On the seventh and final day, she felt sad. It was as plain as that.
The morning came as it always did, unwelcome and irritating. Instead of feeling the usual annoyance that it tended to make her feel, a gloomy, apprehension took its place and gave her a sort of anxiousness that she had never felt before. There were a lot of new feelings that had come to her through these past days. This was her least favorite out of all of them. She stumbled into her kitchen, eyes red and puffy from the tears she had unknowingly shed in her sleep. Ruffled hair and baggy clothes gave away her exhaustion and she fell onto her couch, wishing she could just succumb to sleep once more.
But, in the end, she couldn't. No matter how hard she would try, this feeling would not shake. This feeling would not allow any peace. This feeling, she was sure, would be the death of her. There were a couple hours until his death. Would that be the last she would ever see Uchiha Itachi? Would that be the last she would ever glance at his red eyes? Would that be the last she would feel that ultimate connection which had recently and unknowingly tied him to her? She peeled herself off the old couch, which scattered a few dust mites. The air in her apartment was stuffy. Once again, she was feeling a suffocatiing block to her airways. She wedged open her fridge, having to push extra just to have it budge from the recent lack of use. Inside, she gathered some eggs and bread. For once, she decided, she would have breakfast.
A few minutes later, the pan was sizzling on the stove, oil spattering out frantically—some landing on her forearm only to leave a tiny sting. She cracked an egg over it and watched as it spread itself in the pan. The toast sprung from the toaster and she gathered it all on one plate. Coffee gurgled inside the maker and filled the room with an intoxicating scent. Soon enough, her meal was finished, but it had all gone to waste. She couldn't look at the food without getting sick, nausea was bubbling deep inside her. That morning she left her apartment with her bag dangling on her shoulder, the warm but suffocating smell of breakfast along with the dark coffee that sat lonely next to it waiting patiently.
She had walked down the hall of the complex and was not the least bit surprised to find Naruto on his way up. He paused when he saw her and she did the same. They looked for a moment then he lifted his hand, a shy way of saying hello. She smiled and nodded, although he could tell the smile had been made.
"Sakura," he answered. He could see that his friend was clearly distraught. Her glazed eyes told him that her mind was elsewhere. The tired lines under her face told him that she had little to no sleep last night. But as much as his friend was feeling unwell, he could not and would not hide his excitement. "The hanging. Today."
So it was a hanging. No doubt to display his shame in front of the whole village. She nodded once more, emotions drained from her face.
"Listen," he started, turning as she walked passed him to go down the stairs. He followed, arms moving as he continued to talk. "Something's happened and I know it. Sakura, you can make it through anything! I have no doubt about that! And it'll be easier because, you know, I'm here for you."
When they reached the bottom of the staircase that led to the streets of Konoha, she looked back and smiled genuinely though it was soon lost. Should she tell Naruto about her encounter with Sasuke yesterday? Should she keep it from him? It only seemed fair to inform him. They were once close friends and that caring that Naruto held for the younger Uchiha had never faded. As much as she wanted to tell him, she just couldn't. Perhaps she was selfish. Perhaps she was looking out for her friend. Or perhaps it was because it just didn't matter anymore.
"Thank you, Naruto," she replied, taking one of his hands into her own. His hands were rough, which wasn't a surprise seeing as he lived his life as a ninja. Hers weren't very supple either and felt dry and calloused as she placed them in his own. Her blonde-haired friend smiled back, a small blush creeping onto his face. She wasn't exactly sure what she meant by these words, but spoke them nonetheless. She supposed she was thanking him for everything he had ever done; the greatest of all, being her friend.
"Are you coming to it?" he asked, words sped up from the excitement that they held. He needn't have said what it was. It was obvious what he meant and would be if said to anyone else. The hanging was all that was buzzing around town. Everyone knew about it. And the fact that they were making this some sort of show sickened her further and once again her stomach began to turn.
"I don't know," she answered. No matter how much she wanted to see him one last time, she wasn't sure if she could handle that it would be the last time. "I suppose you are."
"Hell yeah," Naruto answered quickly, putting Sakura's nerves on edge. "I can't believe it. It's going to be over. Sasuke will be back in no time!
But this wasn't true. Sasuke had clearly said to her that it would never happen. It would never happen in reality or in her little, foolish dreams.
"Time for that monster to say his prayers. Hey Sakura, are those brui-"
She ran, tears blinding her eyes as she made her way. Inside her head, she began to pray for she knew that he wouldn't.
"So I guess he's really gonna be gone, un?"
"It is almost surreal, Deidara-sempai."
"Hm, I guess his arrogance exceeded him." A pause. "Where's Kisame?"
"Guess he couldn't take it, yeah? He's probably crying up a storm."
"I don't think Kisame cries."
"Yeah? So what? We never thought Itachi would die either, un."
Her legs pumped harder against the ground, dirt flailing up as she continued her sprint. She rounded every corner hastily, almost tripping over her own feet a couple times. The building was huge as she neared it, even bigger than the first day she had arrived there. And as she stood in front of the door, it seemed gigantic and held so much warning and apprehension that it tickled the ends of her fingers, making them twitch nervously. It was no surprise to see not only two guards, but four. All eyed her curiously, wondering how she had managed to get through the other checkpoints to his cell.
"I need to go in," she insisted, voice cracking under the pressure. One of the guards had the nerve to laugh right in her face. He might as well have spit in it. She clenched her fingers, hands turning into tiny balls. "Please, let me through."
"State your purpose," one of them closest to the door answered. She remembered him. He was the one who was usually around to patrol the cell area. Yes, she had spoken to him a few times; one of the most memorable being when she brought the tea. She looked to him and he stiffened. Without a doubt, she was sure that this man had seen the evolution of the person Sakura was to the person she had become. She was certain he understood there was more that lay behind the façade. He just had too, but then again she remembered that those moments she had spent with the older Uchiha were hers alone and no one would ever come to know what had happened these last few days for she hardly understood it herself.
"Last checkup," she mumbled, lifting her bag to emphasis that she had brought her medical supplies. "And a light sedative. Unless you want to bring him out there as is."
"Very well," another answered quickly, making his way to undo all of the locks. They clicked heavily and Sakura's eardrums thumped at the noise. All of her senses were heightened; everyone moment deemed bigger than ever before.
When the door had opened and she saw him lift his head, she was surprised she didn't cry. Her knees felt weak. Her brain felt light. Her eyes felt heavy. She stepped inside and the door closed behind her. Quickly, she threw her back alongside his cloak and ran to him although when she reached him, she just stood before him.
"Good morning, Sakura," he said politely as she bit her bottom lip. He was acting so unfazed as if nothing was going to happen, but she knew that it would. She opened her mouth; however, nothing but an incoherent jumble replaced the words she was meaning to say. He sighed when she didn't respond; obviously this was going to be a trying morning. "I hope you enjoy the show."
It was then that she broke down and the tears started to fall. She fell beside him with a heap, arms and head resting on his lap. Why she had grown to cry in front of this man was so surreal to her. Everything that had happened recently was something she had never even thought about before. In the beginning, she wanted nothing but for him to rot in hell. But now, as she cried before him, nothing made sense: her feelings, her emotions, her dreams, her hopes. Nothing was familiar. Everything had changed.
"There are bruises adorning your neck," he observed and she struggled to hear him over her sobs. She brushed away his statement. Her bruised neck was the least of her worries now. "He hurt you."
"So have you," she answered, bringing her hands to clutch at his pant leg.
"Well, cheer up then," he replied, a small smirk on the outside corner of his lips. "I suppose I'll pay for all my actions soon."
She pulled away from him, determined not to hear any sort of speak like that anymore. Her eyes shut closed and she shook her head, partly saying no to his statement and partly to unmixed her jumbled mind. This man would leave so much behind. His name would forever be on the tongues of everyone, she was so sure of it. What did he own? To her at this very moment, she supposed the world and that it was being ripped from him cut through her. He must have had something material in his possession. Would they try to rid every trace of him? "Your things," she sniffed. "What will they do with them?"
"Burn them I suppose," he mumbled, not taking his eyes off the pink-haired girl. "They've already confiscated everything save for the cloak."
At the mention of it, she turned her head. His dark cloak, laced with dark red clouds, lay on the table, the edges hanging off lazily. She could hear him move behind her, body no doubt numb from the lack of movement given to him. The chains rattled heavily.
"Sakura," he said, forcing her to pry her eyes from the cloak. She brought her hand up to wipe her tears with the back of her hand and turned her head, looking at him once more. She waited in anticipation for his words. He had something to say to her and she was a willing audience to listen. Had this happen a couple days ago, she would have shrunk under his gaze. But now she so desperately wanted to hear his words and hang on to them for dear life. "I want you to take it."
"What?" she asked immediately.
"My cloak," he explained, jaw clenching. His annoyance from her unnecessary question tickled through him. "Take it."
"Won't they know-"
"I'm sure it's the least of their worries," he answered, cutting her off in a way she would have found rude before. She nodded quickly, standing up to retrieve it right away. The fabric felt silky in her fingers and she let it slide through them to land on the table once more. She could feel his anxious gaze on her back, but she continued to take her time. She brought her hand up and started to trace a red cloud with a delicate finger. The dark part of the cloak glistened in a way she almost found metallic. As she picked it up once more, a half-torn section finally fell off and landed on the floor. She bent to pick it up, not willing to loose any part of the cloak. Or him. She took the small piece of fabric in her hand and rubbed her fingers over the material, which would later become a habit of hers. She stuffed the cloak into her bag, ignoring all the clangs and clinks that the contents made.
"I don't know what to say," she spoke after a few minutes of silence. She turned to find he had looked away, but as she stared to speak, turned his attention back to her. She walked towards him and took a seat by him on the floor, fingers playing with her boots like a shy child. ",or do for that matter."
"There's nothing you can say," he replied then smirked. ",or do."
"Do you believe in the after life?" she asked, tilting her head as she spoke. Her eyebrows furrowed together and she sniffed, a migraine pounding at her eyebrows.
"No," he answered and she shrunk at this. "But I do believe in this one."
"Once again," she said with a laugh then paused to shake her head. "Once again you confuse me."
"As do you."
"Then explain yourself," she suggested. "And I'll do the same."
"Maybe some things are better left vague," he responded, a way of rejecting her proposition or perhaps accepting it yet giving her more. "They make for broader interpretations."
"So you're saying that you want me to decide what you mean?" she asked, rotating on her knees to give them a slight stretch. An odd feeling prickled at her toes. "That's sort of dangerous, isn't it?"
"It makes it all the more appealing."
She didn't doubt that.
"I can't bring myself to say goodbye," she said, words starting strong but ending in a mess. Tears stung her eyes once more as she closed her eyes shut. She felt an invisible sort of hand that gripped her cheeks and forced her eyes open. With a turn of her head, she looked at him.
"Then don't," he answered simply. And they sat in silence.
An hour later, they beckoned for her to leave. She walked through that cell door for the last time and begged herself not to turn around. And although she didn't turn to face him, his voice still reached her ears.
"I'm not ready."
She cried all the way home.
When she entered her apartment, the food still sat alone on the counter. The coffee, she predicted, was bitterly cold. Quickly she made her way into her room and took the cloak from her bag. She contemplated wrapping it around herself, but found this ludicrous. This cloak had always represented everything she had ever hated and she was sure that it still did. Instead, she placed it neatly onto a chair sitting in the corner of her room facing her bed. She looked over it once before leaving the room.
"Kakashi-sensei," Sakura whispered, greeting her old teacher from so many years ago, from when they were all a family. She entered the clearing in the town; a sort of stage-like structure built in the middle. She could see the noose hanging and swinging. The image brought her the chills. The sky was a dark gray; the clouds she had seen yesterday at night were still hanging about. She wrapped her sweater tighter around herself and went to stand next to the Copy-nin.
"Sakura," he nodded as she neared. His head was propped up in his hand, his elbow resting in his other palm. His head was titled up, his chin pointed high, almost as if he was thinking. "Time to make history." She started to regulate her breathing, counting as she went along.
She looked away from her former teacher and back at the noose. A deep breath entered her lungs through her mouth and as she exhaled, a small fog of moisture formed. She heard another presence approach, rocks crunching as they made their way. With a slight turn of the head, she caught his blonde hair, face looking solemn.
Everyone started to gather slowly until there was a huge group, all bumping into each other, hoping to get a better view. Sakura didn't mind that she wasn't near the front. In fact, she would have found it rather morbid had she wanted to be. The chatter that surrounded them was loud, and she could hear the faint sound of an infant crying in the distance. Goosebumps crawled up her arms and legs and she wrapped her arms around herself.
Suddenly, everyone had grown quiet and there he was. She couldn't necessarily see him, the crowd and number of guards it had taken to bring him out had blocked her view of him. But she needn't have seen him. She knew exactly what he looked like. She could see his red eyes, closed as he walked along. She could see his arms tense as the guards prodded him further. She could see his long hair fall over his shoulders as he bent his head. And although she knew he wasn't saying anything, she could hear his voice.
They had reached the podium and with each step they took up the stairs, she rose higher on her toes. She could feel Naruto doing the same beside her. In fact, she knew everyone was doing that. Everyone was waiting for their last glimpse of Uchiha Itachi: murderer, villain, and monster. They tied the noose around his neck, tightening it until she was sure his skin turned raw under the pressure. There was no way for him to successfully move out of this hold. His head was still bent down, and it was then that she realized they had placed a blindfold over his eyes. Inside, her nerves were jumping alive and begging her body to move. To do something.
The guards left him standing alone, which everyone gave a gasp at. His arms were secured behind his back and eyes were hid from the world. They must have been confident that he was surely a goner and she was supposed they were right when the executioner, all dressed in black, took a stand next to the Uchiha. Itachi shifted to the right, no doubt sensing that someone was standing beside him. The fact that he couldn't see pained Sakura and she had no doubts that inside, he was struggling not to lash out for being in such a vulnerable state.
And she was right. Uchiha Itachi started to thrash back and forth. She remembered his last words and crumbled. I'm not ready. Gasps were heard across the audience and the guards rushed up to subdue him. A couple were thrown from the podium through the struggle, but one had managed to take a chakra draining seal and run it over him. They had drained enough energy from him and he stood in place. When they were sure he would cooperate, they left him to stand once again. Sakura's breaths came faster.
The executioner tightened his gloves over his hands.
He lifted his arm and placed his hand on the wooden lever.
Then he pulled.
Sakura turned tail and ran.
Her legs ached and every muscle told her to cease this useless sprint. The lungs encased in her ribcage pulsed, pounding against her. Sweat lined her brow and she brought a dirty hand to wipe it away. Trees and other sorts of brush lined her surroundings. The sun was low in the sky, but it was hard to tell because of all the murky, gray clouds that filled it. She finally slowed and stopped in her tracks, bending down to rest her hands on her knees. Her throat was dry and scorched with every breath that she took. She crumbled and fell next to a tree trunk on her hands and knees, emptying her stomach violently. As she began to gather herself and look around, she could have sworn she was going crazy.
Or perhaps it was because she already was. At first she just saw a blue man though he was hard to make through the trees. He came as fast as he went. Next she turned and could have sworn she saw Sasuke standing a little bit a ways. She had always imagined him, yes, but it had never gone so far as a hallucination. He was smirking at her, and she wanted desperately to reach out to him though found herself unable to do anything but stare. He nodded at her and through burning eyes, could see him started to walk away. She opened her mouth but nothing came and she watched hopelessly as he left again.
Next came Naruto. He came from a distance. As he came closer and closer, Sakura couldn't believe how real he looked. Some strands of blonde hair stuck to his forehead, glued to it with sweat. His hands were dirty and as he slowed down the stop, ran them through his hair, causing some strands to turn brown from the dirt. She continued to stare, wondering when the next illusion would come for that was all that she could call them. Everything around her was an illusion. Her dreams, her friends, and most importantly life itself. Yes, everything was an illusion. It was his world.
She had continued to believe Naruto was a mirage until he reached out to her and his clammy hand took her own. She snapped back into reality and suddenly felt the wind that had been brushing past her for the last minute. His words slowly entered her ears, starting out quiet than becoming louder and louder. He was yelling and pulling her away.
"What are you; fucking crazy?" he yelled, tugging her along as he turned to retreat back the way he came. She fell forward and his grip on her wrist grew tighter. She had no reason but to oblige and she began to run behind him. "I've been looking everywhere," he called back behind his shoulder. "What? Do you want to get killed?"
"What do you mean?" she asked, wrenching her hand away from his hold. He stopped on a spot on a tree branch and she landed right next to him. He turned to look at her incredulously, taking her hands once more.
"He's gone, Sakura," he hissed, clearly angry with this.
"G-gone?" she asked, eyes widening. Her cracked lips moved slowly, words coming out dumb. A hopeful feeling lifted her though she had to make sure. "As in dead?"
"No," he answered, shaking his head. "He escaped." His words were angry and spoken through clenched teeth. He never stopped shaking his head, obviously not believing that it had happened. "Gone in a poof a smoke. A fucking clone. There's ANBU everywhere, looking for him."
"A clone?" she asked and he nodded back. The biggest weight had finally been lifted. "Wouldn't they know from the start if they were dealing with a clone?"
"That's just the thing," he replied, looking away, shaking his head once more. "He wasn't a clone. But somehow, he had managed to replace himself with one."
"It's impossible," she insisted and he looked back at her though he stopped shaking his head.
"Obviously not," he responded, tugging her along once more. They continued to jump through the trees, branches whipping across her legs as she made her way. A puff of smoke? He was right. It wasn't his time. He wasn't ready. And if she ever saw him again, well, she wasn't quite sure what she would do. They made their way from the trees, Sakura trailing back behind Naruto. He kept turning his head to still see if she was following, but he was in such a hurry to get back to the village, he had missed the tiny smile forming on the edge of her lips.
As they neared the village gates, they slowed down. Naruto landed in front of them and a second later, Sakura placed herself next to him. He looked at her, smiling a little to add reassurance to the situation though she would never tell him she was in more distress when she believed Uchiha Itachi to be dead.
"Tsunade wants to question you," Naruto informed. "When you were no where to be found, she sent me out to get you." He shook his head, smile turning wider. "I just got worried is all. Sorry for freaking out. It's just that I couldn't live without myself if I lost you too."
Sakura looked to him and nodded, thankful that she was blessed with such a wonderful friend. Though no words were exchanged, their relationship had just strengthened more than she ever though possible. She watched as he scratched the back of his head contemplatively.
"Don't worry though," he said, winking at her. "That crazy old man Ibiki won't be brought into this. Tsunade trusts you. We all know you'll tell everything you know."
Perhaps they should have put Morino Ibiki on the job because she didn't.
When Sakura had finally entered her apartment after a day she would never forget, she flipped on the lights. They flickered twice before holding and she glanced around the small living space that she called her own. Everything had seemed in place. Everything had been as she had left it except for one thing.
The food had been eaten and the coffee mug was empty. As she neared her counter, she lifted the fork laid aside and picked at it. It had obviously been eaten in a hurry; there were still scraps left and some crumbs lied beside the plate. There was still some coffee left and she brought the mug to her lips. They felt hot as they connected with the ceramic texture and she downed the cold coffee though it brought nothing but a warm feeling.
That night Sakura laid in bed, staring at the place the cloak had once been. She knew the unexpected visitor had taken it, but left her her own piece. And now she held that ripped piece from his cloak and rubbed it in between her fingers—nails grazing the part of the red cloud still visible. He had left her a piece of himself, although he needn't have let anything materialistic for the odd feeling in her gut that she received whenever she thought of him would serve as a good reminder of who he was and what he had shown her.
She wasn't feeling love. No, it was not the same emotion that hit her whenever Sasuke came to mind. She wasn't sure what she was feeling, but she wouldn't dare replace it. The emotions hit her like a ton of bricks, and she welcomed them with open arms—doing everything from crying to laughing.
The first night she had felt nothing, but this night she had felt it all. She wasn't surprised, though it happened so fast, that she found herself once again willing to fall.
A/N: Hm, seems to me that Sakura actually saw Itachi at the end, but once again confused him with Sasuke. But hey, that's just me.
There is a sequel, The Calling, for anyone interested. Thanks to all who stuck with this story and even more thanks for those who reviewed.