Disclaimer: Sadly, I don't own Naruto or any of its characters.
Chapter Seventeen – Infinity
"Sakura! Haruno Sakura you better stay with us or so help me I'll come drag you back myself!" Tsunade shouted as she furiously tried to slow the effects of the unknown poison while trying to staunch the constant blood flow.
Already the blonde Hokage had ordered a blood sample be taken and an antidote figured out as fast as humanly possible. She'd be damned if she was going to let the woman she considered the daughter she never had leave them so soon.
"Hokage-sama, her heart's failing!"
"Damn it Sakura, you better not die!"
Kakashi stared at the blood on his hands. It was Sakura's. His Sakura's blood that stained his skin and clothes. He knew when they had found her in that broken field that she was already kissing death. But none of it had mattered—the fear, the panic, the anger—none of it had mattered as he picked her up and gripping her tightly in his arms, rushed back to Konoha as if the devil were at his heels. It was like what happened three years ago all over again.
And if he lost her this time…
He curled his hands and almost desperately wanted to kill something right now. 'Stupid, stupid Sakura.' Did she not understand that if he lost her it would finally be the breaking point for him? That if he lost the woman he loved—had loved for so many years now—his life would be empty and bleak and he, just a roaming shadow of his former self. She was his, finally his and…
Kakashi felt the world shrink away as worry and fear so great and stifling gnawed at the edge of his heart. And he swore to whatever Kami there were that if they dared to take her away from him, there'd be hell to pay because he was a selfish man. A jaded man who had made a promise to the one woman he couldn't live without.
A promise that everything was going to be okay.
"Why!? Why damn it!? Why didn't you tell us?!" Aki shouted with all he had to the bluest blue skies above him.
His violet eyes stormed, churned with the violent crash of his emotions as yet another important person to him hung on the brink of death. But what twisted his heart the most was that there wasn't a thing he could do about it.
He had sneered at being told to please just wait and be patient, that Tsunade-sama would do everything in her power to save her. And though he had complete faith in his Hokage, this was his captain they were talking about. His captain whom he held so dear to his heart that the thought of losing her—it was unfathomable because she was always so strong, so damn hard to kill and break.
Several kunai rent the air and struck the trunk of a nearby tree. It was soon followed by a few shuriken that were not his own but those of his dark haired teammate. Shoulders tense, Aki walked up to the tree, pulled out the sharp metal weapons and started all over again.
"She's dying Kano..." He whispered.
A sharp steel hiss resounded through the deafening silence when Kano's own kunai met Aki's and sent it spiraling to the ground. He approached his sienna haired ANBU teammate and gripped the front of his white vest. His eyes blazed a dark gold fire and his jaw clenched tightly, muscles flexing as he tried to reign in his frustration, his anger and worry, his irritation towards the lanky shinobi.
"You know our captain Aki. She always comes back to us. She always finds a way."
"Did you see the Hokage's expression? Hatake's? Did you—"
And Kano was sorely tempted to deck his friend because he was sure he'd feel better after, if only a little. But instead he roughly let him go.
"Who are we to give up on her Aki when she's never done so for us? How can we call ourselves her team when we're already declaring her dead when she's still fighting to stay alive?"
"She should've told us what was going on. Trusted us enough to help."
Kano sighed. While he agreed with his teammate that his stubborn captain should've confided in them, she was under no obligation to. A part of him could understand why she did what she did and even though they didn't know the whole story, it didn't take a genius to figure out that her past had come back to haunt her.
"We all have our demons we have to face sooner or later. And sometimes they're meant to be dealt with alone. Sometimes we have to keep secrets from the people closest to us. You should know that being a shinobi is oftentimes a lonely path Aki."
He remained silent, knowing the truth of Kano's words. Why did his golden eyed teammate always have to make sense damn it? Why couldn't he just stay angry at their captain for so carelessly leaving them without a word?
"When she recovers I'm gonna yell her ear off and never let her out of my sight. Ever."
A fleeting smile crossed Kano's lips. "You and me both."
"And then there's Hatake Kakashi." Aki frowned. "Did you know?"
"I had a feeling."
"Friend or foe?"
"Friend. He'll make her happy."
"And can kick both our asses with just a look."
"Right. Friend it is." A blanket of silence descended before Aki spoke again.
"You think he'll let me borrow some of his Icha Icha books?"
Kano just rolled his eyes, tempted to throw a shuriken at him but glad the mood wasn't so somber and stifling anymore.
"She'll make it."
Aki nodded. "She will."
"Wake up cherry blossom..."
Her eyes opened, tiredly blinked as everything came into slow focus.
"Are you ready to come with us?"
She turned over to lie on her back, stare at the endless blue above her as she tried to sort through all her emotion and all that was happening. Was she really ready to leave everything behind?
Hideki's soft, knowing laughter reached her ears and she was suddenly surrounded by a loving warmth that made her eyes tear up.
"Don't be stupid Haruno. You've done more than any of us could ever ask."
She saw a glimpse of her captain's vibrant red hair and reached out a trembling hand.
"We're proud of you. Always have been."
And her heart clenched as she heard her mother, her father. And then the tears slipped when they both lovingly kissed her forehead.
"Be happy Sakura. That's all we've ever wanted."
A hand she'd never forget fell into her line of sight and she didn't hesitate to take it, hold it close and tight as everything started to blur.
Wise hazel eyes smiled warmly at her.
"Live hard and love hard cherry blossom…" He flicked her brow like he always use to do when they'd all been together.
"It's time to go back."
"I've got a pulse Hokage-sama!"
"Stay with me Sakura!"
A flood of relief washed over Tsunade as she finally put a stop to her internal bleeding and felt the weak beat of Sakura's heart beneath her healing hands. Sweat marred her brow as she continued to work on extracting most of the poison, but whoever made it was awfully skilled. It was a good thing she was better.
"Update on the antidote!" She yelled.
"Shizune-san is halfway there Hokage-sama!"
Tsunade nodded, wiped the perspiration with the green sleeve of her shirt and quickly directed her medics to start preparing for the mending of bones and tissue. Sakura's left arm had been crushed and in order to fully heal it, it would require a great deal of chakra, control, and time.
Tsunade clenched her jaw in irritation, a vein threatening to pop before she took a deep calming breath and exhaled in resignation.
Stubborn and fierce. Determined and intelligent. Sakura had always been one of Konoha's most talented shinobi. She had proven herself time and time again and was a force to be reckoned with. Like any ninja, growing up fast, seeing and dealing death up close and personal wasn't an option. It was a way of life. After all, nobody ever said being a shinobi was all about running on water and playing with chakra.
It was a difficult life. One that echoed with blood and loss and with a loneliness that sometimes reached the darkest parts of the soul. And for Sakura, for someone who had once been ruled by her emotions, it had been a hard concept to grasp. But she had learned, accepted it when everything in her world had been tipped upside down and she was falling with no safety net to catch her.
It was how the best of them learned of the harsh reality that came with who they were. It was why they continued living. For themselves and for those they had lost along the way.
"Don't throw away your life so readily Sakura. You've got so much to live for. So many people who love you…" A brief flash of tenderness lit up her golden brown eyes before it quickly disappeared.
And as she continued to save the life of her once innocent apprentice, Tsunade was counting the ways she would rip the pink haired kunoichi a new one for making them go through all this emotional toil.
When Sakura was five years old, her father had told her she was the world to him. The light in his life. When she reached the age of nine, her mother had held her like she was the most precious, beautiful thing to ever exist after she had come home crying because the other kids in the academy had made fun of her forehead. At twelve she had been placed on a team with two boys who were like night and day and a sensei who cared in his own roundabout way.
When she was seventeen, going on eighteen, she fought and survived a deadly group's distorted ambitions. Where red clouds floated among a sea of black. Not long after, she helped piece together the broken remnants of her team only to have it shattered the next, leading her to believe that the pieces, or maybe just her piece, had never quite fit together from the very beginning.
And when she turned twenty, she was branded by a tattoo and a porcelain mask placed over her face. It was when everything really changed. The blood on her hands. The sins and the silent screams in the dirty prisons and in the depths of her crying heart. It was when she truly felt hatred for another person, the revenge almost palpable on her tongue. It was when the very last of her innocence was torn and shredded before her very eyes.
Shortly after turning twenty one, when she could breathe again and the world was put back in motion, Sakura was appointed as an ANBU Captain, receiving a new team whom she would guide and protect at the ultimate cost. She had promised a close dying friend to take care of her next team after all.
And now, at twenty three she had made love to a man who was so much more than just her ex-sensei. She had watched the two boys like day and night walk back into her life. Heard their hearts speak out to her in apology and she was okay after, was able to walk away with a smile and a new sense of self.
And in her darkest hour, when the wind shifted and brought with it the taste of sweet revenge and a vision of death, she had kept her promise made in blood and tears, used up the last of her lives to crush a cold unfeeling heart with all that she was.
So when Haruno Sakura woke up a week later in the middle of night, she was half expecting to be in the pits of hell. Then she realized she was still very much alive, just bandaged and bruised and hurting in places she never thought could hurt so bad.
But she was alive.
And that's all that really mattered in these few beautiful moments of quiet infinity.
Sakura swept her unruly pink bangs out of her eyes and attempted to slowly sit up. Her midsection was bandaged as well as her left arm and her head felt a little light and woozy. But overall, she was recovering quite well despite the massive injuries and poisoning she'd sustained.
A grateful smile touched her lips. She knew of only one woman who could bring her back from the edge of death and no doubt she'd get an earful, probably much worse this time, from her Hokage. Gazing at her hands, Sakura flexed her fingers and tested her chakra.
The door quietly opened then and she turned to look at her visitor, long loose pink hair fluttering over her shoulder.
His name fell from her lips in a hoarse whisper as her emerald eyes softened and glowed in the darkness of the room. But she wasn't sure what to expect from him and seeing his blank expression was doing nothing for her nerves.
He quietly made his way over with a paper cup held casually in his hand.
"I used the door this time." He said, sitting at the foot of the bed.
Her lips curved into a watery smile, a knowing smile that had her reaching out her hand to grasp his. He was warm and familiar. From the calluses on his fingers to the short, clean nails, Kakashi was hers and as she brought his hand to her chest, held it firmly in place, a few tears escaped. A few breaths expelled.
Kakashi moved ever closer, reminding her of a predator on the hunt. He didn't stop until he had her pinned to the bed, mask pulled down and looking straight into her eyes.
"I promised you everything was going to be okay and I intend to keep it. But it's a little hard if you decide to run off and get yourself killed."
"Had your reasons. I know and I understand Sakura." He gently leaned his forehead against hers and brushed the side of her face, touched her silky pink strands of hair.
"But the next time you need to kill some evil bastard from your past, let me know ahead of time."
"Why? So you can chain me to the bed or something? Knock me out with your Sharingan?"
She then smiled a true, genuine smile that finally reached her emerald eyes. The one he hadn't seen in such a long time. The one he missed and always secretly loved.
"I won't let you go so easily."
Sakura brushed her lips against his. "You'll always have me Kakashi…no matter what."
And then he deepened her tender and barely there kiss, let her know that she would forever be his because he was selfish and lonely and loved this woman far too much to ever let her go.
The next time Sakura woke up, she almost cringed when two pairs of eyes she knew very well glared at her from across the room.
"You suck Captain."
She couldn't help the grin that curved her mouth. "At least I'm in one piece."
Aki snorted as they made their way over and took a seat on either side of her.
"I think you take five years off my life every time you end up half dead." Kano said, a slight twitch by his left eye.
"Will you guys forgive me?"
Aki shrugged. "What is there to forgive Sakura? You did what you had to do."
"And you're still alive which is all we can ask for." Kano added, threading his fingers through his short black hair and giving her a soft look, an assuring look.
"Just don't ever do that again please. I'd like to save myself the confusion and near panic attack."
Sakura laughed softly before giving her ANBU team a delicate nod. "I'll try, but we're shinobi you know. Danger and death come with the description."
"But so does living Captain. And love. Don't forget about that. Which reminds me, who has a pathetic love life now?"
A blush threatening to dust her cheeks, she threw Kakashi's paper cup at Aki who easily deflected it with an easy swipe, a teasing laugh escaping his mouth.
Kano shook his head, hiding his own smug grin. "It's nice to see you smile again Captain." He commented.
"Yeah…it feels good to. And I feel a lot lighter…happier."
"So then you won't mind telling us what the hell was going on right?" Aki asked hopefully.
Sakura smirked. "Nice try, but it'll be a story for when we're off somewhere on a mission, stuck in the snow or out in the rain and I need to stay awake so none of us get killed."
"The suspense Captain is killing me." Kano said dryly, but the sparkle of anticipation in his gold eyes told her he'd hold her to it.
"Speaking of missions, Tsunade-sama's taking me off the active duty roster for a whole damn month after she nearly pummeled me for being stupid and self-serving. I guess she's getting tired of saving my ass all the time."
"A whole month?" Incredulous violet eyes widened.
Sakura nodded, a bit miserable with the fact. "I think she's doing it just to spite me."
Kano furrowed his brows in thought. "So then…"
"Don't even tell me what I think you're gonna tell me." Aki cringed just thinking about it.
Sakura couldn't contain her laughter this time. "Neji's one of the best ANBU shinobi out there. Being under his command is a privilege."
Aki snorted, hardly convinced. "He's a slave driver!"
"Merciless." Kano stated morosely.
"Sorry boys, but Hokage's orders."
"You so owe us one Captain. Rest assured, you'll be getting annoyed the hell out of once the month is over."
She rolled her eyes at their dramatics. "Yeah, yeah. But I know he'll take good care of you two while I'm not there so stop complaining."
Their eyes softened at her words. She was always looking out for them, making sure they'd have a good fighting chance when she couldn't be there herself to haul their asses out of bad situations.
And that's why, among other things, they loved her. Why they held their beautiful, powerful captain so close to their hearts. She'd never really know how grateful, how appreciative they both were to be a part of her life. And she'd probably never quite understand how extraordinarily lucky they felt to be a part of her ANBU team either.
Her fingers traced the two names on the memorial stone a week and a half later when she was finally allowed out of the hospital without the staff fussing all over her. Sakura could now say she understood (from a non-medic point of view) why shinobi were reluctant to come to hospitals. Once they had you, it was ridiculously hard to get away.
An early winter breeze swept by, crisp and fresh in the morning sunlight, making the loose black pants and Kakashi's shirt flutter slightly around her. It'd been many months since she visited here. This place of memory. This place where written names spoke and where so many asked for redemption. For forgiveness.
'You can't save everyone Sakura.'
'Then how do you know which ones to save?'
Tsunade had smiled then. Sad and almost haunting. Told her she couldn't answer that because it was something she had to figure out herself. Sakura had finally crept closer to the answer though as she stood there, fingers lingering on those who had died, on the smooth surface of those who would come to die.
And she realized, in the midst of memory and loss that she had to save herself first. Because if she didn't, then she couldn't be that miracle everyone prayed for in their most vulnerable hours. The darkness would eat her up much too quickly, consume her very soul and then she'd really die.
Sakura only did what she had to. Kill Akai. Rest her aching, vengeful soul. Attain some kind of salvation, some kind of forgiveness for herself. And fully grasping that no, she couldn't save everyone and that that was okay. She didn't need to blame herself for their deaths because they wouldn't want that. They already knew and accepted what it meant to be a shinobi. And that death went hand in hand with it.
She wore a content smile as she breathed in deep.
"Thank you Michi…Hideki…for always being with me."
Another sighing breeze tousled her loose pink locks and Sakura stepped away from the memorial stone, turned around when she felt a familiar presence behind her.
"Are you ready?"
Her hand grasped his, intertwined her fingers with his, and blindly followed Kakashi as he pulled her along down the gravel path. And she smiled when Konoha came into view from behind the trees, when her life faded in all around her and whispered in her ears, let her know that everything would indeed, be okay.
Sasuke and Naruto were never really meant to be a big part of this story. But their roles were critical to the development of Sakura's character throughout, as you all read. I had contemplated putting them in this final chapter but when I looked over the whole story and where we saw them last, I felt it a fitting exit for both of them. So, I threw out the idea all together. Apologies to those who wished to see more of them.
I'm glad the reception of my OCs was favorable. I know not many like original characters so I thank you all for giving Kano, Aki, and Akai a chance.
Speaking of Akai, he is dead. Use your imagination as to how they disposed of the body.
And no, there won't be a sequel to this. I like it how it is.
And finally, a heartfelt thank you to those special few who've stuck with me since the very beginning of FI. I'd list you all but I fear that I might forget one of you. Know that your committed reviews really fueled me to complete this.
To those I've managed to pick up along the way, you have my sincere appreciation for taking the time to read FI and to leave me such wonderful reviews. Thank you for giving this a chance. For giving me motivation.
And to the lurkers who I know are out there, thank you for simply reading. I'm not an author who writes for the purpose of just getting reviews, thereby feeding and stroking my ego (though admittedly like any good author would say, reviews are nice).
I write for the sake of writing.
I hope you all loved Fade In as much as I loved writing it.