Team seven has a problem. Everyone knows about it. No one ever talks about it. It's like the sannin, what people are careful not to mention when they talk about them, too. Exactly like that. What they don't mention. Or rather, to be exact, who they don't mention.

It's begun to wear on Sakura's nerves. When people just talk around Sasuke. Like they're afraid to say his name. More likely, they just don't know what to say. What can you say? Nothing. They're embarrassed by it, the people of the village. They're embarrassed for them, what's left of Team Seven.

Aren't they?

Sakura sure is. She doesn't say so, she doesn't admit these kinds of things, but still... Ino's team, Hinata's team.. even Lee's team, all of these other genin teams, they have their problems. None of them are perfect. But they're together. They held themselves together.

Why couldn't Team Seven do that? Why couldn't her team do it too? What was wrong with them? What did everyone else have that they were missing?

Well. What they're missing? What everyone else has? A third teammate.

Sasuke. Sakura hears his name in the polite silence as people skirt around the topic, and she just wants to say it. Get it out in the open. Sasuke. Yes, he abandoned his village. Yes, he's with Orochimaru, the killer of the Third, the great enemy of Konoha. Yes, she tried her hardest to save him, and Naruto tried too- and is still trying, every day and every second- and it just doesn't matter. Sasuke still ran away. Maybe Sasuke just isn't coming back. Maybe. Maybe! There- she said it.

She doesn't ever say that. Not in front of Naruto. Not in front of anybody.

Is it because she doesn't quite believe it?

Maybe.

Or because maybe, she worries that if she says it, it will somehow become true. Something will be broken, some small herringbone cog of fate in the universe will tip, a balance will be upset. As if, as long as she believes that Sasuke will return, that Sasuke didn't mean it, that Sasuke's only being hypnotized by an evil, scheming snake- well, then there's a chance. As if.. as if the world really worked that way. As if maybe somehow if she said it, it would break team seven, once and for all. Naruto's hope would be broken. Naruto's determination would be broken...

What do they have left other then superstition?

But as if Naruto ever gave one whit of a damn about logic, reality or anything other than what he set his mind to do.

But still. Even as Sakura talks about it, talks to Ino.. and Ino rolls her clear blue eyes and says oh, come on, give it up and you know, I'm beginning to think that he was really never right in the head, and look, I know it hurts, but he tried to kill you, and Naruto too! What does he have to do, actually do it? Would you get it then? Even then. Sakura doesn't say it. She doesn't give in to despair. Why not?

Because she still believes that Sasuke may return?

That must be it. That must be it. There's no other explanation. She always used to roll her own eyes at Naruto's sheer brainless, stupid, heroic determination; his willingness to ignore any and all facts to the contrary, like he was just balling up his fists and squeezing his eyes shut and refusing to see, to acknowledge anything that would stand between him and bringing Sasuke back, making the team all right again... as if that was even possible. But now, more and more, Sakura has started to wonder what the hell she'd do without Naruto's stupid silly hopes. It's like his insistent, hyperactive, too-loud voice is the only thing holding them together. What would they have without it? What would team seven have?

Nothing. That's what. Absolutely nothing.

Hope is so painful. It's the worst thing in the world, the endless waiting and wondering and the struggle against just giving up. But it's all her little broken team has.

The funny thing is.. it's a bright and sunny morning when Tsunade calls for them. Nothing is out of the ordinary as Sakura stops at Naruto's apartment along the way. He answers the door in pajamas and his ragged sleeping cap, his bare feet. There's a steaming cup of ramen in his hand. It's well after noon, did he just get up?

Of course he did.

Sakura and Naruto walk in on Tsunade telling Jiraiya off, everything is normal. Even Jiraiya's missing half-smirk doesn't catch Sakura's eye, or alert her that anything, anywhere has changed. That anything has happened.

"We have news from the other countries." Tsunade-sama says.

It's Orochimaru. He's dead. Sakura looks from one sannin to the other, and doesn't know if she should be happy or not. How would she feel if Sasuke was dead? Would she like it if her future students jumped for joy? If they were glad that Sasuke was wiped off the face of the earth, so their lost teammate could come back?

"So Sasuke's coming back now, right?" Naruto says, happily. Naruto's in the middle of laughing and completely missing that he's crowing about Orochimaru's death to Orochimaru's surviving teammates. And Naruto says "Sasuke'll be coming back now! Right, Granny-Tsunade? Right?"

Right?

His voice falters. Sakura hears that first. When she looks up at Tsunade's face, she understands.

But really... looking at Tsunade-sama, and Jiraiya-sama, watching them talk about Orochimaru, Sakura understands anyway.

The meeting breaks up. Naruto's subdued, for once. And for once Sakura almost misses his loud, happy voice. They walk home together. The sun is still bright and clear, in a cloudless blue sky. Nothing seems abnormal. And nothing is abnormal. Somewhere in Sakura's mind, she's always known that Sasuke isn't coming back.

Hoped, wanted, believed that he would come back. But known. Known he probably wouldn't.

Not today, anyway. Not just because Orochimaru is dead. That Sasuke killed Orochimaru means something to Naruto, or did, before Tsunade stopped him with her slow, heavy gaze.

And Jiraiya behind her, with a sad wisdom of his own. They both know. They know better than Sakura knows, what this is like. And they know, too, that Sasuke probably won't come back. Naruto is the only person in that room who doesn't know it. Who refuses to know it, really. Sakura almost wants to envy him. But right now, she pities him. He mumbles that he's tired and tries to make a joke. He claps her on the back just a bit too hard, clumsy.. like an affectionate puppy with too-big paws. She walks him back to his apartment. She tells him not to be lazy and sleep the rest of the day away.

"Aw, Sakura-chaaan..." he wheedles. And his smile flickers for a second. She tells him to clean up his kitchen too. And he snickers, and tells her she's too strict. And then they say goodbye, and that they'll see one another tomorrow, when they go out with Kakashi again. And Naruto goes back to not thinking about this. He must. Because refusing to understand or realize any of this is what keeps Naruto's hope afloat. How could he keep hoping, otherwise? Where would they be, as a team, without that hope?

Broken, empty, with a big hole in their center. Like they are right now, anyway. But worse, because they'd know it. Day to day, it's easier not to know.

And today, Sakura still has a whole half-day to kill, and to fill up, so she doesn't start thinking too hard about.. well.. things. So she goes back to Tsunade's office, and Tsunade isn't there. She goes and buries her head in the library, and she reads about something that's neutral, that won't upset her or remind her of this. Something like mycotoxins and how to treat them in the field. That's a good start. She fills her head up with formulas and medicine preparations and chakra-channeling. Other people's wounds. Anything to avoid thinking about this one. The only one that she'll never- ever- be able to heal.

Gone forever, at that. Probably.

There's nothing in this library, full of healing potions and case studies and the combined wisdom of generations of ninja healers that can do a damn thing for Sasuke.

Or, that is, about Sasuke. Sasuke doesn't want any help. Sasuke says he's just fine, that he's doing exactly what he wants. This is his life. This is what he chooses.

And Sakura has to respect that. Sakura has to respect that. She can't decide for Sasuke, she can't grab him and just bring him home. If it didn't work for Tsunade-sama and Orochimaru, why the hell would it work for Sakura? Is she stronger than Tsunade? Is she smarter? No! She can't beat the sense into Sasuke. She can't make him understand...

...that she just loves him so much.. and she knows...

..she knows...

that probably, it's going to end up just like this. Being Tsunade's age. Naruto being Hokage, maybe, someday when they're both in their fifties. Sakura coming to his office. And having to tell Naruto that Sasuke is dead.

She's crying. She has to get up so she doesn't get tears on the books. The ink is old, it will run. This knowledge is priceless. It's useless. Nothing- nothing- is ever going to bring Sasuke back.

Sakura hides in the hallway for a bit. Just to get a handle on herself again. There's no one else around. Tsunade is out handling village business. Kakashi and Naruto are somewhere else, busy with their day off. Sakura is alone. And she likes it that way. This just hurts so damn much, because she really wanted to believe that Sasuke would maybe.. just maybe.. maybe love her back, just a little bit. And she just knows that it's going to turn out this way, the same way it did with Orochimaru. She wanted to believe better of Sasuke but there's just.. nothing. No reason to believe. Nothing left of him in her mind except the way he looked when he raised his sword. When he tried to kill Naruto, in all seriousness.

And there is just nothing left to do there. Nothing she can say, nothing she can do, nothing can ever fix this. Team seven is ruined.

But there's nothing she can do about that, either.

So Sakura wipes her eyes and plunges herself back into the dusty old books. And all the dry, unemotional facts. All these dead accounts of dead people, written by more dead people. It's so much easier than dealing with problems that are still alive.

The funny thing is, at moments like this, it's Ino that she remembers. She makes a very conscious effort to pull up those memories.

Why? Well, she needs it. She needs the opposition.

Ino will talk about it. Ino's clear-eyed pragmatism, her tactlessness, her being absolutely right, Sakura just not wanting to hear it or listen or realize it... all of that, Ino making Sakura feel like Naruto, and Sakura feeling perversely good about it, like she's been immunized with a preventative dose of hope. Like Ino has gotten her back in touch with something she needs. And she does need it, she needs others to doubt Sasuke and doubt the chances, just so Sakura can be pushed back into believing and hoping and have a bit of faith again.

It doesn't have to even be Ino, it can be anybody. Anyone- if they'd just say it. Say all those things that are hanging in the air, so heavily that Sakura can feel them, invisible damn elephants in the room that no one will ever say.

Say it! Say that Sasuke's done with them, that Sasuke doesn't give a damn about them or Konoha, that Sasuke was lost from the beginning, that the massacre broke him and nothing ever could have fixed it or saved him or changed any of this. Say it- that Sasuke's just like goddamn sicko Orochimaru, who tortured and killed literally hundreds of people- men, women, children, infants- in his 'medical' experiments, that Orochimaru was a pale pretty talented quiet boy once, that Sasuke is no different.

It would just hurt less if it was said, wouldn't it?

That Sasuke doesn't care about her or Naruto, that Sasuke tried to kill both of them- and meant it. That Sasuke never loved her- would never love her, that her love was just too weak and small to save him. Say that team seven is ruined. Team seven is finished. Team seven is damaged forever and Sasuke is never coming back.

Would she feel better for saying it?

For thinking it?

Maybe she feels a bit better. She walks down through the old dusty building and ducks into the women's washroom. She avoids her puffy-eyed face in the mirror and wipes her eyes with rough grayed paper towel. All around her, the building buzzes with electrical boredom, that strange fluorescent-light silence that comes in the after-hours, when almost everyone has gone home.

Even the lights in Tsunade's office have been extinguished. Tsunade would work through the night sometimes. Quite often. She'd fall asleep at her desk. Not tonight, though. Even Shizune has gone home. Sakura is alone.

She's tired of being alone.

She goes home and she tells her mother that nothing is wrong. She tells her mother that no, she's not hungry. Her dad comes home and they both frown at her and worry, and she laughs too-brightly and says that she's just tired. She puts herself in bed. She tries not to think too hard... but..

..she still dreams. She has a fully realized nightmare, crisply detailed. She's in Tsunade's office and she's answering the door for packages, package after package that are coming from the messenger-nins. She unwraps the packing paper and there's Sasuke's hand, cleanly severed. She unwraps another and there's Sasuke's leg- torn off raggedly, as if with great force. Another, and she gets ears, fingers, feet, bits of dark hair, a glossy black eyeball, cut with precision, the optic stem snipped as if by a surgeon.

Like a jigsaw puzzle that just gets more and more difficult, with smaller pieces, as she puts it together.. as she starts having to add yanked bloody teeth into the holes in Sasuke's torn jaw. Fingers, fingernails, little wet pieces of flesh, chunks cut out of him, soaking the packing paper, weeping blood and connective fluids.

She can see where Kabuto used his scalpel and she can see where Sasuke struggled, and where he was still alive and in terrible pain while he was dismembered. And where he was barely alive, but his heart was still pushing blood- and his brain was still lucid and conscious enough for him to feel it- and then, later, when he was probably dead, because there's no struggle or adrenaline in the flesh. There's no sheen of perspiration. There's no smashed capillaries. There's just nothing, and Sakura doesn't know she's dreaming. She answers the office door and it's Naruto, Naruto wants to know what's going on, what all the messenger-nins are doing.

They're bringing Sasuke back, she says.

And she holds the door shut after, because she knows that she can't let Naruto in the office. She can't let Naruto see. If Naruto sees.. something will be broken. Their team will fall apart. Naruto's foolish stupid hopes are the only thing they have now, and without them, they'll just have nothing and nothing will ever put their team back together again.

She wakes up tired, like the dream itself took all her energy, like it was hard work just to get through it. She's draggy and tired when she talks to Tsunade-sama in the morning, and she tells Tsunade about the dream almost out of sheer exasperation. She already knows that she feels like something is wrong, that it just won't really work out.. it probably won't. She says that she doesn't know why her subconscious wasted so much energy telling her something she already knows.

"Because it's weighing heavily on your mind.." Tsunade-sama says, idly. The woven bamboo shades are drawn today, too. Even though the sun is trapped under a heavy blanket of cloud, there's no sunlight to spill into the office, over the light-sensitive paper, the chemical ink, to touch Sakura's cold hands with a bit of warmth.

Because Tsunade is mourning, Sakura thinks. Behind her clear brown eyes, her perfect purple diamond, she must feel something.

She must. Because Sakura can't imagine getting to a point where Sasuke would have just gone so horribly wrong that she would feel nothing, she would greet the news of his death and just have no reaction.

Sakura looks at Tsunade and wonders if this is her future, Naruto's and hers, Team Seven- if it's just going to end like this. If it just hurts more and more, until it numbs out, and then one day you find out that your teammate is dead, that the next tragedy in line has killed him.

Would she feel nothing then?

"Get used to it." Tsunade says.

But Sakura already is.