There are two paths, and the moment has come for Sasuke to choose: love or hate, peace or war. He stares at the photograph of Team 7 for a full minute, taking in Naruto's frown and Sakura's smile. He's never given the picture much more than a cursory glance before, but now he can't seem to take his eyes off of it. Because for the first time since his family was killed (slaughtered under Itachi's blade), there are people who are precious to him. Before Team 7, he had nothing to live for besides revenge, but now he has something to lose.
Really, though, the choice has already been made for him. His brother saw to that years ago. Sasuke is an avenger; anything else he ever might have been died with his clan.
Sakura is on her way home—until she isn't. She stops mid-step, frozen with an instinctual sort of certainty that Sasuke is leaving, might already be gone. For a moment, she stands stock-still, listening to the night's noises. Crickets and the autumn wind, rustling through Konoha's eponymous leaves.
Then she turns around, and runs.
Somewhere in the village, there is an empty room. It boasts a wide bed, much too large for a child of thirteen. Darkness reigns, the lone lamp turned off, and everything is almost surgically clean. The boy who used to live here is neat, disciplined, and it shows in his living space. Silence echoes off the walls and floors, as full as it is quiet.
And in this room sits a framed photograph (a moment of reluctant camaraderie caught on film), turned face down.
Sasuke walks slowly, steadily. This is likely the last he will ever see of Konoha, and he is in no hurry. His own footfalls seem startlingly loud, the only sound in the world. He passes the Academy, and even though he doesn't look in the direction of the swing, Sasuke sees Naruto's favorite haunt peripherally. He follows cobblestoned streets, all bathed in the lambent golden light of the full, harvest moon.
Then he sees her. Sakura rounds the corner ahead of him and waits. Her knowing eyes fall to the bag on his back, but she doesn't speak. He stops in front of a stone bench and says, "It's the middle of the night. What are you hanging around here for?"
Sasuke doesn't know why he bothers to ask her this. It's all playacting, a farce wrapped up in a performance. They both know why he is here (to leave) and why she has shown up (to stop him).
"This is the only road out of the village," Sakura says, and he has never heard this bold, bright girl sound so soft.
He tells her to go to bed. Walks around her, beyond her, and hopes that she will give up.
She doesn't, though—of course. Sakura is nothing if not persistent, especially when it comes to him. Sasuke can't see her anymore, but he hears the tears in her voice as she speaks. He hates that, hates making her cry, but it seems sorrow is the only thing he's fit to bring her.
It frustrates him, and he snaps at her, tries to push her away with anger and dismissal, as indifference didn't do the trick.
"I know you hate me," Sakura says.
He wants to correct her, to tell her she couldn't be more wrong. Sasuke doesn't know what it is, precisely, that he feels for her, but hate is the furthest thing from it.
She reminds him of the last time they stood right here, how he lost his temper with her that day. Sasuke lies, says he doesn't remember, even though he recalls every moment of that exchange with crystal clarity.
Sakura goes on, talks about their three-man squad, and without meaning to, Sasuke thinks of the assignments he carried out with Team 7. Everything from catching cats and walking dogs to fighting Haku and Zabuza in Wave Country. Maybe this is a calculated strategy, or maybe she doesn't even know what she's doing, but Sakura is exploiting his greatest vulnerabilities.
It's even worse when she begs him not to go. When she tells him that, despite her ties to this village, without him, she might as well be alone. And for a moment, he sees the photograph he left behind in his mind's eye. Tangible evidence of Team 7's unity, dysfunctional though it is. A unity he's destroying by leaving Konoha.
He tries to dissuade her, but before he can speak two sentences, she interrupts him, saying, "Sasuke, I'm so in love with you I can't even stand it!" There's more, but all it means is stay, stay, stay. And with the exception of justice for his family, he has never wanted anything as much as he wants this.
It might hurt to hear, and it might be almost impossible to ignore, but nothing she says surprises him.
Until: "I'll even help get your revenge! I'll do whatever it takes to make it happen, I swear. So stay here, with me. And if you can't, then take me with you, Sasuke."
He expected her to beg, to cajole, to make bargains, but he did not expect this. An honest offer to help, to come with him. Suddenly, there is a third path to consider: revenge without solitude. Tempting as it is, he knows that it would be a betrayal of their friendship to allow her to come with him. To take Sakura away from her friends, her family, her home, just to stave off his own loneliness. She has no idea, really, what she's offering, but Sasuke does. He knows what it's like to lose everything, and he doesn't want that for her.
But he's selfish, always has been. So Sasuke turns around to face her, sees the tears on her cheeks that he already heard in her voice, and says, "Fine then. If that's what you want so badly, you can join me."
Her pale eyes go impossibly wide. "Can I—can I go home first? Pack a bag at least—"
"No," Sasuke says. He's afraid that if she walks under the roof of her parents' house that she'll be reminded of everything she's abandoning. That she'll change her mind. "You leave now, with me, or not at all."
"Okay," she says. "Then let's go."
Sasuke hadn't realized, until this moment, how strong Sakura truly is. It's not something he's like to forget, and he'll never underestimate her again.
Author's Notes: I've always wondered what would have happened if Sasuke had taken Sakura with him when he left Konoha, instead of leaving her behind. I hope you guys enjoy exploring this possibility as much as I suspect I will.
Thank you to the fabulous uchihasass for giving me this idea and talking to me about it extensively. This story wouldn't exist without you, dear!