A/N: Please reread the chapter before this. Had to make some rather large changes to it to make it fit with the rest of the story (ironically—or perhaps un-ironically—I wrote myself into a plot-hole).

Chapter XIII: Oni

It was a buzzing sound that she heard: a ringing, almost, like a light bulb that was on the verge of being overloaded. Sakura thought she was imaging it for the first few seconds that it sprung up. She was imagining too many things, she decided, because she'd been through a lot in the past forty-eight hours and her brain was probably breaking under what Sasuke had said. It had to be a joke, right?

"What do you mean?" she asked. She may have been too weak to get up, but she could hear him just fine. She could hear the soft, Theremin-like sound of the wind whistling through the cracks in the abandoned building. The sun dappling through the ruins of the hospital was especially cruel. Why was it sunny outside, she wondered absently. It's supposed to be rainy, but that was usually the way of these things. What was on the outside often didn't match her mood.

Sasuke held her hand in his, massaging the back of her palm with his rough one. He was terrifying in that moment—as he usually was when he got especially unhinged—but also sad, because he didn't seem to realize how much he was scaring her. Sakura had always known he clung to the past closer than was necessary, but some part of her had always brushed it off as a quirk.

The three red rinnegan with concentric circles stared down from beneath that black hair: the regular ones, plus the third, infinitely more dangerous eye in the center of his forehead that Kakashi was supposed to have sealed. As she stared at it, Sakura was struck by how terrible it was. Her teacher's death had been for nothing.

"You're like us now," Sasuke repeated, not clarifying anything. Up close the sleepless circles above his cheekbones were stark. "I should have done it before, but I was worried Naruto would find out."

"I'm like you," Sakura parroted, flatly. Sasuke nodded, swallowing visibly as he coughed. Unbidden, Sakura's free hand went to her forehead, feeling for the skin that was there. She traced the shape of her jewel, smooth and cool, but nothing else. The lack of a third eye did little to calm her: she remembered the LSF huddled in the delta as the sidewinder passed, their pupils blazing crimson. She needed a mirror.

"Harder to kill," Sasuke agreed. The Uchiha adjusted the blankets around her, unfolding the brown one and flapping it wide with a snap. Sakura shuddered when his hand slid beneath her back. She winced as he helped her up, the pads of his fingers rubbing against the raw nubs on her spine. Had she always been this thin, she wondered? She began to protest, asking him to put her down, but he managed to get her into the crook of his arm, his bicep around her back and her head flopping to the small of his neck as his now-freed hands awkwardly fiddled with the fabric. He dropped the pillow beneath her.

Sakura tried to concentrate on anything other than his eyes: on the way she could feel the corded muscle on his arm beneath his shirt. He was warm and his throat bobbed against her forehead, his black hair tickling her nose. It was getting too long.

There are only two eyes. Kakashi didn't die for nothing.

"Sasuke," she began, very carefully. She needed to get away from him to regain her bearings. He was being so gentle with her, but he wouldn't stop twitching. She could smell his blood. Where was Aya? "Can you put me—"

"You need to stay inside until your heart's better," he said, wrapping the blanket around her front. Sakura reached out, gripping his hand that was fiddling with the fabric in an effort to remove it. He mistook it for affection and cupped her head, his long fingers spreading through her hair. "We should be okay for now. The creatures are… they're still out there, but they've passed us to the east. We just have to keep our chakra masked." Less hesitantly than before—when he'd hugged her in the watchtower—he pressed a kiss to her forehead, then put their foreheads together, their noses touching. Sakura went very still as she felt that third eye blink closed against her skin.

"Sasuke-kun," she said. As much as she tried to tamper the emotional reaction she had to it, she felt like she was crawling out of her skin. He stroked her hair, his very red eyes staring into hers. This close the circles of the rinnegan were all she could see, the tomoes spinning slowly.

"I'm sorry," he said hoarsely. The strain was from disuse, now: he rarely talked this much. "I know you don't believe me, but I am. After this, when we get back, I'll make things right for our clan."

Sakura's her heart dropped like a fruit pit: light and clattering against the emptiness of her stomach. She'd heard him speak like this once before, and it was when he'd killed her parents.

"Sasuke," she said, clutching at the hand that cradled her head. "The clan's not real. You're having another episode, understand? We need to get you back to Naruto." The loss of his team must have finally pushed him over the edge.

Sasuke frowned: his features twisting into a strange, befuddled expression like he was struggling to process her words. He shook his head no as Sakura shook her head yes. One rough thumb came up to swipe at her cheek beneath her eye, and belatedly Sakura realized that she was crying. Sasuke was trying not to.

"We've been here before, remember?" she told him. He shook his head again, and let out a wounded sound at the back of his throat, shaking his head no a second time. "We've have. You're imagining things. You're having an episode. I'm not part of your clan—"

"That's not true," he said. He was biting his bottom lip. "Lies, Itachi is lying—"

"Sasuke-kun, Itachi is dead."

"He's not. I can hear him, behind me. He watches—"

"It's not real."

"I can make anything real!" he snapped, stepping away from her as if she'd slapped him. Suddenly those three red eyes were glowing. Sakura cringed, sagging into the bed without his support. The Uchiha thumped a hand to his chest, palm flat, then cut at the air with it as he spoke. "It's real, because I say it is!"

This was why they'd sealed it. This was why Kakashi had done what he had, or thought he had. Sakura reached for him, trying to draw Sasuke back, because if she didn't she knew he was going to do something terrible. He was pacing and breathing too fast. "Sasuke—Sasuke-kun, I'm sorry. Let's—let's just calm down." Sasuke ran his pale hands over his sleepless face, palms pressing into his eyeballs as if to relieve the pressure. His fingers fisted in his too-long hair. "Sasuke-kun, it's okay. It's okay, I'm still here."

"Get some rest," he said, taking an unsteady step backwards. "We'll talk about this later." Then he left.

Sakura waited until he was out of range, his uneven footsteps echoing down the stairs. Then she threw off the blankets, stumbling towards her gear. It was hard to walk, and she almost fell twice, but she managed to pull on her her holster for her kunai and grab some of her scrolls, although Sasuke had taken all the blades and hid them somewhere else. Who was second in command now, she wondered? Right. Aya. Time to go get her.

She made a b-line for the door.

The whole reason for Kakashi's death, quite literally, was due to Sasuke's third eye.

The time after the Uchiha came back to Konoha was rough, in general. He was already suffering from shock and trauma, but it wasn't until they were in the village proper—and they managed to strong-arm Sasuke into the hospital—that they realized that something was critically wrong.

Sakura was no longer his nurse nor his teammate, but she couldn't help but hear the rumors: her office was in the basement of where he was being treated. There was the PTSD, of course: everyone had it to varying degrees when you were a nin, especially so soon after a war. If you were lucky it was mild enough that you could drown it in alcohol, but Sasuke had never been lucky and he never did things in half. Psychosis was a word that got tossed around with increasing frequency to describing his erratic behavior; Disassociative Identity Disorder was another. Sakura's specialty wasn't psychiatry, but she knew enough to realize that whatever it was the bloodline was messing with his head. Naruto, Kakashi, and the rest of the Anbu were on twenty-four hour duty just to make sure that he didn't do anything to himself, let alone others. Naruto tried to rope her back into it, but Tsunade had intervened and had flat-out said no.

"C'mon Sakura, I think it would be good," Naruto told her, about two months after their return. Things were returning to normal, and it had been a false sort of calm, were the collective numbness was starting to wear off. "He's been asking for you," the blond nin added with a somewhat guilty sideways glance.

It was a bone being thrown. It made Sakura feel pathetic, because if Naruto truly thought she was so boy-crazy over Sasuke after all these years—after all he'd done—then what did others think of her, who didn't know her as well as her former teammates? Did they measure up her accomplishments, little as they were, and find her even more wanting? Standing there in the hospital room, her clipboard of patient stats clutched protectively to her chest, she'd stared a spot on the wall and had tried not to cry.

"It's not a good idea," she said. It really wasn't, but Naruto had been undeterred. He'd tried to cajole her into it even as Tsunade walked into the room with a thud of the door, unceremoniously reaching beneath a nearby desk to grab a bottle of sake. The lines beneath her eyes had grown deeper.

"Just for a short time," he said. "He's having nightmares. He's worried that Itachi, to you—"


"Absolutely not," Tsunade said, uncorking her sake and taking an ugly swing. "She's a trigger."

Sakura deflated with tension she hadn't known she'd been carrying. She wasn't even offended that Tsunade was calling a spoon a spoon. Naruto immediately tched and started complaining.

"But Baachan—"

"I said no. We have to stabilize him first. Who's watching him right now?"


"Go back and help him. Leave Sakura to her work or I'm going to dock your pay to make up for her lost hours."


"Go back, Naruto."

"Fine, fine."

Sakura's parents had still been alive at the time. They didn't understand why she was jumpier: why she flinched at sudden noises and cried herself to sleep whenever she heard the trill of the birds. They were just happy she was in one piece: that she'd become an accomplished nin. She'd done what they hadn't been able to do, and that was to gain status. She still lived with them and she put a roof over their head. Her salary paid most of their bills, and when they looked at her they didn't see a hollow-eyed, grey-skinned woman with too many scars and lank pink hair. True, they hadn't been entirely set on her becoming a nin, but they just saw their daughter now: their only child, safe from the war and in one piece, on track to becoming the head of the Konoha hospital. She was a legend and people loved her. Even Sakura saw that. Why couldn't they be proud of her? Why on earth did they have any reason to be sad?

Dinners were awkward and uncomfortable when they were together, which was almost every night. Sakura was miserable throughout the entire farce, but she'd been gone for ages and wanted to make up for lost time. They asked about Naruto sometimes, and Kakashi. They asked about Sasuke too.

Sakura—already developing a habit of picking at her food—would spoon listlessly at her rice and eel, her wooden utensils clacking against the rim of the bowl. The meal sat like lead in the bottom of her stomach. She would try to eat, but then she would remember all the people she'd shared a meal with whom would never eat again. She'd put the bowl down.

"He's very unwell," she would say whenever the topic of Sasuke came up. She would preface this by adding that he wasn't allowed any visitors, which was why her information on him was limited. Her parents were civilians and they had no way of knowing the ins and outs of Shinobi life.

"Oh dear, that's such a shame," her kaasan would say, spooning more eel onto Sakura's rice. She was a delicate, pink-haired woman that Sakura looked far too much like, her movements as graceful as a bird's. In another life Sakura might have been like her: domestic, soft-spoken, and flower-like. She didn't want to be reminded of it. She didn't want to recall how un-ninja like she was, but she loved her mother so she endured.

"It really is a shame," her kaasan continued one night with a soft, sad smile. "He was always coming around here with that brother of his. Such a sweet little boy."

"Wait," Sakura said, almost dropping her bowl. Her mother had looked up at her, blinking owlishly. "What?" She'd thought no one had known about that one time on the road.

"Oh," said the older woman. "You didn't know?" Her otousan had let out a non-committal grunt, folding his arms across his chest as he'd sunk into his seat, his meal finished. "Well, perhaps you forgot. It was a long time ago. You were teased terribly, and he took great issue with it when you two were young. He kept on trying to find you and his brother kept on having to drag him back. I think he wanted you to live on the compound."

"Oh," Sakura said, her hands white-knuckled around her bowl. "It happened more than once?"

"Of course. Daily, for awhile."

It wasn't real, Sakura decided. Sasuke paying attention to her did not fit with her version of reality, so it didn't exist. It was as simple as that.

"Not like you could live there now," her mother added, collecting the empty bowls off the table while leaving Sakura's in place. She held the sleeve of her kimono back with one hand, her apron rustling across her front. "What a scary thing, to live where so many people died. I hope he gets better."

Everyone hoped Sasuke would get "better." His bloodline was too valuable to waste, and after killing his brother and Madara all in one go he was Konoha's last chance at retaining the sharingan. Sakura had no doubt that if Sasuke managed to finally kill himself they would immediately carve out his eyes and give them to another unwilling recipient. She wanted nothing to do with him and her sympathy was all used up, but she was not above admitting what they were doing to him was cruel. They treated him like a piece of meat even now.

"When I'm Hokage that will change!" Naruto declared one day over ramen, a couple weeks later. He never shut up about Sasuke even though Sakura had made it clear the subject was off-limits. "I'm gonna make sure no one hurts him again."

"And what about the people he hurt?" Sakura remembered saying. She'd been irritated, and the false sense of calm was beginning to ebb away. Constant reminders of the war and Sasuke were making it harder to heal, but Naruto waved a dismissive hand, uncaring.

"He's just angry. You know how touchy he gets over family."

Territorial was a better word, but Sakura decided that it was not worth the fight with Naruto, so she bit her tongue and kept silent.

Sasuke did get better, like her mother had wished. Word on the street was that he'd been released from the hospital: that he was still on the mend but would be reintegrated back into the village soon. If he kept up with the way things were going, they'd have him doing simple missions within a year. Sakura still hadn't gone to see him, and had no plans to. Maybe decades down the road, she decided, when they were both old and grey and had mellowed out, they would have decent conversation.

Then the report happened.

There had been a festival on the day that her parents died. A local one, and Sakura had booked time off for it. She hadn't wanted to dress up, but it made her mother happy, so she'd donned a komon and had pinned back her hair, handing out dango to the neighborhood children with the young woman who lived next door, Emi. There were so many orphans from the war, and although they were being cared for by the village Sakura couldn't help but think of what had happened to Naruto. The festival was calm, and not that taxing. She'd even been enjoying herself towards the end, smiling and telling simple jokes as she donned an apron and helped clean up the mess. Then Sakura remembered that she'd forgotten to hand in her study.

"Shit!" she said, tripping over the hem of her komon and flowers tumbling out of her hair as she'd clutched the papers to her chest, body flickering to the Hokage tower. The report was crucial, and if she didn't hand it in today she'd get in so much trouble. Her geta clacked against the steps as she climbed to Tsunade's office, loud and koking. She'd tripped on her hem again. "Shit, shit, shit."

She hadn't been thinking about Sasuke for once, she was so busy with other things. He'd been completely devoid from her mind as she streaked past a nervous aide who squawked and dropped their own stack of papers when they saw her.

"Wait, Haruno-san! Come back!" they said, but she didn't. She ignored the armed guards in the hall, and she hadn't clued into the fact that a conversation was going on behind the Hokage's closed door.

"Is the Hokage in there?" she remembered asking an Anbu, out of breath. They'd hesitated before answering yes, their black-and-white form visibly tensing up. She'd pushed open the door.

"Shishou," Sakura said, sagging against the door frame with petals dusting her bangs. She'd been wearing red, she recalled. A red komon, with small blue flowers patterning along the hem and sleeves, a singular white circle on her back. She hated civilian clothes and she felt too formal. "Shishou, I've got the report—"

She stopped short as the occupants of the room turned to face her. Tsunade had been there, looking far too severe. So had some of the council. Bristling along the corners of the room were Anbu, and by the door were Naruto and Kakashi.

In the center of the room was Sasuke. He was kneeling on the floor, his hands braced on his knees and his back to her, but when she opened the door he turned with everyone else to watch.

It had been his examination, she'd learned later: the final determination to see if he was ready to be released from the hospital. He looked better than the last time she'd seen him, but not by much. Still exceedingly pale with his doll-like complexion, and Kusanagi was attached to his hip. Why are they giving him weapons? she remembered thinking. There had been no third eye yet, and the eyes he did have remained black until he saw her. The minute he did they bled red, his tomoes spinning.

Sakura immediately looked down. Several Anbu pushed their way off the walls in alarm. Kakashi quickly stepped forward, moving towards her with a lazy calm that fooled nobody.

"Tsunade-Shishou," she said, bowing low and trying to ignore Sasuke. She could feel him watching her.

"Sakura," Tsunade said, sounding off-put. There was a loud rustle of fabric as her sensei stood. "Is there something you need?"

"Ah, no," Sakura said, taking an unsteady step back. Her geta thumped against the floor, and she felt sweat beading at the back of her neck. Sasuke turned even farther around to watch her. "I just, my report. My apologies I didn't mean to barge in—"

It was at that moment that Kakashi sidled up and put his hand to her back, smiling at her beneath his mask. "Sakura-chan," he said. "How have you been? Let's talk outside, shall we?"

It was a marvelous idea. Sakura nodded, handing off the report to a nearby Anbu to put it on Tsunade's desk. Even as she turned to leave Sasuke started speaking. His voice was rough, but it was still that deep, distinctive baritone that she remembered.

"Where are you taking her?" he asked Kakashi. There was more rustling fabric and the soft shick of kunai as several nins moved closer. He was beginning to sound upset. "Why is that crest on her back?"

"That's her family crest, teme," Naruto said. Sakura hunched her back under Kakashi's hand as she'd headed for the door, and had cursed her clothing. It would be the end of her. "C'mon, let's get this hearing over with."

"I want to talk to her."

The door was shut the second she and Kakashi stepped through the door. The answer to Sasuke's demand was cut off.

"Phew!" Kakashi said, stretching in an exaggerated motion, overly loud and cheerful. He scratched at the back of his grey head in a casual manner, his lone eye crinkling at the corner as he'd smiled. The Anbu in the hallway remained silent, but Sakura could feel them glaring at her beneath their masks. She would have been too, if she was in their position. "Glad you came along, Sakura-chan. Gave me an excuse to get out of that meeting."

Sakura hadn't been panicking at the time, but she had been worried and anxious. There was something odd about the way that Sasuke had asked about her crest. He'd been carrying his sword.

"Is he going to be released onto active duty?" she asked, keeping her voice low as they made their way away from the door.

"If he passes his examination, yes," Kakashi said, a little less cheerful. He shoved his hands into his pockets.

"I don't think he should have his swords," Sakura said before she could stop herself. His trauma was more severe than most, and it was irresponsible to act like he was fully healed a mere two months and change after he'd returned to Konoha. "I heard about his attempts. He's not ready."

"The swords aren't as dangerous as his eyes," Kakashi reminded her gently. They'd never taken those away.


"Come on," Kakashi cut her off as he steered her down the stairs. "Walk with me. It's too stuffy up here."

Sakura's sandals clacked against the steps as Kakashi's lazy drawl filled the air. He kept their discussion to trite topics. He told her about the latest soft-core porn he was reading, featuring a dashing sensei and his wayward student; rumors of a new ramen joint opening up, and would Sakura like to join? If she rejected him he'd be forced to go with Naruto.

Sakura said yes, smiling despite herself. She thought Sasuke would follow them down the stairs but he didn't. When they reached the bottom of the tower, standing just inside the outer doors, Kakashi gripped her upper arm, squeezing it.

"I'm sorry, Sakura-chan," he said. It was an unexpected heavy omission, coming from him. She wasn't used to hearing him sound so sad and old. "I did you a disservice, I think."

Sakura wasn't sure which disservice he was talking about, because there'd been many, but she was in agreement that she'd been wronged and she was too tired to question him on the specifics: she was just glad someone was saying sorry. It made her feel good.

She smiled and blushed a bit, looking down at her feet. I'm getting better. The war was over.

"It's alright, sensei," she said, and it felt like a great weight had been lifted off her. She hadn't realized she'd thought it was all her fault. "We all make mistakes." She laughed a bit, struck by the absurdity of herself bursting into such a high-level meeting in an apron. She looked as old-fashioned as Sasuke. "What a fool I look, eh? Naruto's never gonna let me live it down for looking like a housewife."

Kakashi laughed at that, and then drew her into a hug, ruffling her hair. After a moment of surprise Sakura returned it, wrapping her arms around his padded back. Beneath his jacket she could feel the hardness of muscle. "Well, we can't all be as stunning as me, you know," he said, drawing back. She playfully slapped him on the arm.

"I'm glad you're alive, you old pervert," she said, grinning. This is what getting better felt like: she just had to remind herself of it and it would come true.

"I know you are," he said, ruffling her hair once more, and then he'd briefly pressed his forehead to hers. It was a tender, intimate gesture, but it only lasted a moment before he was pushing her off and waving her away as he walked towards the Hokage's office, facing her.

"Save some of that dango for me!" he said, then added, "tonight, let's go to that new ramen bar! Just the two of us, and you're treating."


"Consider it pension for the elderly."

Sakura laughed—actually laughed—and then she'd turned around, walking away from the tower. She left a note at the front desk with the receptionist—for Tsunade, apologizing for interrupting her meeting—then determined to keep Sasuke from her mind, she'd made her way to the festival on foot. It had been an uneventful walk. She hadn't been disturbed by anyone, and although it was late in the day the weather was still fair and sunny. She'd passed by the new district being built for the displaced clans that had integrated into Konoha after the war—there were a lot of them, and no one wanted them to feel like refugees—and after that, she'd picked up flowers from the Yamanaka's shop for her mother, as an apology for missing dinner. She knew she wouldn't get back to their house until after the sun had set.

Halfway back, still walking by foot, Sakura had picked up some groceries from the local market: mushrooms, a head of cabbage, and some leeks. The grocer had smiled at her, calling her pretty. Sakura remembered waving off the compliment with a strange sense of unease when he began to focus on her kimono, and she'd stood there primly, clenching her hands around themselves as she'd watched the grocer put her vegetables into a brown paper bag. He rolled it up at the top.

The bag crinkled against the silk of her arm and the bushel of flowers as she took it. "Say hello to your mother for me, Haruno-san," the grocer told her, and Sakura smiled and nodded. Seeing Sasuke had definitely rattled her, but the day was turning out better than expected. She'd bowed slightly, tucking a lock of pink hair behind her ear, and he'd dipped in turn.

"I will! Thank you, Toba-san." Then she'd headed home.

It was unusually quiet as she entered her neighborhood. No one was outside, the streets abandoned, and there had been dark storm clouds gathering: a sudden shift from the earlier good weather. A thunderstorm was fast approaching, so at first Sakura thought everyone was indoors to escape the rain. The air felt strangely dense with a chakra, and while an overabundance of chakra was normal on the battlefield, or even near the Hokage tower, it was out of place in a civilian neighborhood. And why did it remind her slightly of Madara's? The Uchiha was dead, so to feel his presence was odd. Another ghost from the war, she told herself.

Just then, an Anbu darted past her in the direction of her parents' house. They were nothing more than a flash of black skittering across the road and up onto the rooftops, but it was enough for Sakura's anxiety to morph into dread.

She didn't run to the house. Maybe in hindsight she should have—it might have saved them—but she'd told herself that the fear was just her nerves. She was being overly sensitive, and the Anbu could have been heading to any number of houses within the neighborhood, or through it. As she got closer the choking miasma of the Madara-like chakra got thicker. Storm clouds gathered in utter silence, and there were no sounds that she would normally associate with the civilian side of Konoha: no clatter from kitchen windows as the residents sat down for dinner, or the thwack of laundry being taken down from nearby clothes lines. The only sound she heard was the chirp of the sparrows. What sounded like hundreds of sparrows, actually fluttering en mass, but she saw no swarm of birds. Sakura ran.

"Kaasan?" she said, finally body flickering to the front door. It wasn't too long after the war, she remembered telling herself. She was still allowed to be anxious. "Kaasan, are you alright—"

She pushed open the door just as Sasuke pushed his fist through her otousan's chest. Her mother's headless corpse was already on the ground, torn into several different parts.

Sakura dropped the groceries, the leeks and cabbage tumbling from the paper bag. She remembered losing a sandal as she fell, her legs giving out as the air left her in a whoosh. She crumpled to the ground and went into a state of shock.

Sasuke immediately dropped her father's body and flickered over to her. He caught her before she collapsed, his bloody arm wrapping around her back. A even bloodier hand stroked her face, tenderly brushing away her hair, and feverish lips pressed to her cheek in a kiss as he sunk to the ground with her. The pat pat pat of her otousan's blood dripping off Sasuke's elbow onto the floorboards was loud. Her kaasan's severed head stared at her from the kitchen entrance.

"Shh," the creature wearing Sasuke's face said. "We're safe now." It wasn't really Sasuke, she thought. The dark-eyed boy she'd grown up with didn't kiss her cheek or whisper declarations into her hair. Those weren't her parents, dead on the ground. This wasn't her body, wearing civilian clothes. She was a nin.

"I'm sorry," Sasuke said. He pressed his temple against hers, the other curling tight around her waist. He sounded relieved, which was strange. "I knew they put you with a pair of agents, but I couldn't get word out until now. Naruto wouldn't let me see you." He was telling her about how he lied: about how he'd agreed to speak with the council so he could find a way to escape. The enemies of the Uchiha were everywhere, and while they'd already gotten to Itachi the two of them would be safe. They were going to escape this hell hole and no one was going to hurt them ever again.

She's a trigger, Tsunade had said, and Sakura remembered the rumors about psychosis. There was a black spot in her memory where she couldn't recall much beyond Sasuke's lips on hers. Then Kakashi was in the room with them, a kunai in hand. So were the other Anbu, and the details of her memory began to blur.

"You," Sasuke said to someone. "You're a traitor." There was a red split in his forehead, a third eye like a bloody gash poking through the porcelain pale skin. All three eyes were spinning furiously by that point, and he was holding her in one arm as she sagged against him, her head pressed to his chest. Sakura had listened to his voice reverberate through his front as he'd pointed Kusanagi at Kakashi with his free hand. "My clan. That shit that she's wearing—"

"Sasuke," Kakashi said, sinking to his knees as he raised his hands in supplication. Sasuke wasn't her Sasuke-kun in that moment. He'd been something else, the air ripping apart behind to reveal another world beyond theirs.

Shrieking had come from it. Strange, whale-like crooning that Sakura was unfamiliar with at the time, but was intimately familiar with now. She'd heard the creatures calling to each other across the delta. "Sasuke, she's not an Uchiha. That crest is hers. Sakura is a Haruno—"

"You killed my clan!"

"Sasuke, put her down!"

Her former sensei moved: a blur of green and grey. Sakura had screamed. The shriek of the birds had been unbearable. It had taken everything Kakashi had left to seal the third eye and get Sasuke under control. Ten nins died that day, and even more civilians. Kakashi was sick for weeks.

Sasuke didn't get better after that. Sakura had spiraled hard, and the false sense of security that she'd been nursing shattered. The only thing that helped her sleep at night was the fact that they'd disarmed him and his chakra was sealed, or they'd thought it was. They kept him away from her, for both their sakes. She moved in with Kakashi once he was better.

Then Sasuke snuck out again one night: pale, dressed in white, looking like a ghost. It had been raining and he managed to find Sakura by tracking her to her parents' grave.

"It's okay," he said, and Sakura hadn't understood him; this Sasuke who held her like she was precious as she sobbed and went boneless with grief. Her familial monster carded a trembling hand through her wet pink hair, curling around her like she was a life raft. The third eye was back. "It's okay," he promised her through his own tears, or that might have been the blood. The rinnegan were active. "I'll take you home now. Naruto too. They won't hurt us again."

"Sasuke," Kakashi said. There was no light in his eyes the second time around. "Let her go." Sakura had blocked out most of this event, because it hurt too much, but she remembered how sad Kakashi had been. How Sasuke had begged the second time around instead of threatened.

"I won't hurt her," the Uchiha declared. The plea was so strange on his lips, with his deep, rough-edged voiced. He'd clutched Sakura close, like a favourite toy. "Please. I won't, I just want to—"

"No," Kakashi said, because it was about more than just her. It always had been. Sakura was simply the catalyst.

The second time he sealed Sasuke's third eye, Kakashi had died. In some ways his death hit her harder than her parents. There had been no one strong enough to keep him in check—Naruto was compromised—so once he finally came to his senses Sasuke was given an ultimatum.

"Behave, or we'll kill her," Tsunade told him.

Sakura knew her Shishou loved her, but the old woman loved the village more. Fortunately the threat worked.

Sasuke behaved, at least on the surface. The third eye dissipated and he did his time and his counseling. He kept his distance from Sakura. The two of them never met, at least not alone, and about a year after he killed her parents his estate was remodeled and he was allowed to return on house-arrest. Two years after the incident, they put him back on missions. The LSF was created. Naruto married Hinata. Sakura skipped out on the wedding, claiming illness, but it was because Sasuke was there.

People accepted him. He was good when was stable—dedicated and intelligent and quiet and so painstakingly talented—but Sakura couldn't forget him when he'd been at his worst. Not for her parents, and not for Kakashi, so she and Sasuke drifted apart until they were nothing but strangers. Ghosts from a different era, passing each other like dead leaves on the wind.

By the third year they'd given Sasuke permission to lead his own task force: the primordial, rudimentary version of the LSF, which turned into a full-fledged operation once Naruto took charge.

"Would you have killed me?" Sakura remembered asking Tsunade on the fourth anniversary of Kakashi's death, as drunk her teacher. They were sitting beside his tombstone, blasted out of their minds and barely able to see straight. Tsunade was leaving the next day to embark on a research project, and it was the last real conversation that Sakura had with her before she disappeared. Tsunade took a swig of her sake and looked at the tomb, her eyelids drooping.

"Yes," she said, flat and brutal despite the thickness of inebriation. "I'm sorry."

Sakura didn't even flinch, though the admission hurt, because she understood why.

"Don't be," she said, made candid by the alcohol. Tsunade handed over the bottle and Sakura drank as well, swallowing deeply before she wiped off her lips. She stared at the tomb. "I would have killed me too."

Author's Note:

Well I'm back. After a brutally long hiatus. I'm going to do my best to keep this author's note short, but three things, in-semi coherent order:

As much as I want to, I'm not going to make any promises about update schedules. These past couple years were completely upended for me. Work picked up in a massive way, I moved across the country, and there were a lot of changes in my personal life. I've had to prioritize paid gigs over things I write for free, and to be honest I'm spooked that if I make any promises about update schedules I'll jinx myself. It's happened before, so I won't do that. I'm just glad to be back!

To those of you who waited patiently: thank you so much for sticking with me. I'm so sorry you've had to wait so long. Hopefully the wait will be worth it. I'm not too heavily involved in Naruto anymore, so this story is for you guys.

To those of you who didn't wait patiently—specifically those who acted like I didn't have a life outside of this fic—please stop. You actually made my update schedule worse. Sifting through angry messages that basically told me I was a terrible person for not updating a fanfic made it very difficult for me to write again. As much as I wish I could, I can't live off favorites and kudos. I must work, and I have other things to write, too. Please understand this.

There's been so many messages over the years for this fic that I'll never get around to answering all of them. So to those of you who favorited, reviewed, and followed: thank you. If you ever have any questions about my schedule, please check my profile first, or msg me through tumblr or twitter! I'm active on both of those platforms.