It starts, quite innocently, with a cough. It turns into the flu later, but years after the fact, Sakura will look back and realize that without this cough, the entire world would be different.
Or maybe not. Maybe what happened was inevitable. Maybe if it wasn't the cough, it would have been something else.
But there's no way to tell, of course, so Sakura chooses to pinpoint the cough as where it all began.
Tsunade-sama shrugs it off at first and goes about her daily routine as usual. She switches her sake for hot tea, but continues to go to meetings and diligently fills out her paperwork. But, after a week, Tsunade-sama's face becomes pale and haggard, her handwriting near-illegible, and when Sakura finds out that she's missed a meeting after having fallen asleep at her desk, she hesitantly suggests that Tsunade-sama take a break.
"You sound like Shizune," Tsunade-sama grumbles, her voice rough and painful sounding. "I'm fine, it's just a bug. Now, I have work to do. Don't you have somewhere to be?"
"She's been forgetting things lately," Shizune tells her worriedly, a day later, outside the Hokage's office, in which Tsunade-sama is sleeping soundly. "It's only the flu...if she would just take a couple days off, she'd be fine, but she's so stubborn! She doesn't trust anyone else to handle the summit with the Sand next week, so she just does everything herself!"
Sakura worries and takes extra care to stop by Tsunade-sama's office as much as she can to check up on her, but she doesn't take action until her mentor faints at a routine monthly meeting with several Jounin.
"Tsunade-sama, please!" Sakura pleads, hands shaking as she stands in front of Tsunade-sama's hospital bed. "You don't have to do this! Please, just take a couple days off! Shizune-san and I can manage your duties until you get ba-"
"With the Council?" Tsunade-sama gives out what she probably intends to be an incredulous snort. "They won't answer to you and I can't afford to show any weakness at this juncture."
"Well, it's a bit late for that!" Sakura thinks, but has the sense not to vocalize.
Tsunade-sama must see it on her face though and she sighs, wiping her watering eyes and nose wearily. She looks so tired, a ghost of the fearless leader Sakura had begged to train her all those years ago and Sakura feels her chest start to tighten with the stirrings of actual fear.
"It's just the flu, Sakura," Tsunade-sama tells her reassuringly, and then lets out two loud sneezes. "I just can't afford to take any days off right now, alright? But if it gets really bad, I will. I promise."
Sakura reluctantly takes her at her word and for a while, things seem to get better. Tsunade-sama makes sure not to over-exert herself, having meetings in her office instead of traveling to different parts of Konoha herself, and drinks as many herbal concoctions that Shizune and Sakura can force down her throat.
Then, she disappears.
Sakura and Shizune split up to search the village, deciding against telling anyone else that she's missing. It would do no good to cause a panic, and after all, it could be nothing. Tsunade-sama has never been very good at following the strict rules that a leader in her position is expected to adhere to.
It isn't nothing, of course, but Sakura has no way of knowing that at the time, so when she finally finds Tsunade-sama in one of Konoha's remote research facilities, she is furious.
"What are you doing here?!" she yells, bursting into the rather depressed room. It's a small, almost claustrophobic sort of space, the wallpaper is yellowing and torn in spots and the shelves of scrolls look like they are one flick away from collapsing under their weight. Tsunade-sama is seated on a stool at a table by the window, a mountain of books and scrolls beside her.
"Sakura!" Tsunade-sama says, looking shocked. "Why are you-"
"Shizune-san and I have been looking for you for fourhours!" Sakura shouts angrily, stalking toward her table. "You're supposed to be resting and an emissary from the Rock just left because you weren't in your office!"
"I had more pressing matters to attend to," Tsunade-sama said crossly, not getting up from her seat. Her face is sweat-stained and her pupils dilated. She looks awful.
"More pressing than a meeting with the Rock about their iron imports! You've been trying to talk with them about that for years! And instead you're-" Sakura glances down at the scrolls, shaking from the effort of holding back more words inappropriate to express her frustration and worry. "-you're reading old mission reports!"
"Sakura, I don't have time for this right now!" Tsunade-sama snaps, glaring at her with exhausted eyes. "And you are bordering on insubordination here! You will leave this instant and-"
But Sakura stops listening as she realizes, to her horror, that Tsunade-sama's hands are shaking around the scroll she's holding. She lunges forward to press her hand against her forehead.
"You're burning up!" she accuses and Tsunade-sama jerks away, but the motion almost causes her to tip over onto the floor. "Tsunade-sama!"
"Enough! Sakura!" Tsunade-sama barks out, leaning against the table to keep her balance. Now that she's closer, Sakura can see the dark circles under her eyes, her sweat-soaked haori. She's surprised she hasn't fainted again. "Go!"
"I am not goi-"
The building explodes.
The air is full of splinters. Shards of stone and metal. Sakura is thrown into a shelf and it immediately gives way, falling backward into another like dominoes. Sakura can't seem to hear, her ears ringing with pain, but she's well trained enough at this point to roll over despite the pain, covering her head with both arms.
"Tsunade-sama!" she screams and she can barely hear her own voice through all the ringing. She scrambles to get to her feet, but her center of gravity has been thrown off and she keeps falling and scraping her hands and knees on the debris all over the floor. She finally manages it on the fourth try and is immediately sent into a coughing fit from all the dust in the air.
"Tsunade-sama!" she screams when she can breathe again.
The room is a complete mess, shelves in pieces, window shattered, but fortunately the ceiling hasn't caved in. Sakura has to rub her eyes several times to see properly and finally she spots Tsunade-sama slumped against the wall next to the heater. She stumbles across the room, nearly tripping over pieces of ceiling tiles and drops to her knees next to Tsunade-sama.
"Tsunade-sama! Tsunade-sama!" she yells, touching her shoulders gently, trying to see if there's any damage. "Wake up! There's been a-"
"Tsunade-hime!" A loud voice boomed out from outside the building, amplified through a loud speaker and Sakura goes frozen with shock. "The building is surrounded! You are under arrest for the suspicion of treason! Come out with your hands in the air!"
Sakura knows that voice. "Wha-"
Tsunade-sama shifts beneath her hands and lets out a horrible laugh, slightly muffled by the floor.
"Tsunade-sama," Sakura gasps, looking around the room, trying to see out the broken window, but there's nothing to see. "I don't...what's going on?"
"Oh, this is just brilliant," Tsunade-sama heaves, getting to a seated position shakily. "Of all the ways for this to end...this fucking flu..."
"Is that Danzou?!" Sakura snarls, getting to her feet and fumbling with her kunai hostler. "That bastard, how dare he attack you- I'm going to ki-"
Tsunade-sama is on her feet and grabs the wrist of her hand holding out her kunai.
"No, Sakura," she says, suddenly deathly calm. There is even less color in her face than before, her hand still shaking around her wrist, but her eyes are set and determined. "You can't do that."
"If you think I'm just going to let him accuse you of-" Sakura starts hotly and then stops, connecting the dots in her head. "That's...that's what he's after, isn't it? This whole time, this is what he's wanted."
"Sakura," Tsunade-sama tries weakly.
"You have one minute!" Danzou's voice booms and the anger drains out of Sakura, to be replaced by horror.
"This is a power-grab!" Sakura exclaims, fear spreading through her chest like ice.
Tsunade-sama says nothing, just takes the kunai out of her hand and Sakura lets her because suddenly this has gotten so much more serious than a persistent flu.
"No," Sakura says furiously, spinning around. She heads for the window, kicking aside pieces of woods and plaster out of the way. "No, this is not...I won't let him do this. We can get out of this. I'll summon-"
"There's no getting out of this, Sakura!" Tsunade-sama yells and Sakura turns around in shock at her outburst to see Tsunade-sama slumping back against the wall, legs shaking badly.
"I can't..." she says softly. "I don't have the energy. This flu...oh, of all the things to finish me..."
"Stop saying that!" Sakura says, terrified. "Just...stay there, okay! I'm going to get us out of this!"
She turns around again, looking around the room to see what she can use to fend off a major assault by ANBU operatives, when Tsunade-sama speaks again.
"I'm done for," she says softly, "but you don't have to be. I'm so, so sorry, Sakura."
And then before Sakura can react, there's the horrible pain in her back of the expert slash of a kunai. Her mouth drops open in pain, but she's so shocked she cannot move even as the kunai slashes open her back twice more. A strangled sound rips from her throat and she forces herself to move, but she just turns into another blur of steel, gashing her face open in two places. Blood drips down her forehead, and she just manages to see the tears on Tsunade-sama's face, kunai gripped tightly in her right hand, before it gets in her eyes. Her stomach is next, her chest, her arms, her shoulder, her legs and Sakura can only think why, why, why, as she slumps to the ground, her body a mass of pain and blood.
She feels Tsunade-sama's hand around her neck and for the first time she think she might actually kill her. Then there's the soft press of lips against her bloody forehead, and everything goes dark.
When Sakura wakes four days later to sunlight streaming through the hospital windows, bandages covering her face, torso, arms, and legs, they tell her Tsunade-sama is dead.
"Don't move," Sakura says, pulling him out of the shallows of the creek and removing the tattered remains of his shirt aside. She jerks her medicine pouch open with one hand and starts to heal his bleeding chest with the other.
"Don't...bother..." Jiraiya-sama breathes out weakly, breath shallow and cold under her touch. "Just listen, okay... I need to tell you..."
"Shut up!" Sakura says, a sob threatening to spill out of her, because she knows, as much as she doesn't want to admit it, that there is nothing she can do.
"Sakura-chan," Naruto says from behind her. "Who is-"
"Be quiet," Sakura says, tears trailing down her cheeks already, trying to pull herself together. She increases her chakra flow, thinking that she might be able stimulate th-
"Listen to me," Jiraiya-sama gasps, eyes unfocused. "I've...been looking for you. The Akatsuki...their leader..."
"Pein?" Sasuke asks, and Sakura looks up at him next to her on the bank of the creek. His face is cold and impassive. He cares nothing for the man dying before them and for a second she is filled with the uncontrollable urge to rip his remaining good eye out.
"Dead...puppet..." Jiraiya-sama chokes and his face twists in a bitter smile. "Nagato. Yahiko. Konan. All dead."
"I don't understand," Sakura sobs, still trying to heal his broken body. "Who are-"
"See 'em soon," Jiraiya-sama murmurs and closes his eyes.
"Jiraiya-sama!" Sakura shouts into his face, taking all leave of her senses, because he can't die, he can't leave her, the last of the Legendary Sannin.
Jiraiya's eyes open slowly and he lets out a shaky breath. "You look awful, kid," he says weakly and Sakura chokes on her tears, because she knows, horribly, that this is really the end.
She feels a hand on her shoulder and Naruto pushes reeds aside to crouch next to her in the mud, pulling her close to him soothingly.
"Jiraiya-sama, I can't-" she tries, but he cuts her off.
"There's only one left. Tobi, Madara...don't know who-"
"What?" Sasuke says sharply, only now seeming to take an interest. "What about Madara?"
Jiraiya-sama ignores him, or perhaps doesn't hear him at all. His brown eyes turn to Naruto instead. "Heard you were traveling with him," he wheezes, and then coughs, blood spurting out of his mouth. Naruto stiffens next to her and Sakura tries to push more chakra into his wounds, willing them to close, just this once to defy all the medical ninjutsu she'd ever studied.
"Got something for you..." Jiraiya-sama says softly, blood spilling down his mouth and onto his long white hair. He shudders, gesturing to his bag, still floating in the shallows. "Scroll...your dad would have wanted you to have it."
"What?" Naruto says shrilly.
But Jiraiya-sama doesn't elaborate and moves his eyes slowly back to Sakura. "Madara, Tobi, whoever he's in charge, it's his plan. I don't know why he wants the jinchuuriki, but he was working with Kabuto-"
"Kabuto?" Sasuke says sharply, coming to stand on Sakura's other side. "What does he have to do with this?"
"Tried to continue Orochimaru's work," Jiraiya-sama mumbled, closing his eyes again. "Experimented on himself though. Died about two years ago. Akatsuki got him or he finally went too far and poisoned himself."
Sakura can finally no longer justify her healing ninjutsu and drops her hands helplessly to his chest, tears streaming silently down her cheeks.
She can't do this. She can't. Not again. Jiraiya-sama and Shizune were the only people who were-
"Jiraiya-sama!" she gasps, rubbing furiously at her tears. "Jiraiya-sama, please, Shizune-san! She was with you, wasn't she? Is she still alive?"
"Village north of here, called Shikai," Jiraiya-sama opens his eyes to look at her again. "Stop it, will you? Promise me, you'll stop him. For Konoha."
"Anything," Sakura gasps out and grasps his hand. "I will, I will."
It's almost a little strange, how upset she is. To be honest, she never knew Jiraiya-sama that well. He was never in Konoha that much, and she'd always disliked his immaturity and ridiculous erotica novels. But he's one of the few people left who knew Tsunade-sama as well as she did. Sakura had always suspected that her mentor was a little in love with him as well.
"You did...good, kid," Jiraiya-sama whispers brokenly and closes his eyes again. Sakura can practically see the life draining out of him, his eyes going dull and his skin the color of paper. "She would be so proud of you."
Jiraiya-sama dies in her lap four hours later, in his sleep.
Naruto sits with her, Jiraiya's bag at his side while Sasuke buries with the body. He holds her hand comfortingly as she stares into their campfire and thinks of nothing at all.
The next day they go to Shikai and find Shizune in a small decrypt shack, surrounded by cramped beds full of the sick.
"Sa-Sakura-san?" Shizune gasps in delight as Sakura removes her mask. "Is that really you?"
"Shizune-san," Sakura acknowledges, the joy of meeting an old friend completely ruined by the news she must force herself to impart.
"Oh, Sakura-san!" Shizune exclaims, weaving between the beds to get to the door. "How did you find m-"
She trails off as she takes in the look on Sakura's face and goes suddenly rigid. "Oh...oh, no. No, please, Sakura-san, no, he isn't, he can't be-"
Sakura pulls her into her arms as Shizune gasps and begins to shake with grief, ignoring the stares of Naruto, Sasuke, and the patients around them. Shizune cries, quite loudly, into her shoulder, and Sakura wonders for the millionth time how they are supposed to keep on living in a world where Tsunade-sama is truly, completely, irrevocably dead.
Sakura and the short-haired woman who's name Sasuke has already forgotten have shut themselves away somewhere. Naruto is at a loss, Sakura's intense grief and the brief mention of a father that he no doubt never knew he had has thrown him completely off. They're on the outskirts of the village, away from the prying eyes of curious villagers, villagers Sasuke cannot help notice look starved and impoverished, and Naruto has been pacing back and forth distractedly. In other circumstances, Sasuke might have been annoyed by this display, but he is more than a little distracted at the moment.
Leaning against the trunk of a large oak, Sasuke's mind is whirring excitedly for the first time in months. Jiraiya's words have sparked an interest inside the gray blur of apathy that he has been drowning in these past few weeks. Madara, or at least the man who claimed he was Madara, was the last of the Akatsuki. The man who had helped Itachi murder their entire family. The man who'd tried to manipulate Sasuke into attacking Konoha for his own, mysterious ends. With his dying breath, the last of the Legendary Sannin had pinpointed him as the ringleader of it all. The man behind the Akatsuki, the Uchiha Massacre, maybe even the experiments on all those villagers, though to be honest, that seemed like more of Orochimaru's style. Jiraiya might have claimed Kabuto was dead, but was he really? Was he still alive and working with the man who'd claimed he was Madara? Orochimaru had violently opposed the Akatsuki, but it was possible that Kabuto was a part of this as well?
What was Madara's goal? The destruction of Konoha? Konoha didn't seem to need the help though. The entire Fire Country had been in revolt for more than a month, and the government had all but fallen apart shortly afterword. Even the closest of Konoha's allies like the Sand were keeping to a strictly non-interventionist policy. Bordering countries were eyeing the situation with an interest that even Sasuke could not ignore. It was a miracle military powerhouses like the Rock and Cloud hadn't invaded yet.
More importantly, did Sasuke even care what Madara's plan was? It didn't have to involve him. He was affiliated with no one, could make the choice to stay out of this mess if he wanted to. His family was dead, the people who'd orchestrated their murders were dead, and Orochimaru too. He could go after Madara, but honestly, the prospect of that did nothing for the cold, dead ache inside his stomach. He didn't have to do this anymore. Sasuke could make the choice to not get involved, to let history take its course. The thought of the future, the blank road stretched out in front of him is rather terrifying. To be honest, he'd never thought he'd live through his quest for revenge, but there was always work a ninja could find, especially in an increasingly destabilized world. He could go anywhere, disappear into the vastness of the world and somehow, figure out what to do with his life.
But Naruto doesn't have that choice.
"Stop doing that," he snaps, finally fed up with Naruto's ridiculous pacing. "Do you want to make us more of a spectacle than we already are?"
"Hey, lay off!" Naruto replies angrily, turning towards him abruptly. "I know you don't give a damn about anyone but yourself, but Sakura-chan's really hurt right now! She obviously knew that guy pretty well. And it hasn't been easy lately for her either, Konoha's been a complete mess and her parents still li-"
Sasuke doesn't know why, but it is this that suddenly enrages him and spurs him into action. He stands up straight and puts on his most disdainful expression.
"Speaking of parents," he says as casually as possible, folding his arms across his chest. "What do you think?"
For a second, Naruto's face goes completely blank, something almost like fear creeping into his expression. And then it's gone.
"What?" he frowns, giving Sasuke a confused look. "I was just saying that Sakura's paren-"
"I'm not talking about Sakura's parents," Sasuke says, hating Naruto's fake, lying, act. "I'm talking about what Jiraiya said back there. About your father."
Naruto turns away, looking distractedly off towards the village. "He was dying. I...don't think he even knew who I was."
"After we blew up half of Konoha?" Sasuke snorts, taking an aggressive step towards him. "Our pictures were plastered all over the Fire Country. Like hell he didn't know who you were!"
Naruto's shoulders stiffen dangerously, and he clenches his fists. It's so completely obvious, so transparent that Sasuke is almost embarrassed on his behalf.
"And if you really believed that," Sasuke continues unrelentingly. "Why are you still hanging onto his bag?"
"Shut up," Naruto mutters, still refusing to look him.
"Coward," Sasuke snarls, and he feels thrillingly vindicated when Naruto throws the first punch.
"What the fuck do you know?" Naruto shouts as Sasuke dodges, eyes starting to bleed red. The childish confusion has completely disappeared from his face, replaced by barely contained rage. It feels like victory already, and Sasuke can't help the grin that spreads across his face. Naruto can play the idiot as much as he likes, but this, this is real.
A flock of crows are startled by their fight, launching themselves into the air from a nearby tree with fearful squawks, and Sasuke is momentarily distracted by the noise. That, coupled with his bandaged eye, allows Naruto to get into his blind spot and land a brutal uppercut to his stomach, sending him flying into a tree trunk.
"You don't know shit," Naruto says furiously as Sasuke springs back to his feet. "And you make it clear that you don't give a fuck about either Sakura-chan or me, so butt out!"
"Is it true, then?" Sasuke asks, ignoring the pang in his gut that is not completely the result of Naruto's fist. "Your father knew the Sannin?"
"I don't have a father, as you know perfectly well!" Naruto says, and for a second Sasuke thinks he might have gone too far. Naruto still looks enraged, but there's something in his face that make Sasuke worry for a second that he might start to cry.
"Everyone has a father," Sasuke scoffs, but suddenly his heart's not in it. "Or do I need to explain to you the facts of life?"
"Oh, you know exactly what I mean!" Naruto responds angrily, stalking towards him so that they're less than four inches apart. "Why do you think I ended up a jinchuuriki? They picked someone whose parents weren't in the picture-"
"And how do you know that?" Sasuke bites out, suddenly angry at Naruto's illogical denial.
"Who would let someone do this to their kid?!" Naruto shouts, and Sasuke's chest goes tight and cold at the desperate quality of his voice.
"What kind of father," Naruto snarls, shaking violently now, "or mother, would let someone take their kid and...and..."
His voice breaks, and he closes his eyes, screwing up his face against tears. Heedless of the scene they're already making, Sasuke drags him by the collar of his orange t-shirt and presses their foreheads together, cupping Naruto's cheeks with his hands.
"Fuck, no," Naruto grits out, trying to jerk out of his hands. "Get off, Sasuke, get off!"
"No one told you," Sasuke whispers, trying to keep his voice level, removed from the anger building up in his chest. "All that time in Konoha, no one ever told you anything about your parents? Their names? What happened to them?"
"No, why would they..." Naruto chokes, gripping Sasuke's shoulders now, eyes still closed. "I just...I'd always assumed..."
He doesn't finish the sentence, but Sasuke gets it and it makes him want to blow up Konoha all over again. No one had told him anything, so why wouldn't he assume that he'd been abandoned. But apparently the legendary Sannin Jiraiya had known his father, which probably meant his father had been a ninja. And an important one, if Jiraiya had known him well enough to know that Naruto was his son. Which means...Sasuke doesn't know what that means.
"You never said," Sasuke says, after a beat.
Naruto lets out a cynical snort. It doesn't suit him.
"Not all of us are stuck in the past, Sasuke," he says hatefully, opening his eyes and jerking out of Sasuke's grasp.
Sasuke's chest goes cold and he doesn't move for a second, simply standing there with his arms still held adjacent to his body.
"What did you say?" Sasuke says, voice low with suppressed rage, dropping his arms down to his sides.
"You heard me," Naruto snarls, shoulders tensing, face suddenly cold and disdainful. "I'm not like you. I'm not going to waste my life regretting things I can't change. I'm going forward. I can't afford to look back."
"You have no idea what you're talking about," Sasuke says furiously, hands itching to wrap themselves around Naruto's tan throat. "At least I'm not a fucking liar."
For a second, Naruto looks genuinely confused. Then he frowns.
"What did you call me?"
"You're a liar," Sasuke repeats focusing his anger through his words instead of fists. "You're a fake.You might have Sakura fooled with your ridiculous act, but you can't fool me. You hate Konoha as much as I do; you're just less honest about it."
"What the he-"
"Don't give me pathetic excuses! I don't know where you get off pretending to be an idiot, always putting on a happy face when you've spent most of your life so miserably lonel-"
"-y that you're desperate enough to stay with Sakura and I even after you got tortured by the same country that threw you out eight year-"
He expects the punch, but doesn't make any effort to dodge it. Naruto's fist collides with his jaw with less force than he imagined, but Sasuke still tastes dirt, scrapping his shoulder on a tree root.
"You don't know anything," Naruto says, voice shaking badly.
Sasuke spits out blood and dirt and gets to his feet, anger and empathy and desire thrumming throughout his body like a drug.
"Or maybe," he continues, wiping his mouth and smirking the way he knows Naruto's always hated, even when they were kids. "Maybe it's your fucked up coping device, the only thing that keeps you from falling apart and-"
"-and turning out like you?" Naruto finished and then shoves him against the trunk of a nearby tree. They grapple, Sasuke trying to punch Naruto in the face and get away, but Naruto grabs his arms in a vice-like grip before he can get the leverage.
"Because the thing is, Sasuke," Naruto snarls, holding him against the tree trunk with strength that Sasuke hates as much as he is turned on by. "I'm not like you. I did the whole hating the world and everything in it bit while you and Sakura-chan were still playing with paper shuriken. I am so, so done with that now."
There is something about the dead seriousness of his face, the almost hollow look in his eyes, the steadiness of his voice that makes shivers crawl up Sasuke's spine. It's not a pleasant feeling. It makes him want to squirm away like a child, to put as much distance between this...this wrong Naruto as possible.
"You and Sakura-chan, you're so drowning in your own pain that you can't even see anything at all," Naruto continues coldly, fingers biting into his wrists like knives. "You've lost sight of the big picture, and that's why you honestly don't give a fuck anymore."
"You dare-" Sasuke snarls, wanting to rip that patronizing look off Naruto's face with his bare hands.
"But I haven't," Naruto talks over him stubbornly, breath warming the side of Sasuke's face as he speeds up his words. "I care about this world and the people in it. I care about people I don't even know. I don't want Konoha to suffer. I don't want to kill anyone. I want to be able to protect my friends. I don't want to be sad or lonely anymore."
He lets go of Sasuke's wrists suddenly and takes a step back.
"Don't you?" he asks tentatively.
The cold, determined expression has dropped off his face to be replaced by something far more vulnerable. It sends something curling through Sasuke's stomach even in his anger.
"You're so fucking naïve," he spits, shoving himself off the tree, voice dripping with contempt. "What, you want the whole world to be sunshine and flowers, is that it?" He gives Naruto a disgusted look-what was he thinking, did he actually sleep with this man? "No war? World peace?"
"Yeah," Naruto says simply, eyes honest and...and something else. Something warm, an expression that Sasuke has never seen someone wear before.
Naruto looks away and the moment is broken.
"I'm going to find Sakura-chan. We probably shouldn't stay here much longer," he says casually, wiping his hands on his t-shirt, not looking at Sasuke. He turns towards the village, back straight, head held high.
He takes Jiraiya's still-unopened bag with him.
But Sasuke isn't paying attention to any of that, too lost in the quick beat of his heart and the growing horror in the pit of his stomach that says, quite distinctly, that he is in a lot of trouble.
"No," Sasuke says to himself softly staring blankly at an indeterminate place on the forest floor. "No, this is not happening. Not...him. Not him. This is not...it can't be happening..."
But clearly it is.
Naruto finds Sakura-chan sitting alone against the side of the makeshift hospital that her friend-Shizune?-was working at. She looks awful, pale complexion only seeming to highlight the gruesome scars on her face. There are a couple of kids kicking around a ball across from her and they scatter when they see Naruto coming. He wonders if it's true, that they all recognize him. He'd have thought someone would make more of a fuss, but maybe the fall of the central government makes it hard for anyone to care about a couple fugitives.
He sits down next to Sakura-chan and puts his hand on her shoulder.
"Are you going to be okay?" he asks, even though part of him cringes at the uselessness of his words.
Sakura-chan is watching the kids run away and does not reply for a beat.
"This place is a mess, Naruto," she says, and he blinks at the non sequitur.
It's not like he hasn't noticed the malnourished, half-starved look of the villagers, the way the adults sit in the street with nothing to do, with deadened eyes and ill-fitting clothing. But his priority at the moment is Sakura-chan, and he knows a tangent when he sees one.
"Yeah," he says in acknowledgment and tightens his grip on her shoulder. "Sakura-chan, are you-"
"The trade routes have been cut off," Sakura-chan continues as if he hadn't spoken, staring dully at the road ahead of her. "They haven't got a shipment of rice in weeks."
"What do you mean, cut off?" Naruto asks, momentarily distracted from his worry for her. "By who?"
Sakura-chan lets out a cold laugh that sounds disturbing similar to Sasuke's.
"Does it matter?" she says, shrugging her shoulders. "On purpose or on accident, by the rebels or by the government, the result is the same. These people are starving."
Naruto looks up and down the dusty road, at the thatched huts, and idle adults with hollow faces and children with swollen bellies.
"Who cares?" part of him thinks. "What about you?!"
This, too, sounds uncomfortably like Sasuke.
"Shizune-san's been here, trying to help, but there's nothing she can do if they have no food," Sakura-chan says, dropping her head in her hands. But Naruto knows she's not upset about that, not really, and he kind of feels bad for the people here who are starving, because he knows that at this moment, Sakura-chan truly does not care. All of her grief is for that man named Jiraiya, and the Fifth Hokage.
"If there was just someway they could get-"
"Sakura-chan," Naruto says seriously, gently tilting up her tear-stained face with his thumb. "I have to go."
He says it without any forethought, but even as the words leave his mouth, he knows they're right. He'd thought...he'd thought he could make it work. That'd it be like old times, Team Seven together again, but...
But in reality, it was starting to be more like Gaara and Yugito. Naruto's not sure he can do it anymore, not even for his old friends. He'd tried to change Gaara and Yugito and Tsuyu, but...
But it hadn't worked. Not really. And as much as he wants to believe that that stunned look on Sasuke's face meant he'd understand what Naruto tried to tell him, that Sakura-chan truly cared for these people... He can't. Naruto's been through too much to ever be that naïve again, even if he can put on a brilliant act. Even if he wishes sometimes that he was just a blind idiot.
And, anyway, Naruto's got a job to do.
Sakura-chan's eyes widen in horror, but Naruto cuts her off before she can speak.
"It's something I've been putting off for a while," he says gently, giving her a hesitant smile. "But before I go, I need to know if you're okay-if you're going to be okay."
Emotions flit across Sakura-chan's face so quickly that it almost makes Naruto dizzy. Confusion, hurt, sadness, before finally settling on anger.
"I'll be back," Naruto says quickly, even though he knows he shouldn't. One day he fears the bitter people he's surrounded himself with will finally manage to drag him down with them, but he won't give up on his old team yet. He should, he should, he should, but he cannot help the desire to protect them, to coax Sakura-chan out of her cold, melancholy shell, to tease a blush out of Sasuke and kiss him until the ever-present tenseness of his body fades.
"I just...there's something I have to do," he finishes lamely.
"What?" she hisses, standing furiously. "What is it that's so important that you'll leave us at a time like this?!"
"I need a break from how sad you are all the time," Naruto thinks distantly. "How you never even try to move on, but wallow in the past and things you can't change instead."
He can't say it to Sakura-chan though. Sasuke is different, he had to hear it. And he's always been able to take whatever Naruto's thrown at him. But Sakura-chan, especially the way she is now...Naruto thinks she might break.
"There's an island, in the Lightening Country," Naruto responds truthfully, standing as well. "There's a temple...if I go there, I can learn how to control the Kyuubi."
Sakura-chan's eyes widen. "You-" she starts, looking thunderstruck. "Why didn't you do this before?!"
"I didn't know where it was," he says and then sighs exasperatedly. "You see, Tsuyu thinks I have a self-control problem- no idea what she's smoking- so she got some dumb idea into her head that I wasn't ready or some shit like that. But you know me- persistent as ever!"
He grins and puffs out his chest. "Got her in the end!"
Sakura-chan had been unconscious, Naruto standing in front of her protectively, when Tsuyu had finally told him. Her eyes had been sad, shining gold in the light of the setting sun behind him, and Naruto had never heard her voice break like that before.
"So," Naruto clears his throat when Sakura-chan doesn't respond, she stares blankly at him. "What are you going to do?"
She doesn't answer until the next morning when they're all seated around the hearth of the small hut Sakura's friend had managed to find them for the night, sipping buckwheat tea to stave off the hunger pains. Naruto is pretending the occupants of the house are on vacation, four pairs of shoes still on the shoe rack in the vestibule. Sasuke has alternated between ignoring his existence and glaring at him with his good eye furiously. He hadn't taken the whole "conquering your inner demons-except literally" idea with much enthusiasm.
"I know what I want to do," Sakura-chan says suddenly, just as Naruto attempts to make some sort of small talk about the weather.
Sasuke frowns and looks at her expectantly over his cup, still managing to seem aloof and unaffected even with the bandages over his left eye.
"I want to go back to Konoha," Sakura-chan says, her pale face highlighted by the fire from the hearth in the dim room and, for a second, the heat obscures her features and a skull is grinning back at him instead.
A/N: Well, this was a lot more depressing than I thought it was going to be. I honestly did not plan for all the depressing things EVER to be in this chapter. I blame the recent chapters of the manga. Why must they mess up all my plans? Obito, dude, what are you doing? I liked you and now I find out that you pretty much killed your former teacher, AND his wife! Whyyyy?...
Okay, done with that. Also, I'm back! It's only been, you know, nine months or something. This story WILL be finished! I will carry on!
Many thanks to my awesome beta, Sleeping Soundly, who continues to read this fic even though she isn't even in the Naruto fandom anymore! And don't forget to review!