”

She folded an arm across her stomach.

“Just…quit feeling sorry for yourself,” he muttered. He stalked off, leaving Sakura standing alone at the fire, but he stopped at the edge of the darkness.

“Not everyone gets the chance to fight back,” he said quietly, then he disappeared in the black.

Sakura looked down. Firelight reflected in her glassy eyes. Perhaps there were different types of survival, she thought.

Sometimes it was opponent. But sometimes it was grief itself.

Sasuke would know wouldn’t he, she thought, remembering that genjutsu. She knew now it was his memory. He never got to fight back. But he’d survived as well.

She blew out a long low breath and felt something unwind inside. Maybe she could just let it go. And change who she was in the future. And never let anything like that happen again. She would just…move on.

It was a start. She sat down again, feeling more at peace with herself than she had in a long time.

Sasuke came back much later. This time, she heard him. He dumped another bundle of sticks onto the pile, then sighed deeply.

“Listen, Sakura. It didn’t mean to…I sounded very….”

“It’s okay,” she said quietly, not looking up.

He must not have believed her. He spoke down at her rounded back, “Just…Just let her be. Konoha will take care of her.” He cleared his throat, adding quietly, “I don’t think seeing her is doing you any good either.”

Sakura peered back at him. “I think you’re right,” she said slowly. “And, I understand what you mean,” she said honestly. “About moving on.”

Sasuke looked surprised. But he said nothing. Instead he sat down quietly beside her and began feeding twigs into the blaze. Sakura pulled up her legs, rested her chin on her knees and watched the fire.

The rest of the night they sat in companionable silence, each mulling their pasts and the choices that lay ahead.