Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto. Quotes within line breaks credited to Anne Danielewski, a.k.a. Poe, unless otherwise noted.
World: Modern Supernatural AU
Notes: This is Book Three of my Haunted series. Books One and Two are forthcoming, as I'm going in reverse chronological order. The thing about horror is that there aren't always answers to everything. That's what makes the unknown so scary to most people. Without answers, we are left fumbling around in the dark, perhaps never to find our way out. And even if we do, who is to say we're really out? I want to explore that kind of horror here. There won't be an easy resolution to everything, and that's done on purpose. Take from it what you will. Enjoy!
See no evil.
"And when you gaze into the Abyss, the Abyss also gazes into you." - Friedrich Nietzsche
Contrary to popular belief and popular television, real hospitals were not a constant deluge of gunshot wounds and drunk drivers who would outlive their victims. Hospitals had their slow nights, their nights when all Sakura Haruno wanted to do was poke out her own eyeballs with a pen if just to feel some excitement. Anything. A second-year intern, residency was just around the corner for the bright, young surgeon-to-be. Most nights weren't this bad. If there was one thing people could be counted on for, it was to find new and creative ways to hurt themselves (or others).
Sometimes, people got hurt for no reason at all.
It was about two hours into Sakura's night shift, at the peak of her lassitude, that she heard the call that would change the course of her life as she knew it.
"Paging Doctor Hatchling. Code Blue, ground floor."
Sakura dropped the paper clip she'd been unbending at a table in the break room and stood abruptly. She rubbed her eyes, unsure if she'd heard correctly.
"Paging Doctor Hatchling. Code Blue, ground floor."
She sprinted out the break room door and headed for the stairs, pulling her short hair back into a ponytail and kicking open the stairwell door with her foot. Her white labcoat got stuck in the door as it slammed shut behind her, but she yanked it out with the force of her dash, uncaring. This was more important.
Code Blue denoted cardiac arrests, brain failure, the serious stuff. There was little time to waste during a Code Blue, hence Sakura's inhuman flight. As an intern in internal medicine, Sakura had an idea of what she was doing, but she was no resident. She required supervision from a licensed specialist. If they were calling in the interns, then some extenuating circumstances must be messing up protocol.
Sakura arrived at the ground floor's emergency wing just as the emergency response team wheeled the patient in on a stretcher. One had administered an IV and oxygen mask en route. Sakura was about to announce her presence and help when a nurse rushed to her side and guided her to the stretcher.
"What's the situation?" Sakura asked.
One of the emergency responders briefed her on vitals and the gist of the apparent accident. The patient, a thirty-year-old man with a family history of stroke and heart attack, had collapsed after complaining of severe pressure on the right side of his head.
"He's not very responsive, mostly babbling," the responder added.
"Where's Dr. Senju?" Sakura asked as she ran with the response team and their patient to the ER.
"She's at a conference this week. We're understaffed tonight. Dr. Yakushi is on vacation out of the country, and Dr. Kato—"
"I get it, okay," Sakura snapped. She didn't mean to be short with her coworkers, but it was business. A man's life was on the line.
Nurses and orderlies met the party at the ER. Shī Mato was the first-year resident on duty, a stickler for protocol and rules. One wouldn't guess it from his blond pretty-boy looks, but the people he worked with took his word as law. He had one of the best track records at Konoha General despite his youth. The response team backed off and let the on-site staff take the case from here. Sakura locked eyes with Shī and apprised him of the situation, including her opinion of what had happened.
"Stroke, possible arterial embolism in the brain," Sakura rattled off.
"All right. Nurse, prepare the CT scan. I need to know what we're dealing with exactly," Shī ordered. "Sakura, start the physical examination."
Everyone milled about in a frantic haze of fluttering lab coats, scrubs, and monotone speech. Sakura obeyed Shī's order and approached the patient, getting a good look at him for the first time. She gasped, recognizing the man.
"Itachi Uchiha," she said, horrified.
She'd seen him just the other day outside his brother Sasuke's home. The brothers had been conversing while Karin Uzumaki joined Sakura and their friend, Ino Yamanaka, in the car. When Sakura had asked what was going on, since it was a rare sight to see Itachi not bogged down with work, Karin had shrugged.
"You're family," Ino reminded Karin. "Nothing serious, I hope?"
"Itachi seemed not himself," Karin admitted. "But he wouldn't talk about it with me there, so..."
"So you drag us out." Ino smirked.
"I hope he's all right," Sakura said, eyes lingering on the brothers.
Itachi had caught her eye just before she'd pulled out, and she remembered shivering even at a distance. Like he wasn't really seeing her, but something else. It gave her the creeps, but she'd brushed it off and thought little of it. In the few encounters she'd had with Itachi, he always had an air of the strange about him, like he wasn't all there. She wondered where exactly he was, but thought it best not to ask.
Now, Itachi was struggling on a hospital stretcher and dying before her eyes.
"Itachi, can you hear me?" she tried, taking his hand to gauge his motor skills. "I'm Sakura, remember? Karin and Sasuke's friend?"
Itachi's eyes were half-lidded and unseeing, and through the oxygen mask Sakura noticed that he was drooling excessively. Swearing, she grabbed a suction tube from a nearby medical tray and pulled off the mask so he wouldn't choke. She made quick work of the spittle and was about to replace the mask over Itachi's nose and mouth when something grabbed her upper arm hard.
Startled, Sakura dropped the suction tube. To her horror, Itachi was looking at her, eyes wide and hyper-focused. His grip was iron-clad and excruciating, and he pulled her closer to his eye level. Sakura opened her mouth to scream, but his words cut her off.
"Do you see them?" he asked, his voice raspy as though he'd been screaming and gone hoarse.
Sakura tried to focus, but this bizarre turn of events and the pain in her arm made it difficult.
"Do you see them?" he repeated, his tone more urgent as he shook her a little.
Sakura shook with fright and adrenaline. He'd been unresponsive before, and now he was as sane as could be and forming complete sentences. Atypical for a stroke victim, to say the least.
"Itachi, let go. You're hurting me!"
"They can see you."
A proverbial cold finger of dread ran down Sakura's spine at his words, illogical as that dread was. Some of the nurses and orderlies noticed the commotion and rushed to Sakura's aid. No one was able to pry Itachi off of her, though.
"Get him off her!" Shī ordered one of the burlier orderlies.
"Open your eyes!" Itachi said, bringing his free hand up and smashing it against Sakura's face.
Blinded by pain and darkness, Sakura stumbled backward and crashed into a metal stand holding sharp medical knives and other tools. Shī caught her by the arm—the one Itachi had crushed—before she could fall on the knives and further injure herself. She howled in pain at the renewed pressure over the tender spot Itachi had abused with inhuman strength.
The next few minutes passed in a blur of sound and too-bright lights and so much pain. Someone hauled her out of the ER and she wound up on a hospital bed somewhere quiet, but Sakura could not say how much time had passed. A nurse had given her an eye mask to keep out the light while an ice pack made slow work of her bruised face. At some point, Sakura passed out because the next thing she knew, Ino was shaking her awake.
"Hey, Forehead. Sleep well?" Ino said, a smile in her voice.
Sakura felt around for her mask with the arm that didn't hurt when she moved it. Once off, the light seared her vision and she shielded her eyes. Ino's hand in hers was warm and calming.
"Hey, Pig," Sakura said, blinking to help her vision adjust. "I guess... If you count getting smacked in the face by Itachi Uchiha."
The world came into focus and Sakura was relieved to see that nothing was amiss. She was in one of the hospital's overnight rooms.
"How long was I out?"
"Just the night. I called the front desk when you didn't pick up your cell, but they told me you'd been in an accident, so I came over."
Sakura sighed. "I'm sorry. You must be missing work right now."
Ino waved her off. "It's okay. Karin offered to come instead but you know how she's up for a promotion, so I told her to get her ass to the office." She smirked.
Sakura smiled, too. "What would I do without you guys?"
"Take punches to the face from dazed hot guys, apparently." Ino's good humor disappeared as she got a good look at Sakura. "What happened? From what Shī told me, it wasn't exactly by the books."
The previous night's events flooded Sakura's memory, and she raised a hand to her head, like it weighed on her simply to remember. "Itachi... Is he okay? He suffered a stroke."
"He's comatose. Doctors have no idea what the problem is, apparently. Everything was normal until the incident with you. Sakura, you didn't do anything to him, did you?"
"Do? No, I was just prepping him for a CT scan, and he lashed out..."
"Do you see them?"
Sakura shivered at the memory, and Ino mistook it for exhaustion.
"Hey, let's get you home. You've got the day off to clear your head. I expect you to fill it with Godiva truffles and as much Malbec as you can put away."
Sakura nodded, smiling a little. "Yeah, right."
But she wasn't really hearing Ino even as the two of them got her cleaned up and out of the hospital. They passed by the receptionist's station, which was blessedly vacant for the time being. Probably a bathroom break. Sakura kept her eyes down, not wanting to see anyone she knew even though her shift mates had all gone home hours ago. On the way out the door, she and Ino passed a young girl in a school uniform with sad, brown eyes wearing purple face paint, like she'd just come back from a trip to the carnival. Ino walked by without a second glance at the shy girl, but Sakura smiled. The little girl did not return it, and Sakura's expression fell. She could feel the little girl's haunted eyes on her back until she turned the corner for the visitor's parking lot.
Ino, for all her typical chattiness, was silent for most of the drive back to Sakura's apartment in the city. Sakura was grateful for it. Her head ached and she anticipated a migraine. The bright morning sun was doing her no favors. If anyone knew how to gauge her mood, it was Ino. She should have known that she wouldn't be off the hook scot free, though.
"Sakura, listen. I don't know why whatever happened happened, but it's over now. If you want to talk about it, you know how to find me," Ino said through the window of her car once Sakura exited the vehicle.
Sakura smiled a genuine smile. "Thanks. I think I just need to rest a little."
Ino winked. "I'll tell Naruto to keep a low profile for a bit."
Ino drove away and Sakura went upstairs to her fifth floor apartment, locking the door behind her and slumping to the floor. She hugged her knees to her chest and shuddered, her resolve splintering now that she was alone.
Sakura had seen the worst of human suffering in her time training to become a surgeon. She'd seen infectious diseases that literally ate away as tissue and bone alike, as though they were made of rice paper. She'd witnessed heart attacks, assisted in coronary bypasses, observed brain surgery, and tackled cancer all over the body in its death row stages. She was used to screams and blood and pain.
But Itachi's behavior had disturbed her on a visceral level. It was worse now that she was in the privacy of her home away from prying eyes without the physical pain of his grip to distract her.
"Do you see them?"
Sakura got to her feet and resolved to take a cold shower, snap herself out of this trauma-induced trance. She did just that, and three minutes later she was looking in the mirror, shivering from the cold. It felt good. Numb, there was no room for fear. She took a deep breath and ran a hand through her damp hair. Her face didn't look so bad. A few faint purple splotches around her cheeks and temples, but nothing that wouldn't disappear with ice and a good night's rest. Her arm was a different story. Itachi had gripped her so hard that he'd bruised the bone. A thick handprint marked where he'd grabbed her. That would take more than a few days to heal. Green eyes stared back at her through the mirror, dark and turbulent.
"They can see you."
"It was an anomaly. A moment of relapse. That's all."
Some things, Sakura had learned early on, were unexplainable even to the trained medical professional. She hated that line of reasoning. Surely there was an answer out there somewhere, and the fact that no one knew it did not mean it didn't exist. There had been a time when people thought disease could be bled out, a time when fire was considered the only source of light. Now there was penicillin and electricity. The answers were out there; they just had to be found. Itachi was no different, even if Sakura herself could not find the answer to his odd behavior.
"Open your eyes."
Sakura fumbled at the porcelain pedestal sink and jerked away from the mirror, eyes searching around and behind her. There was no one here. Even so, Sakura wiped cold sweat from her brow, eyes shifting left and right. She squeezed them shut and rubbed them until she saw stars. It sounded like someone had whispered in her ear just now.
"Get ahold of yourself," Sakura said aloud.
Maybe Itachi had clocked her harder than her bruises let on. She didn't want to deal with this anymore. Sleep was what she needed, Sakura decided. Her hunger could wait. She dressed in an old T-shirt she'd borrowed from her friend Sai and set her alarm for 6 PM so she would make it to her next shift. Taking breaks would not give her the credit she needed to earn a residency.
She pulled closed all the shutters in her room to blot out the day's light. Dead tired, Sakura collapsed onto her pillow and passed out.
Solitude had never felt so lonely without him. Now, only shadows followed where the light could not touch. What good were shadows? Each one he cast grew darker, deeper, and yet they were never enough.
He needed more.
If shadows were all he had, he would take them all. Maybe one of them would speak, someday. Just one word.
It was true what they said about lies: They were beautiful.
The alarm buzzed at Sakura's nightstand and she nearly smashed her alarm clock in the process of turning it off. Her body was like lead and her hair was a mess, but that was nothing a strong hair tie couldn't fix. As for her body, some food was in order. Her shift was in an hour, so she had just enough time to grab something and catch the 6:20 PM train that would drop her at Konoha General Hospital. Wasting no time, she dressed in long sleeves to hide the discoloration in her left arm, threw a sandwich together, and raced out the door.
She knew the route to the hospital by heart, and she made it on autopilot. It was just another night, and she was eager to return to the daily grind. When she clocked in for her shift, she ran into Shī.
"Sakura, you're supposed to be taking the day off," he said.
"You know me," Sakura said, forcing a smile. "Can't stay away."
He studied her face and Sakura fidgeted a bit under his scrutiny. He was only two years her senior, but he was generally loathe to bend the rules for any reason. And yet, he preferred to abandon titles with her whenever they were away from the prying eyes of their superiors. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that they'd been in medical school together. The academic camaraderie was hard to shake even in an institutionalized hierarchy like Konoha General.
"All the same, I'm taking you out of the OR for tonight."
"Shī, come on," Sakura protested. "It wasn't even my fault. You saw what happened—"
"I saw you recoil in terror from a patient. I'm not blaming you. It was...odd. But I think you should take some time to get back to normal. You know I'm right."
Yes, she did, but she didn't have to like it. "Fine, whatever. I wish you luck with Wakiko, then."
Wakiko was the other intern, and it was no secret to Sakura that Shī did not get along with her. The man hid it well and always put the job first, but even he had his limits. He winced.
"...Let's hope you recover quickly for both our sakes," he said, excusing himself.
Sakura smirked and watched him go. Shī was strict, but he was a friendly guy when he wasn't working. Resigning herself to a boring night of check-ups and nurse coddling, Sakura checked the rounds log and resolved to get started.
Several hours into her shift she came to a dead stop in the hallway outside Room 4 in the overnight wing. The clipboard read, "Patient #478: Itachi Uchiha." Sakura gripped the clipboard harder. His file indicated that he'd fallen into a coma shortly after his outburst with her the other night. His vitals were stable, but he showed no signs of recovering anytime soon. Sasuke must have been devastated.
Sakura twisted the knob and pushed the door open. Her trepidation was unfounded. Itachi was ill, and his fit the other night was borne of that illness. There was no other logical explanation, never mind that she had never known victims of severe stroke to lash out with moments of stark sanity like that.
"Open your eyes."
Sakura quashed the thought, refusing to entertain such drivel any longer. Itachi needed help, and if there was anything she could do, she would do it. It was her job and her passion. Determined, she walked inside and let the door fall closed behind her.
To her astonishment, she wasn't Itachi's only visitor.
"Excuse me, but visiting hours are long over."
A small lamp emitted a wan glow in the far corner of the room, its meager light managing only to cast shadows, caricatures of darkness too long and too sharp to be natural. The man looming over Itachi's bedside glanced at Sakura askance, like her voice had reached him with a delay. He watched her in silence for a moment, and Sakura shifted her weight.
"...Sir, I'll have to ask you to leave," she said.
He turned his full attention on her, and Sakura clutched her clipboard to her side a little harder. The weight of this man's gaze was heavy, like someone had piled sandbags on her shoulders. His honey eyes, sleepy but no less alert, bore into her as though looking for something.
"Are you talking to me?" he asked.
He spoke like he wasn't used to it, deliberate and precise around a mouthful of cobwebs. Sakura narrowed her eyes, suspicious, but willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. For now.
"Are you a friend of Itachi's?"
He watched her for a moment, and Sakura resisted the urge to fidget. This weight was tiring to bear. He slid his gaze back toward a sleeping Itachi.
"Something like that."
"Well, all the same, the visiting hours are over. I need to check him, so I'll have to ask you to leave."
"Who are you?"
Sakura frowned. "Dr. Sakura Haruno. I'm an intern here at Konoha General. I can assure you, Itachi is receiving the best care we can afford him."
The mysterious man stepped toward her, and Sakura held her ground. The minute she had the thought, she disliked it. It sounded like she was preparing for battle. During her internal struggle, the man stopped just before her. The lamp's light did little to illuminate him. Shadows surrounded him, almost as if he melted into them. Like a dark abyss that threatened to swallow him whole if only he would fall back into it.
"Forgive the intrusion, Sakura," he said. "I wouldn't want to delay your check-up."
He brushed past her and Sakura turned to see him out.
"It's nothing," she said, holding the door for him. "Do you know the way out?"
The man caught her gaze over his shoulder. "I can manage."
He left and he took the shadows with him. Alone with Itachi, the nearby lamp seemed brighter than it had before, and she squinted. Sakura dismissed the thought. Perhaps her eyesight was still wonky after the hit she'd taken from Itachi the night before.
Sakura performed the requisite check-up on Itachi. His situation did not look very optimistic, if she was being honest. It was a tragedy. He was so young. Fate could be wretched when it wanted to be. She put a hand on his brow. He didn't have a fever, and he slept peacefully to the naked eye. The stroke had taken its toll, though, and she wondered what he dreamed about, if anything. Could the brain dead dream? They were all but blind to the real world.
"Do you see them?"
"All I see is you fighting to get better, Itachi," she said softly. "I promise...I'll do everything I can."
She left him and the lamp flickered out. The room plunged into darkness.
Pretty please, can you tell me where I am?
You, won't you say something?
I need to get my bearings.
And these shadows keep on changing."
The rest of Sakura's shift passed without a hitch, and time ticked by at an acceptable pace. Before she knew it, the sun was breaching the horizon at her shift was up. She hung up her lab coat in her locker, gathered her things, and headed for the exit.
"Good morning, Dr. Haruno," the receptionist said, smiling.
Sakura paused and checked her wrist watch: 8:13 AM. Having always been a morning person, she could have laughed at the irony of working the night shift. Mornings were her nights now, and Sakura despised them.
"Morning, Gloria," Sakura mumbled.
"Oh dear, I heard about the rough time you had the other night," Gloria said, leaning forward as though she was sharing a secret.
Her dark hair was pulled back in a severe bun, as it was every day, and her rimless glasses gave her a smart, chic look. Essential for a receptionist, Sakura figured. The woman had to deal with distraught would-be patients and their families every day as the hospital's first line of defense.
Sakura was about to tell her it was nothing to worry about, but a thought gave her pause. "Hey, do you have a log of yesterday's visitors?"
Gloria frowned. "Yes, of course. Did you need to check it?"
"Yeah, if you don't mind."
Gloria retrieved a thick log book from somewhere behind her desk and leafed through to yesterday's date. "It was a busy day. That poor Uchiha man has a loving family. I sure hope he gets better."
"Mm," Sakura said, not really hearing as she ran a finger over each of the names scribbled in.
Itachi's parents had been in and out all day. Sasuke had signed in early in the morning and hadn't signed out again until the end of the day. Karin had signed in late in the day, probably to check on both brothers and to drag Sasuke home before he worried himself sick and ended up in a bed next to Itachi. Sakura smiled a little.
Ino's name checked in early yesterday morning to pick Sakura up. There was a host of other Uchiha family members who had visited throughout the day, as well as Itachi's friend and colleague, Konan, whom Sakura had met on several occasions. The rest of the names in the log were registered for other patients. Sakura chewed her lip.
"Did you find what you were looking for, Doctor?"
Sakura closed the book and pushed it back toward Gloria. "No, I didn't."
Gloria's smile faltered, but she didn't question Sakura. "Well, have a good day, then."
"You too, thanks," Sakura said, turning away. Hesitating, she looked back as a thought came to her. "Hey, you didn't see a little girl hanging around here the other day, did you?"
"I see a number of little girls coming through here. Was she here with a patient?"
Sakura shook her head. "No, she was alone. She had a school uniform, and she wore purple face paint. You didn't see her?"
Gloria looked puzzled as she tapped a pen to her lips. "Sorry, can't say I did. But I'll keep an eye out. Maybe she's related to one of our patients and just worried about them. I get strays hanging around when their parents are admitted."
"Yeah, okay. That's probably it."
Sakura let the thought slide. It was not unusual for people of all ages to linger at the hospital waiting for good news or bad. She only hoped the little girl hadn't been here all alone unsupervised.
"Goodbye, Doctor," Gloria called as Sakura headed out the door to the train station.
The light was bright on this clear fall day, and Sakura winced. It was too bright after the stale fluorescent lighting of the hospital's night shift. She made a mental note to bring sunglasses to her next shift.
After a long subway ride and walk home, Sakura was almost too tired for food. Almost. She heated up some leftovers and opened up the day's paper. Aside from the usual worldwide financial crises, government shutdown, and upcoming winter Olympics just around the corner, there was nothing new going on in the world.
Sakura poked at her lukewarm pasta and browsed the less globally important section of the Konoha Times. There were no comics on Thursdays, sadly, and the most exciting thing besides the advice column was the obituaries. Sakura usually checked them out to see if she'd known anyone as a patient at the hospital, a morbid reminder to do better next time. There was no one she recognized, and after reading one of the short bios she was glad of it.
Hidan "The Reaper" Sugimura, former high-ranking member of the Red Clouds, a local street gang, was found mutilated in a local park downtown at approximately 4:30 AM this morning. Sources in the FBI have named Sugimura as a high-risk target for some years, and his death has welcomed mixed reactions. Sugimura had a reputation for brutality, preferring to maim and torture his victims before delivering the killing blow. Authorities are investigating his death, but there have been no leads so far. Contact police chief Fugaku Uchiha with any information you may have...
Sakura set down the paper and sighed. As fortuitous as it was to know that a known murderer was off the streets for good, she had to wonder about who had done him in. Or what. From the description, it sounded like Hidan could have been mauled by wild animals. Sakura peered at the small picture included with the bio. He'd been a looker, but even in the granulated black and white of the morning paper, she thought she could make out the glimmer of insanity in his eyes. Cruelty. She folded the paper up and set it on a nearby windowsill.
Yawning, Sakura dumped the dirty dishes in the sink to wash later. She stretched and resolved to take a quick shower before heading to bed. A hot one this time. There was a chill in her apartment that hadn't been there before. Winter was just around the corner. She shrugged and turned up the thermostat a little.
Twenty minutes later, Sakura wiped her bathroom mirror of fog and examined her reflection. Her face had cleared up as though the incident with Itachi had never happened, but there were bags under her eyes. Odd, since she'd slept more than necessary recently. It was probably a product of her erratic sleeping schedule.
Sakura poked her upper arm where Itachi had mauled her in his fever craze. Instead of fading, it appeared worse than it had before. The finger bruises were black and purple outlined in tender red. If she didn't know better, she'd say she had an infection. Bruises became worse before they faded, though. She thought little of it.
Sensing the cold as the effects of her shower wore off, Sakura shivered. She tried to dispel the gooseflesh on her arms by rubbing them with her palms, but in the process a sharp pain made her cry out. She fell forward, catching herself on the pink pedestal sink and panting. The bruising handprint on her left arm squeezed, moved before her eyes, and drew gasps of air and aching. Sakura gritted her teeth and closed her hand around the imprint, feeling for something, anything, but there was nothing but her own flesh. Harder and harder it squeezed, and tears prickled Sakura's eyes.
She screamed and fell backwards onto the floor, her towel pooling around her.
Seconds ticked by in silence, her gasping breaths the only reminder that she was alive and not dreaming. The phantom grip on her arm tightened, drawing blood. The red liquid warmed Sakura's arm, a sweet caress amidst the pain, and she gritted her teeth. She searched for something, anything to end this. The nearest object in reach was the doorknob. She grabbed at it and twisted it open. Daylight flooded the bathroom from her apartment's windows which she'd neglected to shade. And just then, the squeezing sensation disappeared the the pain with it. Sakura slumped to the floor, panting and sweating, her eyes shut tight.
The shower dripped somewhere behind her. She hadn't twisted the knob tightly enough to shut it off. After a few moments of shaking on the floor, naked, Sakura opened her eyes and light assaulted her vision. She hissed and shielded her eyes with her injured arm. To her surprise, it was no longer hurting.
The infected bruise was gone, and the blood, too. Like it had never been there.
Green eyes drooped in exhaustion.
"What the hell..."
Sakura pulled her discarded towel around herself and trudged to her room, not bothering to brush out the tangles in her hair. She collapsed into bed and pulled the duvet over her head to block out the sunlight streaming through her windows.
The door to her bathroom creaked with the passing of an invisible wind, but she was lost to the world in a dream of winding hallways and dark staircases.
The Friday night shift was like the happy hour that never ended. People were tired from a long week on the job, and Friday was the night to unwind. Some unwinded a little too far and ended up in the emergency room under Sakura's scrutinizing gaze. It started with a few cases of alcohol poisoning, mostly teenagers and fraternity pledges needing a good old fashioned stomach pump and a night's rest before the hospital could send them on their merry way back to their parents with a pricy ambulance bill. As the night wore on, Sakura saw a few victims of gang violence and one woman who'd apparently been involved in a bar fight. She would make it, but Sakura hated to think of why her opponent hadn't been brought in with her. Hopefully they deserved it, at least.
Sakura found herself running up and down stairs for the better part of two hours, cursing whatever genius had decided to house supply storage on the third floor when the ER and OR were on the first floor. For whatever reason, staffers had not adequately resupplied the downstairs stations, and being short-staffed as usual, Sakura, among others lower on the food chain, had to help out running errands in between actual doctoring. She ran by the night receptionist so many times the poor woman must have had a heart attack.
On one of those runs, Sakura spotted the little brown-eyed girl from the other day sitting in reception in a corner chair with her knees pulled up to her chest. She still wore the purple carnival face paint, and her gaze was heavy and downcast. Curious, Sakura set down the packages of hypodermic needles she'd been carrying and approached.
"Hey there," she said, smiling in an effort to appear friendly. "Are you waiting for someone?"
The little girl peered at Sakura, and Sakura realized she wasn't so little. Maybe twelve or thirteen years old.
"Yes," the girl said. "He's always late."
Sakura kneeled down so she was looking up at the girl. Brown eyes watched from over stocking-covered knees. She was dressed in a uniform of some kind, probably a private school in the city. Seeing her all alone here was unsettling, but Sakura remembered what Gloria had said about strays.
"I'm Sakura. What's your name?"
The girl hesitated before answering. "Rin."
Sakura smiled warmly. "You know, Rin, whoever you're waiting for might not come today. Maybe you should go home and come back when the sun's up? What do you think?"
"He'll come. I'll wait as long as it takes."
Sakura frowned. "It's late. Why don't I call your parents to come pick you up?" She fished around in her lab coat for a pen, but found none. Rising, Sakura walked around the receptionist's desk and procured a pen and paper. "Just give me your phone number and I'll call them..."
When she looked up, the little girl was gone. Sakura looked around and even poked her head out the hospital's front door, but there was no trace of her. Baffled, Sakura returned the pen and paper where she'd found them and gathered the supplies she'd retrieved. She shot the chair the girl had previously occupied one last glance, and sighed. No use dwelling when there was work to be done. Still, she couldn't shake the feeling that something was not right, like the the smell of decay and dead things buried underneath layers of blooming flowers. Barely there, but inexplicably unsettling. The receptionist returned from a bathroom break and Sakura rushed back to her duties without another thought.
Shī was business as usual that night, directing the nurses and orderlies and other interns according to protocol. It was a fairly uncomplicated night other than the run-in with the shy little girl in the lobby, but busy enough to keep Sakura from pining over the bizarre events of the previous morning. When she'd woken to the sound of her alarm buzzing, she'd sworn it was all a dream. How could it be anything else? Just to make sure, she swung the bathroom door open and closed. It didn't squeak a bit.
The fact that Itachi's bruising handprint had disappeared was just a coincidence. Sakura had always been a quick healer in the past. The injury must not have been as bad as she'd thought. Most never were.
Thinking of Itachi, Sakura decided to check up on him during the 3 AM lag. The overnight wing was up on the fourth floor. Hardly a soul haunted this corridor during the night shift, which was both a blessing and a bane. Sakura slumped a bit, relaxing in the silence of sleeping patients and no emergencies, but it was so empty here. Lonely. Half-dead wards were not much company.
Room 1, Room 2, Room 3...
Sakura passed by closed doors, all dark at this hour except for the fluorescent hallway lighting overhead that flickered every so often, casting shadows on the faded green walls. When she arrived at the correct room, Sakura released the breath she hadn't realized she was holding. It was late. She was being silly.
She gripped her left arm the way Itachi had days earlier. There was no pain, but somehow that wasn't comforting when she remembered why.
"You're being silly," she whispered to herself.
It was gone, and who cared how? Sakura warded off a shiver by rubbing her hands over her arms for warmth.
"Do you see them?"
She shook her head. It was all silly. Sakura relegated her thoughts on Itachi's mad outburst and the subsequent related events to a dark place in the back of her mind. Itachi was a patient and he needed help, help that the hospital with its abundant resources may be able to give him, she hoped. He didn't deserve this fate. Any outburst in his stroke-induced delirium was an outlier, not a product of the man she'd known a little before all this. Resolved, Sakura let herself inside and shut the door quietly behind her.
She was not Itachi's only visitor.
"You again," she said, spotting the man she'd encountered here the last time she'd been running rounds.
He acknowledged her presence with a glance but did not bother to move from his position looming over Itachi's sleeping form otherwise.
"Sakura," he said, returning his attention to Itachi.
She was speechless for a moment. It was 3 AM and he was acting like it was normal to be here, unannounced, after his last mishap with the hospital's protocols. Had he no respect for rules?
"Excuse me, but do you know what time it is?" she demanded.
"It's 3:17 AM," he replied.
He didn't check a watch or the clock on the wall, yet Sakura confirmed his assessment with a quick glance at her own wristwatch. The short distraction only served to piss her off a little and she approached the man.
"Listen, visiting hours are over. How did you even get up here at this hour? Someone should have stopped you."
Itachi's heart monitor beeped softly and the bedside lamp cast a faint, golden glow over his sallow cheeks. The visitor didn't bother to look at Sakura as she approached, content to let his honey gaze linger on Itachi, unreadable.
"I'm not a conspicuous person," he said.
"Well, you're not invisible now, Mr...?"
He chuckled but didn't take her bait. The sound was light and heavy all at once, like teetering on the edge of something. Sakura took her place opposite him on Itachi's left so she could see the visitor face to face.
"I wonder what he's thinking, lying there like that," the man said. "What do you think? In your professional opinion."
The question caught Sakura off-guard, and she wondered where this had come from. She was sure she was supposed to be forcibly escorting him out of here, but she found herself thinking seriously about his query. Green eyes fell to the patient sleeping on the bed, at peace if appearances could be believed.
"I think he's not thinking at all. His neural functions have come to an almost total stop."
"Yes, brain dead, I think is what you call it. But he's not dead dead, right? He's just...sleeping. Is it easier for you to think of him that way? Asleep?"
Sakura said nothing to that. Her mind drew a blank, unable to respond. The visitor finally looked up at her and held her gaze, and Sakura swallowed under the weight of him. He stood out against the dark walls behind him, almost in defiance of them.
"Funny, how everyone knows the truth and yet no one wants to be the first to say it." He hovered a hand over Itachi's eyes but did not touch them. He merely lingered, neither pulling back nor pressing forward. "And he's the one who must suffer the wait."
A moment of silence passed and the lamp next to Sakura flickered a little. The visitor withdrew his hand then and backed away.
"That lamp needs fixing," he said, walking toward the door.
Sakura snapped out of whatever trance she had been in thinking of the implications of his words and turned to him, raising a hand. "Hey, wait a minute. Who are you? I checked the visitor's log and I didn't see your name on it."
He paused at the door just before turning the knob and hovered there, but whatever hesitation he may have felt was short-lived. "I never gave it."
Sakura took a few steps toward him. "No, and that's the problem. Only one friend visited Itachi yesterday, and she's not you."
He peered at her over his shoulder and smirked. Sakura blinked, her fist clenching at the sight.
"I'm Sasori," he said.
"...Sasori," Sakura repeated.
"The lamp, Sakura. You don't want it dying on you."
Sakura hesitated too long in thinking of something to say to that and he left. Alone with Itachi, she slumped a bit.
There was no other word for it. Her life over the past couple of days had been little else. Perhaps this wasn't so strange in the grand scheme of things. Sasori was just worried about his friend and had come to check on him. It was a normal occurrence in a hospital, of all places.
Sakura quickly scanned Itachi's monitors to ensure that everything was in order and made for the door, not wanting to be in here anymore.
The lamp buzzed and flickered as she reached for the door, and she looked over her shoulder. Nothing was amiss, and she let her gaze linger for a moment. Sighing, she let herself out and shut the door behind her.
Sakura got the bulb in Itachi's lamp replaced at the end of her shift that night, and thereafter she visited him every night around 3 AM.
And every night, Sasori was there, mysteriously having slipped past the front desk. Sakura was beginning to think the hospital had a major hole in its security, but she hadn't reported it yet.
"Why do you always come at night? You could visit during normal hours like everyone else," she asked him.
Sasori stood over Itachi, his back to the window as usual, while Sakura updated Itachi's patient report and checked him for any changes. Sasori didn't answer. He didn't always answer her questions, but she usually kept asking until he said something.
"What do you do?" she tried.
Sakura bit the inside of her cheek to keep a smirk at bay. "I mean, your work. What do you do? It must keep you busy if this is the only time you can visit a friend in the hospital."
Itachi's room was dark even with the light of the moon and the bedside lamp. Sakura didn't mind the shadow. It was preferable to the artificial hospital lighting in the hallways that always reminded her of being stuck in The Shining. Doors opening and closing behind her for no apparent reason didn't help the image, especially in the night ward. Itachi's room was decorated with flowers and other Get Well Soon paraphernalia. There was more life around a mostly dead patient than in the hallways leading away from him.
"I work with people," Sasori said after a short pause.
Sakura laughed. "Pretty sure everyone works with people. Otherwise, it wouldn't be work."
He watched her as she jotted down some notes, but he didn't share her laugh. She felt his gaze on her, but she forced herself not to meet it. When it became apparent that he would elaborate, she sighed.
"Well, what kind of work do you do with people?"
"Why do you want to know?"
Sakura frowned and caught him watching not her, but Itachi, deep in thought. Her expression softened. To see a close friend in this condition was hard on anyone. Sasori just didn't express his grief with tears. Sakura wondered why she hadn't seen it before. The grief hung about him like gravity. He met her gaze when she was silent for too long, and she could not look away.
"I don't," she said. "I just thought you'd want to tell me."
The fleeting surprise in his gaze was not lost on Sakura, but he hid it well. She wondered if she'd said something to upset him because he looked away.
"Do you always ask people what they do?"
"I suppose it's a normal thing to ask."
"Why does it matter what they do? It has nothing to do with you."
"No, but it's polite to ask..."
He looked at her abruptly, and she blushed. Like she'd been caught with a hand in the cookie jar.
"I see," he said, retreating to lean back on the windowsill.
Something twisted in Sakura's stomach, and she winced. "I'm sorry. That came out wrong."
He smirked. "So what do you do, Sakura?"
The abrupt change of topic (and his apparent lack of offense) threw her. "Uh, I'm a doctor." She gestured to the room as though it were obvious, and indeed it was.
"No, I mean... What do you do?"
Sakura set down her clipboard. She could only make out the shadow of his features in the gloom when he was so far away from the lamp, and she walked around the bed and approached him.
"I save people," she said with quiet confidence. "I help them."
"Like you're helping Itachi."
Something about the lassitude in his tone and posture irked her. She crossed her arms. "Itachi's condition is stable. There's a chance he'll recover, but we have to wait."
"You mean, he has to wait. You're just going on with your life."
The irk blossomed into palpable anger. "Do you have a problem? Itachi's getting the best treatment available. We've done everything we can. The rest—"
"—is just waiting for death," he interrupted.
"Or life. He could wake up. As long as his family thinks there's a chance, we'll do what we can."
Sasori studied her a moment, his expression lazy but unreadable. Sakura shook her head and gathered her things in preparation to leave.
"What do you think he's thinking?" Sasori asked when Sakura's hand was on the doorknob. "Life? Or death?"
She hesitated and looked back at Itachi. "I don't know," she said. "But he's still here. That has to count for something."
Sasori didn't answer and Sakura opened the door to leave. His voice stopped her, faint as it was.
"I hate making people wait."
Sakura paused, her mind turning that over, but the bright hallway lights were distracting. Without a final look back, she closed Itachi's door behind her and proceeded down the hallway.
The lights flickered behind her, casting strobe shadows in her wake.
Blaring music, dirty martinis, and high heels that had seemed like a good idea before she started walking. Sakura's night off was possibly more work than her job. But at least no one here was dying.
"So you got the promotion!"
Karin rolled her eyes and tried to hide a smirk behind her martini glass, but Ino pointed a finger at her.
"Oh come on, Karin, it's okay to be a little smug," Ino said, plucking the olive from Karin's martini glass and popping it in her mouth.
"I was going to eat that, you know," Karin said.
She made to steal Ino's neglected olive, but Ino was faster and stuffed it in her mouth. Karin glared at her friend.
"Pig," she said.
"Hey, that's my line," Sakura said.
Ino grinned, but she looked a bit like a chipmunk with two olives in her mouth. She waved at the bartender and swallowed. "Three more!"
Karin waved a hand in defeat and Sakura sighed.
"If I didn't know better, I'd say you were trying to get us all drunk," Sakura said.
"Well, lucky for us you don't know better, Forehead."
They shared a laugh, and the bartender brought them three new drinks. Sakura perked up and raised her martini glass.
"Even though Ino's a total pig and Karin's a killjoy, I still think some congratulations are in order. Deputy investigator's nothing to sneeze at," Sakura said.
"Hear, hear!" Ino said, clinking her glass with Sakura's.
Karin couldn't hide her smile this time as she joined the toast. "I guess."
The club was dark, but red and blue lights flashed around the dance floor and illuminated moving bodies, couples locked in rhythm to the beat. With their busy schedules, the three friends had trouble finding time to kick back together (someone was usually working), but every once in awhile they managed to coincide freetime and let loose. Considering what had happened recently with Karin's promotion and Itachi's hospitalization, Sakura guessed this outing was much needed for all of them.
As though reading her thoughts, Ino rested her chin on clasped hands. "So, how's Sasuke holding up?"
Karin topped off her martini in one go and Sakura winced.
That bad, huh.
"He's holding up as well as you would expect considering his brother's basically a vegetable," Karin said.
Sakura stared at her drink, feeling guilty for even thinking about Itachi.
"So there's no change?"
Sakura looked up, but Ino wasn't talking to her.
"No," Karin said, hesitating. "I think they want to wait a little longer before pulling the plug. See if he'll wake up."
Ino nodded, suddenly sober despite her previous joviality. "Well, they've got my firm's number. Just in case."
Sakura frowned, uncomfortable. "He's doing just fine, you know," she said.
Ino and Karin turned to look at her.
"Itachi's doing well," Sakura added, fidgeting a little under her friends' gazes. "And cases like this are always up in the air. He could wake up tomorrow, or he could stay like this. You just never know. But he's not getting any worse."
Ino smiled and put a hand on Sakura's. "Yeah, I know. We're all pulling for him, you know? Naruto's really torn up about it, but he keeps talking about how any day now Itachi will just wake up and Sasuke will..."
"It was an accident," Karin said, sensing the pause. "It's no one's fault. Sasuke knows that, and I know he's relieved you're overseeing Itachi's recovery, Sakura." She cupped the stem of her martini glass and stared at it hard. "Thank you."
Sakura was stunned silent for a moment, but she recovered and hugged Karin. "It's going to be all right."
Karin sighed, but didn't push Sakura away. "...I hope so."
Ino watched them, smiling a little sadly. But this was a catchy song, and these were good drinks, and Ino had always been the one to keep the three of them going even through the darkest hours when no one else had the energy. So she summoned the bartender again and ordered more drinks.
"You are trying to get us drunk, Pig," Sakura accused.
Ino shrugged. "Sue me."
"Hilarious," Karin said, pulling her unruly red hair into a ponytail.
"Oooh, it's the Unholy Ponytail Hour," Ino said, wiggling her eyebrows. "I didn't know you were in the mood to dance, Karin."
Karin flipped Ino off and the girls burst out laughing again. Sakura laughed, too, and her cheeks hurt from smiling. For just a little while, her thoughts were far away and unimportant as she indulged in her friends' lives and laughed the night away. At one point, she and Ino had even gotten Karin dancing, which seemed like a good idea at the time but which Sakura regretted when her feet threatened to dismember themselves from her body. If not for the questionable sanitary condition of the floor, she would have removed her high heels. Death wasn't that close.
Around 4 AM, the girls called it a night and headed their separate ways.
"Sakura, you sure you'll be okay?" Ino asked.
"Yeah, I'll just hop on the subway. It's close."
A cab waited to take Ino and Karin home. They lived just north of the financial district, but Sakura was on the south side.
"Text when you're home, okay?"
Sakura rolled her eyes. "Sure, Mom."
"Don't talk to your mother like that," Karin said.
Ino laughed. "Okay, okay, let's get some goddamned sleep, yeah?"
Sakura waved as the cab drove away. By now, the buzz of alcohol had dimmed to a negligible tickle, and she made it to the subway station in one piece despite the pain in her feet. The ride was nothing special, and hardly anyone was up at this hour. A homeless man slept at the end of the car on a bench over a bed of newspapers, snoring softly. Sakura paid him no mind and took a deep breath. The stale lighting gave her a headache, but she accorded that to the blaring club music and darkness to which she'd grown accustomed over the past several hours. When the train dinged for her stop, she trudged out of the subway with a groan.
The streets were empty, and streetlamps cast wan glows down the side street that lead to her apartment complex, halos lighting the way. She looked around briefly, checking for observers, and finding none she swallowed her doctor's pride and removed her shoes. Relief was instantaneous, the kind of ache that feels good, and Sakura sighed in pleasure. Her stilettos earned a healthy glare. Why she had ever purchased these torture devices was beyond her. An act of temporary insanity, undoubtedly. Putting it out of her mind, she started down the side street that would lead her home.
The walk was quiet and no one was about. Sakura stuck to the sidewalk and the streetlamps, her high heels swinging at her side. On foot, her apartment was about ten minutes from the station. She power walked.
A streetlamp overhead buzzed, and Sakura froze. The bulb burst and the lamp went dark as she passed under it. Startled, she looked around as though some shady culprit had caused the short circuit. No one was around, and she shivered in her strappy cocktail dress. Her apartment building was only a few blocks farther, and she could make it there in a couple minutes if she walked quickly. The streetlamps up ahead shone bright, so Sakura pushed forward.
When she passed under the next lamp, it fizzled out with a loud pop. Sakura jumped in fright, once more plunged into shadow. One was coincidence, but two was...
She looked around again, and this time something caught her eye by a pair of dumpsters across the street at the entrance to an alley. The glint of metal. She peered through the inky darkness, but could not make out much of a shape.
The shadows moved.
Sakura forgot to breathe, but her feet remembered to run. Someone was there, lurking, and they had seen her. She dug around her purse for the pepper spray Ino had forced her to buy a few months ago, but in her distraction, she stubbed her toe on a bit of smashed concrete and tumbled to the ground. The contents of her purse spilled across the sidewalk in front of her, just beneath the halo of light from the next streetlamp. Sakura looked up at the shining beacon, but not a moment later it, too, burst and fell dark.
Tears blurred her vision. She couldn't see where the pepper spray had rolled off to. A tingling in the pit of her stomach tickled and hurt at the same time, like free-falling and watching the concrete rush to meet her. It clawed at her insides as she patted the ground, wanting out. Something drew her attention behind, and as her eyes adjusted to the sudden darkness she could make out a shape drawing near. A person.
He had a knife.
Crying out, Sakura scrambled forward and felt around for a weapon. She fumbled past a tube of chapstick and her cell phone, but the pepper spray was her priority. A voice, chilling like ice water down her back, dispelled all the air in Sakura's lungs.
"Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned," he said.
Sakura whimpered, ignoring her scraped up knees as she crawled forward. The fall in her kissed the concrete, and she broke, shaking.
"It's been so long since my last confession."
Sakura looked back, and the man was nearly upon her. Desperate, she reached out blindly and brushed against the cool, round can of pepper spray she'd dropped. Without pausing to think, she rolled onto her bleeding knees and sprayed her aggressor in the face.
He screamed, wailed, like the pain was unbearable, and Sakura hauled herself to her feet. Her vision having adjusted, she wiped her tears away and faced her stalker, pepper spray at the ready. What she saw made her drop the can.
He bled. He had bled, but it was crusty and dry now. Lacerations opened up his face and bared chest, and he was missing an eye. A rib, broken off at the edge, protruded from his left breast. The skin around his injuries was black with rot, black like the night. A machete in his hand, rusty, quaked with need. His slicked, silvery hair was the only part of him that looked preserved.
His wails turned to laughter. Cacchinations. He smiled wide and ripped the gashes on his face deeper, drawing fresh blood.
"Oh," Sakura croaked, trying to back away. Fear made her stupid.
"Do you see me?" the man said, his remaining eye swiveling and focusing on Sakura.
She recognized him. The man in the paper.
"Hidan," she whispered.
"I can see you," he said, grinning wider. Blood from his wounds leaked over his cracked lips and outlined his teeth.
But it was impossible.
He was supposed to be dead.
"Open your eyes!" he shouted, raising the rusty machete.
Sakura screamed, and the world went dark.
And just like that. One day...
They spoke to him.
The darkness passed between Sakura and Hidan, a tenebrous veil blocking her sight. The knife never passed through it, and her scream never reached anyone. Blind and mute, she could only guess at the crunching sound, like crushed ice or glass or human bones, for the few seconds in which she was lost in herself.
It passed, and she saw.
Hidan was crumpled on the ground writhing, and Sakura's knees nearly gave out from under her at the sight. People—no, shadows of people—crowded around him. Flew around him, pulling at him with sharp talons through which Sakura could have shined a light. Black ribbons shah, shah, shahed through and around Hidan's contorted body, like wet sand falling through a drain pipe.
"W-What," Sakura managed.
At the sound of that voice, something in Sakura came back to life and she regained her precarious balance. Next to her stood Sasori, shadowed as usual. She remembered the first time she'd seen him hovering over Itachi, as though he planned to steal the man's soul. The thought had been fleeting, absurd at the time, but now...
Hollow faces and incorporeal bodies danced around Sasori. A few of them travelled to Hidan and encircled him, piercing him with their black sand. One of them caught Sakura looking, and it opened its mouth to shriek at her, but no sound came out. Sakura yelped and scrambled backward toward a nearby streetlamp, one that hadn't gone out. Sasori watched her retreat but did not follow.
A bone-chilling crack resounded from where Hidan lay, and his body jerked. Sakura watched, wide-eyed, as the impossible became possible. He pulled himself to his feet, and the no-face shadows continued to buzz around him like phantom flies. He wheezed, and Sakura noticed that his skin had turned black as pitch. She hadn't seen it before, but he appeared to have painted a human skeleton over his skin, which glowed through the darkness now.
No, that wasn't quite right.
The sawed off rib she'd seen before was still visible. It was no painting, but his actual bones. The rest of him had blended with the darkness. Only his eye, violent and violet, penetrated the shadows. He was a creature of nightmares, a demon reaper raised from impossibility and supplanted in the world of the living. And he was looking right at her.
The shadows flew more frantically, as though alarmed, but Hidan was unperturbed. He grabbed at one and clutched it between his fingers, squeezing the life out of it. It was silent all the while. Curious, he grinned and joined it with the machete he'd been holding. The weapon bent and morphed when the shadow hit it, elongating and curving into three deadly points. He swung the monstrous scythe at the shadows surrounding him, shredding them to nothing. Sakura quailed at the sight, but sheer terror and incredulity kept her rooted to the spot.
Until Hidan cackled and time restarted.
"That's enough," Sasori said, drawing Hidan's and Sakura's attention.
Sakura, having regained some of her rationality, took a step toward Sasori. "What are you doing? Get away from him!"
Hidan brandished his scythe, which smoked with eerie ghost fire as though it were not solid. "Thy kingdom come," he said.
"I said enough!"
Sasori waved a hand toward Hidan, and a shadow much larger than any conjured up before swelled up from behind him. It spread its clawed arms wide and fixed glowing, yellow eyes on Hidan. Sakura bit her cheek and tasted blood to keep herself from screaming again. The enormous shadow opened its mouth impossibly wide and released a thick stream of liquid darkness. The shah, shah, shahing Sakura had heard earlier exploded, tiny fingernails scraping at the insides of a coffin all at once until the sound was deafening.
"Thy will be done!"
Hidan whooped and lunged toward Sasori. He threw his shadow scythe and it collided with the black substance Sasori's puppet shadow had emitted. The smoking sand dispersed, but it soon converged on the scythe once more in the form of a vicious whirlwind. Hidan pulled back and the chain connecting him to his scythe snapped, though he seemed unrattled. When the scythe materialized once more from its chain, Sakura understood why. This time, he didn't throw the weapon and simply ran toward Sasori with intent to kill.
"No!" Sakura cried out, stepping out of the streetlamp's glow and back into darkness.
Everything came into stark relief. The white of Hidan's bones and his violet eye, glimmering mad and unseeing. The blood-red of Sasori's hair and the heavy outline of his shadow that had assumed a life of its own as it battled a murderer confirmed dead days ago.
Shadow sand warped into a wicked point, and Sasori directed it forward with his too-pale hands. It hit Hidan in the chest, just next to the protruding rib, and knocked him back. But not before Hidan threw his scythe and it managed to graze Sasori's right shoulder. Sasori hissed, but otherwise ignored the injury. His shadow converged on Hidan and buried him, digging its claws into Hidan's face as the spire that had impaled him dissolved.
With a final shriek, the shadow ceased its frantic ripping and slowly retreated back to Sasori. It dragged Hidan with it—what was left of him. Sakura winced, feeling the ache in her hip from where she'd fallen earlier and the stinging in her knees. The blood had mostly dried by now, but she was dirty and needed first aid. Sasori clutched his arm where Hidan had cut him.
"Sasori," Sakura said.
After the ghastly scene she'd witnessed, her heartbeat was perhaps too tired to race anymore. An eerie calm settled, a calm that felt more like the eye of a storm than its total abatement.
"Sasori?" she tried again, this time less confident and taking a step back.
He glanced at her askance, but said nothing for the longest time. When he turned and began to advance, she nearly tripped over herself retreating to the comfort of the streetlamp. A veil of light separated them, and he stopped just shy of it.
Sakura's breathing was the only discernible sound in the vicinity. She felt as though she'd been awake for days, but she'd never been more alert than she was at this moment despite her body's frail shaking. This man standing before had just...
"Sakura," he said, though he made no move to approach further.
Sakura's life had been nothing but bizarre the past several days. From Itachi's sudden stroke and cryptic words, to Sasori's appearance, to her disturbing experiences at home with her bruises, to tonight's encounter with a man who should have been dead... It was like navigating a fun house, mirrors everywhere and none of them reflecting the truth. Only empty eyes that stared back at her, laughed at her, watched her while her back was turned. Was she going mad?
What a terrible thought.
Sakura wanted to laugh. Terrible, just terrible.
"Come into the light," she said.
Yellow eyes watched her from behind Sasori, eyes she'd not seen before. Maybe she'd not wanted to see them before. Maybe she'd chosen not to.
She'd never seen him in the light.
Somewhere in her clouded mind, Sakura wondered if she should run. But in her heart, she knew she wouldn't get far.
"Do you see them?"
Tentative, she lifted a hand toward him, past the light that divided them. He remained still. Her fingers hovered just shy of his cheek, and she hesitated.
"They can see you."
The streetlamp above flickered and popped, until finally it went out. Darkness swallowed them.
"Please, I know it's hard to believe,
To see a perfect forest through so many splintered trees.
You and me.
And these shadows keep on changing."
"What are you?"
It was difficult to hear the sound of her own voice over the deafening silence that followed Sasori everywhere. It was worse in absolute darkness, at the perpetual zero hour where no light and no warmth could reach. Light, however, had a tendency to blind. Muted candlelight suited their purposes better.
He followed her home.
"Just make yourself comfortable. I have to clean up."
She was in the bathroom with the shower on before she could finish her instructions. Sasori had lingered in the doorway, and she had not thought twice about it. Bizarre could not get any more bizarre on this day.
Showered and patched up, Sakura slipped on pajama pants and a T-shirt before rejoining Sasori in her living room. The lights were out, and Sakura did not even question this as she switched on an area lamp in the corner by the TV. It provided dim light by itself, but it did not offend anyone present. Sasori leaned against the leftmost wall with his arms crossed. Half his face was obscured by shadows.
Sakura put on a kettle for tea in the adjoining kitchen, her flip-flops flip-flopping with her every step, loud in the quiet of Sasori's presence.
"I would thank you, but I'm not sure you did it for me," she said with her back to him as she rummaged around a cupboard for the tea tin.
Sasori said nothing to that. She didn't think much of it other than that she'd guessed correctly.
"Do you drink?"
This time he did respond. "Drink?"
Carrying two mugs, she flip-flopped over the kitchen's linoleum floor to the living room's coffee table and set down a mug for him. She took a seat on an old leather couch she'd acquired second- or third-hand from Craigslist and sipped her tea. When he didn't move, she glanced at him, expectant. Without a word, he approached the recliner on the other side of the coffee table and took a seat. The tea he accepted without a word, too, and sipped it in silence.
Sakura eyed his right shoulder, but she couldn't make out any injury. His navy hoodie and the shadows in the room cast by the area lamp's wan light made it hard to discern much of anything. The room blended together, as though painted by a practiced hand. A few moments passed this way as they warmed their hands on their mugs and sipped their drinks, observing each other. To Sakura's surprise, he broke the silence.
"You're a foolish woman."
The desire to laugh at him tempted Sakura, but a saner part of her reminded her what a terrible thought that was.
"Why do you say that?"
"You should have run before he grabbed you."
A chill ran down Sakura's spine. She got the feeling they were not talking about Hidan.
"He caught me off guard. Itachi—"
"Indulging him was pointless. And now...well."
Sakura let his words sink in. Bizarre. Her life had gone from normal and boring, the very picture of common bliss, to lovecraftian absurdity, a phantasmagoria of the Strange and the Stranger.
"What are you?" she asked. The question had haunted her since she'd reached for him, just to see if she could.
He watched her with his usual lazy gaze. He had an ankle crossed over his knee and rested his cheek on a fist as he leaned into the armrest of his chair. If he were anyone else, Sakura thought he might nod off at any moment. But he saw everything she did. Every breath. Every glance behind him at the presence that lurked there, just beyond sight and imagination.
"Why are you here?" she tried, her voice barely audible.
"To work," he said.
"With people." She paused, treading carefully. Her heart pounded in her ears, but she could not look away.
"To add to my collection."
Sakura took a long sip of her tea and ignored the burn on her tongue. She set it down and hugged her knees to her chest.
"You collect them," she said. "That's why you... With Hidan—"
"Yes. It was either that or let him...have his way."
He was so matter-of-fact that Sakura had to bite her tongue to keep herself from thanking him.
Sasori sipped his drink and watched her all the while. He set it back down on the table and leaned back, lacing his fingers in front of his face. "Why you or why him?"
Sakura blushed and fisted her pants. He smirked, and she blushed harder knowing that the joke was on her.
"I don't know why," he said. "I just do it."
"But there must be a reason," Sakura said, puzzled. "Everything happens for a reason."
His honey eyes bore into her, and he was no longer amused. Never before had Sakura felt so exposed, so seen. Whether it was good or bad remained to be decided.
"You seem certain."
"Do you think what happened to Itachi had a reason?"
Sakura did not know how to answer that, but before she could come up with something, he continued.
"What about what happened to you?"
"They can see you."
"Just because I don't know the reason, doesn't mean there isn't one. Only time will tell."
"I hate to wait."
"Sometimes we have to do things we hate."
They lapsed into silence and neither of them wanted to budge. Maybe it was the exhaustion. The sun would be up soon, and Sakura had yet to convince herself that this was not a dream. She couldn't possibly be talking to a...
"What are you?"
Sakura kept her eyes downcast as her question hung around them again, never having left.
"I don't know."
At this, she looked up, shocked. "You don't know?"
"If I had to say, I suppose I'm neither here nor there. I'm not like you, but I'm not one of them."
At the mention of them, Sakura shifted her gaze over Sasori's shoulder. There was nothing there but shifting shadows through which she could barely make out the outline of her curtains, but somewhere in that rippling abyss lurked burning yellow eyes and wet sand and the remains of the thing that had attacked her. Tethered to Sasori. Or perhaps he was tethered to them. To the abyss.
She couldn't even think the words lest they become real.
There's no such thing as—
"Why didn't I know you before? You said you were Itachi's friend."
"I never said that. You did."
Sakura lowered her legs and cupped her face in her hands, breathing deeply. Her head spun with fantasy and fright. When had they gotten so much control? It was like being in a house that kept growing, and no matter how many doors she opened, there were always more waiting at the end of the hall. But here in this tiny room with Sasori, even if she tried to stand and reach for him like she had before, there would always be a little more, just a little.
"Don't," he'd warned her just as her bare fingers almost grazed his cheek and he pulled away.
She shivered and ran her hands through her hair to hide it. Her eyes were puffy, like she'd been crying, though she hadn't. "Why is this happening?"
He rose and looked down at her over his nose. His hands were stuffed in the front pocket of his hoodie. "I guess you'll have to wait and see, even if you hate it."
Sakura didn't stop him when he made for the door. The farther away he got from the area lamp, the brighter the room became. He let himself out with one last look back, and disappeared into the wee hours of the morning. Sunrise was close.
Sakura got up and locked the door behind him and leaned back against it. Her mind was racing, and the racket was giving her a headache. Sleep was in order before she sat down to process all this. When she passed by the coffee table to collect the two mugs, she paused just short of Sasori's. A strange anticipation tingled her fingers, the kind that urges people to push buttons they shouldn't push or open doors meant to remain closed. A fleeting sensation of horror just before that forbidden door is opened and the gush of dark wind fills the senses. Irrational, unexplainable, but palpable. She pulled his mug closer to see inside.
It was full.
The tea had gone cold.
"You're up early," Karin's voice crackled on the other end of Sakura's cell.
"Yeah, couldn't sleep," Sakura said, distracted as she cleaned the counter tops in her kitchen with Clorox. She cleaned when she was troubled, and menial labor always calmed her. There was comfort in monotony.
"So what's up?"
"I was wondering if you could do me a little favor," Sakura began, wiping her nose after inhaling a bad whiff of chemicals. "I want you to find someone for me."
"Are we talking stalker someone or old high school crush someone?"
"I don't have a stalker."
"And I don't have old police reports on Kin Tsuchi."
"That was years ago, and she wasn't stalking me. Anyway, can you help me out?"
"What going on, Sakura?"
Sakura gave up on a particularly stubborn rust stain in her sink. Lemon, that's what she needed. Ino had taught her that trick. She checked the fridge for any spare sour fruit.
"There's this guy."
Sakura pulled out a bag with half a lemon in it and shut the fridge. "Yeah, but it's not what you think. He's an old friend of Itachi's, and I just wanted to know more about him."
"Itachi doesn't have a lot of non-family friends other than Konan. Not since Shisui died."
Sakura nicked her thumb on a knife she was using to slice off a bit of lemon for the rust stain, and she swore.
"Hey, you okay?"
"Fine, just cutting lemons." Sakura grabbed a paper towel and applied pressure to her thumb to stop the bleeding. It stung, and she glared at the offending lemon.
"Okay... Well, what's this guy's name?"
The paper towel soaked through with Sakura's blood, and she grimaced. The cut was deeper than it looked and would need proper bandaging. She abandoned her cleaning and headed for the bathroom. The first-aid kit was behind the mirror, and Sakura held her cell phone in place with her shoulder as she reached for the mirror with her uninjured hand.
As soon as she glanced at mirror, she screamed and dropped the phone. Her reflection stared back at her, gnawing on her injured thumb and tearing the wound open down her hand. But her eyes were hollow pits, like they'd been gouged out of their sockets. Sakura stumbled backward and hit the small of her back on the toilet paper dispenser. She slumped to the ground, panting heavily. Her sliced thumb dripped blood on the tiled floor.
"Sakura! Hey, what's going on? I heard a scream. Sakura, are you there? Sakura!"
Karin's voice had an edge of panic as it buzzed through the tiny cell phone speaker a short distance away at the foot of the toilet. Sakura barely heard her friend. Entranced by fear and an insatiable hunger to know, she grabbed the pedestal sink with her bloody hand and pulled herself up. Eyes downcast, she rose to her full height, shaking. Her skin crawled, as though someone were watching her, and tears stung her eyes.
She looked up.
The mutilated face was gone, but Sakura's reflection was not quite right. Instead of her own face staring back at her, she saw the back of her head looking into a mirror, and in that mirror the same image, repeating forever.
"Sakura, answer me!" Karin voice said.
The hair on the back of Sakura's neck stood on end, and she gripped the edges of the sink hard enough to hurt. Blood from her thumb trickled down the drain freely. Looking back was the last thing she should do. Looking back would be admitting defeat. Looking back would make the nightmare a reality. But she couldn't remain this way, with the light sound of breathing in her ear, the gravity of another person hovering just behind her. So she looked.
There was no one.
"Look at me."
Sakura whirled at the sound of those words in her ear. Laughter, but not here. The memory of it, just on the edge of her senses. The mirror reflected her normally, as though nothing had happened.
"Sakura, you're freaking me out. If you don't answer me right now, I'm calling the police."
Karin's voice drew her out of her reverie, and Sakura stepped over the blood dribbles on the floor to retrieve her phone.
"Hey, I'm here, I'm fine. Sorry about that."
"Damnit, Sakura, you scared the crap out of me. I heard a scream. Are you okay?"
"Yeah, yeah, everything's okay. I just...saw a spider."
"...A spider? You're kidding, right?"
"It crawled out of the drain. Startled me."
"Uh, okay. As long as you're okay."
"Listen, the guy's name is Sasori. Think you can poke around and let me know what you find out?"
There was a pause on the other end, and Sakura bit her lip. She glanced at her reflection in the bathroom mirror, but nothing had changed. It was like nothing had happened at all.
"Sure. No last name?"
"Um, no, not that I know of. It's kind of a unique name, though."
"...All right. I'll see what I can dig up."
"Thanks, Karin. I appreciate it. Really."
"You sure you're okay? That was weird just now, to be honest."
Sakura hesitated. She glanced at her thumb, where the bleeding had thankfully slowed down to a weak drip. "Yeah, I'll be fine. I gotta go, okay? Lots of cleaning to do."
"Okay. I'll call you when I've got something."
Sakura pocketed her phone and took a deep breath. She peered at the sink and her blood drying in jagged rivers leading to the drain. It was just an open, dark hole. The stopper had rusted with age and too much hair washed down from the previous tenant, so Sakura trashed it and never got around to replacing it. Looking at it now, she made a note to stop at the hardware store and purchase a new one. Gritting her teeth, she blasted the hot water and scrubbed the sink bowl with her good hand to get the blood out. Pink water swirled down the drain, gurgling in the pipes as though the walls were guzzling it down, thirsty. She left the water on and retrieved a sponge from the beauty rack over the toilet, which she wetted and used to scrub the blood from the floor until it was pristine pink once more. Then she threw the sponge away, not bothering to rinse it out.
There was a sense of nervousness as she pulled open the mirror and retrieved the first aid kit. She didn't look back as she closed it and headed back to the kitchen.
The bathroom door squeaked on its well-oiled hinges behind her. She never looked back.
"Make it stop."
Sasori paid her no mind as he watched Itachi from his usual perch by the room's lone window, arms crossed. Sakura set down her clipboard and walked around the bed until she stood directly in his line of sight, blocking his view.
"You'll have to be more specific."
Sakura cradled her hand with the injured thumb from earlier in the day without thinking. She'd needed stitches, as it turned out, and when Shī questioned her as to when she became so careless with a knife, Sakura had found herself unable to find the joke in his words. He gave her that doctor look, the one she sometimes gave patients who didn't understand that they were injured, who didn't want to be here. She'd left before he had a chance to bandage her, insisting that she would just do it herself and he should get back to work.
Sasori noticed her actions even if she did not, but he said nothing.
"I don't know what it is," Sakura said. "But I want it to stop. I can't sleep."
"No one can sleep when others are watching," he said with his usual boredom.
Sakura swallowed hard. "I can't... If I say it, if I acknowledge it, then—"
"—then it will cease to be impossible? Are you so afraid of things you don't understand that you have to deny their existence outright?"
The way the light from Itachi's bedside lamp his Sasori's eyes was almost beautiful. Sakura hesitated. She'd never had such a thought about Sasori before, and now there was even more reason not to start. But the warmth in his eyes, false daylight, it was a lovely sight.
"I'm not like you, but I'm not one of them."
She wondered what else there was, if not black or white. Maybe it looked a little like him, soft and inviting in a light that could pitter out at any moment. Just enough. Just a little.
"It's normal to fear the unknown."
He smirked. "Are you afraid of me, Sakura?"
She didn't answer. Not because she didn't know, but because she didn't want him to know.
Sasori pushed off the wall and approached her. The movement disturbed the shadows behind and around him. A trick of the light.
"Do I keep you from sleep?"
"No," she said. "But something does."
He peered at her, solemn and silent, as he digested her words. Or maybe he wasn't thinking of her at all. It was Itachi he visited, not her.
"Well, we can't have that," he said.
When his gaze shifted to Itachi sleeping behind her, she followed it.
"Does he see them, too?" she asked. "Did he?"
"Itachi sees nothing now. He's just waiting."
"...It's because of him, isn't it? Why I'm like this now."
"You ask so many questions. It must be so exhausting doubting yourself as much as you do."
"How can I not doubt? Everything's so messed up. I don't know which way is right."
Sasori walked around her to stand over Itachi. "Perhaps there is no right way."
"I can't accept that."
Tears stung Sakura's eyes. He was the only person who could give her answers, and he refused to budge. He didn't owe her anything, she supposed, but how could he just stand there when she was suffering?
"I didn't ask for any of this," she said.
"No one ever does."
Fighting back her tears, Sakura nodded and gathered her things. "I'll leave you alone then." She left the room without a glance back.
Sasori watched her go, and the light with her. When he looked back at Itachi, he stood in silence for the longest time, thinking.
"Why now? Why her?"
Itachi's heart monitor beeped in rhythmic cadence, but Itachi remained unchanged.
"I never wanted your pity. I'm not really alone."
"Hurry, hurry, before the night drives her mad."
That voice, so familiar he could have cried, bade him go. A voice he hadn't heard since Itachi was only a boy who'd nearly gone mad with the night himself. History had a nasty habit of repeating itself at the worst time possible. But Sasori had gone, never having ignored that voice in the few instances he could remember hearing it. Seeing was not believing, and Sasori had stopped looking behind him long ago. He didn't have to look to see those yellow eyes at his back, watching, following. The abyss was just an easy fall back, so pretty, just to hear that voice again.
"If that's what you want, then I'll go," Sasori said.
For a fleeting moment, Sasori wanted to believe Sakura. That Itachi could wake up one day, tomorrow or next week or twenty years from now. That he wasn't waiting for the inevitable, that ineluctable abyss that had waited so long for him. Sasori was almost sorry, but sorry was neither here nor there. There were some questions that could never be answered. There was only waiting.
Sasori backed away and left the room, his mind made up.
"I can't forget, I am the sole architect.
I built the shadows here. I built the growling voice
You add it up, but to do better than that you've got to follow me, boy.
I'm trying to show you where I'm at.
Don't you wanna take a ride with me through my world?"
When Sakura arrived home to her apartment, the lights were off. The sun was up, but her curtains were drawn and the windows were shut tight, locked. As if boarding the place up would keep it from expanding. No more hidden doors, no more mirrors. No more endless, dark hallways calling her from her dreams in a cold sweat. Don't look back, little girl, never look back. Don't get lost, little girl.
Sakura had taken to showering at the hospital at the end of her shift to avoid her bathroom. It was stupid, nonsensical, but she didn't like not having answers. There were always answers, always reasons, even if she did not yet know them. Until she did, she would avoid the question lest it hunt her down endless, dark hallways with unmarked doors squeaking on their hinges, mirrors just beyond, reflecting.
She propped the door to her bathroom open to let the light in from the hallway window, the only one she'd bothered to open despite the glare that made her wince. A towel hung over the bathroom mirror, blocking it completely from view. Sakura did not even look at it as she washed her hands and face as quickly as possible. She didn't look at it when the towel swayed in an imaginary wind. Seeing was believing, so the blind could not be charmed.
Once changed and ready for bed, she exited the bathroom and checked the doorstop, an industrial strength wedge often used in the hospital that she'd pilfered from one of the nurses' stations. It was secure, though Sakura could not bring herself to feel relief. Something told her there would be no sleep today, either, despite the preventative measures she'd taken.
Instead, she headed to the kitchen to put on some tea and read a book, something non-fiction and preferably boring. Safe. Just as she retrieved the tea tin, there was a knock on the door. Sakura's recent encounters with the Strange had made her jumpier than normal, but after a moment she relaxed. Murdering psychos who should have been long dead probably wouldn't knock. Shaking off her unfounded fears, Sakura answered the door.
Sasori stood just outside under the shade of the stairs to the next floor. Sakura stared at him for a moment, her mind blank. She said the first thing that came to mind.
"Why did you bother knocking?"
Sasori walked past her without bothering to answer her question, and Sakura locked the door behind him. He settled in a corner next to a shaded window and crossed his arms. Sakura sighed and went back to the kitchen to finish preparing her tea. She joined him in the living room and sat on the couch with her legs crossed.
"You're not offering this time?" he asked.
"You don't have to maintain the illusion. I can handle it."
Sasori pushed off the wall and took a seat opposite her, just like the last time. She eyed him but remained quiet, waiting to see how he would react.
"Are you sure?"
"I don't have all the answers, but I trust what I can see with my own eyes."
"Maybe you shouldn't be so trusting."
Sakura set down her tea and crossed her arms. "Why are you here?"
Sasori looked to the side in the direction of the back of Sakura's apartment, to closed doors through which he had not been. "You said you couldn't sleep."
"I did say that. But you didn't answer my question."
He chuckled. "Are you always like this?"
"Only when people don't answer my questions."
Honey eyes roamed over the space around and between them, taking in every detail as though he were trained for it. "I'm here to help you sleep."
Sakura raised her eyebrows, not caring about what he thought of her surprise. "Excuse me?"
"Something's keeping you awake."
Sakura shook her head. "You're the one who said it's impossible to sleep when someone's watching."
Sasori stood up, his eyes still shifting around the room. "It is."
He wandered toward the back of the apartment, and Sakura shot up from her seat to block his path.
"Stop, don't go back there."
He was so close that had he been anyone but him, she would have pushed him back with a hand. She refrained. He leaned in close to her face and whispered, "Are you so intent on protecting it?"
Sakura felt the urge to shiver, though she was not cold. "I'm not protecting anything."
"Yes, you are. Ghosts don't haunt us, Sakura; we haunt them."
He stared into her eyes, searching for something, and she barely heard him over her heart pounding in her ears. Her stitched thumb throbbed, as though the blood in her wanted out. That word, that terrible thought had kept her up with cloying whispers in her ear, quiet but never silent. A part of her hated him for giving it power.
"There, you see?"
He glanced askance at the open bathroom door and the covered mirror, and she followed his gaze.
"Sleep now," he said, still staring into the bathroom.
Sakura had the urge to protest, but she found no energy. She backed away from him into the bedroom, and he followed at a distance. Next to the double bed was a small desk littered with newspapers, post-its, pens without caps, and an array of used candles. More candles sat in boxes on the dresser opposite the bed, unused. Sasori said nothing as he took it all in, and Sakura wondered if he was silent because he already knew. Her electricity bill for the month had been abnormally low.
Sakura pulled back the covers and slipped into bed, for the first time questioning whether she was crazy for letting a man she didn't know well occupy her apartment while she slept.
But she was so tired.
She hadn't slept since the night with Hidan. If there were ghosts lurking in the shadows in her tiny apartment, Sakura wondered if she'd become one of them in these days of etiolated sunshine that only made her shiver.
Sasori hovered over her, the way he hovered over Itachi sometimes, curious. Something about him, about his being here, was a comfort the way a heavy weight is comforting. Something to keep her from floating away, unbearably light, to whatever waiting arms connived to snatch her up and gobble up the pieces.
"It must be so lonely," Sakura said, yawning. "This life."
Sasori said nothing as he peered down at her. She liked to think he couldn't say anything, that she'd caught him off guard, but perhaps he just had never heard the words spoken for him before. Not for a long, long time.
"I'm happy I can see you, even if I have to see them, too."
"Go to sleep, Sakura," he said.
His voice was so soft and mellifluous that Sakura fancied she'd imagined it. Before she knew it, she'd fallen back into her haunted head, and Sasori was alone again.
He stayed that way, just near enough be next to her, but he didn't close the distance. He lifted a hand and let it hang over her closed eyes, but stopped himself before he could brush her lashes, feel the soft hum in her skin from the blood flowing just beneath it.
"Everything happens for a reason."
How tempting it was to believe that beautiful lie. How tempting just to reach a little more, run his fingers over her skin, the curve of her jaw. Feel her warmth. Perhaps he could have stayed there for an eternity while she slept, but it was an eternity alone. Invisible.
"Wait just a little longer. They'll come home."
Sasori clutched his head and willed the pain away. That voice, he heard it more often these days, but he couldn't place it. All he knew was that he hated it intensely. Sakura turned over in her sleep and showed him her back. Sasori let his hand fall.
"Why me?" he asked his constant companions.
And just as they never left his side, they never answered his questions. But unlike the phantom voice in his head, an old phonograph recording from a different life, he loved them. Doesn't everyone love their loneliness, for its eternal faithfulness if nothing else?
Sakura was wrong. Sometimes there is no answer. Some things just are.
Sasori's gaze shifted to the bathroom, the place Sakura refused even to look at. Even if there was no answer, there were circumstances. With one last look at Sakura, he walked to the bathroom. The mirror was covered with a hand towel, still in the darkness. Sasori reached for it and ripped it down.
The door slammed behind him.
When she awoke, it was dark. No sun diffused through drawn curtains, and Sasori was nowhere to be found. Sakura sat up too fast and the room spun. She fell out of the bed, but vertigo clung to her even after she hit the floor, like she was still falling. Coughing, she dragged herself to her knees, then used the bed to stand upright. The room slowly came into focus, and the door was slightly ajar.
Surely he hadn't left. Sakura made a face. Surely she wasn't qualified to know what Sasori would and would not do. She walked to the door and peered outside. Nothing seemed amiss. Her mug of tea was still sitting on the coffee table. A look in the opposite direction, however, made her blood freeze.
The bathroom door was closed.
A familiar beast stirred awake deep in the pit of her stomach and made her light like the zero gravity moment before a fall to the death. A door, a simple, wooden door with a brass knob was just a thing. An inanimate thing with no teeth or claws or shadow scythes. But behind it...
Sakura approached, following the beast inside as it sang to whatever was on the other side. Haunting it. She reached for the knob and had the strangest desire to giggle.
Abandon every hope, you who enter.
"This is stupid," she grumbled, cursing her overactive imagination. "Sasori, I'm coming in."
She pushed the door open and nearly fell over. What had once been her bathroom was now a narrow staircase descending to darkness, a place she could not discern from here. The beast inside clawed in desperation, begging to dive down deeper. Sakura gripped the door frame, hyperventilating.
"This can't be real," she said, her eyes squinting through the darkness. "I'm still dreaming."
That had to be it. Some weird things had happened lately, but for her apartment to transform like this was downright preposterous. Gooseflesh rose on her arms, and she rubbed them for warmth.
Maybe a nightmare.
Not a sound stirred in the apartment. Sakura hesitated, but it didn't look like she was waking up anytime soon. She had an idea and retrieved a small tea candle from her bedroom. It provided meager light and she had to rest it on the palm of her hand, but it was better than nothing. Where did the staircase lead? And why? Lingering, she was torn between continuing and staying put.
A knock at the front door.
Sakura gasped and nearly dropped her candle. She stared at the front door, perplexed. Maybe it wasn't a dream? The knocking grew louder. Pounding. Sakura took a step toward the door, entranced.
The pounding turned to a grating scratching sound. Metal claws rending the paint and wood, jiggling the lock. Sakura opened her mouth in a silent scream and backed away. The door rattled, and she shook her head.
No, no, no!
The decision was made. She turned tail and raced down the stairs. The bathroom door slammed shut behind her, but she didn't care. The little candle on her palm flickered violently, threatening to go out, but Sakura didn't care about that, either. The scratching followed her, growing louder until Sakura tripped and fell down the rest of the stairs. One, two, three, four—
A tangle of sore limbs, Sakura panted as she lay on her back on the floor. She'd dropped the candle, but it hadn't gone out and sat a short distance away on the last step. Groaning, Sakura struggled to her feet and picked it up. Her feet were chilly on the hardwood floor, and she wiggled her toes for warmth. Lifting the light, she couldn't barely make out anything past the first five or six steps. After the horrible pounding and scraping at her door, the silence here was a comfort.
Peering around, Sakura found herself in a narrow hallway the end of which her candlelight could not reach. She ran a hand through her messy hair and took a deep breath.
"Sasori?" she called.
Reluctantly, she walked forward. The hallway was nothing special at first, just a throughway about which she would have never thought twice under any other circumstances. But as she bore on, she began to notice the walls. Picture frames hung from them, but all of them were empty. Sakura reached out to touch one, but thought better of it in the end. She could see her reflection in the glass panes and decided not to linger lest she start to see other things there, too.
"It goes on forever," she wondered aloud.
It felt as though she'd been walking for hours, and her tea candle was almost completely melted. Like walking in circles, though, the scene reeked of the familiar. Faceless pictures and interminable hallways, just five more minutes and she'd reach him behind his lacquered door. Always five more minutes, and not a minute closer.
A door appeared in the distance.
"Sasori!" Sakura shouted, thinking he must have wandered down here when she fell asleep.
"Do you see them?"
Itachi's voice echoed in her head.
"Sasori, I'm coming! Just wait a little longer!"
"I can see you!"
Hidan's cackling permeated the walls, as though they were part of him, and they reached for her through faceless frames with invisible fingers, curling.
Five more minutes...
Sasori's voice rang in Sakura's head as she lunged for the door, her candle discarded and forgotten. The knob was cool under her hand and twisted easily. A biting cold burst from the other side, the kind that cuts to the bones and breaks them, too. Darkness, and Sakura gasped at the sudden change in temperature, and she fell to her knees. Her breath misted.
A light caught her eye up ahead, and she knew she had to get to it. In this darkness there was no telling where the floor met the wall met the ceiling, and she wondered if they were there at all. The beast inside, the fear, longed for freedom and tugged her forward. Just a little more. Why not indulge her personal nightmare just a little more?
The light burst, popped like the streetlamps that night with Hidan, but instead of going dark it blazed brighter. Sakura hissed in pain as the light burned her eyes, but she pressed forward.
Five more minutes to never reaching you.
The light dimmed and Sakura blinked away the spots in her vision. Floating, or maybe sinking, she watched a faraway scene through layers of seawater, suffocating. Sasori stood opposite her, although, it wasn't her.
"Grandma, when are Mom and Dad coming home?"
Sakura looked around, but there was no source for the child's voice echoing in the shallows above. She tried to swim up to it, but she got nowhere at all.
"Wake up, Sakura."
Sasori held a hand out to the other Sakura, but it was not an offering. His palm was flat, and the shadows all around converged on him, answering his call. Sakura opened her mouth to scream, but she swallowed seawater and gagged, clutching her throat.
The other Her reached for Sasori, too, but even through her blurry vision Sakura could see that something was not quite right. The girl's hand bled profusely, like she'd be playing with knives and gotten carried away. A girl's laughter, eerie and familiar.
"Sasori!" Sakura screamed, but nothing came out. He couldn't hear her.
"Wake up now," Sasori said to the thing that wasn't Sakura.
"They'll be home soon, Sasori. Just wait a little longer."
Another voice, that of an elderly woman, somewhere above.
The dream was running away with Sakura, and she was powerless to stop it. Was it even her dream?
Five more minutes and I'll be waiting at your door.
Not-Sakura lunged at Sasori, clawing and scraping at him, but his shadows held her at bay. She scratched at his face and painted black stripes on his flesh, gaping wounds that smoked as though on fire. Sakura could not breathe.
"Let go, Sakura," he said, advancing on it and pushing it back where it came from.
The beast inside Sakura slashed at her insides, begging to get free, and she cried out in pain. Her T-shirt bubbled, and Sakura tried to push the bubbles back inside so they wouldn't get out. It hurt, this fear.
"I'm through waiting," the child's voice said.
The sound of it made Sakura choke, and it was all her fear needed. It burst out like a horde of starved snakes, rending the darkness to get to the light and dragging her with it.
And then he looked at her. Honey eyes, wide with sight and something else, a vulnerability she'd never known he possessed, focused on her through the dream sea. And she could breathe.
"Please wait!" she screamed.
With her bare hands, Sakura reached for the shadows trying to crawl away and yanked them back. They writhed and wailed as she crushed them. The other Her turned to look, too, but all Sakura could see were vacuous black pits where eyes should have been. The creature was smiling, and it began to advance.
Five more pretty minutes.
The seawater drained and Sakura could move. Both hands filled with the shadows she'd spawned, she ran at the monster in the mirror, following fear.
The shadows clashed with the other Her, and it laughed and laughed. Something wet snaked around Sakura and Her, shah, shah, shahing, and squeezed them both. Sakura didn't fight it. If this was what it took, she only had five forever minutes to bear it.
Five more minutes until forever.
And he thinks that maybe there's a very good reason we haunt them.
Sakura awoke with a start to the sound of something shattering. She rubbed her eyes and glanced at the covered window. It was dark, and her heart sank. She scrambled out of bed and caught herself on the back of a chair as dizziness swam in her head. The temptation to vomit was not negligible, but she held back. The bedroom door was slightly ajar.
Sakura paled. It was just like the dream, and a part of her feared it had merely reset. There was only one way to find out. She poked her head out of the door. In the living room, the mug of tea she'd been drinking after her hospital shift still sat on the coffee table. Swallowing, she slowly turned to look at the bathroom.
The door was closed.
Sakura clutched her stomach to ground herself before that terrible falling sensation could overtake her. Like standing on the edge of a cliff and trying to see the bottom, but leaning forward would mean taking the plunge without recourse. Sakura touched the doorknob and hesitated. It was warm, like it had been recently used. She looked over her shoulder at the front door, but there was no one knocking, no one pounding or scraping. Taking a deep breath, Sakura twisted the knob and pushed open the door.
The first thing she saw was a thousand reflections of her face blinking back at her from the floor. Green eyes, bright and ringed with dark, sleepless circles. And there was Sasori, standing in the midst of them all, shining.
"You're awake," he said, not bothering to move.
Looking back on that moment, Sakura couldn't say why she began to cry. Why the tears fell and wouldn't stop. But she wept an ocean that night just seeing him standing there among the remains of her broken bathroom mirror. A little light filtered in from a window, reflecting off the mirror shards and giving the room an aura of water, the way the sun glimmers upon rippling ocean waves. And he just stood there, watching her. Waiting for her.
Sakura fell to her knees and sobbed.
"But there's only so far I can go
When you're living in a hallway that keeps growing.
I think to myself,
Five more minutes and I'll be there
Inside your door."
A week passed.
A full week, and Sakura had no trouble sleeping. She could have kissed Sasori. She told him so.
"All I did was shatter a mirror in your bathroom, which you'll have to replace if you haven't already, by the way."
Sakura filled out patient charts in a chair next to Itachi's bed. She'd taken to doing her busy work in here now as an excuse to be around Sasori. Not for his benefit, but for hers. There was something soothing about being next to the unknown, like there was nothing else that could possibly scare her worse. If five minutes was all and everything she had, Sakura would not waste them.
"Then, you really don't remember anything?" she asked, glancing up at him from her work.
Sasori wasn't looking at her. His gaze rested on Itachi, who breathed softly with each beep of the heart monitor. He said nothing, and Sakura didn't press him. She'd learned by now that his silences spoke louder than his words.
"Do you ever wonder how you got into this...situation?"
This time he did look at her, and a million and one thoughts passed between them.
Just wait a little longer.
"Do you need something, Sakura?"
He sighed and ran a hand through his messy red hair. Sakura smiled, oddly pleased at the very human gesture. It made her wonder.
"Who's your grandmother?"
Sasori froze. "I don't have any relations."
Sakura opened her mouth to respond to that, but caught herself, thinking. "But, in my dream, I heard her speaking to you."
"That was a dream. Forget it unless you want to invite more nightmares to keep you awake."
"No, of course not." She bit her lip. "It's just... I don't understand."
"Some things aren't meant to be understood, just accepted. I'm sure you know what I mean by now."
"What will happen to you?"
Sasori didn't answer, but he held her gaze. She fidgeted with her pen.
"I mean, when Itachi wakes up. Or..."
For the first time in their acquaintance, Sasori looked angry. He pressed his lips together and ground his teeth. Sakura regretted bringing it up.
"I don't know," he admitted. "What happens to forever when its five minutes are up?"
"I don't know," Sakura said.
Her throat clenched, and she ached to reach for him like she'd never ached before. But she held back.
"But whatever happens, I'll be here. As long as it takes."
"Only death comes to those who wait, Sakura. You of all people should know that."
She swallowed her tears and flashed him a brilliant smile. "Well, death makes life worth living, I guess. Even if you only have five minutes left."
Sasori chuckled, but there was no amusement in his tone. "Women love to say such pointless things."
Sakura frowned. It was such a Sasori thing to say, and she had nothing for him in response. He pushed off the bed and crossed his arms. They lapsed into a comfortable silence, one that Sakura was loathe to break. Just as she was ready to excuse herself and give him some time alone with Itachi, the speaker blared and made her jump.
"Paging Doctor Hatchling. Code Blue, ground floor."
Sakura gasped and dropped her clipboard.
"What is it?" Sasori asked, straightening.
"An emergency," Sakura said, already rushing to the door. "I have to go."
"Sakura," Sasori called.
Sakura didn't hear him as she ran out the door toward the stairwell. The last time there had been an emergency like this, Itachi had ended up in a coma and she'd gained a deeper insight into things better left unseen. But the healer in Sakura spurred her onward, down winding steps to a neverending corridor to darkness and light and everything in between. Unlike her dream, though, beyond the door were frantic hospital staff and a patient with more blood on him than in him.
"Sakura, I need you here," Shī said.
Sakura obeyed without a word and pulled on sterile gloves. There was no time to wash.
"...multiple stab wounds, internal bleeding. He needs a transfusion ASAP," Shī was saying.
The hospital prepared for emergency surgery, but just before they wheeled the patient through the doors to the ER, a man called for them to wait.
"Please, is he going to be all right?"
Sakura, recognizing the voice, spotted her old college professor, Kakashi Hatake, with blood stains on his jacket. An aide stopped Kakashi from advancing any further.
"Sir, we have to operate. Please wait here for further instructions. We're doing everything we can—"
"No, you don't understand. That's my friend in there. Obito!"
Sakura wanted to go to Kakashi, but duty called. There was no time.
"Where's that transfusion? I need it now!" Shī shouted.
Shī was already working on stitching the patient's wounds, and Sakura helped him. Before long, her arms were covered in blood to the elbows and sweat plastered her bangs to her forehead, but she paid it no mind.
"Stop," a voice said in her ear.
Sakura nearly dropped the suction tube she was holding. Sasori stood directly behind her, his expression hard and almost angry.
"What?" Sakura said, dazed. She attempted to get back to work as Shī shouted for a nurse.
"Let me have him," Sasori said.
"Ready the transfusion," Shī said. Two nurses moved to obey.
No one seemed to mind Sasori's presence in the middle of an operation.
"Get out of here," Sakura hissed.
"Doctor?" the nurse next to Sakura asked, worried.
"Sakura, stop," Sasori said.
He was losing blood fast, and Sakura and Shī couldn't stitch him up fast enough. Too-bright lights overhead gave the patient a washed-out look, made him look paler than he was. The bright red of his blood and the black sheen of his hair stood out in contrast, and Sakura remembered Itachi lying here not long ago, lost to madness and disease and the invisible things only she could see now.
"Sakura," Sasori said.
"I said no! What the hell do you think a human life is?"
His hand hovered over the patient (Obito, his name's Obito, you careless twat, can't you get anything right?), and a shadow descended on the room. Sakura became frantic.
"Nurse, CPR, now!" Shī said through gritted teeth.
In the midst of all the machines and hands, so many hands and people's useless chatter, there was a man dying, a man still alive but not for long. And outside, a friend who still held onto those five minutes, hoping they weren't up just yet. Eternity, however, is a beautiful lie only five minutes long.
"I can take away his pain," Sasori whispered in her ear.
She could have melted. Could have fallen into him, that velvet abyss free of sound and sight. How easy it would be, to let it all go. To wish away the pain and watch it go, never to be heard from again. His breath was warm on her neck, tempting, as his hand hovered over hers. And for a moment, she wondered:
What the hell is Itachi waiting for?
"Sakura," he said again. So close, if he would just close the distance. Just a little more.
"We're losing him!" Shī said, his voice rising in panic.
Sakura snapped out of it.
"No, we can save him!"
She focused all her energy on the task at hand. Obito's vitals beeped on the heart monitor. One, two, three, four...
The doors burst open and Kakashi rushed to the operating table, an aide on his tail. He leaned over Obito, tears in his eyes as he pleaded with his best friend to hang on, please, just hang on! Needles and thread, like stitching a patchwork doll back together, never knowing whether the pieces actually fit. A crap shoot. Was that all this was? Was this all she could amount to? Five fucking minutes?
Sasori fell back, but she could feel him here, watching her work. Watching her fail. And she hated him in this moment.
"Obito, you'll be all right," Kakashi said.
"Clear!" a nurse said.
It was round three of CPR, and Sakura dropped her needle. She poked the thumb she'd sliced open recently, but she barely felt it. Tears blurred her vision. It was over in five short minutes.
What was it they said about life being the beautiful lie?
Sakura backed away. The heart monitor sounded a steady beep with no end and no beginning, like there was never anything but this. She staggered and the wall broke her fall. She slumped to the floor and shivered. Sasori was beside her.
"You can't save everyone."
"Why not? Why can't I?" she bit out through angry, hot tears.
Shī tried to console Kakashi, but he was barely sound himself. The nurses and orderlies cleaned up in solemn silence. How quickly it ended, Sakura thought. Just a moment ago they were fighting for a life, and now everyone was moving on, cleaning up the room for the next case. She wondered how many of them had even caught his name.
"So what, you'll add him to your collection now?" Sakura said, turning to Sasori. "Go ahead. What're you waiting for?"
Sasori sat stiff beside her, his honey eyes fixed upon Obito's stretcher where a hand dangled over the side. Sakura choked on a sob but refrained from wiping her face with her bloody hands.
"I guess he wasn't mine to take," Sasori said.
"What are you talking about?"
Sasori said nothing, and Sakura followed his gaze. A little girl lingered in the far corner, her wide, brown eyes curious and a little sad as she watched the scene unfold. As Shī led Kakashi out of the room, she jogged toward Obito's corpse. Sakura gaped, her tears forgotten.
Sakura and Sasori watched as Rin peered down at Obito, curious, like she'd never seen death before. After a moment, she smiled. The purple face paint stretched across her cheeks with the movement. She took his hand in hers.
"You're late," she said.
Sakura watched, speechless, as Obito's hand closed around Rin's and a pair of short legs touched down from the hospital cot. A young boy about Rin's age with spiky black hair held her hand in his, and he had a grin on his face so bright Sakura almost squinted.
"Heh, sorry about that. I hope I didn't keep you waiting too long," he said.
Rin shook her head. "No, it's okay."
Sakura covered her mouth to keep from crying out. Rin and Obito noticed her then and turned to look at her and Sasori. Rin smiled brightly.
"See? I told you he'd come," she said.
Tears streamed down Sakura's cheeks, but words escaped her.
"C'mon, Rin. I'm tired," Obito said.
The lights over Obito's stretcher blazed brighter, and Sakura had to shield her eyes. She heard laughter, children's laughter, and the pattering of running feet. Rin and Obito held hands as they walked toward the light, too bright for the natural eye to bear. And just like that, they were gone. Obito's dead hand still hung over the edge of his stretcher, limp and lifeless until a nurse began to push it away. Sakura followed it with her eyes, her tears drying on her cheeks.
A weight in her hand startled her. Sasori held her hand in his, not too firm but enough to mean it. Obito's blood smeared his fingers, and she could almost feel him if not for the thick layer of rubber dividing them.
She looked at him, astonished, but he stared resolutely ahead. "How funny life can be," he said.
Sakura said nothing to that, but she held his hand in hers, blood and all. With him, she supposed she would take what she could get. They stayed that way as nurses and orderlies buzzed about, mopping up blood and replacing supplies, like nothing had happened. Life and death, and the five minutes in between. All of it, just a house of mirrors.
Still, Sasori held her hand. And she cried.
Having been alone for so long, he has to wonder:
What happens when there's nothing left to wait for?
At some point, Sakura realized she didn't have to ask anymore. In time, the answers became apparent, if there were answers at all. And when there weren't, well, she no longer felt the same insatiable itch to find them. Sasori was Sasori, and that was all that mattered.
It occurred to her than in another life, a parallel universe, she could have hated him. He could have been an enemy, a bane and a curse. It also occurred to her that there was not much difference in this life, in this universe. But as always, Sakura preferred to look at the big picture. That picture included Sasori, call it whatever you like.
The call came in just as she was preparing to leave for her shift at the hospital, and Sakura thought little of the call until she saw exactly who was calling.
"Karin, hey," Sakura said, holding the phone to her ear with her shoulder as she stuffed a change of clothes into her gym bag.
"Hey, Sakura. How've you been?"
"Oh, you know, the usual. Sick people."
Sakura could just imagine Karin's skeptical look through the phone. Somehow, there was never any fooling her. Or Ino. She really needed new friends.
"Anyway, I did some digging into that Sasori guy you were asking about."
Sakura perked up. She'd forgotten about her request in light of certain distractions in her life. She still hadn't gotten around to replacing her bathroom mirror after whatever Sasori had done to get rid of whatever the hell that had been.
"Oh, yeah? What'd you find out?"
"It's the strangest thing. Are you sure you gave me the right name?"
"Yeah, why? Something wrong?"
"I guess that depends. Itachi never knew anyone named Sasori. At least, not personally."
"What do you mean?"
"I was at a dead end for awhile to be honest. It's hard to search for someone without a last name to go on. But Sasuke caught me doing research the other day."
"And he recognized the name."
"You mean, Sasuke knows Sasori?"
There was a pause on the line, and Sakura hauled her bag over her shoulder and searched around for her keys. "Karin? What is it?"
Karin sighed on the other end of the line. "Well, Sasuke recognized the name as a grave Itachi used to visit when he was younger."
Sakura paused mid-step just as she was about to lock her front door. "A grave?"
"Yeah, as in, six feet under. Itachi visited the grave once a month. Sasuke asked him once who Sasori was and how Itachi knew him, and Itachi said he met him in a dream."
Sakura said nothing to that.
"This guy, Sasori, he died seventy-two years ago. He was a pilot in World War II stationed in England. No ties to the Uchiha family that I could find. Frankly, I have no idea how you even made the connection. Maybe you're thinking of a different Sasori?"
Sakura's hand remained clasped around her key in the lock. Somewhere inside, she knew. She'd always known. But to think it, to voice it aloud would have been like breaking a spell.
"Sakura? You there?"
"I'm here," Sakura said. "Thanks, Karin. I've gotta get to work."
"All right. Hey, cheer up, okay? You sound a little out of it."
Sakura twisted the key in the lock and hung up the phone. She walked to the subway in a trance, barely feeling the passage of time.
"What are you?"
"Shut up," Sakura whispered to herself.
The homeless man who'd made this particular car his home eyed Sakura, curious. She kept her eyes downcast and wished she could just curl up and disappear.
The hospital was nothing out of the ordinary on this Tuesday night. Sakura performed her rounds and helped Shī whenever she was needed. It was a slow night, but still she dragged her feet. No matter how slowly she wandered the hallways, 3 AM came around as it always did. It was time to visit Itachi in the overnight ward.
Sakura had never dreaded this visit before, but now her steps were measured and heavy, as though she wore lead shoes and could barely walk two feet without breaking a sweat. She arrived all too soon for one so worn down and paused just outside the door.
There were voices murmuring inside.
Frowning, Sakura turned the doorknob and pushed the door open, her hand tingling. The sight that greeted her made her drop the clipboard she carried. Sasori was there, and so was Itachi. They were standing and conversing at the foot of the cot where Itachi had been sleeping, like nothing was amiss.
"Oh my god," Sakura said, stepping inside and letting the door swing shut behind her.
The two men turned to look at her.
"Sakura," Sasori said, his voice strained and so unlike his usual composure.
Sakura walked toward them, and Itachi merely watched her with kind, sad eyes.
"Hello, Sakura. I was wondering when you would join us," Itachi said, sparing her the ghost of a smile.
A constricting pressure in Sakura's chest began to prickle with pain, and she inhaled deeply, having forgotten to breathe. "I have to tell the others," she said more to herself than to the room's other two occupants. Without waiting for their permission, she accessed the wall phone by the door and pressed a green button. "I need assistance. Room 4 in the overnight ward... Yes, Patient #478. Thank you."
When she hung up, she realized she was smiling like an idiot. Sasuke... She had to tell Sasuke immediately. Whirling, she approached Itachi and tried to restrain her joy. "You're awake. I can't believe it!"
"Sakura," Sasori said.
Sasori watched her with an unreadable expression, and Sakura's smile faltered. "What's going on? I thought you'd be happy."
"I understand you've been taking care of me," Itachi said, drawing Sakura's attention back to him. "Thank you for that. I'm sure it wasn't easy after what I put you through."
His words evoked memories of neverending hallways, bruises, blood, the night come to life. Sakura took a step back without thinking.
"I'm sorry for the trouble I've caused you," Itachi went on. "Both of you."
"That's irrelevant. The wait is over," Sasori said.
Sakura looked between the two of them, suddenly realizing she was missing something. Something important. "The wait for what?"
Silence befell the trio, and Sakura began to worry. The shadows surrounding Sasori undulated as though buffeted by an imaginary wind, or waves in an invisible ocean. Visions of drowning, her screams gone unheard, flashed before Sakura's eyes. And Sasori, standing among a sea of glittering eyes, broken but not blind as she reached for him. Five minutes close, and five minutes too far. A wretched eternity that belonged to neither of them.
"What's going on?" she demanded, her voice quiet to hide the crack.
"Sasori," Itachi said. "I didn't want to leave you all alone. Don't you see?"
"Don't," Sasori said. He advanced on Itachi and grabbed him by the collar. "You can't. This isn't what we planned on."
Something on the bed behind them caught Sakura's eye, and she covered her mouth to stifle a choking sob.
"You're holding onto something, old friend." Itachi said softly.
Sakura walked forward as though treading in another's shoes. The bed had fresh sheets, crisp and white. She reached out a hand to draw them back. Still warm. Itachi's eyes were closed, peaceful as always. Silent. The heart monitor did not beep. Her tears dripped onto his pale cheek and ran down the length of his jawline.
Five more minutes, and I'll be waiting at your door.
"I'm not," Sasori said. "I'm through waiting."
Itachi shook his head. "Then you'll have to let go of her."
Sakura smoothed back Itachi's hair. "Please."
"Do you see them?"
The lamp on Itachi's bedside, ever weak and wan, flickered and brightened.
Sakura turned at the sound of an unfamiliar voice. A young man stood against the wall behind the lamp, his dark, curly hair falling in his face. Itachi turned to him, too.
"Are you ready?" the stranger asked.
"I'm not holding onto anything. I never have," Sasori said as Itachi pulled away from him.
"Everything happens for a reason, Sasori. In time, you'll find yours, too."
Sakura stared at the young man casting shadows on the bedside lamp that had grown so bright she had to shield her eyes. "Are you...Shisui?" she asked.
"They can see you."
Shisui met her eyes and grinned. The sight of him blurred beyond recognition as fresh tears filled Sakura's eyes.
Itachi took Shisui's hand and stepped into the light.
"There's so much you've missed, old man," Shisui said, laughing.
"I know. I'm sorry," Itachi said.
He paused and looked back at Sasori, whose eyes were wide with a barren hopelessness Sakura had never seen on him.
"Just wait a little longer, Sasori," Itachi said.
The light brightened and Sakura closed her eyes. The next thing she knew, the door slammed open and Shī burst into the room with two nurses. They crowded around Itachi's cot and assessed his vitals. The verdict was set in stone, but in the excitement Sakura could only stand back and stare at Sasori, who watched the dim lamp. It flickered, its bulb old and needing a change again.
"...someone call his family," Shī said. "Sakura, are you with us?"
Sakura blinked and found her superior watching her with a look of concern. He put a hand on her shoulder when she didn't respond right away.
"Hey," he said softly. "There was nothing you could do, so don't beat yourself up about this. Some people just can't be saved."
Sakura stared at him, at the sympathy in his eyes for someone who just didn't know. Didn't see.
"Open your eyes."
"I'm sorry," she said, looking beyond Shī.
Sasori was nowhere to be found.
"I just can't accept that," she said, pushing past Shī to get as far away from this tiny room as possible.
"Sakura!" Shī called.
But she was gone.
"Come here. No, I won't say 'please'.
One more look at the ghost before I'm gonna make it leave.
I've got the pieces here.
Time to gather up the splinters,
Build a casket for my tears."
She didn't see him for the next week and a half.
The hospital had its highs and lows. Some patients made it out alive, others weren't so lucky. Either way, Sakura watched them all walk out in one piece.
She visited Itachi's old room, which was occupied by another patient for the time being. Sasori was never there.
"Where did you go?" she asked the sleeping patient whose name she didn't know.
Her questions were always met with silence, never answers. The bedside lamp didn't flicker anymore. Someone had replaced it with a new model after a nurse complained about having to change the bulbs so frequently. It was bright enough to ward off even the smallest shadows that liked to linger in the corners like cobwebs. Sasori never came.
At home, Sakura stood in her bathroom and stared at the plaster panel where her mirror used to be. The shards she'd swept up and trashed long ago, but she had yet to replace the mirror. Without the fear to keep her company, the apartment was lonely and claustrophobic.
She spent a full two minutes and forty-eight seconds opening and closing the bathroom door, looking for a staircase to lead her anywhere but here. A place with two thousand floors and endless hallways, and Sasori standing there as they fell down around him. But there was only the pink tiled bathroom and no mirror. Her thumb had long since healed, and not even a scar remained. Shī had done a good job with the stitching.
"Coward," she spat at the empty place that reflected nothing at all. "Come out so I can see you."
Just five little minutes.
Sasori never came.
Itachi's funeral was held on a quiet winter morning. The sky was overcast with the threat of snow, and the funeral-goers huddled together for warmth and comfort. Sakura pulled her black pea coat tighter around her shoulders as Itachi's father, Fugaku, gave a speech. The Uchiha family members in attendance looked on in solemn silence, including Sasuke. But it was a ruse. He clutched Karin's hand for dear life and kept his eyes resolutely ahead as she rubbed his bloodless knuckles. Sakura couldn't bear to watch them, knowing she'd seen Itachi's last moments when they should have been reserved for the people he was closest to.
Ino slipped her arm through Sakura's but said nothing, only smiled faintly. Sakura leaned into her friend, and Ino stood tall and steady. No words were necessary.
"...And I'm sure that wherever Itachi is now, he's in a better place," Fugaku went on. He paused a moment and pulled a handkerchief from his jacket pocket, which he used to cover his mouth and nose briefly.
Sakura nearly lost her composure at the slip.
"Thank you all for coming today," Fugaku continued, pocketing the handkerchief and composing himself. "A moment of silence, please."
Itachi's picture sat on a tripod next to the open grave into which graveyard attendees lowered his casket. He wasn't smiling in it, and Sakura thought it suited him. She hadn't known Itachi much, and the limited times during which they interacted were always formal but polite. He was the kind of person who could never raise his voice even if he tried, and he never needed to, anyway. People listened when he spoke.
The casket lowered just beyond ground level and Sasuke stepped forward, his face twisted with emotions Sakura had rarely seen him display. He pulled Karin forward with him and watched Itachi's casket descend. Sakura couldn't see well from this distance, but she knew Sasuke was crying. As though he'd flipped a switch, the rest of the Uchiha family members in attendance lost their composure to varying degrees. Mikoto, Itachi and Sasuke's mother, covered her mouth and choked back a sob. Fugaku pulled her to him to stifle her sobs. Cousins, uncles, aunts, and ancestors alike looked away and whispered their condolences and shed tears of their own.
A woman with the most eye-catching indigo hair touched a hand to Itachi's picture frame, her gaze unreadable and seeing nothing but the likeness of the man in front of her. Sakura looked away, unable to intrude anymore. To watch others' pain was too much for the guilt she harbored.
Naruto joined Ino and her, and Ino pulled him into a hug as he cried on her shoulder. When Sakura backed away to give them a moment, Naruto noticed her retreat.
"Sakura," he said.
Sakura smiled but shed no tears. "Hey, you."
Naruto wiped his eyes and tried to smile for her, though it didn't quite reach his ears. "Listen, you know how Sasuke can be. He won't even talk to me, y'know? What a piece of shit."
Tears welled in Sakura's eyes, but she refused to let them fall. "I know."
"Just... Maybe you can talk to him about Itachi. You were there when, you know. You know?"
Sakura nodded. "Yeah, I will."
He pulled her into a hug, and Sakura wanted nothing more than to just fall into him, let go. But she couldn't. Just being here made it hard to breathe.
"I'm gonna head out, okay? I'll catch up with you guys later," she said, pulling away.
"Forehead," Ino said, concerned.
"I'm fine, don't worry. I just don't feel right being here, you know?"
Sakura backed away before they could protest and stuffed her hands in her pockets. The funeral procession was dying down behind her, and she leaned against a nearby oak tree to catch her breath. She looked up at the sky and breathed deeply.
It began to snow.
Cold kisses melted on her bare cheeks, and Sakura closed her eyes. "I hate this."
The graveyard was vast and housed all manner of tombstones and a few mausoleums that had been sealed shut for who knew how many years. Sakura shivered and decided to walk. She passed by crosses and less ostentatious grave markers, religious and secular and nothing at all. Some didn't even have names or dates, just a lump of marble for the people who'd fallen without any witnesses to watch them go. Old and young, it was like walking among a small city, down the main street on which each of them lingered, haggling or playing tag or just enjoying the afternoon sun on days warmer than this one. They would have laughed, maybe talked of splendid things once. Now, they were silent.
Sakura didn't pay attention to where she was going, and soon the sounds of Itachi's funeral were far behind her. Miles away through a door Sakura would never reach.
"See for yourself," Karin had said. "Konoha City Cemetery, row 342, plot 78."
She couldn't say how long she'd been standing in front of his grave, her feet having taken her along a path not her own, a path walked by someone else in another life, long ago. But here she was.
"Decorated soldier and patriot
Beloved son and grandson
Gone, but not forgotten.
Sakura noticed the chipped vase next to the marker, a simple porcelain treasure, holding withered flowers that had succumbed to winter's harsh bite some time ago. She reached out a hand to touch them.
"I never understood why people kept graves. They're just questions gone unanswered. The dead don't speak."
Sakura froze at the sound of that voice just short of touching the flowers at his grave. She dared not turn, lest he, too, be out of reach.
"Just like it says," she said, her gaze falling on the carved words in the marble. "Gone, but not forgotten."
Sasori said nothing, and Sakura slowly rose to face him. He stood just behind her under the canopy of a naked oak tree. Its spindly branches swayed in the winter breeze, rickety, like a squeaky bathroom door. The cover was minimal, and his shadows cast a dark blight on the trunk behind him. Like the very first time she'd seen him, Sakura thought he looked about ready to fall, if only he'd take a step back into the welcoming abyss. But he remained still.
"Useless," he said, his gaze heavy on her. "I don't have the patience for even the most beautiful lies."
Sakura stepped closer and held her head high. "I'm not the one who ran away. What happened to you? You can't just leave like that. What else do you think I've been doing but waiting for you?"
She didn't realize she was shouting at him until she finished her mini tirade and the silence slammed into her with a tangible weight. Sasori was unmoved by her words, however.
"You asked me once what I am, why I'm here. I didn't know then."
"I don't care about any of that, Sasori," Sakura said, exasperated. "Don't you get it? I don't care. You know, maybe you were right. Maybe some things just are, and there aren't any pretty answers just waiting to be discovered. And I'm okay with that now. I just want..."
She squeezed her eyes shut and willed the tears not to fall. Everything had been normal and boring before Sasori. But now that she could see, she wasn't sure ignorance was bliss. Not if it meant forgetting everything.
"I don't know why this happened to me, or why you're here. Sometimes I wake up and I think I'm still running down that hallway and I'll never reach the other side. Maybe this is all a dream, and I'll wake up, and you'll be just a memory."
She shook her head and smiled through her tears. "But everything happens for a reason. How can I wish you away without knowing for sure?"
He watched her tears fall one after the other, reddening her cheeks and freezing when they mixed with errant snowflakes. He reached for her, beyond the shadows that bound him, and Sakura held her breath, waiting. He opened his mouth, anticipating something, but paused just short of her. His phantom touch, not really there, tingled just over her temple. If she just leaned into him, let go, maybe she could feel him.
But their five minutes were up, and he was still miles away. He let his hand drop.
"It's because of you," he said, searching her eyes for the very answers he'd told her didn't exist, didn't matter. "You're holding onto something, Sakura. And you have to let it go."
"Ghosts don't haunt us, Sakura; we haunt them."
"Me?" she said, hating how her voice cracked.
"What do you think a human life is?"
She stared at him, unable to think as he threw her own words back at her. She shook her head, unwilling to listen. "I can't. I'm not ready. You can't ask me to..."
"I'm not asking."
She shook her head again. "There has to be another way. If you'd just wait a bit, I could think of something—"
He sighed, and Sakura saw his exhaustion for the first time. It was so plain to see that it was a wonder she'd hadn't noticed before. "I can't stand the waiting. I can't stand it."
Sakura choked on a sob, but she didn't care if he saw her cry anymore. It just wasn't right. Nothing was right.
"Why? Why did it have to be me?"
He leaned in close, just inches from her face, and smirked. "I don't know. But I'd like to think there is a reason, after all."
Sakura had never felt so far away from another person in all her life. She couldn't even feel his breath on her lips. The closer he came, the further out of reach he drifted down an endless hallway with faceless pictures that watched her run, faster and faster and she could never reach his door.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I'm so sorry for everything."
Snow fell between them, thicker and thicker. Behind him, two yellow eyes looked down on them both.
"Some people can't be saved."
"Stop haunting me, Sakura," Sasori whispered against her lips, still and empty, like he wasn't there at all.
She forced herself not to move, not to reach for him anymore. It was what he wanted, and she owed him that much. No one should go without sleep for so long.
The shadow behind Sasori spread its arms wide, and Sasori stepped back. Little hands, black and smoking, tugged at his clothes, grabby and greedy. He fell back, and Sakura trembled in fear for him. The shadow pulled him under, drowning, to the bottom of a dark abyss where Sakura could not follow.
But she could try.
"Sasori," she said, reaching for him.
He held out a hand to her as the darkness curled around his fingers. Her tears fell behind her as she fell forward. Just a little more.
Her fingers brushed his, and she felt the pressure on her gloves. Warm. He smiled as the shadow swallowed him whole, and Sakura opened her mouth to call out to him, hoping he could hear her through the veil. But when she finally caught up, the shadows folded in on themselves and dissolved. Sakura stumbled and fell to the frozen ground on her hands and knees, panting.
She stared at the ground, at the dew that had frozen there earlier this morning and bent under the weight of the falling snow and her tears. They crystallized when the hit the ground, little coffins piled one on top of the other.
"I'll stop," she said.
The snow buried Sasori's grave.
By the hallways in this tiny room,
The echo there of me and you,
The voices that are carrying this tune."
Sakura checked her watch as she waited in line at the corner coffee shop and waited for her morning wake-up call. Still on time, but she'd have to hustle if she was going to make the train. Her phone buzzed and she flipped it open to answer.
"Hey Forehead, you still in bed?"
Sakura rolled her eyes. "No, Pig, I'm getting your coffee. You're welcome, by the way."
"Aw, look at you being so helpful. Are we still on for this morning?"
The barista called out Sakura's order and she thanked him. After some careful maneuvering, she gathered her coffee along with Ino's in a tray and switched her cell to the other ear.
"Yeah, I'm getting on the train now. See you in ten?"
"You got it."
Sakura hung up and headed for the train station. The ride was a bit crowded due to the morning rush, but since she was headed uptown against traffic, there was ample standing room. She tapped her fingers against a passenger pole, a nameless tune in her head. She and Ino were looking into getting her a new apartment closer to uptown. It would mean a slightly longer commute to the hospital, but as a full-time resident now, she was on the day shift and less susceptible to the night crazies prowling the streets for single women walking home alone from work.
A year had passed since she'd said goodbye to Sasori.
In many ways, it was like falling asleep. The first month was hard. She kept seeing things she shouldn't be seeing, and even though her apartment was empty save for her now, she couldn't sleep much. Every night was the same:
"Please, don't let me see them anymore."
One day she stopped seeing them.
She couldn't say exactly when it had happened. Maybe she'd gotten so used to them wandering around in the shadows, watching her watching them, as though she were as strange an occurrence as any of them.
Who would guess ghosts could be afraid of anything?
She hated that word, by the way.
Better to put them out of her mind than to try to reconcile the semantics. And when she looked up from a hopeless surgery one evening, that was that. The patient, a gunshot victim, was still and limp. Sakura pronounced her dead and the nurses shuffled about getting her out of the ER as fast as possible. Even if Sakura hadn't been looking, she would have been surprised to find herself alone in the place where a woman had just died. Death had never felt so final without a parting word, or a lingering smile through the shadows.
It got easier after that. Work was work, and Sakura was good at her job. Some people, though, could not be saved. It was part of the daily deal, and she just had to accept it. That didn't mean she had to forget the ones she couldn't save, though.
She visited his grave almost every day during that first month, replacing the wilted flowers Itachi had once left with her own. Sasori would probably roll his eyes and tell her how she just loved to do pointless things. Flowers in the middle of winter? He couldn't think of anything more absurd if he tried.
Thinking of him made her laugh. She'd talk to him when she visited. Sometimes other visitors would pass by and glance at her on their way to pay their respects to their own loved ones. How strange, they must think, for a girl of twenty-six to visit the grave of a World War II veteran. Surely, she was holding onto something that had never broached the realm of dreams.
Sometimes she would just sit there and cry. On those days, she didn't linger.
"Stop haunting me, Sakura."
Over time, she visited less. Thought of him less. She couldn't see them anymore, and maybe that was for the better. Was it possible to miss someone she hardly thought of? Someone she barely remembered? One year, 365 days, 8,766 hours, 525,949 minutes without him, and Sakura kept on living.
Maybe it really was all just a dream.
"Okay, so this one's a loft on the twenty-seventh floor. Train right around the corner, and you're only a five minute ride away from me," Ino said as she sipped her iced coffee.
Sakura looked around the small apartment. It was more cramped than her current one, but like most city apartments it was creative with its space. "It's cute," she said.
"I'm friends with the realtor, and I bet I can get her down to something less than an arm and a leg," Ino said, winking.
"That would be nice."
She ran her hand across the wall as she walked. Full-length windows offered a great view of the city below. A side door led to the bathroom, and Sakura walked inside. It was small and modest, narrower than the one in her current apartment, but she didn't need much space living on her own. Light flashed in the corner of her eye, and Sakura turned to catch her reflection in the mirror above the sink. She leaned over the sink to study herself in the mirror, curious. Her reflection stared back at her, unblinking, and Sakura gripped the edges of the sink. In the silence of the tiny room, she could hear her heartbeat in her ears. Tentative, she lifted a hand and let it hover before the mirror, stopping just short of touching the glassy surface.
Just a little more...
"Hey, there you are," Ino said from the doorway.
Sakura pulled back and focused on her friend. "Here I am."
Ino gave her a weird look. "Anyway, let me talk to the realtor later today and I'll give you a call, okay?"
"Thanks, Ino. You know I hate this kind of thing."
Ino waved her off. "What're friends for? I think we both know I'm the better negotiator, anyway."
"Gee, I didn't know your J.D. came with Honors in Egomania."
"Very funny, but I only speak the truth." Ino checked her watch. "Oooh, I better get going. Got a meeting in twenty minutes."
"Okay, me too."
The trip to the hospital from here was uncomplicated, and Sakura checked in with the chief of staff, Tsunade Senju, for her daily rounds. Gloria the receptionist waved good morning when Sakura came through the lobby to talk to a patient's family. The whole time, Sakura's eyes drifted to a chair in the far corner of the lobby, like magnetism. There was no one occupying it, but Sakura couldn't shake it.
"Do you see them?"
"So, he'll be okay?" a middle-aged woman asked with hope in her eyes.
Sakura blinked and returned her attention to the woman. The voice in her head gave her a chill, but she ignored it. Just her silly imagination. "Oh, yeah, your husband's making a full recovery. We'll have to keep him here for a couple of days for monitoring, but you can go see him now if you like?"
The woman smiled and took Sakura's hands in hers. "Thank you so much. Oh, thank you."
Sakura smiled and let her shoulders slump a bit. This was the best part, when she got to tell families that their loved ones would be okay. The reunions were always the same, heartfelt and tearful, but Sakura never got tired of watching them. They were nostalgic the way dreams or deja-vu is nostalgic. A memory not quite hers, but one she wouldn't mind having for herself.
The rest of the day passed mostly uneventful, but Sakura kept busy. There was always something to do in a hospital. Contrary to popular belief and popular television, there was very little time for ER gossip and staff drama.
A young man checked into the hospital for a routine appendectomy earlier that morning, and in the course of operation Tsunade had discovered certain complications that required him to stay overnight for further monitoring and possibly more surgery the next day.
"I'm sorry to lop this on you, Sakura, but I've got meetings with the board the rest of the day that I've already rescheduled three times. You're familiar with the night ward, so I'll leave you in charge."
Sakura nodded. "Of course, Dr. Senju. You can count on me."
Tsunade smiled. "I know." She turned away and yelled, "Kabuto! We're late. Where the hell are you?"
Sakura winced and watched her boss stomp off in search of the head of oncology, Kabuto Yakushi, thanking her stars that she wasn't him right now. Technically, Sakura's shift was up, but there was no disobeying a direct order from the boss. Sighing, Sakura resigned herself to a very late dinner. She quickly texted Karin and told her not to wait to open up the wine. The girls were supposed to have a night out, and Sakura only hoped she could get things in order before her stomach went on strike.
She took the elevator to the fourth floor and yawned. It was going on 9 PM, and Sakura was running a ten-hour shift.
Room 1, Room 2, Room 3...
The lights overhead flickered and Sakura paused, frowning. There was something eerie about this floor, though she couldn't place it. Something caught her eye and she turned around, green eyes narrowing.
"Who's there?" she called.
I'm just tired and hungry, that's all.
She yawned again and continued forward until she came upon Room 4. Itachi's old room, now that she thought about it. The memory was nothing to smile about, but her heart warmed a little thinking about it. She'd visited him every night back when she worked the night shift. There was something about the thought of him lying in there all alone that didn't sit well with her even though she didn't know him well. At the very least, she imagined Sasuke would have appreciated the company for his brother when his family couldn't visit the hospital so late at night.
Sighing, Sakura opened the door and let herself in. She checked the name on the clipboard to make sure she had the right room.
He was young, just a couple years older than her. At least his condition was nothing critical. A few more days and he'd get to go home, hopefully to family and friends. Sakura looked up and was startled to find someone already standing over Deidara's bedside as he slept soundly.
The man's face was obscured from her view by a dark hoodie, and the bedside lamp did little to shed much light on his profile. Sakura stopped dead in her tracks and exhaled hard until her lungs hurt. It was like she'd just walked into a gravity chamber and could no longer lift her feet to move forward. Her heart pounded in her ears, but she couldn't say why.
"Um, excuse me," she managed, clearing her throat. "But visiting hours are over."
The man turned slightly to acknowledge her, and Sakura caught a flash of red hair, red like blood. Her mouth went dry and her fingertips tingled with the desire to scratch an itch she didn't feel. To grab onto something.
What the hell is wrong with me?
"Is it that late already?" the man asked.
He pulled down his hood and met her eyes, and Sakura nearly dropped her clipboard. Honey eyes, as rich and full as his voice sounded, stared back at her with a glint of question. Something in Sakura twisted, that internal free-falling sensation that came alive as though with a mind of its own. She swallowed hard, fighting the sensation. This man...
"I was just leaving, Dr...?"
"Haruno," Sakura said a little too fast. "Sakura Haruno."
He said nothing as he continued to watch her, almost curious the way children watch stars in the night sky or magic tricks, with a touch of the fantastic. Mostly, however, he looked bored and a little sleepy.
"They say he'll have another surgery tomorrow. He's been asleep all day. Can't get him to wake up."
Sakura approached the bed and by some miracle managed not to drag her feet. "Deidara's appendectomy presented some minor complications, but it's nothing to worry about. Dr. Senju is overseeing his recovery personally."
The man nodded, as though all this made perfect sense. Deidara's mouth was slightly ajar as he breathed deeply under the cover of sleep. Sakura frowned and had the urge to brush his bangs out of his face, but she refrained.
"Well, I'll go then. Don't want to waste your time here."
The man turned to leave, but something caught his eye. The bedside lamp behind Sakura flickered. He stared at it for a moment, lost in thought.
"They can see you," he said, shifting his gaze to Sakura.
"Who?" Sakura asked, barely audible.
They stood on opposite sides of the bed, plenty of room and no room at all as the walls of this tiny room seemed to descend upon them, thousands of stories built on top of each other. Hallways leading everywhere and nowhere at all, forever.
"I don't know," he said, almost a question.
"Everything happens for a reason."
Blinking, he made for the door and turned the knob.
"Wait," Sakura said.
He glanced at her askance, frowning.
Five more minutes, and...
"Who are you?"
"Ghosts don't haunt us, Sakura."
He pushed open the door and let the light in from outside. The voice in her head, the echo in this room, and the hallway through that door beckoned her forward, as if in a dream. As if this were real. As if there were ever any difference at all. Sakura caught the smirk as he walked away.
She reached for him.
"We haunt them."
Reviews are very much appreciated.