Withered Petal
Part 2 (Epilogue)

Sasuke stood before the memorial stone impassively, his eyes glued to a particular name carved on its surface.

Haruno Sakura.

He didn't really know what to say to her. How many times had he said rudely to her face that she was annoying? He only knew to hurt her… Yet she never hated him, never stopped caring. If anything, the smile on her face as she shielded him from Orochimaru was a sign that she had forgiven him.

He didn't understand. They should have hated him. After all, he had chosen the enemy's side and betrayed his comrades... His plan was perfect. He was going to make them hate him, because he didn't ever want to watch those dear to him die before his eyes. It was going to be just Itachi and him.

Then why did they refuse to let him go? Why couldn't they leave him alone? What did he ever do to merit such devotion?

Naruto… He was always one who didn't know how to give up. Barely conscious at all, he had refused to give up, trying to stop Orochimaru by the strength of his will alone. But even the strongest of wills still had its limit. In the end, his stubbornness had caused him his injuries and broken bones.

And Sakura… She was hardly the same love-sick girl he had known during their younger days. Determined, unyielding, strong… She had changed so much while he was away. But her unwavering loyalty toward him hadn't changed at all. In the end, it was what had cost her her life.

Sasuke sighed dejectedly. He had been there for a while, but he still didn't know what to say. Nothing he said could ever turn back the time. He had made a foolish choice and now other people suffered the consequences.

He was aware of the contempt in people's eyes as they looked at him. He knew what they had been saying about him behind his back. Once hailed as the prodigy from the Uchiha clan and the pride of the Hidden Leaf, he was reduced to being the bane of their existence. Hated by all, his mere presence made people sneer in disgust.

It would've been better if he had died instead of her. She was innocent, as were many others that had fallen victim to Sound's second attack. Regret and guilt plagued his conscience, constantly badgering him with morbid thoughts.

He needed to know why. Maybe then he could find a way to deal with the self-remorse.

"You've always been good friends with Sakura…," he said aloud, "…haven't you, Ino?"


The said kunoichi halted in her track at the mention of her name, blue eyes widened in surprise. "Sasuke-kun…" It wasn't the fact that he had sensed her approaching him that took her by surprise – she expected no less from an Uchiha – but it was more that he had bothered to acknowledge her presence.

Shifting the pile of cherry blossoms in her arms, Ino hesitated for a while before finally resumed her steps toward the monument. "Yes, we were good friends," she said softly as she knelt down to lay the flowers in front of the cenotaph. She had wanted to do this for days, but the memory of Sakura's tragic demise was still too fresh on her mind that she kept failing to gather the courage to visit this place until today.

Someone else had been ahead of her, so it seemed.

Realization dawned on Ino's mind as her eyes fell on the lonely branch of cherry blossoms. Judging from the condition the blossoms were in, it had been there for a day or two. Its petals had begun to wither, the lovely pink color already paled and streaked with brown. She had an inkling of who it was from, and it was definitely not from the young man standing beside her right now.

Silence descended upon the memorial site. A gust of wind blasted through the field then. Some of the withered petals fell off the branch, blown away by the wind.

"Why…" Sasuke's subdued voice broke the tranquility. He clenched his fist hard, nails biting the callused flesh of his palm to the point that it hurt. Self-inflicted pain wouldn't bring her back though. "Why did she do it?"

Ino glanced at him. Sasuke looked so much thinner from the last time she had seen him. Where was the lad she had known during their Academy days? He had never been a carefree child for as long as she remembered, but right now he seemed so worn out and weary, as if the burdens of the whole world were laid upon his shoulder.

"I don't know." It was so easy for Ino to brush the question off and deliberately ignore him. The Uchiha had made a mistake and the price other people had to pay was already too high. It was only fair that he should suffer the consequences of his choice also. And he actually did; she could see that remorse and shame were eating him up from the inside. He deserved that.

But weren't those the evidence that Sasuke hadn't entirely lost his humanity? That he was capable of showing regret, was it not enough proof that he wasn't a heartless bastard like they thought he was? Ino couldn't help but feel something akin to compassion for him. Besides, this was the person Sakura gave up her life for. And so she added, "But she cared… and I guess it was for the sake of a promise."

Sasuke finally tore his gaze from the memorial stone. Turning his head toward the girl, he voiced his puzzlement aloud, "A promise?"

Her gaze fell on Sakura's name, and sadness enveloped her whole being. "She didn't want to let her comrades die; she swore that to her soul. And there was also that time when she promised Naruto that they would bring you back together…"

Another bout of silence ensued.


Again, Sasuke was the one who spoke first. "I thought they would prosecute me. I did betray the village after all."

"They would, but Hokage-sama decided against it."

"Why?" The leniency from the Leaf's part was beyond Sasuke's understanding. After the Sound nins had been driven back, he was detained with the charge of treason. Because of that, he had failed to attend the funeral procession. Most people would be livid anyway if he had shown up, so it might be for the better that he hadn't come.

While in detention, Sasuke had been certain that the Hidden Leaf would condemn him to the death row. He had committed unforgivable acts. What he certainly didn't expect was his sudden release from the jail after just three days. They didn't even put restrictions on him; he was set free without any conditions.

Ino sighed deeply. Her melancholy mood still hadn't dissipated. "You might not know this, but Sakura is Hokage-sama's apprentice."

Sasuke's eyes widened in surprise. 'Sakura? I wouldn't have thought…'

"Of course Hokage-sama is very much affected by all this. She blames you for the loss of Sakura and many others, as do the village council and most of the people here in the Leaf. I don't know how much of this is true, but there were whispers that they would have had you executed for your crimes…"

So he had been right all along: they were going to hand him the death penalty. He didn't deny that it was probably what he deserved. "Then why didn't they?"

"Kakashi-san pleaded for your life…"

He thought that she even looked more subdued at the mention of his former sensei's name, but decided that it might be just his imagination. "Kakashi?"

"He asked if his request was too much considering that he had never asked something in return for all he'd done for the Hidden Leaf. He said that if Hokage-sama couldn't consider a lifetime of dedicated services, at least she should consider her feelings in this matter. He said that Sakura wouldn't have wanted it, that imposing the death penalty on you would defeat the purpose of her sacrifice in the first place..."

Of all people, Sasuke didn't expect Kakashi to be the one who defended him. Blinded by the desire to kill his brother, he had failed to see that Team 7 wasn't just Naruto, Sakura and him. They had a jounin sensei who was also an integral part of the team. Despite his chronic tardiness, Kakashi obviously cared about him enough to train him personally during the chuunin exam. He had made the conscious choice to neglect his other students and hoped that they would understand somehow.

Sasuke had forgotten that Naruto and Sakura might not be the only ones affected by his betrayal. "Where is Kakashi?" The jounin had been forced to kill his own student and he was to blame for that. More shame and guilt trip were on the way. 'I should at least t---'

"Kakashi-san left the village."

"What...?" A look of disbelief flashed across his face.

Ino's eyes glistened with unshed tears. "I stumbled upon him the other night when he was about to leave. He said that he couldn't stand staying in Leaf because everything here reminded him to her. Kakashi-san… he was so devastated…"

A gnawing thought had been growing in the pit of his stomach ever since Ino mentioned Kakashi. Sasuke recalled Sakura's last moments before she died. He didn't know what had been said between them – he was too far away – but he had seen Kakashi's grief and heard his anguished cry.

Something told him that he was missing an important piece of the puzzle.

"Why would Kakashi…" He stopped abruptly then, for the first time realizing what was going on. His stomach churned with the horrid feeling of nausea as understanding struck. He wondered why the thought didn't occur to him earlier. It was so obvious… He dreaded the truth, but he needed to know.

There was an edge of panic in Sasuke's voice as he inquired further, "What is he to her? What are they to each other?"

The kunoichi blinked. A few stray tears dampened her lashes. "It's not like they were seeing each other… not yet, at least... One could tell that the bond between them transcended that of a mere student-teacher relationship, but even Kakashi-san and Sakura themselves didn't know the definite answer to that question. In any case, she stopped calling him 'sensei' just recently…"

Bowing her head sadly, she tightened her fists in a vain attempt to fight off the growing sorrow. "I think Sakura did have feelings for him; she just hasn't realized it yet. As for Kakashi-san, no one knows what goes inside his head, but I believe that he actually returned the sentiment. Everyone thought that it was just a matter of time, that they had a lifetime to figure it out…"

A small sob escaped Ino. "She would've been so happy… They both would…" Her body trembling, she finally let her grief washed over her, releasing the strain she put on her emotion. "I'm sorry," was all she managed to mumble between her tears before she turned away and fled from the scene.

Sasuke was at loss for words as he watched Ino's retreating back. His mind still had difficulty in digesting the information that had just been revealed to him. The implication hit him with full force then. 'What have I done…?' He staggered as he stepped forward heavily, the cenotaph just within an arm's reach now.

Bits of Kakashi's words during their last encounter prior to him leaving the village suddenly resurfaced from the depth of his memory.

Sasuke, quit seeking revenge… In this line of work, I've seen just how bad guys like you can get. In the end, those who tasted revenge were not satisfied. It ended in tragedy.

He had snapped at his sensei then, saying that Kakashi shouldn't talk like he understood what he was going through.

What if I were to kill the one you love the most?

"Kakashi…" The irony was not lost on him. His words had become the reality. He knew he would regret that for the rest of his life.

How far would you stray from what you just said? I can make you feel true pain!

"Sakura…" Kakashi was a liar... He had said that it would work. Well, it didn't, did it? Sasuke had made his former mentor feel true pain. And yet despite all of that, Kakashi still stood up to Leaf for him, asking the Hokage to spare his pathetic excuse of a life. He knew now why they did what they had done. He had had his chance, and he screwed up quite spectacularly.

Well, we aren't the lucky ones… But we definitely aren't the worst off. Both you and I have found precious companions.

Sasuke fell on his knees, his fingers tracing Sakura's freshly-engraved name on the memorial stone. His vision was blurred by the tears that threatened to fall.

"I'm so sorry…" And he finally wept.


Elsewhere…

The lone figure walked upon the face of earth aimlessly, not really minding where his feet would lead him. A backpack was slouched across his back. In it were personal belongings that Kakashi couldn't leave behind in the village: a couple of photographs, scrolls, clothes... He never did possess a lot of things to begin with.

Dirt stained his clothes and his wisps of silver hair were covered in dust from the long hours of travel.

Kakashi couldn't care less though. All he knew was that he needed to go away, away from the place that brought back so many memories of her. It would only make it all the more painful for him. He didn't need a constant reminder to everything he had lost.

Hatake Sakumo's death made him believe that life was guided by a set of rules and laws. No matter what sacrifices had to be made, rules were the absolute. There was no compromising with it. In the world of shinobi, those who did not abide by the law should be called 'thrash'.

Obito's death shaped him into the kind of ninja the legendary Copy Ninja was. His belief in rules and law was crushed as he watched his best friend dying an agonizing death under the weight of the rock that smashed half of his body. He still thought that those who did not abide by the law should be called 'thrash', but he also believed that those who did not take care of their comrades were lower than thrash.

Yondaime Hokage's death strengthened his resolve to live for the village his sensei had loved so dearly. He became even more determined to tread in his sensei's footsteps: putting the life of others above his. He promised to himself that he wouldn't let another comrade die, that he would protect them even if it killed him.

Sakura's death… simply devastated him.

Kakashi had lost a lot of people dear to him, but there was only so much that a man could take. He had killed her, the one that he treasured the most…

Fate had dealt him the worst possible cards of life, and he couldn't take it anymore. He had had enough. He was tired.

The thought of giving up had crossed his mind for more than once, but Kakashi couldn't let himself succumb to the desperation. Because Sasuke wasn't the only person she had wanted to live. He couldn't, and wouldn't, deny her that one last wish.

And so while he probably wouldn't be spending the rest of his life in the Hidden Leaf, he would continue on living in whatever ways he could manage.

For you, Sakura, I will live my life. But it won't be the same without you here by my side...

Life had scarred him deeper than anyone could ever imagine, physically as well as emotionally. These scars in his heart, he didn't think that they could completely heal. Time could not erase the pain and the grief; at most it could make them bearable. He knew it wouldn't happen in the near future though.

For now, he would just have to endure it.

Sakura, I really wish that I could stay with you forever…

- The End -

Author's Note:

o- Overloaded angst… I need fluff…

o- Thanks a lot for reading and/or reviewing!

o- My thoughts on this chapter: kaijou1. livejournal. com/10466.html or go to my profile page.