A word of warning: I always write M, and with that rating there comes certain expectations that most readers should be familiar with (violence, mature themes, etc.). The tags on this story are also extremely accurate. Suffice to say, things will be dark. This is the only time that I'll mention it.

Disclaimer: This fanwork is intended for personal, non-commercial use only. All creative works off which this fanwork is based are the property of their respective authors. No copyright infringement is intended.

A/N: Revised April 3, 2018

Chapter I: The Lingering

There was an itch beneath her skin.

It wasn't a full-on itch—more like a dull throbbing that made her bones ache and her insides clench—but it was annoying all the same, as Sakura had felt it before. She'd never figured out what it was linked to. She should have, she knew. Medic-nins usually did. As the thought struck her, an unpleasant clenching sensation around her throat made it harder to breathe.

Medic-nin. I'm a medic-nin. Remember that.

"Haruno-san!" exclaimed her assistant rather loudly. At that moment Sakura felt a sharp twinge along the underside of her fingers, the sensation slightly delayed.

Dull-eyed and expression slack, she looked down with acerbic interest, observing the single line of red that was tracking its way diagonally across her fingertips. It was surgically precise, but deep enough she was dripping blood. In her other hand, the light green of her chakra scalpel flickered before shutting off.

For a moment Sakura didn't quite understand what she was seeing. The world expanded, then contracted around her. She was entranced by redness as it trailed between the spaces of her fingers and casually dripped onto the floor. The room suddenly seemed much too bright, over-saturated and full of sound. If she strained her ears, she could actually hear the birds chirping outside her lab's shuttered window in the basement of the hospital. She never heard them anymore.

Then reality came crashing down, and with it, the itching. She'd been dissecting a rat for a new project of hers, then cut herself and gotten blood all over everything.


"Well, that sample's ruined," Sakura deadpanned, pushing back from her workstation and grabbing a nearby towel to wipe the blood away with mild disgust. Her lab assistant—a small, sandy-haired nin by the name of Jiro who didn't look a day over seventeen—watched her with budding dismay. Sakura tried to send him an apologetic smile, atrophied facial muscles twitching in vain as she made to complete the motion, but she couldn't do it. She couldn't even attempt a fake one. The gesture felt alien to her. Still, she apologized. She'd just ruined a day's worth of work, and she shouldn't have been that careless. Not at her age.

"Sorry," she said. "I'll find us a new sample. We'll start again in an hour, yes?"

Jiro's expression was hurt.

"Are you…" Sakura sat there, waiting patiently for the question she knew he wanted to ask. It was always the same concern. "Are you alright, Haruno-san?"

"I'm fine," she murmured blandly, looking at a spot just over his shoulder. "Why wouldn't I be?"

His expression twisted, just a bit. The nin pointed to her cupped hand, facing upward and pooling with red.

"You're still bleeding."

Sakura looked down at her fingers, then let out a soft sigh. She hadn't even felt it. Reaching over with her other hand, she let the green once more flare to life. The cut was deep but nothing serious, and it healed easily, leaving behind clear skin and a vague sensation of tightness where the separation had been. Sakura wiped away the rest of the blood with a wet cloth.

"See?" she said. This time she didn't try to smile, sitting blank faced and straight backed as she raised her hand for inspection. "No problem. Everything's good."

"Haruno-san," her assistant began, but Sakura wasn't really interested in talking anymore. Talking took up too much energy, and she was sort of tired these days. The itch was back. She stood, collecting her clipboard and lab coat.

"Three hours," she said. "Get some lunch, alright? I'll see you then." Jiro was silent as she walked away.

"Are you sure you're alright?" Ino asked her that night when they met for dinner after their respective shifts. "You've been looking a little less… uhh, pink these days."

Ino's forehead scrunched slightly into a frown, her blond brows furrowed as she absently twirled her noodles around the utensils scraping the inside of her bowl. Between Sakura's hands rested a cup of tea, untouched and steaming. Above them the rain pattered down in an endless torrent across the café's tiled roof. The streetlamps flickering in the humid summer gloom.

It was nearly eleven in the evening, and the only people still out and about were other Konoha nins. Sakura liked the familiarity, but she didn't like the nin part. It always meant there were more questions that she'd rather avoid. Her own forehead furrowed, but her hands remained loosely clasped around her teacup, her back painfully straight as she stared unblinkingly at her long-time friend. Her baby pink hair was loose and slightly lank beneath her hood.

"My hair doesn't change colors, Pig," she said. She was able to mimic the sound of fondness better than a smile. "As much as I'd prefer a more flattering shade, I'm kind of stuck with it."

Across from her Ino glared fiercely and leaned forward, gripping her chopsticks tightly between her fingers. Ino had nice fingers, Sakura thought: long and tapered with porcelain pale skin that she would have killed for when they were younger. Her own skin was incredibly drab.

"Don't be stupid," Ino snapped, keeping her voice low and eyes shifting to the side. In a village full of nins, things like privacy were hard to come by. "You know what I mean, and it's not—" She paused as a kunoichi sauntered past, her long brown hair swinging in a ponytail behind her back as she pushed open the front door and cursed at the rain. A second later she flickered across the street to clamber onto a nearby roof. "You're just different, alright? Are you sure nothing's up?"

Sakura shrugged and finally took a sip of her tea. She knew how interrogations worked, and she was good at avoiding them these days. They just took a lot of effort.

"I don't know," she admitted, and it was the truth. A little bit of truth tossed into the mix always threw Ino off. "I am kind of tired with the hospital, and might need a change of scenery. I've been thinking of asking the Hokage for a long-term assignment. You know, something that lasts a year or two."

"Two years?"

"What?! It's not that bad. Anbu do it all the time."

"Yeah, but you're head of the hospital, now. You're kind of needed here."

Sakura shrugged and took a sip of her tea. She was careful to avoid Ino's eyes.

"Shizune's there. They'll be fine without me."

Ino scoffed with what sounded like incredulity, sending Sakura a glare before slurping loudly on her udon. The long, thick strands quickly disappeared between her lips. Sakura thought they looked a bit like worms, or stretched-out maggots. For a moment, Ino's bowl wasn't full of food, but writhing insects, convulsing as they boiled alive in the broth. She felt sick as she looked at it.

Ino nodded to the teacup between Sakura's hands.

"Are you going to eat?"

Sakura shook her head and took another sip, keeping her eyes off the bowl.

"No. I ate earlier." She'd had an apple for breakfast, but food wasn't working so great with her stomach these days, so it hadn't gone over very well. For lunch she'd had a coffee, which went better.

Ino finished slurping up the last mouthful of noodles. As she did so she gave Sakura a suspicious glare, but let the subject drop and gestured to her hood.

"What's with these hoods all of a sudden?"

Sakura grimaced automatically, reaching up to self-consciously tug on the edge and hide her face even further. Belatedly, she tried to school her expression into something neutral, but she was a nin and so was Ino. That sort of discomfort was easily discernible for them.

"It's the pink, you know?" she said slowly, deciding to be truthful yet again. "People see it, and they want to come over and talk. And I'm busy these days."

Ino's look was unimpressed. "You're a ninja," she deadpanned. "Just henge it, for fuck's sake."

Sakura waved her hand and tried to act dismissive.

"Too much effort for something so small. Hoods are easier to deal with. Besides, my eyes have been hurting a bit. I think I've got some mild photo-sensitivity."

"Are you sure you're alright?" Ino demanded. There was urgency to her voice, like she was actually worried about her, which was utterly ridiculous. Immediately Sakura discarded the notion.

"I'm fine," she joked. She didn't smile, but she made sure to modulate her tone so that she came off as sarcastic. "I'm holed up in the hospital all day under fluorescent lighting. It's enough to turn anyone into a mole."

Ino seemed displeased but didn't push the subject. Behind Sakura's back the doorbell chimed as the entrance opened. A trio of nins in jounin gear walked in; all shinobi, smelling of cigarette smoke and bushfire as they laughed amongst themselves. They were in a good mood, but Sakura couldn't find it in her to be envious of them. Laughter was hard to come by as you got older, she'd learned.

"How's Naruto doing?" Ino asked conversationally. Sakura shrugged, making sure to keep her eyes glued to the table. The worms were still in Ino's bowl.

"The Hokage is fine. Wearing less orange these days, more white."

Ino nodded, pleased with the notion, then said, "He's a dead ringer for the Yondaime, eh? Bet he likes that." Sakura shrugged. She didn't know, to be honest. She didn't talk to him any more than was necessary.

"I saw Sai yesterday," Ino said, switching topics. When Sakura looked up in surprise, Ino made a hnh noise in confirmation and slurped up another mouthful of worms. "He called me a bitch."

Noodles, Sakura reminded herself. They're noodles. Keep it together. Still, the bowl squirmed.


"Yes, really."

Sakura frowned at that. "Sorry," she said, and she meant it. "I thought he was getting better with the lies."

"Bang up job you're doing there, then," Ino joked, not seeing the way her expression tightened further. "He's still calling you ugly."

The word didn't even hurt anymore—the truth didn't, Sakura found—but the acknowledgement of her inadequacy did. If she wasn't good at her job people got killed. Trying to still the shaking in her hands, she carefully raised the teacup to her lips, taking a large gulp and letting the hot liquid scald her. It woke her up a bit.

"He's part of Sasuke's team, isn't he?" Ino said, a note of interest to her tone. "Does that mean they're both in town?" From the back of the café there came the peal of laughter and the sound of chair legs scraping across the floor. One of the jounins threw his head back in amusement, slapping his thigh before taking a bite of his meal. Sakura didn't want to correct Ino—it would lead to more talking, and she was tired—but her perfectionist's streak refused to be tempered.

"He works under Uchiha's division. But no, they're not on the same team."

"Hnh," said Ino. Outside the downpour increased, and sitting as they were right by the open windows the patter of the rain was thunderous. "How is Sasuke doing, by the way?"

"I don't know," Sakura said. "I haven't talked to him in a while."

"How long's a while?"

Sakura furrowed her brow, thinking. "Nine months, maybe? Ten?"

Ino's look was incredulous. Sakura managed to summon the energy needed for a scowl.

"What?" she said defensively. "It's totally natural! We work in different parts of the village, with different command structures. We have no reason to see each other at all."

Ino's expression turned sad. Sakura couldn't figure out why.

"Yeah, but you're on the same team," she said slowly, as if she was talking to a small child who was missing the point. Sakura shook her head and took a sip of tea. It burned going down her throat, but the pain felt good. It kept her awake. Outside, there was a crack of thunder. She almost expected to hear the chirping of birds, but there was none. She almost never heard the birds, now.

"We haven't been on a team in years," she said. Ino mercifully dropped the subject.

By the time she got home Sakura was soaked to the bone and sick to her stomach. Still she went through her daily ritual, as safety was important. First she walked up the front steps to her apartment, checking for traps and tags and wires. Then she circled the perimeter before slipping through the back window near her bed, after which she made a clockwise loop around her room, searching for any additional ambush. There was nothing that night, just like there'd been nothing for the last two thousand, five hundred and fifty-five nights, but one could never be too careful.

Sakura grabbed a ragged notebook resting beside her bed, along with a pen, flipping to a clean page and jotting down the date in red ink next to a scrawled, all-caps "CLEAR" to the left of it. She had sixteen more notebooks like the one she held, all stored in her bottom drawer and filled with line after line of one-word reports. Sakura was nothing if not thorough.

Once the search was complete, she took off her sodden shoes and tiptoed through her small, single-room apartment to place them carefully by the front door. Her flat was tiny, but she kept it in order. In one corner was her kitchenette behind a small island counter, and in the other a futon that was barely big enough to hold her. Next to her futon was a bookshelf, along with all her medical texts and scrolls and gear. Between her futon and her kitchen there was a three-foot long hallway. On the right side was her bathroom, and on the left a single storage closet. Sakura didn't get visitors often, and she liked that way. Whenever the Hokage sent someone to fetch her she needed to keep up appearances, which meant keeping things neat and clean. Naruto was rather nosy, and would start prying at the slightest provocation.

Sakura collected her unopened mail and put it on the counter, then put a pot of tea on the stove to try and calm her nerves. While she waited for the kettle she shucked off the rest of her clothes and stepped into her tiny shower, placing the water on full blast. Sakura had to curl up at the bottom to keep herself steady, her hands wrapped around her middle as she fought back the resurgent nausea. Every time she moved, the world roiled.

In her mind's eye, she could see Ino slurping down worms, one after another; she could still hear the wet squelching noise they made as they slithered past her lips. The liquid was scalding against her back to the point where her skin turned red. As she crouched her hair hung in thinning rivulets past her shoulders. Absently Sakura lifted a hand, palming it through the water and blinking at the build up of steam that dulled her senses. She'd have to cut her hair soon, she thought. It was getting too long. Too un-ninja like. Her shower was also taking too long, and she was using up too much hot water.

Ignoring the nausea she stood on shaky legs, quickly pouring some shampoo into her palm and lathering it into her hair. You've been looking a little less… uhh, pink these days. Ino's words came back to her. Morbidly Sakura wondered if she really could lose the pink in her hair; if she could wash it down the drain, like the rest of her color. Beneath her the bathroom tiles were chipped. As she washed out the last bit of shampoo Sakura noticed a broken shard by her foot—a new one that had probably fallen off the wall sometime during the day. She leaned down to pick it up, careful of the sharp edge and intending to place it on the nearby counter. As she rose her nausea spiked. A spell of vertigo gripped her hard.

Sakura automatically reached out to steady herself, dropping the tile. The shower was small—barely big enough for one person—and when it fell it sliced across her leg. There was a quick stinging sensation as the tile cut into her thigh. Sakura looked down, her hand still braced against the wall.

The cut wasn't deep, but between her ribs there was a sudden lightness. An airy feeling rose up out of nowhere, the world warping and contracting as she watched the watery red rivulet trail down her thigh and around the knoll of her knee. The air was too hot and her stomach was still upset, but oddly Sakura didn't feel so bad in that moment. The worry was almost manageable. Taking a deep breath, she watched the last of the blood trickle away. When it disappeared, the itching returned. So did the anxiety.

Irritated and feeling angry for wasting more water, Sakura gave herself one last rinse and turned the shower off, stepping sluggishly out of the stall. She didn't bother to towel her hair dry, as the kettle had started whistling. Yawning widely, she stepped over her sodden clothes and grabbed her too-big nightshirt, pulling it over her head as she made her way towards the kitchenette.

While Sakura was pouring herself a cup of tea there was a sharp, efficient knock at the door.

Anbu. It couldn't be anyone else, really. No one else visited, because Sakura had made sure no one knew where she lived. She'd purposely chosen her one-room apartment as far away from the shinobi district as possible, where the rest of her colleagues were stationed. There were less prying eyes that way.

Brushing her still-wet hair out of her face, Sakura walked to the door before swinging it open. She frowned when she did. The Anbu at the entrance wasn't one she was used to seeing. It was a shinobi in a cat mask, thin and lithe with sharp-nailed hands and a tuft of white-blond hair poking out from beneath the rim of his hood. Usually the one who came to fetch her was a woman in a crow getup. Sakura blinked once, then twice, eying the Anbu from head to toe. Through the holes in his mask she could see the glint of yellow eyes, the pupils slitted. Which clan had yellow eyes, again? She couldn't remember off the top of her head.

Sakura kept her voice neutral, her gaze fixed on the Anbu's chest as rain dripped from his shoulders. Overhead there was a crack of thunder. She didn't invite him in.

"Cat-san," she said, without inflection. "Where's Crow?" Crow was the Hokage's favourite when it came to in-town errands, or at least the one that he always sent to fetch her.

"Dead," said the Cat.

"Oh." Sakura didn't really know what to say to that, other than silence was probably appropriate. Idly she wondered what had happened to the kunoichi. Sakura blinked, before she turned her gaze back to the Anbu. He was watching her strangely.

"What does the Hokage need?" she asked.

From the folds of his cloak the Anbu retrieved a letter, folded twice and perched delicately between his fingertips. His nails were red and sharp as claws. Bloodline, then. Sakura thought bitterly. Another Kekkei Genkai. How fortuitous.

Wordlessly, she took the letter and opened it in front of him, scanning over the hastily scribbled words:

Sakura-chan, come visit tomorrow! Sasuke's back and he needs cheering up! (Don't tell him I said that)

Your favourite Hokage

It took everything Sakura had not to rip up the letter right then and there. What a waste of valuable resources; of the Anbu in general. When she did see him again, Sakura decided, she was going to impart on the Hokage the necessity of not abusing the messenger system for trivial matters such as these. She looked up, planning to close the door and expecting to find it empty, but the Anbu with the yellow eyes was still there, watching her intently. His clawed fingers twitched by his sides.

"Is there something else, Cat-san?" she asked. Then a thought occurred to her, and she made sure to sound much kinder. "Do you need healing, perhaps?"

He shook his head, then nodded in the direction of her leg. Sakura looked down and saw a watery streak of blood still on her thigh, slowly staining the white cotton fabric of her shirt. The edge of the cut was visible from beneath the hem.

"Are you alright?" he asked, sounding oddly unsure. Sakura looked up and nodded her head, but didn't smile.

"It's fine. Not that deep. It'll heal on its own."

The Anbu gave no indication to his current thoughts, but nodded once before using body flicker to quickly dart away across the rooftops. Once he did Sakura closed the door and turned on her stove. She burnt the letter to a crisp above the burner, then crawled into bed, leaving her tea untouched on the counter as she willed herself to go to sleep.

She was tired. Everything else could wait till morning.

Sakura didn't visit the Hokage the next morning, nor did she visit him the day after that. It wasn't an official summons—nor a semi-official request—and as the letter hadn't been work-related Sakura knew she would be left alone for a bit. The Hokage was too busy to find time to search for her as a personal errand.

Sasuke was back, if the rumors were true, but he was so much of a non-issue these days that Sakura knew the risk of running into him was minimal. Still, she made herself extra scarce. The Last Uchiha didn't care about her one way or another, but he and the Hokage were close. If he saw her around there was a chance he might say something to Naruto, and Naruto was nosy. Very nosy. Sakura made sure to stay in her office from sunup to sundown, and when she did leave she always took the long, scenic route used by civilians. Her odds of being undetected were better that way.

At her desk, Sakura dropped the paper she was working on and rubbed at her forehead, willing her headache to go away. She was too tired to deal with the Hokage right now—with anyone, really—and her former teammate was an unnecessary distraction.

Across the table, Jiro shot her a nervous glance.

"Haruno-san, would you like me to fetch you something to eat?"

Sakura frowned and shook her head, looking up at him in confusion. "Why would I want to eat?"

Her assistant seemed nervous for a moment, biting his bottom lip. Then he blurted out in a rush, "You just—you just haven't eaten today. Maybe you're sick."

Sakura's frown deepened and she turned back to her desk. She waved a dismissive hand in his direction. "I'll eat later. I'm not hungry right now."

She didn't. After work Sakura went home, completed her safety checks, and had her shower. Then she went to bed.

Sakura may not have followed the Hokage's summons, but she didn't forget what she'd said to Ino about taking a break. Slowly, the idea began to ferment. She'd only said it to placate her friend but in hindsight it made perfect sense. There was an itch in her bones whenever she was in Konoha, and Sakura was so tired and simultaneously antsy that she was beginning to think she suffering from cabin fever. Whenever she ate food upset her stomach, the vertigo so extreme she often lost her balance. She hadn't figured out the food bit, yet, but Sakura was sure she would. She was a medic-nin, after all. She had to.

After another hour of mulling over the idea, Sakura nodded to herself. It was official. A break from the hospital would probably do her some good. A long mission, ideally, and as far away from Konoha as possible. It meant she'd have to ask special permission from the Hokage, of course, but Sakura was fine with that. It was a bit like ripping off a bandage; painful in the moment, then the burn was soon over.

Making sure she had something in her hands to look like she was busy, Sakura left her lab and made her way over to the Hokage's tower, keeping her head down and her hood up, pretending to read as she walked.

It worked. No one talked to her except for Naruto's assistant, who nodded kindly to her as she signed herself in. She shot Sakura a worried glance as she scribbled her signature onto on a piece of paper.

"You don't have to sign yourself in, Haruno-san," the assistant said. Sakura frowned, thinking it was pity she saw in the woman's gaze until she finished the rest of her sentence. "The Hokage says you're always welcome. You don't have to go through all this formality."

Ah. So that's what it was. Her annoyance lessened and Sakura shrugged, although her frown deepened when she noticed the hand she was using to sign the paper was shaking. As unobtrusively as she could she set the pen down and hid her hands behind the counter. It wouldn't do for the assistant to notice.

"No," she agreed, and made sure to infuse a bit of friendless into her tone. "I don't have to sign. But the Hokage is young and needs to learn a bit of propriety, I think."

The assistant laughed, but the pinched look around her eyes remained.

"Yes, yes," she said. "Of course. He's upstairs as always, Haruno-san. I'm sure he'll let you right in."

Sakura nodded her thanks and walked up the stairs, one step at a time. Her feet felt heavy, her ribs hurting along her left side. Absently she reached up to rub at them to try and relieve the ache, but just as quickly she dropped her hand and clutched her papers. It wasn't wise for her to show weakness here, especially on the job. She was in front of Naruto's office, now. From behind the door Sakura could hear a boisterous laugh, then the sound of the Hokage's amiable voice, his words muffled through the wood. The ache got worse.

Just a bandage, she told herself. It's just a bandage. Rip it off. Her papers were her shield. She had an excuse to be there, a reason not to take up his time. Sakura knocked on the door, then before she could lose her nerve she turned the knob and went inside.

Immediately, she wished she hadn't.

"Sakura-chan!" Naruto gasped, bounding up from his chair and knocking his hat clean off his desk as he quickly made his way towards her. His arms were open for a hug. For a brief moment of panic, all Sakura could see was a mess of blond and black and white.

Over to the right Sasuke was standing beside Naruto's desk, quiet and pale as a ghost.

Fuck. Fuck, bad timing. I shouldn't have come—

Sakura clutched her papers even tighter and made sure to look straight ahead. Before Naruto could reach her she shoved them into his open hands, keeping her expression neutral. "Suggested improvements," she said when a heavy look of confusion crossed his features. "For the hospital." She was thrilled with how steady her voice came across.

The Hokage's expression became comical as he eyed the papers, his hands raised in the air as if he'd forgotten what to do with them. A second later he made a tch noise and haphazardly tossed them onto his desk. The folder slid open, the papers scattering across the floor. Sakura opened her mouth to criticize the action—she had prepared those papers, she really had, and to see that they meant so little to him—but her complaint was cut off as he swept her off the floor and into a giant bear hug.

"Got you!" he declared in delight. Naruto had a thousand watt smile as he held her up, his bright blue eyes so luminescent they were almost glowing. Sakura kept very, very still. It was only when her feet left the floor and he twirled her around that she reached for him, clutching his shoulder for stability and biting down on her tongue to keep herself from puking. She was careful not look in Sasuke's direction.

"Sakura-chan, you're so light!" Naruto exclaimed in surprise. When he put her down he kept her close, placing his hands on her shoulders as he ran them up and down her arms. His eyes tracked rapidly over her features as he took in every detail. Sakura kept her gaze fixed on his chest instead of his face, which wasn't hard. Gone were the days where Naruto was scrawny and short and dressed in orange. Now he was all gold and topaz and suntanned skin, a good head taller than her and his facial features made all the more striking by the fox-like characteristics that poked through around his nose and eyes.

It made Sakura uncomfortable, being around him. The physical difference between his golden good looks and her own drab appearance were stark. Sasuke was so far ahead of either of them that he wasn't worth mentioning. Of the three of them she was the only one that had remained the same; short, uninteresting, good with paperwork, but otherwise unmentionable. A ninja with pink hair. It was downright crushing.

Naruto's grin became slightly worried as he watched her. She'd been quiet for too long. She needed to smile.

"Have you been eating, Sakura-chan?" Naruto asked as if it was a joke, but Sakura knew him well enough to know that he was needling. The minute he latched onto something the Hokage was like a dog with a bone. The boys were both like that, but Sakura barely registered to Sasuke, so she was safer around him when it involved his tenacity. Slowly Sakura chanced looking up, her facial muscles twitching into an awkward, rusty smile. Naruto returned it. There was an uncomfortable sort of intelligence behind his gaze that made Sakura think he knew more than he was letting on.

Fake it until you make it. Rip the bandage off. Silently, she repeated the mantra.

"I'm fine," she told him through her false smile. "We can't all be pigs like you, you know."

"Oi!" he said with mock indignation, reaching up to ruffle her hair, only to be rebuffed by her hood and hand. "I'm the Hokage, now. You should show more respect!"

"Yes, Hokage-sama."

Naruto wrinkled his nose, his lips pulling back in a grimace to reveal unusually sharp teeth. "You know I hate it when you call me that, Sakura-chan."

"Yes, Hokage-sama. Make sure you look at my recommendations for the hospital." The Hokage tugged on the edge of her hood, grasping a strand of her hair between his darkly tanned fingers. He frowned as he examined the thinness of it. Sakura gently removed his hand.

"I also hate this hood thing you've got going on," he declared. Sakura sighed, rubbing at her face. The entire process was taking too long, and the itch was there, squirming beneath her skin.

"My eyes have been hurting lately. The hood helps."

"Your eyes hurt?"

Sakura stiffened as Sasuke's smooth baritone rolled over her—unusually alert and suspicious—but she quickly recovered, shrugging dismissively at his suggestion. If she didn't engage him beyond what was necessary the Uchiha wouldn't respond past his initial question. Sasuke was predictable like that.

"It's just a photo-sensitivity thing. I've been working long hours under too much fluorescent lighting." Sakura kept her eyes trained on Naruto's chest.


Naruto's voice was a bit more concerned as he spoke.

"Maybe you need a break," he ventured. Sakura tried not to shudder when his hand came to rest on her shoulder, gently squeezing in concern. "Take some time off. Get some sleep."

Sakura saw her opening and took it. She nodded, trying to keep her voice light. "I was thinking about it, actually—a long term mission, outside the hospital. Something to get me back in the field."

"Mission?" Naruto said, sounding confused. Sakura didn't have to look him in the eye to know he was upset. "That's not what I meant when I said—"

"How's Hinata?" she asked, cutting him off.

"Oh!" Naruto gushed, immediately following the change in topics. There was such happiness to his tone—such unadulterated joy—that Sakura would have cried at the unfairness of it all, if she hadn't been disgusted with herself for being jealous. "Hinata-chan's good. Really good. You should come to dinner tonight! She's cooking again." Naruto leaned forward, cupping his hand around his mouth and whispering conspiratorially. "Sasuke's joining us, too. Hinata promised him fried tomatoes."

There was a muttered "dobe," then a stack of papers went flying through the air to hit Naruto on the back of the head. Sakura jumped slightly in surprise. The Hokage let out a shout of indignation, turning to face his former teammate while uttering threats of demotion.

"Chicken-ass, you better respect my authority or I'm gonna give you D-rank missions again!"

"You won't." Sasuke's answer was smug, but there was no malice behind it.

"I will!" howled Naruto, his hands still on Sakura's arms. "Just you wait! There's gonna be no tomatoes for you, for sure!"

Sakura's head throbbed. The world felt too bright and beautiful—too mundane when she was around them—and she was an intruder. She needed to get out. As casually as she could, Sakura unwrapped the Hokage's fingers from her shoulders, waving off his half-uttered protests. She kept her eyes trained on his chest.

"I can't tonight. I'm sorry. There are some things at the hospital I have to finish up."

"You always have things to finish," Naruto said, suddenly serious again. Sakura forced herself to laugh a bit, shoving her hands into her pockets as she stepped backwards towards the door.

"That's why I'm thinking of a change of scenery, remember? Something long-term, and away from the lab. I'll have to pick up my papers another day, so when I do we'll discuss it then, all right? It's not that pertinent."

"Over ramen?" he said cheerfully, full of hope.

Sakura nodded. "Sure." She didn't trust herself to say anything more.

Turning around Sakura grabbed the door handle and walked into the hallway with as much calm as she could muster. Once the door was closed, she let out a deep breath, sucking air back into her lungs like a man dying of thirst.

The hallway wasn't much better when it came to her nausea, but Sakura walked quickly, eyes trained on the floor as she made her way towards the stairs. It had been a bad time to come. It was uncomfortable being in the village on the best of days, and when she was around her former teammates it became unbearable. For a moment, Sakura was so desperate to escape that she nearly took off running. She didn't because the nausea peaked, and when it did her vision tilted and the world grayed out. She had to grab wildly at the wall to stop herself from fainting.

A large hand gripped her elbow, supporting her weight as she struggled to stand. It took Sakura a moment to regain her bearings, and when she did she nearly screamed when she saw who was standing next to her.

"Sasuke," she said, trying to keep her voice as impassive as possible. Her free hand was hidden in her pocket to stop him from seeing the tremors. She hadn't heard him coming up behind her. "Was there something you need?"

The Last Uchiha tilted his head down and to the side, watching her with too-bright eyes.

"Are you ill?" he asked bluntly. Sasuke's voice was deep—much deeper than it'd been when they were teens—rich with a slight rasp to the end that rumbled through his chest. Sakura didn't care much for black-eyed boys these days, or even red-eyed ones, so the sound of his voice did little for her. She frowned heavily and tried to muddle her way through the confusion. Why on earth was he asking her that?

"No," she said slowly. "Why do you ask?" She didn't understand why he was even talking to her. The only reason she could come up with was that he thought she was a liability to Naruto, which stung.

Sasuke's elegant black eyebrows pulled down over mismatched eyes as he scrunched up his nose, tilting his brow into a frown. The ends of his flyaway hair dusted the edge of his jaw as he tilted his head to observe her. Sasuke at twenty-five was much the same as Sasuke at seventeen, when it came to the basics: beautiful, deadly, and very cold. Sakura never talked to him outside of official business. She had no need to converse with the Head of Naruto's "Lightning Strike Force," the one that he'd created after the war. She was just a medic, and even when Sasuke was injured—which was never—he always went to someone else for treatment. It had hurt badly, in the beginning. Not so much his rejection of her, but his rejection of her skills.

"You're dizzy," Sasuke said in response to her question. "Thin." Sakura felt his lily pale hand grip her elbow just a little bit harder, his head tilting further as he eyed her. There was a hint of red swirling in his right pupil. The left one—that awful left one, with the lazily swirling circles of gray—was bright as the moon. His other hand was braced loosely on the hilt of Kusanagi. Sakura felt a twinge beneath her breastbone—a painful one—and knew it was shame. She'd wasted so much time on him when she was younger, and seeing him standing there now, staring down at her with cool dissatisfaction, made her hate herself for even trying to keep up with him. Even so, her medic-nin side—the perfectionist streak that refused to be tempered—reared its ugly head.

Movements slightly jerky with anger, she reached up, prying his fingers from her elbow. Sasuke let his hand drop but he didn't step back, looming over her and invading her space, all white and red and terrible. Sakura jabbed her finger into the center of his chest.

"You," she managed to get out, her voice choppy even as she went into medic mode. It was so much easier to deal with Sasuke when she thought of him as just a patient. She raised her finger from his chest and pointed to his face. "You know better than to turn it on for something so stupid, especially in a place like this. Keep it off unless you need it or you're going to go blind again."

Sasuke's frown got deeper. So did the red, swirling like a bloody pinwheel as it unfurled in a pit of ink. The idiot was going to ruin his eyes over nothing, talking to her in a goddamn hallway, and for a second Sakura was so angry at his lack of care that she wanted to scream. She would have killed to have a bloodline like his, to actually be useful, and he treated the mere mention of it like trash.

"You're not my doctor," he said petulantly. The comment didn't sting. Not like it had before. "I'm not—"

"Exactly," Sakura said, cutting him off. "So why are you talking to me?"

Sasuke didn't have an answer, although there was a blankness to his features that made her think that maybe she'd caught him off guard; that he hadn't expected her to be so curt. When she was younger, Sakura would have died for a chance to be noticed by him. Later, she would have died for a chance to one-up him, to prove her worth. Now she was older. More aware and mature. There was no way she'd startled the great Uchiha over anything, and she knew it.

Without another word Sakura turned around and walked away. When no one followed her, she felt better for it.

Author's Note

Way, way back in the day, I used to write Naruto fanfiction to get over my fear of showing my work to others. I wasn't planning on returning to the fandom, but Naruto's a bit like junk food for me: comforting, and a bit of stress-reliever when I need a break from my other stories. Monomoth's gonna be AUish, but not a hard AU. Updates will be sporadic while I'm finishing my other stories, but I will complete this one too.