I do not own Naruto or any of its characters.
He looked down at her, smiled, nodded, tried to ignore the hollow shuddering in her chest every time she tried to breathe. "Yeah?"
"Where do people… go when they die?"
(thrusting into his chest, tearing through flesh, keep going, keep going, into his heart, keep breathing, bastard, stay alive, no, no, you should die, die, you need to die, deeper, deeper…)
"Why do you want to know?" He wanted to know, too. Where did all those people, those he took the lives of, those he loved, cared for, where did they go?
Outside the shelter of the hollow, the rain fell, eating away at the soil, forming ripples in the dirt where they landed. It was good, Naruto tried to tell himself. It was erasing their tracks, the blood. But as it washed away the crimson stains, cleansed the forest floor, he wished he could stop it. The rain was taking away the small traces of her, easing her out of his arms, away from the world.
"I was just wondering…" She was smiling, as she had been for a while now. Gingerly, he raised his fingers to her lips, gently brushing away the flecks of blood. "Because that's where Sasuke is."
Naruto grimaced. On some impulse, in rejection, denial, he pressed his hand harder against her side, wishing his fingers were a plug against the red that was spilling out from the wound. And somewhere after that line of thought, he was praying for an extra set of arms, so that he could attempt to plug all the other tears in her body. Her eyelids briefly fluttered as her breath caught in a pained, agonised hiss, a low, vulnerable whimper escaping her throat.
"Naruto… that h-hurts… idiot."
"Sorry," he murmured, but didn't really relent.
(flash of silver, blood, blood, into the flesh, between the ribs, lightning in the sword, fry it, spark, kill, hurt, hear her scream…)
"It's a beautiful place, Sakura."
"Are you listening to me? Don't close your eyes, Sakura, keep them open." He placed his hand against her cheek, smeared with her blood mingled against some of his.
"Na… Naruto, your hand is cold."
"That's right. It is, isn't it? Keep focusing on the cold, Sakura. Cold."
Her brow furrowed and slowly, breath-haltingly, her eyelids slid open enough for him to see emerald. "Do you think he's… mad at me?"
"Of course not. Why would you think that?"
"I held him… so he couldn't run away."
(grab his arms, don't let him break away, tune out that cold thing in your ribs, hold it, yes, hold it, don't let go, remember you did this before, wait for it, for him to die…)
He wondered what it would have been like if she hadn't held him in place for the Rasengan. Would the hole in Sakura's stomach not have pierced through to her back? Would he still have killed their enemy, ripped apart their teammate's body? Or would Sasuke – Orochimaru, Naruto reminded himself – have killed them? "He won't be mad at you, Sakura. He's free now. Sasuke hates sharing anything, you remember that."
"Yeah. He's free now. No more sharing."
And Sakura looked happy. "That beautiful place… he's there, isn't he?" A thin line of blood trickled down the corner of her mouth. Dutifully, he wiped it away, as if it were merely a scrap of food on a child's face.
"Yes. It's a really pretty place. Full of clouds and lots of light…" He faltered. "You're not following him there, Sakura," he said in a hard tone.
She laughed – or tried to. Blood, lots of it, raced for various exits in her body as her physical self shuddered and choked on the crimson liquid. Eventually, weak sparks of green chakra flickered over her skin and her breathing eased. But her hand got a little colder, her eyes a little more glazed. "Of course… not," she managed to wheeze out.
"That's right." Relieved but not assured. "Kakashi-sensei will come. Pakkun will find us."
"Why don't you teach me medical jutsu while we wait, huh? Chakra control, right? I'm getting pretty good at that. What's next?"
"Ask Lady Tsunade…" She coughed again, grimaced. "Tastes funny."
"It's tomato sauce, Sakura. Tastes sour, doesn't it? What are the handseals?"
"Tomato…? No… not sour. Tastes… tastes like… hmm… I don't know. Maybe…"
"Sakura." His voice was strained. "Handseals. Tell me the handseals for that healing thingy you do. Maybe I can help." But he knew she was beyond help. Only Tsunade could save her, and Tsunade was dead. Yet… just a few more moments. He would give his life for a couple more minutes with her by his side. Even if she was getting delirious, no longer making any sense.
"You mean Mystical Palm? I know it… of course I know it."
"Really? Tell me the handseals then."
"Hand… seals? What are they?"
"Sakura." Desperate, now. "Please. Don't play around. You taught me what they were. Handseals. You know this. You do!"
She winced. "Not so loud… idiot."
"Sorry." And he was whispering now, smoothing her hair though it was already plastered to her head, no longer a light, innocent shade of pink that smelled of Pakkun's shampoo.
"That's better… I remember handseals. Used it lots of times… tiger, horse…"
"That's good, that's good. Tiger, horse, and?"
"Tiger… horse… ra-rabbit… Naruto, it hurts, make it stop…"
"I will, I will. After you tell me the rest of the handseals."
"I'm tired, Naruto… can't remember."
"No, Sakura – you have to. It's the only way I can try to-"
"Sakura…" Naruto nodded and pulled her closer to him, chaffing her chilled hands between his. If only she were him, if only she had a nasty tenant who kept her alive whether she liked it or not. "It'll be okay. You're not going to…" Couldn't say the word. Choked in his throat. "You shouldn't have come with me," he ended up whispering.
She chuckled, the blood gurgling. "Had to protect you… for Hinata."
He flinched. "Sakura. Hinata and I-"
"Tell me a story, Naruto?"
"A… story?" He didn't want to tell her a story. He wanted to tell her the truth.
"Yes…" She squeezed his hand, smiled. "Please?"
"If you like." Gathered her closer, tried to ignore the stinging in the back of his eyes. He knew these moments, when their thoughts were the clearest. He'd sat through Lee's and Ino's and Tsunade's. Not Sasuke's though. He hadn't had one. And now he was going through Sakura's.
"Once upon a time, there was a boy. He was a ninja and he wanted to be Hokage. One day, he graduated from the Aca-"
"Not this one," she interrupted. "I know this one… tell me another one…"
"But that one was good," he whined in a broken murmur. Wiped at his eyes, didn't care if they were streaked with red.
"Don't like it."
"Fine. Once upon a time, there was a boy and he-"
"Different one." She squeezed his hand, probably her best attempt at a pinch. She'd probably never pinch him again, never send him flying into the nearest building. Never turn her down for another date… but he hadn't asked her for a long time.
He tried to smile. "It is a different one, Sakura. Just listen."
"There was a boy. And two girls."
For a moment, she seemed to stiffen in his arms. Her breath was shallow against his cheek. "Idiot, True Love and… Friend," she identified.
"Yeah. Now, Idiot liked True Love since he had been a kid, and Friend liked Idiot for a long time, too."
The weak pinch again. "Did not."
"Did too. Now hush, it's my story."
"Idiot was good friends with both of the girls – he was even on a team with one of them. Their teammate left them after a while, and there was just Idiot and True Love."
"Shh." Naruto drew her into his lap, wrapped his arms around her, rested his chin gently on the top of her head. She used to like him holding her like this. "Idiot made True Love like him. Their days together were his happiest." And they were, of course. "But then Idiot became Hokage and he knew it wasn't safe for True Love anymore. So he went to Friend, and Friend understood. She knew Idiot didn't really love her, but she was happy to play the game of pretend."
Something wet slid down Sakura's face and onto his hand. He didn't know if it was a tear or blood. "They promised that they would tell True Love the truth when it was safer… but True Love followed Idiot when he went to fight, and Idiot couldn't protect her." He had failed, failed the one person he had vowed never to fail.
She grasped at his hand, played with his fingers. "I like that story… there was only one True Love?" Her voice was a deliberate whisper, not a breathless gasp crushed by a failing lung.
Swallowing, nodding, wished he could make it all better. "Yes. Just one."
She turned her face into his chest. "Idiot is an idiot," she murmured.
"Hmm?" The rain continued to pound relentlessly. By now, there was a small stream of crimson. It was beautiful.
"Yeah. Me too. But… I thought I was protecting you and I…"
"Naruto? Love me?"
"Yes." He stretched out as best he could, lying down with his back to the rain, cradled her gently, made his arms her pillow. Kissed her forehead. "It'll be okay, Sakura," he said again. It was a mantra. A lie.
"Mm…" A trail of blood tracked down her face from a wound he must have missed before, sliding horizontally down her cheek, past the bridge of her nose, merging with the pale drops on her skin. He didn't wipe it away. "I'm going to… sleep now, Naruto."
She was beautiful, and for the first time her eyes seemed focused, capable of emotion. His tears joined hers. "Okay," he whispered. Stroked her hair again, tucked the stray strand behind her ear. "Okay. Sleep, Sakura. Rest."
Her eyes were closing, eyelids fluttering as if she were fighting it. "I'll tell you about… the beautiful place… when I wake up."
"Sure." Swallowing his pain, his feelings, his heart, he rested a hand against her eyes. "Sweet dreams, Sakura."
"It's… pretty…" He could no longer feel her eyelashes brushing against his palm as they fluttered like a butterfly's wings. He bit down on his lip. Hard. "Really… pretty…"
Her eyes were closed now. She was sleeping.
In case of confusion, here are some notes:
Naruto became Hokage after Tsunade died (don't ask me how she died, don't know)
Orochimaru took over Sasuke's body.
Konoha is in a bit of a mess - apocalypse, if you like.
And I'm sure you can figure out Idiot, True Love and Friend for yourself.