Sakura hurried through the hallways of the hospital, looking for any sign of Naruto and the mysterious 'Tsunade-sama' while on her way to Sasuke's room. Entering, she was surprised to find a young woman whose blonde pigtails rested over a shirt with the character for 'gamble' on the back. Sakura shifted nervously, suddenly acutely aware of her dishevelled appearance from her previous mission.
The woman turned slightly. "Yes? Who are you?"
"Sakura-chan?" Naruto suddenly bounced around from where the woman hid him from view, grinning widely. "Sakura-chan, I found her! This awesome person is Granny Tsunade, and she's gonna fix Sasuke and Kakashi-sensei."
"Naruto… You're back." Sakura smiled, then stepped forwards to hug him. "I missed you, idiot. Why'd you have to run off like that, without a word?" She felt Naruto stiffen in surprise, then wrap his arms around her in a gleeful hug back.
"Well, Ero-sennin needed my help to find Granny Tsunade because she's going to be Hokage and, wow but you're soft to hug."
Sakura pulled back and her arm flicked out in a well-trained punch, knocking Naruto back into the wall. "Pervert! I haven't seen you in a month and what do you do? Try to grope me!"
Naruto worked his jaw around carefully. "Hey, I kept my hands to myself. I can't help it if you're nice to hug." He grinned up at her. "And I missed you guys, too. But I had to go find her, so we could get Sasuke and Kakashi-sensei back." He got up and bounded over to where Tsunade was reading Sasuke's medical notes, trying to hide her amusement. "So? Can you fix them? You can, right? After all, you fixed me up good."
Tsunade nodded slightly. "I think I can see what needs to be done." She looked up from the notes, towards Sakura. "So you're Sakura, huh? Naruto's been talking about you almost as much as he has him," she said, nodding towards Sasuke's prone form.
Sakura nodded, looking up at her. Wow. What a beautiful woman. And for her to be the next Hokage, she must be a great ninja, just like Gai-san said. "Everyone says if anyone can help Sasuke-kun and Kakashi-sensei, it's you, Tsunade-sama." She bowed formally. "Gai-san told me all about you, what you can do. Please, bring them back. I miss them just as much as Naruto does."
Tsunade smiled. "Just leave it to me." She closed Sasuke's notes, returning them to the end of the bed, before she moved to stand over Sasuke, looking carefully at him. Should be simple enough to repair the physical damage done to this boy, even if it's tricky to fix nerve damage. Unfortunately, the psychological damage will be unknown until he wakes and, knowing this boy's past and what his brother probably did both now and then, I fear he may never recover. There seems to have been a critical lack of care and counselling given to him seven years ago, which will complicate things. She flicked her hands through a few seals, then rested a hand gently on Sasuke's brow.
Sakura held her breath as she sensed Tsunade's chakra starting to flow.Please, let this work where just my talking failed. Naruto moved to come stand beside her, watching hopefully. On impulse, Sakura reached out to take his hand, reassured by its rough feel and nervous tension.
Finally, Sasuke stirred slightly, and Tsunade drew back to let him sit up. To Sakura's eyes, he seemed to move stiffly, his hands falling to his lap and head bowing.
"Sasuke-kun?" She moved forwards, tugging Naruto along behind her. "Sasuke-kun? Can you hear me?" She brushed past Tsunade, not acknowledging her presence, to sit on the edge of Sasuke's bed. She looked up at Naruto, who gave her an encouraging nod, then reached out to touch Sasuke's arm gently.
Slowly, Sasuke's gaze travelled from his lap to the point where Sakura's hand touched his arm, but his gaze remained blank and unfocused.
Naruto frowned and learned around, past Sakura. "Oi, Sasuke! Say something! Else we'll think you're still in that coma."
Sakura shook him slightly then turned towards Tsunade. "What's wrong, Tsunade-sama?"
Tsunade sighed. "He's still got to process everything that happened, Sakura. The nerve damage just put all of that on pause." She took a hold of Naruto's arm, pulling firmly. "Now, the best thing for Sasuke is rest and space to sort his head out, and a chance for the doctors to examine him."
Naruto nodded reluctantly, then glared at Sasuke. "You better pull yourself together soon, Sasuke." After all, you still haven't told me what's between you and your brother, and why you'd protect me from him when you know about the Kyuubi.He got up and tried to ignore Sakura's hug of Sasuke before she turned to follow him. After all, she hugged me first. He waited for her out in the hallway, studiously ignoring Shizune's curious glance as Sakura joined him, rubbing surreptitiously at her eyes. "Sasuke'll be fine, Sakura-chan. He's tougher than anything they could throw at him in a genjutsu."
Sakura looked at him, clearly trying to pull herself back together. "Yeah. Sasuke-kun wouldn't let anything like that keep him down." She looked down. "I guess I was just stupid. I thought that she'd do some medical jutsu, and then Sasuke-kun would wake up, and we'd all be back to normal. Then I could leave Gai-san's team and start going on missions with you again."
"That's not stupid at all," said Naruto, tucking his hands behind his head. "After all, I thought exactly the same. That he'd be calling me an idiot straight away and continuing the argument from just before it happened, and then that we'd be trading blows again by the end of tomorrow." He shrugged. "Guess it'll just take a bit longer, that's all." He grinned. "Sasuke's tough, though. So don't worry about him."
"I guess." Sakura looked at Naruto, and suddenly became very much aware both of how much she had missed Naruto's infectious grin, and how tired and dirty she was from her mission. She also realised that she did not want to be alone with her parents that evening, as she had no idea of how to explain to them that she had made her first kill in the line of duty. She was sure that their well-meaning questions would just make her feel worse and widen the gulf between her life and that of her civilian parents. "Hey, Naruto?"
Sakura looked up and smiled. "Want to go somewhere for lunch? Not a date or anything," she added hastily, seeing Naruto's expression brighten. "Just out somewhere quiet. I could really use a friend to talk to, and I want to hear what happened with Sasuke-kun and everything afterwards. I'll even pay for it."
Naruto grinned and nodded. "Sure. I want to hear how you've been too. You've obviously been doing something while I've been gone."
"Thanks, Naruto." She looked away. "If you come by my house in an hour, I should be ready by then."
Naruto nodded, then watched as Sakura left.
"Naruto-kun," said Shizune, softly. "Morning visiting hours are about over. You'll have to come back this afternoon to see how Sasuke-kun is doing."
"Sure thing, Neesan." He grinned up at her. "Besides, I should get going. I have a date with Sakura-chan after all. Probably should get cleaned up and everything."
Shizune shook her head. "Didn't you just hear what Sakura-san said? It's not a date."
Naruto pouted. "Ruin my fantasy, why don't you? A guy can dream."
The déjà vu created by the nurses examining him reminded Sasuke exactly why he hated hospitals. He contented himself with giving ether vague grunts or monosyllabic answers to their questions, all the time hoping that they would just hurry up and leave. The old scar on his arm was aching again, just like every other time he had been confined to a hospital bed. The dull throb had this time expanded to a fierce ache, a reminder as to the origin of the scar that crossed the upper part of his arm. Sasuke let the nurses leave him to sit alone in silence, before moving a hand to rub over where Itachi's shuriken had cut open his arm six years ago.
Except… it doesn't feel like it was six years ago. It feels like yesterday.Sasuke screwed his eyes shut as his mind was again assaulted by the images, sounds and smells from the massacre, burnt into his mind by Itachi's sharingan. I don't want to see this. I don't want to remember it this vividly. He shook his head and got up from his bed, going over to the small sink set into the wall. I'd forgotten so much, let myself forget so much. Just because it was the only way to keep functioning.
Sasuke ran the tap then cupped the water in his hands to splash his face, wiping at the memory of the tears. At least I managed to hold it together until those nurses left me alone. I don't want this weakness to be seen by anyone. He stood back up from the sink and flinched as he caught sight of his own reflection. Eyes that show murderous intent. I haven't seen that look in my eyes since before the fight with Gaara. He moved a tentative hand up to pull his collar down and examine the curse mark on his neck. The fuuja houin is still in place, so the seal can't be tainting my thoughts. He scowled at his reflection again.So this rage and hatred and wish to kill, it's mine, and it's what Itachi brought out in me. Again. He growled and struck out with a fist at the offending image. The mirror cracked, spiderwebbing out from where his fist met the glass, distorting his reflection.
Sasuke turned away, stalking towards the window, not wanting to return to the bed but unable to leave the hospital. I want to kill something. I want to kill him, but he's far away and out of my league. Our fight in the alley proved that much. He moved to the windowsill, pulling the window open and then leaning out, closing his eyes and feeling the breeze flow past his still-damp skin. How can I avenge everyone, how can I avenge myself and pay him back for everything he took from me? For almost doing it to me a second time?He sighed. Itachi tells me to hate more, but I spent five years hating and all it got me was 'Number One Rookie'. A title that's sure to make Itachi tremble in fear of me. He snorted in amusement at his own joke.
And then, this last year. My sharingan. A way to surpass my limits at the time, and I brought it out not to better myself, or to increase my strength, but to protect that idiot. He screwed his hands into fists. Why wouldn't he let me protect him this time? Why wouldn't he run when I told him to? Didn't he understand that Itachi was far more dangerous than Gaara ever was? He opened his eyes again, looking up to the sky. Itachi says hate. Naruto says protect and care. I don't even know which is the right path anymore.
He frowned. All I do know is that Naruto is an idiot, and I want to stomp on him for being so stupid as to let Itachi get near him. And that he wouldn't use whatever he is to help me. Sasuke blinked in realisation. He just stood there. I've seen him stop a giant snake, summon a toad larger than the Hokage monument, make more clones than I could keep track of, even with the sharingan. Itachi could've killed us both without a problem, but he wanted to keep Naruto alive. Kyuubi no youko. Whatever he is. He looked back down, putting a hand to his head.
But if he was a demon, why didn't he use his power to stop them? Why did he stay and try to help me? A demon like that should hate all Konoha ninjas. He gripped the windowsill, the wood creaking under his grip. And why didn't the moron run? After all I went through, the idiot was still standing there, yelling. I sacrifice myself to distract Itachi, and he did nothing to help me. He felt hatred well up within him again and moved away from the window.
Damn it, I need to get my head back in control of my reactions. I need to think this all through, I need to be calm and rational, and I reallyneed to hit something. He looked around the hospital room, taking in the smashed mirror, then flopped onto the bed, putting his hands behind his head and staring at the ceiling. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, trying to start a meditation and chakra focusing exercise.
He could only partly clear his mind from the swirl of emotions before he started again seeing the warped world of Tsukiyomi, the cries of pain and the smell of blood. His eyes snapped open again, sharingan active in his panic, before he groaned and put a hand to his head, wishing for anything to distract him from his memories.
"I. Hate. Hospitals."
Naruto was surprised when Sakura slipped out of her house, seemingly very subdued from her normal self. He supposed it was due to her mother, as the woman had been glaring at him almost constantly from the moment he arrived on the doorstep. He had tried to smile and be nice and polite, but he could see that her politeness was forced and she eyed him critically. Probably knows I'm the 'fox-brat' or something, that's why, he decided. So he kept up his grinning and his polite chatter until Sakura came and the two of them could escape from her mother's glare.
Sakura had seemed strained to him at the hospital, but it was all the clearer now that she was cleaned up. Her smile seemed forced and her laughter often cut out abruptly, which only made Naruto try all the harder to cheer her up. She led the way through the streets of Konoha and Naruto was surprised to find her wandering in a direction away from Ichiraku and towards the further end of the commercial district. Finally, they stopped outside a quiet-looking restaurant.
"Is it okay if we eat here?"
Naruto peered round the doorway curtain and looked around. The place was constructed with the seating arranged in booths, like many of the places that he had been to with Jiraiya and Tsunade on their travels. "Sure, I guess. They do ramen, right?" He turned to grin at Sakura.
Sakura managed a weak smile back. "Yeah. I'm not so heartless as to take you somewhere that didn't. And I'm still paying for it." She held up a finger as Naruto's eyes lit up. "For one bowl, Naruto. You want to eat more than that, you do it off your own wages. I didn't get that many missions while you were gone." She smiled more genuinely then pushed past him to go inside, moving to a secluded booth at the back.
Naruto sat down with her then started to look at the boards around the place displaying the various dishes on offer. "So then the Fuzzy-eyebrow's sensei really did take you on, huh?"
Sakura tilted her head. "What do you mean?"
Naruto turned back to her, making a face. "Well… he turned up to help me and Sasuke, not that we needed it or anything. Ero-sennin made him take Sasuke back here, and then he started babbling about his eternal rival's 'little flower' or something." He looked away as the server arrived. "One order of pork miso ramen, please."
"Beef teriyaki for me, please" said Sakura as the server looked questioningly at her before bowing and leaving.
Naruto stretched out lazily. "Man, it's good to be home. I missed you guys a lot while Ero-sennin was dragging me all over looking for Tsunade no baachan. Even learning my new killer move didn't stop me missing you for that long." He saw Sakura flinch slightly. "Sakura-chan?"
"No, no, it's fine," said Sakura, giving another weak smile. "Just… no one will tell me anything about why Sasuke-kun and Kakashi-sensei got hurt, or how, or why you went missing."
Naruto felt that this maybe was not the reason she had flinched, but that it deserved an answer anyway. "Well, I never went missing exactly. Ero-sennin said that he'd cleared my going on the mission with Kakashi-sensei. I guess he got hurt before he ever told you guys. So off I go, to the next town over, and then Sasuke's there and he's talking in riddles at me and trying to get me to leave town, and then there were these two guys, and they tried to hurt us but Sasuke kinda…" He trailed off and looked down. I owe it to Sasuke to be honest about what he did, I guess, even if I won't tell Sakura-chan about why all of it was happening. I don't want her to hate me too, like I'm sure Sasuke now will. "Sasuke threw himself at one of the bad guys to let me escape, and then the fuzzy-brow's sensei came and took care of the other guy, and Ero-sennin finished them off, but by then it was too late."
"Sasuke-kun got hurt like that because the others didn't get there in time?" asked Sakura cautiously, trying to unpick Naruto's babbling. She received a nod from Naruto. "And he got hurt because he was trying to help you. Like before, with those Mist ninja, and with Gaara?"
Naruto nodded again, looking ashamed. "Yeah. I tried my best, Sakura-chan, you've got to believe me! After all, there's no way I'd let anyone beat up on Sasuke, cause that's my job! It's just these guys were so strong, and everything that we did, they countered." He looked down. "He came all that way to try to save me, and I couldn't stop them from doing that mind-thingy. All I could do was listen to him scream." He looked back up again. "So I'm going to tell him that… I'm sorry. And that the next time those guys try anything, I'll use this new jutsu of mine, and he can use chidori, and we'll kick their asses." He gave a hopeful grin. "After all, me and him took down Gaara together. These guys'll be a piece of cake after we get a little more training done, and that'll be easy now we're all back together."
Sakura gave a more genuine smile. "I'm just glad that both of you are okay. I've been worried for you."
Naruto leant forward. "So. What have you been doing with the Fuzzy-brow's sensei while I've been gone?"
Sakura sighed and looked up at the ceiling slightly. "Well, to start with, I was just moping around the hospital, you know? Trying to be there for Sasuke-kun and Kakashi-sensei. Then Gai-san came along and said it was all his fault and that the only way he could make up for it was to have me fill in for Lee-san." She looked back at Naruto and gave a slight smile. "I wasn't sure about it all but I said yes, because the last thing you or Sasuke-kun would do is just sit around moping if I was hurt. So then Gai-san started training me, and made me run laps and do drills and all the stuff that Kakashi-sensei makes us do when he finally turns up, only Gai-san made us all do it for much longer. He taught me some more taijutsu and stuff, and even asked Kurenai-san to help with teaching me genjutsu."
"Wow, Sakura-chan," said Naruto, resting his chin on his hands. "You must've been really busy and learnt all kinds of cool stuff. I only managed to learn one thing."
Sakura made a face. "I really didn't learn that much, Naruto. I think I'd need years of help from Gai-san to get anywhere near Sasuke-kun's level of taijutsu, or both your levels of stamina. After all, it was only a month and, really, you and Sasuke-kun learnt way more in that period of time for the chuunin exam than I could in a month after the Sand and Sounds' attack." She looked up as the server brought their food, then smiled as Naruto started to eat with his normal, quick movements. I really did miss you, idiot. She turned her attention to her own food and poked at it forlornly with her chopsticks. A shame that my appetite still hasn't returned. Ino would say I should be glad and that I'll lose a few pounds, but… She looked up as she became aware that Naruto had stopped eating.
"Sakura-chan? Is something up with your food?"
She shook her head quickly. "No, no, it smells great. I just haven't really been hungry lately."
Naruto peered at her, cautiously. "Maybe you're sick or something? I mean, I thought you looked a bit funny earlier on at the hospital, but then I thought it must just've been the dirt or something. You were so happy when Sasuke woke up that I guess I thought you were just worried about him."
"Idiot! Haven't you been hearing what I've been saying? I've been worried for you all." Sakura poked at her food some more. "It's just… This mission I went on. It was supposed to just be easy. Something three genin and a new chuunin could handle easily."
Naruto frowned. Sakura-chan seems really out of sorts. Maybe it was another mission that they lied about, like old man Tazuna, and they got into trouble. "Well, you've done tough missions before, right? And you came through it okay."
"Before, you and Sasuke-kun and Kakashi-sensei did everything. All I did was stand there and scream, and try not to panic and get killed." She bit her lip. "And I tried so hard to change all that. I've been training ever since the second exam, trying to not be a bother to you. And then, this mission, when I had to face it all by myself, I just panicked again, and no matter what I do I just can't put it behind me, no matter what the rules of Shinobi Conduct say…" She trailed off and put her head in her hands. "Why am I even telling you all this? It's not like you'll even understand or anything."
"S-Sakura-chan?" Naruto bent forwards to try to peer between Sakura's hands. "Oi, Sakura-chan, I can't help if you don't tell me what's wrong. I know it must've been tough, dealing with the fuzzy-brow's sensei, but I'm back, and Sasuke and Kakashi-sensei are too, and you can always talk to your team, right?" He watched her carefully, noticing her shoulders shake slightly. Damn it, what am I supposed to do? If I try to hug her or anything, she'll just hit me, but whatever happened on the mission was obviously bad. Why do girls have to be so complicated? Finally he got up and moved to sit beside her. "… don't hit me or anything, okay?" He slipped his arm around her, tensing to be shoved away, and was surprised when Sakura leaned into him. "Hey, it'll all be okay. Whatever it is, it can't be that bad." Sakura's head snapped up to glare at him and Naruto was suddenly aware that he had said the wrong thing.
"Oh, I'm sorry, I forgot. Big things are only allowed to happen to you. The fact that I had to kill some Sound chuunin in the line of duty doesn't matter at all compared to you gallivanting around the country with some pervert looking for the next Hokage!" She stopped suddenly and clapped her hands to her mouth. "Sorry. I didn't mean…"
Naruto smiled and tried not to show how hurt Sakura's words had made him feel. "It's okay. You kinda feel all cut up inside, right? And like you're somehow dirty. And no matter how much you know in your head that it was justified and all, you can't seem to make your heart listen." He put his arms back around her again. "I've come close enough to killing enough times to know I'd regret it if I ever had done it. Hell, even though it was Haku's own choice to die like that, I felt it was all my fault, because I was prepared to kill him that time, I really was. But you know what? That Sound ninja, he's never going to try to kill me, or Sasuke, or Kakashi-sensei, or your parents, or anyone else in the village, because you stopped him right there. I know it doesn't feel like that's a good thing, but it's surely not a bad thing that he'll never hurt anyone else?"
Sakura gave a choked laugh. "Idiot. Things are always so simple to you, aren't they? The good guys are always good, and the bad guys are always bad."
Naruto looked away. "Yeah, well, I used to think that. Then I found out that Kabuto-san was a spy for that freaky snake-bastard, Orochimaru. Now I don't know what to think."
Sakura frowned. "But we found out that Kabuto was a spy for Orochimaru during the invasion…" She trailed off as she felt Naruto tense against her. Idiot! Naruto wasn't there, and Kakashi-sensei didn't want him to know at the time that he'd been betrayed and that Orochimaru killed the Hokage. "I mean… Kakashi-sensei and I found out because he tried to kill us up in the spectators' stand, so…"
"You knew?" Naruto drew away from her, sounding hurt and betrayed. "Youknew that Kabuto-san was working for the guy who tried to get me eaten by a snake and hurt you and put that freaky tadpole mark on Sasuke's neck, and you didn't tell me?" His voice started to take on a snarling tone. "How about the fact that he killed the old man, huh? How about the fact that the snake-bastard has been attacking everything I care about and no one saw fit to clue me in?"
Sakura shook her head. "It wasn't like that, Naruto. You were just so upset that the Hokage was dead that we didn't want to hurt you more by saying that Orochimaru had done it."
"Well, good job," replied Naruto snidely. "If nothing else it meant he was too busy laughing at me, along with his four-eyed spy, to do a proper job of killing me when we ran into him. They were too busy saying that I was a no-hope and that your precious 'Sasuke-kun' was a much better ninja than I could ever hope to be." He stood up, shaking in anger. "I'm sick of playing second fiddle to Sasuke, and I'm sick of being the last to know about anything, but most of all I'm sick of being treated as everyone else's garbage. I may not be as smart as you or Sasuke, but I deserve to be told things like that, no matter what!" He turned sharply on his heel and stormed out of the restaurant.
Sakura watched him go, then sank her head into her arms. He's right. We should've told him. The time just never seemed right, not with him and Konohamaru just seeming to get over it all. Now I'm sure he hates both me and Sasuke-kun for not telling him, even though we thought it for the best. That jerk. Couldn't he see that it was the best thing to do at the time? It's not like we knew all this stuff with Orochimaru and Kabuto and Naruto would happen. It's not like he's never messed up telling us something before. She looked up again at the rapidly cooling food. Damn it all. I should eat what I can, then try to find where Naruto's gone after he's had a chance to cool off. She pulled her food back towards herself and started to eat unenthusiastically.