Honokuni Monogatari - "Fire Country Stories"
Uchinaru - "On The Inside"
By Aoi Kami Sarah
For the next three years, that's how it was. After Sasuke told her to stop coming, she never went inside Sasuke's house. However, she often left food she had made at his door or little presents or cards to remind him she was thinking of him. To her relief, rarely were they still there when next she visited.
Naruto attained the rank of Jounin, but Sakura never bothered going higher than Chuunin. She worked full time at the hospital and took on the title of Iryou-nin. Her knowledge and skills rivaled that of her teacher, Shizune. Sasuke was still a lone Anbu, working ultra-top-secret missions for Tsunade.
One day when Sakura had been working an especially long shift at the hospital, she took a break and looked out at the rain through a window. She thought it odd that all this time she hadn't so much as seen Sasuke in three long years, not even as a patient at the hospital. While she was musing about how strange this was, an orderly interrupted her. "Sakura-sempai! Come quick! It's Uchiha Sasuke!"
Just a few moments before, similar havoc broke out in the administration building. A lone Anbu covered in blood, his mask cracked in half but still affixed, strode down the hall toward the Hokage's office. His left arm was bent in a direction that couldn't be comfortable and in his right he carried something no bigger than a breadbox wrapped in black cloth with a pattern of some kind obscured by dried blood. He was surrounded by a crowd of shinobi who barked at him to stop and explain himself, but he kept walking. When he reached the Hokage's office, he reeled back to kick the door open, but stopped as it gaped for him.
Tsunade sat at her desk. She didn't look up from the paperwork she was doing, even with the commotion coming from the back of her office. The Anbu approached her desk, stopped, lifted his arm and held the bundle out for her inspection. She looked up, stood, unwrapped the thing a little and took a deep breath. "Gokurou," she said. "Good job."
His white knuckles relaxed and he slumped to the ground. In flash a Tsunade was under him to catch him as he fell. She gasped, realizing the seriousness of his injuries and began working on him right there. The crowd at the door looked on, confused and bewildered. "Get this nin to the hospital, now!" she shouted.
The rain was coming down pretty hard when he returned to the village from a long mission. The buzz was hard to ignore. Something had happened. Something big.
"What's the deal?" Kakashi asked a street merchant as he ducked under an awning in a futile attempt to avoid a further soaking.
"Ah, you shoulda seen it. That Uchiha kid came back from somethin' wicked all banged up. Rumor is he weren't even conscious walkin' down the street…!" The shopkeeper stopped and looked around, noticing his audience had vanished.
When Sakura entered the ER, everyone turned to her for leadership. "Where is Hokage-sama?" she asked urgently, rushing into action.
"She said you would handle this."
Sakura stared at the scene for a beat before focusing on the task at hand. He was bloody, pale and taller than she remembered. His left eye-socket was dark and covered in dried blood and his arm was very noticeably broken, but that wasn't the worst of his trouble. She nodded and fell in with the team working to save Sasuke's life.
His heart had to be jump-started with a chakra defibrillator twice, but the med team managed to stop the internal bleeding and downgrade him from 'critical' to 'serious-but-stable' condition in a matter of hours.
When Sakura emerged from the ER she was exhausted. She stared at the ground as she walked and for the first time in hours let her emotions return. She pushed the double doors open and headed for the break-room.
"Sakura-chan!" Naruto shouted and leapt out of his seat. A copy of Shinobi Weekly fell out of his lap to the floor.
Her scrubs were bloodied and she looked as spent as she felt. She stared blankly at them.
"How is he?" Kakashi asked so quietly it startled her.
"I think we should have him down to 'fair' condition by morning," she said with a soft smile. "All three major bones in his left arm were broken. There was internal bleeding giving him trouble when he came in caused by broken ribs and a punctured lung, there were other various abrasions and he's lost an eye," she said in a breath. "His left."
They were silent. Suddenly it dawned on her that although she was the doctor giving the closest thing to Sasuke's family the news, she was also 'family'. "I'm so glad you guys are here!" she cried and lunged at Naruto and hugged him tightly. Kakashi used the opportunity to put a hand to his face and discretely wipe his eye.
When Sasuke came to, it was morning, almost a full 24 hours after his return. His first awareness was pain. The second was that he had completed his mission. He lay very still, letting this idea bounce off the walls of his skull. It was too much. He groaned lightly. The third thing he noticed was that he wasn't alone. Sitting to his right in a chair covered with a blanket and sleeping, but with one of her hands lying over his own, was Sakura. Unlike the last visit to the hospital, there were no restraints. He wiggled his toes and fingers. A wave of pain from his broken left arm shot through him and he sucked in a breath involuntarily.
"Sasuke…?" Sakura asked sleepily. "You're awake!"
He stared at the ceiling. "Aa."
"Do you need anything?" she asked and gave his hand a light squeeze.
She smiled. At least it wasn't 'go away', she thought. "I'm going to get some tea. I'll be right back." Her heart pounded. She was elated that he was all right, but nervous about breaking the news to him about his missing eye. The rumors were wild with speculation as to who took it. She just prayed that whoever had beaten Sasuke so badly suffered 10 times that, if only for Sasuke's sake.
When she returned, he'd gone out the second story window.
Sasuke leaned against a wall in an alley not 100 yards from the hospital and took short quick breaths. He had been healed enough to survive, but his lung was still tender and his arm was still broken. The pain coursed up and down it in intolerable waves and forced him to remember what he'd been through the day before.
There had been four of them, all Akatsuki. Two large ones, a small one and one further away he was sure was his target. Getting through the first two had been relatively easy, but the big one broke his lower arm. Once they had been dispatched, the shark-like Kisame swung his chakra-sucking sword at him. Switching to a combination of Sharingan and Taijutsu had made quick work of the impressive outlaw. Then he stood face to face with his only brother, Itachi.
He squeezed his eyes shut.
"Sasuke, come back to the hospital," Sakura asked, standing in the mouth of the alleyway. He sighed and pushed off the wall. The late morning light was dazzling so he put his back to it. "You aren't ready to be released yet, you know that."
"I know," he muttered and shook his head slightly. It swam. She seemed to glow. He trained his eyes on solid ground.
Sakura didn't want to broach the subject, but she desperately needed small talk. "I'm sorry I couldn't do more for your eye."
He reached up and touched the bandage. Some of the day before came back to him. He remembered the warmth of her healing powers. "That was you…"
"When you came in it was such a mess and…"
"There was nothing there to save. He took it." Sakura sucked in a breath in shock. Sasuke closed his remaining eye. "I did it, Sakura. I killed my brother."
He had fought harder than he had ever fought before. He had expected to. For more than ten years he had tried to prepare himself for that day. He trained as a Genin. He betrayed his home and trained with evil. He knew how lucky he was to be alive and in relative control of his life and destiny.
When he reached the four Akatsuki members (two more than he had expected to run into) the idea that he could die without succeeding ran his blood cold. Failure was not an option. He had to do this. For his mother and father. For all the other Uchiha, innocent and guilty who were slaughtered. Fighting for people long dead suddenly felt very empty. What did his life mean to him that he was experiencing such fear of death? He threw his soul away when he agreed to become Orochimaru's host. He threw his freedom away when he allowed himself to be captured by the Leaf. So why was this any different?
"I can't die yet," he breathed.
"I had heard you were back with the Leaf. What a lovely costume they've given you. I used to have one just like it," Itachi commented coolly. "Are you strong enough yet, foolish little brother? Or has three years back in Konoha turned you to mush?"
Three years. Had it really been that long? What had he been doing? Had he gotten any stronger? Naruto and Sakura had both gotten stronger for his sake. Sasuke's mind whirled. How many chances like that had he missed? What chances had he been given? If he had let Orochimaru take him, he wouldn't have been consciously aware even if Orochimaru did kill Itachi. If Tsunade hadn't made a deal with him to search and destroy S-rank missing nin Uchiha Itachi, if Naruto hadn't found him a position on the Anbu squad, if Sakura hadn't…
"Sakura," Sasuke whispered.
"What's that?" Itachi asked, narrowing his eyes.
"If I don't make it, all that stuff will just pile up in front of the door," he mumbled. "The letters and cards and mochi and pie and all that. What will she do if I don't come home again?"
"A girl? You're joking."
"I can't do this for myself," Sasuke unsheathed the standard-issue Anbu sword from his back and pointed it at his brother. "I don't give a shit about myself. You taught me to do that so well, so I'll do this for her!"
Sakura started at his back and lifted her hand to reach out to him. She balled her fist and lowered the hand. "Was that the mission?"
"So it's over?"
"Yes," he said. His shoulders slumped a little. "It's over and now… Now I don't know what to do."
Trying not to seem astounded that Sasuke sounded on the verge of tears, Sakura took a deep breath before answering. "Live."
"Yourself," she answered. "You've lived for revenge for so long, perhaps you've forgotten about yourself. You decide what to do from here on out. It's up to you."
His longish black locks swayed back and forth as he shook his head slightly. 'How is it that she's grown so much, and I'm still the same?' he thought.
Her hand reached out again, this time it came to rest on his shoulder. "Tsunade-sama said she wanted to heal your arm herself when she talks to you," she whispered. "But I can take the pain away."
A shock ran through Sasuke's body. He couldn't remember the last time he'd let someone touch him outside of combat. His head bowed. "Please," he whispered in reply and turned to face her. His brow was pinched tightly, his lower lip trembled. His coal-black eye shone with tears. Sakura ignored all of this and put her hands on his left arm, easing the strain from the broken bones below.
He was about six feet tall now and she was only around 5'5". It was easy to avoid eye contact just by staring at his chest. "We should go back…" she started to say, but Sasuke bowed his head even further. He buried his face in her shoulder, sobbing quietly.
"I'm so sorry for everything I've put you through," he said. "I don't know why you're still here…"
"Shhhhh," she shushed him and put her arms around him gently. "You never listen. I told you, I will always be here for you. I love you, Sasuke." They stood there like that for a moment before he lifted his good arm and returned the gesture. It was a few moments more before they returned to the hospital.
Tsunade was waiting for them. Sakura explained that Sasuke had wanted to get some air. The Hokage didn't question her further. The young woman excused herself to get some tea as hers had gone quite cold, allowing Tsunade to inquire about his mission.
Sakura walked down the hall, her heart light and a peaceful smile on her lips. She wandered to the reception desk with the idea of ordering some flowers from Yamanaka's. Early afternoon light poured in through the main doors. She sighed, her mind floating on a cloud, and leaned on the desk.
"Uh, Sakura-san?" the receptionist cleared her throat and pushed her glasses up her nose. "You have some visitors."
"Oh! Naruto! Kakashi! What are you doing here?" she asked, surprised that she didn't notice them earlier.
"It is visiting hours, isn't it?" Naruto chimed.
"How's he doing?" Kakashi asked.
Sakura's smile stretched from ear to ear.
Tsunade closed her notebook. "Alright, that should do it," she said with a kind smile and stood. "You've successfully completed your mission. As per the terms of the agreement, you are hereby re-admitted as a Konoha Anbu Member, Jounin rank." She handed him a small package. "Welcome back, Sasuke."
Lying in his hospital bed fully healed but exhausted, he reached over and took it from her. "Tadaima," he replied.
By the time Sakura, Naruto and Kakashi got to the room, Tsunade had left. Sakura opened the door. Sasuke lay in bed, snoring lightly, his right eye closed and his left protected by a shiny new Konoha hitai-ate.
The three other members of team seven exchanged relieved glances. Sakura promised them that she would tell Sasuke that they had stopped by when he woke. She sipped her tea and sat down in her chair at his bedside. She picked up a book in her right hand and placed her left over his right.
"Thank you," he whispered softly, gave her hand a squeeze and fell into a deep and relaxing sleep.