Chapter One: The Meeting
Is there another side?
Beyond the black and white
A place I could meet you by?
Winter came early to the northern reaches of Lightning country. Though it was only late autumn, any unfortunate traveler forced to endure those frigid temperatures and biting winds would believe they had surely been transported into the depths of winter. Haruno Sakura was one of those unfortunate travelers, and right now she was cursing her luck—and her shishou—for sticking her with a mission to such a remote, desolate backwater.
Well, perhaps she was overreacting just a little, and maybe living in Fire country had spoiled her. It wasn't even snowing yet, and if Sakura were forced to be honest about it, she would have to admit it was actually a beautiful and untouched country, full of wild, rolling moors, mist-shrouded forests, and glassy lakes that reflected tall, verdant mountains. Though she figured she'd seen enough of it on her thirty-mile trek through open country to last a lifetime.
A sharp wind rose to meet her as she crested a small hill, forcing her to squint against the assault as she spotted a town at the far edge of the rough, rolling downslope. The crossroads a few miles back had pointed her in this direction, but she pulled her map and compass from her jacket pocket just to make sure. Settlements were scattered far apartout here and she didn't want to waste hours by going the wrong way.
After a successful mission exchanging practices and information with the head medic of Hidden Cloud, Sakura had come to the northwestern edge of Lightning country on one final task for the Hokage before heading home: Konoha was in short supply of several medicinal herbs which grew only in cold, high elevations, and she just so happened to be going to one. Sakura had hoped she might findthem in Kumo and be spared the extra trip, but no such luck. Tsunade had marked her map with the locations of three towns that should have the herbs in stock, and Sakura had chosen the largest on the assumption it would be the best target for acquiring what she needed.
A strong blast of wind nearly ripped the map from her hands before she hastily folded it and stuffed it into her jacket pocket along with the compass. Another gust set her teeth rattling, and she pulled her fuzzy green bobble hat lower over her ears and wrapped the matching scarf tighter around the lower half of her face before trudging the last few miles into town.
The village of Moyama was nestled within the misty, forested foothills of an expansive mountain range. With one glance, Sakura could tell this was a rugged, practical sort of village with few modern conveniences or amenities. The buildings were all of stone, with steeply pitched roofs meant to hold up under heavy snow, multiple chimneys sprouting from each—a rare sight to someone from a temperate country. The lack of power lines here and in the countryside told her that the entire town ran its electricity from generators.
Just inside the gates, she stopped before the watchman and asked where she could find the clinic. He sucked on his pipe and stared at her curiously for a long moment before finally pointing her in the right direction and returning to his newspaper, which she noticed was a week old. Sakura figured they probably didn't get many visitors all the way out here. They seemed pretty removed from society altogether.
It turned out she needn't have asked for directions, as there were only two streets that weren't residential, and they intersected at the middle to form a town square. She had been right about it being a no-frills place; there was nothing in the way of entertainment except for a pub inside the inn. They didn't even have a library, which was nearly criminal in her opinion. Not that she was planning to stay and enjoy herself, but still. How boring.
She spotted the clinic across the street and hurried over, eager to get out of the cold, but was forced to halt as an ox-drawn wagon passed in front of her. The driver eyed her strangely, his heavy gaze fixed on her until he'd passed by and was forced to turn his head. Sakura frowned at his back and wondered if there was something odd about her appearance. After performing a quick once-over of herself she continued across the street. A tiny bell tinkled overhead as she entered the clinic, and for the first few seconds she just stood there soaking in the heat, her wind-reddened cheeks tingling as they warmed.
A stout, middle-aged woman with graying brown hair came out from the back and smiled at her. She had a cheerful look, with round cheeks and warm, crinkly blue eyes. "May I help you?"
Sakura unwound the scarf from around her face and approached the reception desk. "Yes, I need to speak with the head doctor please."
"That would be me," she said. "My name is Junko. That's an interesting accent you have. We don't get strangers out this way often."
There it was again. As she spoke, the woman studied her with a shrewd look that bordered on suspicion. Sakura couldn't guess why she would elicit such a reaction from the townsfolk. Maybe they just weren't partial to outsiders.
"I'm from Hidden Leaf, in Fire country," she explained, watching Junko's eyes widen at the name and what it implied. "My name is Sakura. I'm the apprentice of the Hokage, Tsunade."
Junko's surprise turned to excitement. "Lady Tsunade? Oh, I haven't seen her in years! How is she?"
"She's well," Sakura said amiably. It never ceased to amaze her how many people her shishou knew from her travels. Her renown seemed to spread to every corner of the world.
"That's good to hear. And you say she's the Hokage now? Well, it's only fitting, I suppose. Such a strong woman, and I've never met a better healer in all my years. You said you're her apprentice?" Sakura nodded, and Junko smiled. "Then you must be very talented."
Sakura returned her smile proudly. "I'm here to find some medicinal herbs that only grow in this region. I have a list here…" She slipped her pack from her shoulder and rifled around in the front pouch until she found it, and handed it over.
The older woman read the short list and nodded. "You've come to the right place. Most of these are found in spring, so our stock is a little low this late in the year, but in a place this small we don't often find much use for them so I think I can give you a good supply of each. I'll just run to the back and get these for you." She headed toward the back room with the list in hand, but stopped suddenly and turned again. "Oh! Where are my manners, you must be tired after traveling all this way, not to mention freezing. Have a seat, dear. Would you like some tea?"
"Yes, please." She nodded gratefully and took a seat on the padded bench along the wall, glad to get off her feet. Junko returned after a couple of minutes and handed her a steaming mug.
"There, that should warm you up. Now I'll go draw up those herbs."
Sakura thanked her and cupped her hands around the warm ceramic, breathing the fragrance of chamomile with a pleasant sigh. While she waited she busied herself with looking around the reception area. The clinic was neat and clean, but very small, and probably not well funded. Smaller populations meant fewer people paying for medical services, which in turn meant no advanced equipment or pharmaceuticals. Here they would use mostly holistic methods to treat their patients.
She sensed the presences of more people in the back, most likely other nurses and possibly patients, but didn't pay much attention and eventually passed the time by paging through a year-old home décor magazine she found on a nearby table. She was halfway through when Junko returned with a small paper bag in hand. Sakura rose and met her at the desk.
"Here you go; it's all in there. You be sure to tell Lady Tsunade that she can get these herbs from us anytime she needs them. We'll even gather extra next year just for Konoha if you like."
Sakura smiled. "Thank you, I'll let her know. How much do I owe you?"
Junko wanted to give the items to her free of charge, a favor to Tsunade whom she respected greatly, but Sakura insisted on full compensation, knowing this little clinic couldn't afford to be giving their supplies away like that, even for old friends. Junko eventually relented and accepted her money, then instructed her on the best way to store and preserve the exotic herbs. When their business was concluded Sakura asked if there was anything Junko needed help with around the clinic before she left. Busy or not, places of healing could always use an extra hand.
"Oh, no, we're fine here," she declined politely, but Sakura caught the moment of clouded hesitation before she spoke. Junko then changed the subject. "Are you going to stay in town overnight? I advise you should; it gets right freezing out there on the moors after the sun goes down."
Sakura considered it. It had been cold and windy enough on the way here; she definitely didn't relish the idea of freezing to death out on the moor at night. She wasn't expected back in Konoha for a few days yet anyway. "Yeah. I think I will."
"Good. I reckon you passed the inn on your way here?" Sakura nodded, and Junko gave a small, knowing chuckle. "This town's so small it's hard to miss anything. There's a pub downstairs there, as I'm sure you're hungry. They make a great stew that'll warm your bones—"
Junko's chatter was interrupted suddenly by a small commotion from the back of the clinic. A door slammed. Feminine voices, hushed and concerned, drifted down the hall along with shuffled footsteps, and then two nurses emerged from the hallway. One of the women had her arm around the other, who was clutching her forearm to her chest like it pained her. The glance the supporting nurse shot at Junko conveyed a weighted message that the doctor seemed to understand perfectly, from the tight press of her lips. The two nurses quickly disappeared into the staff room behind the reception desk.
Sakura followed them with her eyes and then looked to Junko. "Is everything all right?"
The older woman gave a weary sigh and waved a hand dismissively. "Nothing to worry about, dear. Just having a little trouble with a particularly stubborn patient, that's all."
Sakura got the feeling that 'stubborn' was a glossed-over understatement, if the patient was lashing out. "Anything I can help with? I have some experience with unwilling patients."
Junko gave a curt laugh. "Not unless you can forcibly hold a grown man to the bed while we administer treatment."
Actually, she could. But she was leaving this place in the morning and if she made a resentful patient even more resentful, these women would have to deal with him afterward. She didn't want to leave them with an even harder job than before. "If he doesn't want help, why did he come here?"
Junko hesitated again, reluctant to tell an outsider about the village's problems, but after a moment she caved. "Well, maybe you can help. You're a ninja, right? You must know how to deal with these kinds of people. Maybe you can tell us what we're doing wrong."
She leaned against the counter. "See…he didn't come to us. He's not from this village or anywhere around here from what we can tell. This man…he stumbled into town and collapsed in the street about three weeks ago. He just wandered in…looked like a dead man walking, if you can imagine that. He was covered in burns and knife wounds that were several days old and completely untreated. We assume he's some kind of soldier because he looked like he'd been in a terrible fight—and if he came out of it looking like that I don't want to know what happened to the loser. We brought him back here and searched him but he had no weapons, no belongings or identification of any kind. He was half starved too—still is, to be honest, because he hardly touches the food we give him."
Sakura was used to men stumbling into her village and collapsing in the street. Sometimes, on an especially difficult mission, it was all a shinobi could do to make it back home alive. But the citizens of this town wouldn't be accustomed to such a thing. "You haven't been able to learn anything about him?"
She was genuinely curious, but also unable to ignore the little alarm in the back of her mind. The only military types around this area should be Cloud ninja, and they would be easily recognizable by the locals. If there were battles being fought nearby, she should learn what she could and inform the Hokage.
Junko shook her head. "Well he was unconscious for the first few days, but since he woke he hasn't uttered a single word. I'm certain he'd be out the door in a heartbeat if he weren't too weak to get out of bed." She lowered her voice conspiratorially. "I think he might be an army deserter and won't say anything so we can't turn him in, not that we would. It's none of our business. Our job is to heal." Her tone hinted at a deep disapproval for all things warlike, which probably included Sakura's chosen profession as a ninja.
"Were his injuries so bad that he's still bedridden after three weeks?"
"No, they've nearly healed, though it wasn't easy with the infections he got from leaving them untreated for who knows how long before he fell into our hands. While examining him when he was unconscious we learned that not only was he badly injured, but he's sick as well. Some sort of disease that makes him cough blood. At first I thought it was tuberculosis, but I was wrong. It's like nothing I've ever seen before in all my years of medicine. I can't tell if it's respiratory or intestinal, and he certainly won't tell me anything, but I do know this: it's been wasting him away for some time now, and there's nothing I can do for him even if he'd let me, other than ease his pain. He's dying, and from the advanced state of him I'd say he has a week, maybe two. It's a real shame; such a strong man like him surviving the fight of his life only to fall to debilitating illness." She shook her head sadly.
"I can take a look at him if you want. I can heal with chakra; maybe I can do something for him that traditional medicine can't," Sakura offered, sympathizing with Junko's impotent frustration.
Junko debated it for a moment, but finally shook her head and declined. "Thank you for offering, but I can't agree to that. He's too unstable, and frankly, he's dangerous. He frightens my nurses, and I think after what happened today neither of them will go near his room again. I'm worried about their safety and mine, to be honest, and I won't ask you to put yourself in harm's way."
Sakura held in a sigh. Apparently Junko's sweet, grandmotherly look hid a keen, no-nonsense character. She understood her reasoning, even if it didn't apply to her. She was about to argue that she could handle herself perfectly well, but Junko went on, her voice taking on a low, uneasy quality.
"He's too weak to even walk on his own…yet he's able to leave bruises on Mai's arm? There's something unnatural about him; he has a very intense, unpleasant aura the likes of which I've only felt before in the really bad types, if you know what I mean."
Sakura was almost certain now, after listening to Junko, that the difficult patient in the other room was a missing-nin. She tried to detect his chakra to confirm her suspicion, but he was either masking it or too weak to produce traceable amounts.
To most civilians, ninja were regarded with caution and suspicion. They were widely thought of as a bunch of spooks—shadowy figures of society's underbelly. Mysterious, ruthless, immoral, and capable of things that those who couldn't manipulate chakra would think defied the laws of nature. If he was distressed and angry, the pressure of his chakra would certainly be the reason these women felt so on-edge around him.
"I've met some strange and powerful people in my time, your master Tsunade being one of them," Junko continued. "But this guy is really something else. You'd never guess it by looking at him—to be perfectly honest he's really quite a handsome young man—but there's just something…dark about him. My other nurse Shion said that in the first week he was here, when she tried to give him an IV he slapped her hands away and got so angry his eyes flashed red. I don't know if she saw correctly or not, but I'm not sure I want to."
Junko carried on griping about her unwelcome patient, but Sakura stopped listening as the truth of the situation dropped heavily upon her. The watchman and the wagon driver had given her a strange looks on her way in that she'd brushed off. Junko had seemed almost suspicious of her when she'd commented on her Fire country accent.
'We don't get strangers out this way often…'
'…collapsed in the street about three weeks ago…'
'… really quite a handsome young man…'
'…got so angry his eyes flashed red…'
There was only one thing Sakura knew of that would make a person's eyes flash red from an adrenaline spike. How much of a coincidence could it be that almost exactly four weeks ago, as part of a search party combing the northern edge of Fire country in, her team had found remnants of a fierce battle in an ancient Uchiha fortress?
How he managed to travel this far from the battle site with such terrible injuries, or where he was trying to get to, she had no idea. But there was one thing she was sure of.
In the room down the hall, only a few feet away from where she stood, was Uchiha Sasuke.
Years after he'd left them for power and revenge, months after her team confronted him at Orochimaru's lair with disastrous results, right now he was mere footsteps away and completely unaware of her presence.
And according to Junko, he was dying.
He hadn't looked like someone who was terminally ill when he'd come at her with a Chidori-laden sword the last time they met, but stranger things had happened. Sakura had lost all illusions about her former teammate after that incident. Now this second time around, she felt none of the unrealistic hopes of before. Still, she couldn't help feeling something…maybe not happiness, but…relief? That he was still alive, that his whereabouts and status were no longer a giant question mark. She still cared what happened to him, even after all he'd done. Part of her would always care, no matter how angry and disappointed and betrayed she felt.
The mix of emotions fought for dominance within her, but what won out over the rest and bubbled to the surface was a deep sense of sadness and regret. If what Junko said was true, if this really was the end for him, then she had only one option.
"I need to see him."
Her unfocused gaze and quiet mumble made it seem as if she were talking to herself, but Junko heard her, and looked up with a surprised frown. "I appreciate your wanting to help, really, but as I said—"
"Please," she insisted. Junko's reluctant expression only set further, and Sakura barely managed not to groan in frustration. If she appeared too eager the old woman would know something was up. She tried a different tactic. "The condition you described…I think I've read about it. I think I know what it might be. I may be able to help him." It might be a lie, but then again it might not. Maybe she would know. Maybe she could save him.
Right now she just needed to get into that room.
Junko regarded her skeptically, reluctant to give in. But as a healer, she wouldn't be able to refuse trying every option to save her patient, and Sakura knew this. Finally, the doctor sighed and relented. "All right. I hope you can do something." She removed her stethoscope from around her neck and handed it to Sakura. "It's the last door on the right, but don't say I didn't warn you."
"I'll be careful," Sakura promised absently, donning the stethoscope. It was all she could do not to make a mad dash for the hallway.
But about halfway down the hall, her steps unconsciously slowed in foreboding. What if he freaked out when he saw her and hurt himself somehow? What if he was so far gone in his illness that… No. She shook her head roughly, angry with herself for thinking such things. None of the what-ifs mattered. It was Sasuke. She had to, if for nothing else than to gain closure and say goodbye.
It seemed strange that it could end like this, here in this tiny clinic in the middle of nowhere. It seemed wrong. Sasuke was supposed to come back to them, to Konoha, whether through an epiphany or common sense or Naruto's uncanny powers of friendship. In the darkest corner of her mind, the part of her that grew more hopeless with every passing year since he defected had even imagined that he and Naruto would fight another epic battle and that Naruto would either bring him home by force, or that Sasuke—gods forbid Naruto, too—would be killed.
But this just seemed too…insignificant…for their history. Naruto wasn't even here. If she was able to contact him, would he be able to make it in time? He would never forgive himself if he lost the chance…
Well then she would just have to find a way to save him.
Her hand was trembling as she reached for the door handle. Sakura paused, took a deep breath to steady her nerves and prepare herself for what she might find, and then quietly opened the door and stepped inside.
The bed stood along the far wall, away from the window—probably with reason, given the patient's obvious desire to be anywhere but here. This left him almost completely immersed in late-afternoon shadow, but Sakura could see that he was propped upright with his back against the headboard, and though his face was turned away, a spike of recognition and familiarity swept through her. His body language, the way he sat just slightly slumped in that brooding manner. His pale skin. His inky black hair, though it was longer than last time. And she could tell even from this distance that he was as thin and frail as Junko had stated.
Her heart thudded heavily in her chest, cutting off any words she might have spoken, even if she knew what to say. He knew someone was there, and the silence was filled with the weight of his irritation. The seconds ticked by, and when she still hadn't moved and still couldn't say a word, he turned his head and glared at her.
Sakura's heart skipped a beat. She blinked once, then again, trying to focus through the shadowy room. She could have hit the lights but she was rooted to the spot, her limbs filled with a cold, sinking sensation. Her heart was beating so hard it hammered in her ears.
It had been several months since she'd last seen him, and then only for a few intense, adrenaline-filled minutes. And sure, a debilitating sickness would most definitely have a drastic effect on his appearance. But no amount of compensation for time or illness could convince her that this man was Sasuke.
With devastating certainty, Sakura realized that the man staring back at her was Uchiha Itachi.
Next chapter: The Bargain