Disclaimer: "Naruto" is not mine. Because if it were mine, there would be much less filler and much more SasuSaku. Alas, alas.
A/N: This all spawned from a dream I had awhile ago. At first it was just a doodle (link to my deviantART account in my profile), and then it was a crappy little drabble, and then I dug it out again and reworked the entire thing until it seemed decent enough to post. So thanks to Life-Remixed on deviantART for pestering me to post this story; hopefully it's not a disappointment.
A/N the second: Thanks to the lovely Yellow Mask, who beta'd this for me. Ah, how the tables have turned!
Three Months Overdue
"But why can't I come with?" Naruto whined for what had to be the twentieth time.
And for the twentieth time, Sakura's green eyes rolled heavenward, finally landing on her blond friend. "My god, Naruto. What part of solo mission don't you understand?"
He pouted admirably, his lower lip protruding to almost unnatural lengths, and his azure irises seemed to swell until they fairly glittered in the light of Ichiraku's lamps. "But Sakura-chan," he continued moping, pitching her name to uncharted octaves, "we're supposed to be partners. You don't go on solo missions because that's not with me!"
"Idiot," Sasuke muttered, before he returned to silently lifting ramen to his mouth in a dignified manner on Sakura's opposite side.
Naruto ignored his former rival, unleashing the full force of his pout on the girl between them.
Sakura merely arched one pink eyebrow in a rather Sasuke-like fashion, although an unbidden smile quirked the corners of her lips at the sheer ridiculousness of his expression. "I suppose I go on these sorts of missions when Tsunade-sama orders me to," she said, unable to contain a giggle, perhaps at his expense.
"Stupid baa-chan," the blond grumbled, his face quickly crumpling to one more venomous. "Where does she get off ordering my friend and my partner on these stupid…stupid…solo missions?" He pronounced the words like they were some sort of ugly curse.
Sakura laughed outright this time, and she shoved Naruto's shoulder playfully. "Honestly! You're making such a big deal about this. I know we're ANBU partners, but we can't always be assigned the same missions, even with that. And when you're Hokage, you won't be going on any missions at all with me. So you better get used to it," she concluded with mock severity.
Naruto grinned, whisker-marks stretching, at the promise of his future office, but then his face fell and he said, quite seriously, "But what if you get into trouble and I'm not there to help?"
"If Hokage-sama believed her incapable of the mission, she would not have assigned it," Sasuke said, inserting his two cents between bites of tomato.
Sakura wrinkled her nose, clearly not interpreting that as a compliment. "I'm perfectly capable of fulfilling my ANBU objectives," she said, a bit of an edge in her voice and her black-ops title conspicuously inserted into the sentence. "I'm not weak anymore," she muttered under her breath, clearly still a sore point with her.
Sasuke stared harder than he had to at his chopstick-elevated tomato, his jaw suddenly very tense. The moment of strained silence continued with neither of them looking at the other until Naruto bubbled up with complaints again.
"Drop it, Naruto," she snapped, harsher than she had wanted, but she only relented marginally when she saw his wince. "Sorry," she said, still curt, giving her head a sharp, incomplete shake to one side.
"I just wanted to know the details," the blond sulked, stirring his fourth bowl of ramen idly.
She heaved a sigh before she pulled out her wallet, perusing the pockets for bills. "Confidential," she reminded him succinctly, leafing out a few notes.
Naruto fidgeted on his stool, eyeing his emptied bowls. "Er, I don't seem to have enough…" he said, trailing off with a half-miserable, half-pleading expression.
Sakura didn't even look at him or make any mention of her annoyance when she laid enough money on the counter for the both of them. "I have to go. Lots to pack and review and all that. Plus an early start."
She rose, but Naruto bolted to his feet and became on orange wall in her path. She slanted him a lethal glare, and he merely raised his hands placatingly, clearly not about to bother her about the mission any longer.
"Just tell me how long you'll be gone," he said, his voice somewhat softer.
Behind them, Sasuke's ears perked, mentally preparing to instantly memorize the information.
"Two weeks," she finally allowed.
Naruto smiled a dimmer version of his usual million-watt grin. "I'll buy you ramen when you get back, you know, to celebrate."
Her lips twitched. "That'll be the day," she teased, but she brushed past him all the same, retreating into the evening bustle of Konoha.
Her old teammates stared after her, one looking forlorn and the other stoic, but they were both thinking the same thing.
Somehow, that seemed like an awfully long time.
The morning light slanted through Sasuke's bedroom window and fell across his face, but it did not wake the Leaf shinobi. His eyes were already open and fixed on the ceiling, his features calm and set. Altogether, he did not appear agitated or anxious in the slightest, which was a significant testament to his level of self-control.
Today was two weeks later, the day he had inconspicuously marked on his wall calendar, the day Sakura was supposed to return.
He stared up at the ceiling and rather wished he didn't care.
The sun had finally risen, which meant it wouldn't be that strange for him to rise and venture into the village; he had been awake since three or so, unable to quiet the voice in the rear of his mind that chanted endlessly with some foreign emotion—maybe it was joy, he mused—about her imminent arrival.
Knowing that aimlessly lying in his bed in this apartment (because who wanted to live in an abandoned compound all alone except for the omnipresent ghosts of memories?) would only result in stiff and uncooperative limbs, Sasuke rose with his usual grace, shuffling across the chilly floor to the east-facing window. He squinted out at the dawning sun and absentmindedly realized that the sky was exactly the same shade of pink as her hair.
He gave himself a mental shake. He was doing it again.
It being thinking about Sakura in a less than apathetic way. It unnerved him: he was resigned to the fact that Naruto had gotten under his skin, and it felt unbearably (except not, because it was pleasant and comfortable and right somehow) crowded in his heart.
Rolling his eyes at himself, Sasuke grabbed a quick bite to eat before he dressed properly and emerged from his apartment complex, walking quietly, smoothly down the street. His feet followed a path of their own making, and while he was largely chagrined to discover they had plotted the way to Sakura's home, a tiny part of him was relieved.
That is, until he saw Naruto haunting the front steps.
Sasuke had a moment to consider turning around and bolting, but Naruto beat him to the punch, catching sight of the dark-haired man in his hesitation.
"Oy, bastard! You came by, too?"
"Hn," he replied, looking perfectly disdainful. "I was passing by, idiot," he added, his eyes flickering too much towards her apartment's windows to be accidental.
"She's not here yet," Naruto complained to the unspoken question hovering in the air. "Of course, it is only six in the morning, but still…she should be back by now," he moped, crossing his arms on his knees and leaning his chin onto them.
Sasuke didn't answer, only standing a few yards away with his hands casually shoved in his pockets. Minutes slid by without count as they waited in silence, the sun creeping ever higher in the sky. Naruto's stomach had been rumbling relentlessly for quite some time before the blond could be bothered with it.
"Argh, I'm starving," he grumped.
When he didn't move, Sasuke muttered, "Then eat."
Naruto frowned, clearly not listening to his friend. "I think I'll see Tsunade-baa-chan," he declared, and he suddenly performed a transportation jutsu, poofing off Sakura's doorstep.
The remaining shinobi watched the wind brush the smoke away, and then he began walking towards the Hokage's office, quite certain that he did not want to be around for the majority of the meeting, as it would undoubtedly involve much whining from a certain blond jinchuuriki.
Sure enough, Sasuke hadn't even reached the Godaime's door when he began to hear the blurry yells that slowly sharpened into distinguishable words.
"—but she's supposed to be back, baa-chan! Why isn't she here yet?"
"Two weeks was an approximation, Naruto. You realize that means she could come back tomorrow, right?"
"Well, yeah, but still, she was supposed to be back today! She told me she'd be back today!" Naruto protested, and Sasuke paused by the door, hearing the thud of a fist against wood: mostly likely the boy's, but possibly the woman's.
"Uzumaki Naruto, I do not have time to listen to you whine!" Tsunade snapped, and Sasuke could imagine her gesture towards the ever-growing stack of paperwork she preferred to ignore. "So here!"
There was a silence, and Sasuke deemed it safe enough to enter. He slunk in, noting that Naruto was busy reading a scroll, and gave a slight bow in deference to the Hokage. Tsunade barely spared him a glance.
"You're sending me on a mission?" Naruto finally blurted, his tan brow wrinkling beneath his headband.
"If it keeps you out of my hair for a few days, then yes," she replied rather icily. "It'll take you a week, tops. By then you should have calmed down somewhat, and—"
"But I can't miss Sakura-chan's return!" the blond man protested, waving his mission scroll about carelessly. "I was gonna buy her ramen; we were all gonna celebrate!" he continued, including Sasuke in the sweep of his arm.
Tsunade quirked one small brow. "You can buy her ramen some other time, Naruto. And besides, she's been sent on solo missions before. You're making a big deal out of this."
"Not since we were made ANBU!" Naruto pointed out, still louder than usual. "Not since we were partners! What if she needs me?"
"She'll be fine," Tsunade barked, perhaps harsher than necessary, and Sasuke did not miss the inflection. "Now go on your mission before I throw you in prison just to cool your head!"
Growling, Naruto jerkily formed the seals and transported away again, leaving a few wisps of smoke behind that were, somehow, angry-looking.
Slowly, Tsunade turned her amber gaze onto the last member of Team 7. "And what are you here for, Uchiha?"
Sasuke didn't reply for a long moment; the truth was that he was worried about Sakura, as well—it wasn't like her at all to miss a deadline—but he acknowledged that perhaps they were being too hasty. Mission lengths were always approximate, as the Hokage had said, and there was no reason Sakura wouldn't be bouncing back through the gate tomorrow.
Still, it didn't smooth the edge from his thoughts.
"I would like to request a mission," he finally said.
The blond studied him for a long moment before she sorted through some scrolls, finally flipping one toward him irritably. "Fine. There you go." And then, after a heartbeat, "You aren't going to ask about Sakura?"
Sasuke's ebony eyes flickered to hers, not anticipating that, but he refocused valiantly on his scroll. It was a C-rank mission—since his exile and return, he had waded grudgingly through his probation, and while he had been reinstated as an official Konoha shinobi, that didn't mean he got missions relative to his talents. For all intents and purposes, the genius Uchiha, who could very easily be an ANBU captain, was a genin.
He debated multiple answers before he said simply, "She'll be back. She is an ANBU, after all." He left it at that and strolled from the office with a shrug, wishing that he were higher in the ninja ranks if only to get harder missions. This one would take him all of a few hours, and that was not long enough to distract him from wondering about her return.
Another week passed, and Naruto returned, and Sakura did not.
The blond fell into the habit of marching into the Hokage's office every day at exactly noon and demanding to know where his friend was. As time dragged on, his visits became more painful for both of them. He burst into the office as he always did, a hint of tears flashing in his summer-sky irises, his teeth ground firmly together until he slammed his hands down on her desk and roared like wounded wolf.
"It's been ten weeks!" he yelled one afternoon, absolutely livid. "Ten weeks! That means she's been gone for three whole months, so why the hell are you just sitting there, baa-chan? Get off your old ass and do something!"
Tsunade's jaw tightened, and her fingers dug—luckily without any chakra—into the wood grain of her desk. She glared up at him, her eyes amber steel, and said things in a voice far too level to be calm, reeling off facts that never comforted anyone, not even herself.
"It's an S-class mission, Naruto, so I can't risk sending anyone else in after her…"
"She was my apprentice—she'll be fine…"
"This is the sort of thing ANBU do, and the sort of thing Hokages have to deal with. So get used to it if you ever hope to be Rokudaime…"
And when Naruto left, tears tracking over his whisker-marks in impotent rivulets, Tsunade opened a fresh bottle of sake and imbibed enough to stay drunk for a week. But the special brand of painkiller only lasted until Naruto's next visit, when the wounds were torn open and the salt poured fresh.
The Godaime didn't need Naruto to remind her that it was she who had sent Sakura on this mission because that fact haunted her more than she cared to admit. Sakura had become something of a sister to her, granted a much younger one, but a sister nevertheless, and the possibility that she, Tsunade, had inadvertently sentenced her, Haruno Sakura, to death was nearly more than she could bear.
Shizune was the only one who knew the true extent of the Hokage's anguish, but that was because she was the one who threw out all the empty sake bottles.
Kakashi had developed a habit of visiting the old Team 7's training ground, shockingly without his little orange book in his face. He would simply stand in the field and gaze about morosely, occasionally muttering things to himself.
"Maybe if I had paid more attention to her back then, she would've learned that one thing that could've brought her back…"
And he would shake his head, his visible eye closing, and shuffle from the field, somehow unwilling to use a jutsu to escape from the place faster. Once he had emerged from the training grounds, he would head to the monument to mourn there; even as he read the engraved names and felt sick and sad, the barest flicker of hope—or maybe it wasn't even hope, maybe it was only gratefulness—glimmered in his chest when he did not read his erstwhile student's name on the stone.
Uchiha Sasuke, who had never been the model of social aptitude, had become all but a ghost himself. He never spoke to anyone, not even Naruto, and his default expression of apathy had tightened around the eyes and mouth, as if he couldn't quite contain himself, as if the sorrow nearly leaked.
Every day without fail, Sasuke would leave his apartment and make the slow journey to the great front gates of Konoha. The jounin on duty had grown used to seeing him, and while they had questioned him at first (because he had been a missing-nin, and no matter how much time had passed he had still been a traitor, even if he had killed one of Konoha's greatest threats and darkest sons), they never did so now. They only watched as he approached the gates and stepped just outside so that he could recline against them, always waiting.
Every evening, Sasuke would rise from his watch and go to Ichiraku, where he would join Naruto for ramen. The blond would try to babble as he always had, but both men were always too aware of the vacant third stool and the untouched third bowl to slip into anything like a rhythm. It had become a curious tradition of theirs ever since Naruto had come back and Sakura had failed to join them that night for dinner.
The cook mentioned once that they not order the third bowl, because neither of them ever ate it, not even Naruto, and the blond exploded.
"You don't get it, do you?" he yelled. "It's for Sakura-chan, and she'll be here, don't you just see, and she's gonna be hungry and royally pissed at you if you take her ramen away!"
Sasuke only tensed further—if that were possible without all his bones snapping from the muscle strain—and laid a protective hand on the rim of her bowl. Naruto mimicked his action, as Sakura's seat was between them, and the cook apologized hastily and never brought it up again.
And after they had shared their repast, Naruto retreated to his lonely apartment and stared at his two sets of photographs—one with their unruly twelve-year-old selves, the other showing them after Sasuke's return, older and all smiling at the camera (Sasuke was smirking, but it was close enough). He reverently traced the lines of her face through the glass, the shapes of her arms that encircled their waists, and he always wondered why her face was blurred until he realized he was crying again.
He set the photographs down then and rose to his feet and walked over to the wall where their headbands hung. The three blue strips had been tacked to the wall: one with a creased metal plate, one with a cherry blossom pinned to it, and one plain. When he had returned to Konoha and seen Sakura wearing a red headband, he had planned for a long time to ask her for her old blue one, but it had taken a few years to gather the courage to request something so personal.
She had handed it over without hesitation, and he had hung it between his and Sasuke's. And after a moment of thought, he had fetched and attached the blossom, just so he would always remember it was hers…not that he would ever forget.
Naruto reached out, his fingers caressing the fabric, and realized that he needed to get a new blossom, as the old one had withered.
After paying for their ramen—because Naruto always insisted on paying for Sakura's uneaten bowl, and Sasuke no longer had the heart or the spite to deny him—the former avenger made his lonely way back to the main gate and resumed his position into the small hours of the dawn, occasionally catnapping, always lightly and always briefly so he would never miss her arrival.
When she failed to show by morning, he returned to his empty home for a bath and breakfast, and then he resumed his ritual all over again. Sometimes Kakashi came and waited with him, and Naruto usually stopped by for an hour or two before he went to blame Tsunade again, but by and large the Uchiha kept vigil alone.
He occasionally untied a long red cloth from around his wrist and studied it, as if by inspecting its frays and little rips he could envision the metal Konoha plate or her pink hair straying across it. Sakura had gotten a different headband when she joined ANBU—"Blue is part of the uniform, idiot"—but Sasuke had gotten her old one. He hadn't known why he'd wanted it at the time, and he'd had Naruto ask for it (because he was Uchiha Sasuke, and even after all this time, there were some things he still didn't do…like ask girls, especially Sakura, for their old headbands, as if it meant something to him, like a tangible memory), and Sakura had laughed that bright laugh of hers and teased Naruto about building a shrine to her.
The blond had blushed Sharingan-red, and Sakura had been too busy laughing to notice that the headband had quietly switched hands.
Sasuke silently wrapped her headband around his wrist again, tying the ends off neatly, before he resumed his eternal watch. He hadn't known exactly why he'd wanted it back then, but whatever the reasoning, he was deeply grateful he had some physical remnant of her. It didn't take the edge off the pain of waiting, but sometimes he fancied her existence had only been a pleasant dream that he would wake up from at any time, and only her headband wound around his wrist reminded him that no, she had been real, she still was real.
Because if he dared think otherwise, he would lose the fragile remnants of his heart forever.
"Naruto, for the last time, it was a two week mission. She's been gone three months. If she was going to return, she could have done the mission and returned six times already! It's too la—"
"No, it's not too late!" he interrupted, his hands balling into fierce fists. "It's never too late because this is Sakura-chan, dammit! This is Sakura-chan!"
That had become his mantra over the past months, as if by somehow stating the fact that it had indeed been Haruno Sakura who had been sent on the mission, everything would magically become okay.
Tsunade rubbed at the ever-present furrow between her eyebrows. "Naruto, as her old sensei, I completely understand how you feel. But as the Hokage, I can't give in to such luxuries. For the sake of the village, we have to move on. If she's not back by the four-month date, then I'm declaring her missing-in-action and presumed dead." She glanced at her calendar. "That's two and a half weeks. That's all I can give you."
Naruto glared at her, his eyes brimming with unshed tears, before he stormed out of her office, taking great care to slam the door as hard as he could.
Tsunade sighed and pulled a fresh sake bottle from the bottom drawer of her desk.
"MIA!" Naruto spat as he shoveled ramen. "That baa-chan wants to declare her MIA! Sakura-chan, MIA! What a load of bullshit…" His rant dissolved into angry mumbles as he redoubled his eating.
Sasuke merely sat there in silence, raising and lowering his chopsticks at a measured pace. He glanced aside at the waiting third bowl, as if daring it to disappear by itself.
It didn't, of course, and continued sitting there innocently, unaware of the anguish it was inflicting on Sakura's precious people.
Sasuke stared at it levelly as he fished a tomato from his ramen, and he wondered how he could possibly act attending her "funeral". It would be like admitting she was actually dead, gone and not coming back. And for the sake of his sanity, he didn't think he could accept that.
He had lost too many people in his life, and losing Sakura would be more than he could handle.
"She'll come back," he said, softly but clearly. "She has to."
Naruto paused mid-rant and gaped at him—those were the first words Sasuke had spoken in almost three months. He blinked owlishly for a moment and then grinned his old grin that put the sun to shame.
"Of course she will!" he yelled, punching one fist in the air. "She's Sakura-chan, dammit!"
Sasuke fished out another tomato and tried not to focus on the headband around his wrist.
Two weeks slid by, and their rhythm faltered somewhat. Naruto didn't make it to the Hokage's office everyday; Sasuke sometimes forgot to show up for dinner; Kakashi occasionally ambled past the training grounds; Tsunade stayed marginally more sober.
Their thoughts were all the same, though.
Half a week. Half a week will be four months. Half a week.
Half a week and Sakura would be declared dead.
Naruto renewed his training, but Sasuke privately thought that was only so he could destroy things and let his emotions out. Sasuke found his stomach rebelling against him when he did deign to eat, and he had his head in a bush more often than he determined was natural. Kakashi could be seen tracing words on the monument that weren't there yet. Tsunade spent a lot of time blankly staring at a death certificate.
Who knew Sakura could torture them all so much?
Sakura the overlooked, Sakura the annoying…had become Sakura the loved, the missed, the needed.
Sasuke rose from his lean against the gates to stumble to the forest and empty his empty stomach. All he spat was acid, and he wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. Now he had to go home and brush his teeth for the third time that day.
Half a week came and went, undisturbed by the arrival of any pink-haired ANBU.
It was a bright, cheerful morning, the sort of morning she loved best after she was awake enough to appreciate it. Sasuke stared blearily out his kitchen window, watching the sun rise in the east as it had every day, as it would continue to do regardless of her absence.
Regardless of the fact that his heart no longer wanted to continue beating.
He bowed his head, and it took him far too long to realize the growing puddle on the countertop was a product of his tears. He stared at it uncomprehendingly and hesitantly touched his fingertips to it, dully surprised when the skin was moistened. Blinking and freeing more droplets, he drew a shaky breath and raised his head, suddenly not caring what anyone thought. If he walked around the village for the rest of forever with tear-tracks on his fair cheeks, so be it.
He left his apartment slowly, his step even, never faltering, but still not his usual brisk stride. He wore the simple black mourning clothes that all ninja wore, save for a splash of color at his wrist. It wasn't a long walk to Sakura's abandoned apartment, and it was no surprise to see a similarly garbed Naruto sitting on the stairs.
Sasuke paused a few feet away, not looking at his friend. He didn't want to see the pain in the other man's face for the fear that it would suddenly become much too real for himself.
Naruto made an odd croaking sound, and Sasuke's gaze wandered against his will. The jinchuuriki, somehow, was pale, all the usual boisterous color drained (perhaps permanently) from his haggard face; his blue eyes were dull and dark and thickly veiled with unshed tears.
"I can't believe it," he said hoarsely. "Sakura-chan…she can't be…"
"We don't know that," Sasuke snapped, his hands clenching into fists within his pockets. "She's only officially dead. It's a technicality," he spat, as if the word itself were poisonous. "She could still be out there. She is still out there."
Naruto stared at him blankly, half-surprised at the sheer amount of talking, half-surprised at his friend's determination to hope.
But no part of Sasuke was truthfully hoping. He had only said those things because they had been running through his head, taunting and mocking and cruel, since the first day she had failed to return. He was finally worn down enough that he couldn't suppress them.
He stared fiercely at the sidewalk, and Naruto did not add anything.
"We should go," the blond said after a long while, his voice even hoarser, hardly human at all.
Sasuke merely jerked his head once in agreement, and they trudged the long, long walk to the cemetery. There was a respectable crowd assembled there, and Sasuke blindly recognized some as he and Naruto wove their way through to the front. Ino was crying silently, tears streaming down her beautiful face, and Shikamaru stood beside her, his face grimly set and his arm comfortingly slung around her shaking shoulders. Sakura's parents were there, looking stunned by the sheer strength of their grief, and Sasuke could not look at them for long, and not just because Sakura's mother had the same pink hair.
The two remaining members of Team 7 halted beside their former sensei; Kakashi, for once, was far from late. The silver-haired jounin did not speak, only nodding at them briefly, and they returned the gesture, none of them able to offer verbal sympathies (not that they were necessary; they were all dead inside now).
With slow, mechanical motions, Sasuke untied her headband from around his wrist and fastened it in the proper position across his forehead. Naruto, seeing this, removed her blue one from his own wrist and copied his friend; on unspoken cue, they both jammed their fists back into their pockets, staring at the cold stone monument before them, as if daring the name to disappear.
It did not. Her name remained carved into the stone, and Sasuke couldn't help thinking that it looked wrong somehow. Sakura—cherry blossom—did not belong trapped in rock. The name, the word was out of place, supposed to be free and flitting through the air on the back of warm spring breezes, not forever bound to the earth.
Tsunade stepped to the fore, and Sasuke was aware she spoke, but he could not remember a single thing she said. It all blurred into a procession of vague memories, and the pain in his chest gnawed deeper and deeper until he was certain there was nothing left and his body should split in half without its core.
He could not forget that his last words to her had been interpreted as an insult. He hadn't even bothered to correct her. He would like to think that, before the end, she would have thought better of him, remembered some better time, but he knew those were few and far between. He had given her no happy memories to carry to eternity.
Bile rose in his throat, and tears seared his eyes, and her headband burned against his forehead.
At length Tsunade finished her eulogy, and the collected mourners filed forward one by one to deposit flowers on her grave (good god, it was her grave, and Sasuke's mind could not reconcile that concept), and then they slowly drifted away. Some lingered longer than others, but as the day wore on, they all disappeared, save one.
Sasuke stood where he had been standing, his hands still clenched in his pockets. He didn't understand how tears could continue leaking from his eyes—surely he would be too dehydrated by now to continue this relentless, silent crying. But eventually the sun began to set, and he remained there, staring at the headstone until it was too dark to make out the engraving.
And then, finally, perhaps now because he couldn't read it and that somehow made it less real, he stuttered forward until his feet were inches from the rock. Normally that would be considered disrespectful, but he knew she was not resting beneath the earth, beneath his feet. If she had died, she would be rotting away somewhere, just another enemy corpse…
The thought choked him, and he sank to his knees, catching himself heavily on her monument. The stone was too cold beneath his fingers, and his thumb unwilling traced the indents of the inscription.
Haruno Sakura, his fingers told him. Beloved Daughter and Friend, Protector of the Hidden Leaf as ANBU, Jounin.
The words seemed empty.
"I'm sorry," he breathed, his entire body shaking.
And those seemed emptier.
Five months had now passed, but Sasuke kept his vigil at the gate. No one had tried to remove him, perhaps out of pity, perhaps out of the very sensible fear that he would kill them if they tried. But Naruto no longer accosted the Hokage, and Kakashi never went to the cemetery at all, and Tsunade tried to distract herself with paperwork that didn't involve signing her sister-apprentice's name to a death certificate, and when that failed as it always did, she resorted to more liquid means of forgetfulness.
Sasuke never went to Ichiraku anymore, even though Naruto kept up the tradition, ordering three bowls, two of which went untouched. He paid for them all anyway, as if that were the only way he could pay homage to her memory. He knew it wasn't enough, that finally settling this debt would never be enough, but it was all he could do.
In lieu of eating dinner, Sasuke leaned against the great gates, his gaze fixed unwaveringly on the long road out of Konoha. Evening painted the dirt road red and orange and black in the shadows, and he stared at where it disappeared into the darkened trees. Maybe he should go missing-nin again and find her. She couldn't be dead; he wouldn't accept it. It would be so easy…the jounin would close the gates, and he would be free to leave.
His thoughts raced in a blur. He could relocate Karin, and he would force her to follow Sakura's chakra signature, and then when he found her…he would never let her go.
His arms ached for something to hold.
Resolved, Sasuke sat up a little straighter and waited patiently for night to fall. When it did, his plan would be set in motion, and sooner or later, one way or another—because ultimately there was more than one way—he would be reunited with Sakura, and if she didn't want him, that was her problem.
The red light faded to blue and purple and then to black.
The gates slid shut with an ominous thud.
Sasuke rose to his feet, stretching sore and untrained muscles, and he tightened the belt that carried his katana. He frowned—now where had he last seen Karin? He couldn't remember; he couldn't even think past the gaping hole in his chest. He swayed, weak from hunger and sorrow and exhaustion, and his vision blurred disconcertingly.
Pressing his cool hands to his forehead and digging the heels into his eyes, he willed his body and mind to relax, to allow the world to straighten once more. But when he reopened his eyes, he was only more convinced that he had slipped into the dangerous grasp of a hallucination.
Because someone was approaching him, falteringly.
He blinked and strained to see but his body kept playing tricks on him, and his vision swam again. Angry, Sasuke curled his fingers into his temples, as if he could hold his vision straight by physical means. And then, as he watched, the figure fell, and the rational world crumbled to pieces, and he thought absently that it should be louder—the world crumbling to pieces, that is. As it was, it was strangely muffled.
His legs were moving before he told them to move, and suddenly he was at the figure's side, heaving for breath and trembling from head to toe. The figure was small and slight and bloodied, its face covered in a painted mask, but there was no mistaking that color of hair, even in the blackest night.
He fell to his knees, the drop jarring his entire body and re-blurring her image. Carefully, his fingers shaking so much they lost focus, he removed the mask, able to tell that not all the red on its surface was ceremonial paint. He slowly drew in a breath that had long been coming, one that swelled his entire chest, even the part he had thought permanently missing.
Bloodied and bruised and dirty, the ANBU lying before him was still clearly Haruno Sakura.
Something dead in Sasuke's chest hammered out a tentative first beat.
His fingers brushed her cheeks—were they more hollow, or was that a trick of the shadows?—and her skin felt horribly hot, the blood staining it almost cold by contrast. Her eyelids were gently closed, the long lashes skimming her cheekbones, and if he hadn't seen her collapse, he almost would have surmised she was just sleeping. But he could barely sense any chakra at all from her.
He tapped her face softly, attempting to wake her. When that failed, he gripped her shoulders and shook her, halting abruptly when he realized that might make her unknown injuries worse. He returned to slapping her cheeks, and his voice grew louder and more desperate, even though he never remembered beginning to speak.
"Wake up…wake up, Sakura…Sakura…Sakura, get up already…Just open your eyes, okay? Just…open your eyes, Sakura…please, open your eyes…"
Her lids flickered before rising unevenly, showing more of one pale viridian iris than the other. Even through his tears, he could tell that her eyes were foggy, hazy in appearance, but everything else took a backseat as every fiber in his being screamed that she was alive.
Without thinking, he crushed her to his body, his arms wrapping about her in a grip that had to be painfully tight, but he could not force them to loosen. She was here and he could feel her shallow breaths on his neck and the seeping heat of her body and the subtle thud of her heart against his. He wanted to hold her tighter, to soothe the ache in his muscles that demanded more proof, but he resisted the almost irresistible urge and eased back so that he could look at her, soak in the sight of her and commit it to memory so that it would never leave his mind again.
She looked vaguely confused, her eyebrows weakly crumpled. "Sas…uke? Is…why…?" she trailed off, coherent speech too difficult.
"Sakura, Sakura, Sakura," he murmured over and over, brushing stray hairs from her sweaty, fever-hot face with gentle fingers. "Where have you been? We thought…I thought you were…you were…"
Her eyes closed, and he panicked for one infinitesimal moment before they opened, though less than before. "Jus'…escaped…" she slurred, and she seemed to be fighting her sickness, her exhaustion. "Sas…Sas…Sa…"
"Shh," he soothed, and he unthinkingly kissed her forehead, her skin burning his lips. Shifting her slightly in his arms, he formed the appropriate seals, and they vanished from the road in a swirl of smoke.
When she had been released from the hospital before Naruto and he could make their daily visit, Sasuke had decided they should split up and search the village for her. The blond had darted away, and Sasuke had transported to the cemetery on a hunch.
And he found her standing in front of her own grave with an unreadable look on her face.
He stepped beside her, making her aware of his presence, but did not speak.
"I doubt many people have to experience this," she said at length, not needing to gesture to her tombstone. "It's a bit…surreal, shall we say."
He stayed silent, not certain how to reply and hoping she would just keep talking so he could continue to listen to the wonderful sound of her voice.
She shrugged, her arms coming up to wrap around her middle; the wind blew through the cemetery, and her longer locks caressed his shoulder. He decided he liked the fleeting sensation.
When she did not say anything else, he finally ventured, "So what happened?"
Glancing at her sidelong, he saw that her face tightened, her mouth pulling into a frown as her gaze slid away. "I already turned in my report to Tsunade-sama," she said, as if that miraculously explained everything.
It didn't, so he waited. Sasuke had developed a lot of patience lately.
She heaved a sigh and spared him a sharp glance. "I don't see why you care," she muttered, the softness of her voice nearly concealing its cutting edge.
He winced inwardly as the blade gashed deeply, but outwardly he only mirrored her faint frown. "I do care," he said at length, his gaze fixed unblinkingly on her grave.
She studied him for a long moment before she shrugged again. "It was supposed to be a simple mission. I was assigned it because it dealt with a crime lord and his bizarre drug—it combined a physical paralysis with a mental one. Some sort of fear-inducing toxin, almost like a tangible genjutsu. And then, if the opportunity presented itself, I was supposed to assassinate him."
"And it presented itself," he said, not making it a question.
She nodded slowly, hesitating halfway through the gesture. "Yes. It did. And I did not anticipate the sheer strength of the drug, and…well, the rest, as they say, is history." Her voice was brittle, but it did not break.
Hardly aware of the motion until it had completed itself, Sasuke wrapped his arm around her slim shoulders. She stared up at him for a moment, incredulous, but then she apparently disregarded whatever misgivings she felt, as she leaned heavily into his side.
"I kept trying to release it, like it was a genjutsu," she mumbled, her words muffled in his chest. "But it wouldn't go away…it just kept coming…"
"You made it out, though," he said, trying to distract her from reliving her months of torture.
"Well, yeah," she retorted, a hint of smugness in her still-pained tone. "I don't have perfect chakra control for nothing. The drug always got weaker towards the end of the dosage, and I managed to salvage and store enough chakra that finally, when they tried to inject me again, I could resist it, almost like I'd built up my own little immunity. And then they got what was coming to them," she added darkly, and Sasuke felt more than saw her hand stray towards the scroll attached to her thigh, the scroll that summoned her colossal battleaxe.
"I'm sorry, though," she said abruptly.
"For what?" Sasuke asked, absolutely bewildered.
She squirmed in his hold, and he let her pull away, even though he was reluctant to allow any space between them. "For letting you all think I was dead. For not being strong enough to get out sooner. I guess I am weak, like you said," she ended with false, mocking humor.
"No, you're not," he said sharply, guilt coppery on his tongue. "You're not weak. You've never been weak." He swallowed, almost surprised as she was by his outburst, but still added, barely audible, "You've always been stronger than me."
Sakura looked at him as if she knew they were no longer talking about ninja skill, and she tentatively wrapped her arms around his torso. He let her, sliding his own around her, and suddenly he was holding her as tightly as he had the night he'd found her in the road, as if he'd never let go. He could feel the stiffness of her surprise, but it melted away soon enough, and she was holding onto him just as tightly.
"Naruto's probably wondering what's taking me so long," Sasuke mused at length, amazed at how perfectly she fit under his chin.
She snorted. "He's probably stuffing his face at Ichiraku, completely forgetting whatever it was he was supposed to be doing. Which was probably locating me," she added. "I guess I bolted from the hospital."
"Yes, you did," Sasuke agreed.
"But you found me," she said, soft once more.
"Yes, I did," he echoed, quieter as well, almost wistful.
They held each other in the silence, soaking in each other's warmth, before Sakura killed the moment.
"Can we leave? It's so morbid here."
Sasuke let out a barking laugh, his whole body quivering with the emotion's reflex, and as she stared at him wonderingly, he laced his fingers through hers and led her off to Ichiraku. When they arrived, Naruto was there, as predicted, and beside him were two steaming bowls of ramen.
Sakura and Sasuke slid onto the stools, not dropping their joined hands as they dug into their meal.
At the end, Naruto coughed up the money for her bowl, and Sakura laughed like it was the funniest thing in the world.
A/N: Why do I have this habit of ending stories at Ichiraku? Eh, whatever. And since you made it this far, why don't you review?