A/N: I would be highly surprised if this concept hasn't been done before, but I personally have never seen it in a non-romantic context before... so enjoy ;).
Disclaimer: I own neither the Naruto franchise, nor any of the characters depicted in this story, much to my regret.
You can tell a lot about a person, Sakura thinks in the tiny part of her mind that isn't free-falling into chaos, by the way they handle death. The reactions around her are as varied and dynamic as the people who express them, from the quietly stoic to the openly exuberant.
Hinata crumples to the ground, long hair pooling in the dirt, and shakes like a leaf in the wind. Kiba kneels down beside her and puts a gentle hand on her back, mouth twisted into an angry grimace.
Shino and Shikamaru bow their heads, taking refuge in silence. There is a muffled clicking sound, one that Sakura vaguely recognizes as Shikamaru desperately fiddling with the lighter he constantly carries with him.
Ino presses her face into Chouji's shoulder and lets out a muffled scream while he cries noiselessly.
Sai's face is still even as a steady stream of tears pour down his cheeks. His hand rises to feel the sheen of moisture, eyes shocked, and Sakura knows instinctively that this is the first time he has cried.
Sasuke's shoulders are set in stone as he strides forward and roughly grabs Naruto's battered body from Jiraiya's arms. The Sannin's hands clench on Naruto's shirt for a moment, but one look at the Uchiha's mutinous glare compels him to led the body go. Nobody moves to stop him as he lopes away from the group with Naruto cradled to his chest, back as straight as an iron rod and teeth clenched so tight that she is afraid they might shatter. Sakura wants to go too, wants to take her friend's corpse in her arms, although she would be at a loss for what to do. Cry, perhaps. Kiss his cheek. Apologize a thousand times for not being able to save him.
She wants to forget, forget the crusted blood that is all the way up to her elbows, forget Naruto's trembling last words and the brief but devastatingly accusing glance that Sasuke gave her after their comrade had breathed his last. He blames her for his best friend's death, and at the moment Sakura can safely say that it is not misplaced, this accusation. It is a terrible crush in her lungs, a frigid darkness that creeps over her mind and blocks out everything else, until the only thing she knows is the pounding of her heart, her heart that is still beating, still alive while Naruto has only minutes before entering rigor mortis.
She wants Naruto alive. She wants so many things that she can never have, and they all mix and jumble and whisper in her mind until she feels her knees give out and someone's arms around her and Tsunade's voice and everything is blurring, blurring...
Sakura wakes up to her sensei's concerned face and the stale taste of sleep in her mouth. The blood on her hands is gone, washed away by a nurse, but it might as well still be there because the wet stickiness of it is still clinging to her skin and her fingertips still thrum with the Kyuubi's chakra desperately trying to repair its vessel.
"It wasn't your fault, Sakura."
She blinks from the hospital bed and looks over to Tsunade, who has dark purple bags under her eyes. Alcohol, maybe. Or grief. The two seemed somewhat interchangeable with the Hokage.
"I couldn't heal him." She croaks, wanting to cry. Why aren't the tears coming? What's wrong with her?
"Sometimes, people are beyond healing." Tsunade says, and Sakura thinks sourly that her teacher has that brisk, shake-it-off tone down to an art. When she doesn't reply, though, Tsunade does the unexpected and places a tentative hand on her shoulder. Her head whips up, and when she looks a second time she sees the way that the Hokage is keeping her trembling mouth stiff, smells the faint aroma of sake, feels the bone-deep weariness in Tsunade's body. No one is impervious to grief.
"I asked Sasuke what he wanted done with the... with Naruto. It's going to be a funeral in the Uchiha style. He'll be displayed for three days. You can pay your respects anytime."
Sakura's throat isn't working, and after a moment Tsunade stands and heads towards the door, pausing at the exit. "I'm... sorry, Sakura."
"Not as much as I am." She whispers to the empty room, and heaves herself up to wash her hands.
Sakura stares at herself in the mirror and can still see the blood on her arms and face. She's taken three showers in the last two hours and has ignored every request from her parents to come out of her room. She doesn't want to hear their empty words. It's only the first day that Naruto's body has been placed in an open casket in the shinobi cemetery, and the line of people waiting to say their final words stretches all the way to the Yamanaka flower shop. The Konoha 11, though are waiting, by some sort of silent mutual agreement, for the crowd to clear before visiting. They are all radically different people, but all would rather say goodbye in peace rather than with the rest of the villagers watching. Sakura's not even sure if she'll go at all. She hasn't seen Sasuke at all since the day he carried Naruto's body of out sight, and the thought of facing him makes her sick to her stomach. The glaring blame in his gaze flashes across her retinas, and she places a hand against the mirror to steady herself.
Naruto had never looked at her like that, with such anger in his eyes. He thought she was beautiful, and told her so on numerous occasions. Looking in the mirror, Sakura sees nothing of her beauty – just a pale girl with a drawn face and blood splattered across her clothes.
It's not fair – it wasn't her fault! She had tried, dammit! But the moment she had pressed her hands to Naruto's chest, she knew it was over. The wounds were too many and too great – all she could do was force her chakra through his body and feel his internal organs bleed out alongside him. She'd done all she could, to no avail.
An image of a wizened old kunoichi flashes across her mind, but Sakura just shakes her head violently. Elder Chiyo is dead, and the resurrection jutsu has perished along with her.
...except that it hasn't, a cold part of Sakura's mind points out. Because she had been there, had watched how the old woman had pushed all of her chakra into Gaara's lifeless body and reignited the chakra circulation system, had marveled at how, once the chakra had been restored, the regular circulatory system had followed and the Kazekage had breathed again... and Naruto had been happy.
Sakura's fairly sure that she could do it, but reels away from the mirror at the thought. The price of that jutsu... the thought makes her skin crawl. The thin soup she choked down for lunch comes up all over her bed, and she curls into a fetal ball on the floor. It's too much. This is all too much.
When Ino climbs through the window that night after being turned gently away at the Haruno front door, she finds Sakura in the same curled position, wide awake and shivering with the freezing Konoha winter air. Quietly, she changes the vomit-covered sheets on her friend's bed and then kneels on the floor, encircling her arms around Sakura.
It is a long time before Sakura speaks. "I still haven't cried." She admits in barely a murmur.
"It's alright." Ino whispers, stroking her hair. "It'll be alright." Her voice is shaking, underneath all that bravado.
"I couldn't save him." Sakura breathes so softly that Ino has to lean in to hear her. She thinks of Naruto's body lying cold in one of the delicate Uchiha coffins, of the dark-eyed boy that would be standing vigil beside him. "I couldn't save either of them, in the end. Not when it mattered."
"There was nothing you could do. It's alright." A heavy sigh, one that ruffles through pink tresses and is swallowed by the night. "We'll be alright."
Sakura has nothing to say to that, and another image of Gaara's eyes fluttering open rises unbidden to her mind.
Ino rocks her in gentle arms for hours, until a strange, restless slumber claims both of them.
It is the second day that Naruto's body is on display, and Sakura has come to accept that the dull emptiness inside her is not going to disappear just by using soap and water.
She has been standing outside the cemetery gates for over an hour now, hands writhing over each other as she agonizes whether to take that final step in, that final step in accepting death. Iruka passes her on the way out, eyes red and clothes rumpled, like he has stayed through the night. He stops and watches her for a second, each of them studying the new lines on the other's face. Eventually he steps forward and takes her hands (Sakura hides a wince as the rough calluses of his fingers burn the places where she has rubbed her palm raw).
"I know it's hard but I think... I think that he'd want you to say goodbye." He says kindly, thinking of others even in his own grief. His voice is hoarse, Sakura notices with a pang of regret. It's not fair that he should have to grieve after the closest thing he has to a son. She nods, not trusting herself to say anything, and he kisses her brow before making his way down the street, shoulders hunched. He looks like an old man, and she can't blame him for that. She herself feels fifty years older, and can almost hear her bones squeak as she eases herself over the threshold of the enclosure, see the weariness in her limbs as she makes her way though rows upon rows of flat stones, all marking the short and violent lives of Konoha's past shinobi. She wonders how many others have wandered through this valley of death, how much grief the walls of this field must contain.
Naruto's casket is resting like a cradled child on the stone steps in front of the Hokage's memorial. There is no one else around, save for a lone figure kneeling in front of it. Sakura approaches with trepidation, feeling bile rise in her throat. She is keenly aware of the blood rushing with joyful rigor just under her skin as she stands beside the sole surviving Uchiha and stares down at Konoha's Number One Hyperactive Ninja.
Naruto looks just as he did in life – Tsunade has obviously used a Body Preservation Justu on him. The gaping hole in his chest has disappeared, and the cuts on his face and arms have been neatly sewn up. Sakura half expects him to leap out of the casket with a mischievous grin on his face and ask if she really believes that he would die that easily. She doesn't (didn't), but that doesn't change the reality. Naruto is dead, and this is final proof.
The thought sends her reeling again, and she falls down onto the soft grass in front of the steps, clenches her fist in the vegetation, and bites the inside of her cheeks to stop from crying out.
he's dead he's dead he's dead oh my god this is real this is really happening it won't be alright
it won't ever be alright again
The frenzied chant of words in her mind is broken as she is roughly hauled to her feet by Sasuke, who's face is cruelly beautiful in the winter sun.
"We're in a shinobi graveyard." He growls, tone low and dangerous like she's never heard it before. "Filled with thousands of our ancestors and, now, the body of our comrade. Show some dignity and bear your grief like a kunoichi, not some weak little girl."
"I-" Sakura begins with a squeak, but stops as she catches sight of Sasuke's face. His eyes are black holes that are looking but not seeing her. His cheeks are whiter than the frost that crunches beneath their feet, and his mouth is twisted into a furious scowl that had formerly been reserved only for Itachi. He has grown to become a man as hard as diamond, and twice as cold. Revenge has not softened him, nor have the years afterwards taking only the hardest assassination missions. Light (and even then, only a small spark) returns only to his eyes when he is with Naruto – she fears that this is the final event that will break him.
Even diamond will shatter under enough pressure.
"He deserves better than wallowing displays of petty grief." His fingers dig into her arm, causing her to hiss in pain.
Sakura swallows and decides it would be best to ignore the comment, bringing her hands up to gently take hold of his own. "Sasuke... you're freezing. Have you eaten at all?"
As if realizing what he's doing, Sasuke abruptly lets go and steps back to the casket. "It is customary for the family of the deceased to stand vigil for three days without eating or sleeping. Naruto has no blood kin, so I will take their place." He kneels again, back to her. "Go home, Sakura."
"You don't have to do this alone!" She cries, reaching out to him, extending her hand so that he knows they can hurt together, that he doesn't have to suffer in solitude... but his next words stop her cold.
"And who else will do it with me?" Sasuke spits, and although she can't see his face the venom in his voice is enough to make her stagger backwards. "All of those villagers who traipsed through here yesterday, all bowing and scraping to the death of the Jinchuuriki... they were the ones who made his life a living hell. Kakashi is still wrapped up in the deaths of his own loved ones. Jiraiya and Tsunade have a military faction to run, sending even more shinobi off to die for no better reason than a noble in another country wills it." Sakura can see him shaking in anger... all that anger that she had thought he had shed when he killed his brother is bubbling to the surface, and her blood runs cold through her veins to see it. He plunges on. "The Elders came by to pay their respects, oh yes. Lip service from the most powerful people in Konoha, who are only sad because they have lost a potentially powerful military asset and fear that we may decline as a village. And our other friends... I grant that they are grieving for the right reasons, but none of them had the bond that we did. They do not feel this... this..." Sasuke doesn't finish the sentence, instead lowering his head and clutching at his chest with one hand.
"I will stand with you." She whispers, and he barks out a harsh laugh.
"You're the one who -" Sakura's eyes narrow, but Sasuke stops, visibly collecting himself. When he continues, his voice is flat and brooks no argument. "No. Naruto was the closest thing I had to a true brother. Nobody else can understand."
Especially you. The unspoken words hang heavy in the air, and through a constricted throat, Sakura manages to squeeze out six strangled syllables.
"You think this is my fault."
Sasuke's silence is enough to answer her question, and her fists clench at her sides. "I tried as hard as I could to heal him, I swear it."
He still says nothing, and Sakura knows that he's not himself, knows that he's only looking for someone to blame, but the dark undercurrent in her mind is agreeing with him.
"I..." She begins to shake, losing her control in front of Sasuke and Naruto and the dead Hokage and all the thousands of shinobi that have come before her. She doesn't care.
"I loved him just as much as you did!" She screams, and hears her words echo a hundred times around the vast area.
"If you did, you would have saved him." It's only a whisper, but for the second time in her life, Sakura feels her world shattered by the man in front of her, the man she loves with all her heart who will never love her back. Sasuke stays facing the casket and only makes a flicking motion with his hand. A dismissal.
Sakura runs, runs out of the graveyard, through winding alleyways and houses and into the forest until she can hear nothing but the wind roaring past her ears like waves on a beach.
You can never outrun your problems, she thinks, but you can sure as hell try.
It's Kakashi who finds her in the end, lying on her back in a clearing and watching dark storm clouds build ever higher in the sky.
"You're going to catch a cold." He remarks dispassionately, for once seeming to have left his precious Icha Icha book in his pocket.
"I don't care." Sakura mutters, staring at the sky. "Colds are easy to cure."
She senses Kakashi moving closer, but doesn't stir. The clouds are broiling in shapes she'd never dreamed possible... and it'd nice to think about the impossible rather than the reality. Thus, she's rather unhappy when her former teacher leans over her and blocks her view. His eyes are also tired, she notes. With Naruto gone, nobody seemed to have any energy anymore.
"Look," Kakashi says, getting straight to the point in that honestly blunt way of his. "Losing a comrade is hard. Trust me. I know that as well as anyone. But we live in a world where death is always just around the corner. It's going to happen, whether we want it to or not. Naruto will not be the last person you lose, so you'd better learn how to deal with it."
Sakura stares at him for a minute. "Everybody's unhappy with him gone. It's worse than when the Hokage died."
Kakashi sighs, and she sees the corner of his mouth droop down through the mask. "He was a good kid. There were high hopes for him, yes."
Sakura returns her gaze to the sky, as if searching for something that isn't there. "Do you think... people would be as upset if I had died instead?"
Kakashi hesitates before replying. "Dwelling on something like that will only bring more unhappiness."
She watches a thin tendril of cloud that looks like a lock of maiden's hair. "He took the blow that was meant for me."
"It wasn't your fault."
It is the wrong thing to say. Sakura is on her feet in an instant, and Kakashi only barely gets out of the way in time before she hits the ground and shouts in fury, splitting it apart under her tremendous strength.
"Why can't anybody stop saying that! I'm not a little girl that needs to be protected from her own actions!" She whirls and hits a tree, watching it splinter with a vicious snarl.
"Nobody said that you were." He replies evenly. "Call it survivor's guilt – you're ashamed to be alive, with nothing you can do to bring him back. It's a perfectly natural human reaction, Sakura."
She looks at him for a second, fists clenched. He stares straight back, and Sakura sees a reflection of her own anguish in his eyes. And... then it's like a switch has been flipped and the tears are flowing faster and thicker than she has ever felt, and the world is only a smudge of color as she leans against the tree and cries, cries until she can't breathe for the pain.
Kakashi watches awkwardly, never one for physical contact, and eventually settles for sitting down beside her as she sinks to the ground with her back against the tree, tears mixing with the rain as it begins to pour around them.
"I'm sorry." He offers quietly. Sakura draws in a great shuddering breath.
"You're wrong." She hiccups, wiping furiously at her eyes to no avail.
"You're wrong. There is something I can do. It's just that..." She cries all the harder and and pounds at the ground feebly with her fist, not even bothering to funnel chakra there. "I'm too much of a coward to do it."
Kakashi has been called many things in his lifetime, but none of them ever included the word 'stupid'. He catches on almost instantly. "Resurrection jutsus never work out for the best, Sakura. The cost is always too high. Your brushes with Orochimaru should have taught you that." His voice is somewhat reproachful. "I'm rather disappoined at you for even thinking of it."
Sakura turns her face away and closes her eyes, tears seeping out from underneath. More disappointment. "Of course."
Kakashi is not convinced at her show. "Even Elder Chiyo's jutsu was imperfect, Sakura. The shinobi must give their entire store of chakra to the recipient in a steady flow. You would die."
"I know." Her voice is thick, and Kakashi thinks that the resignation in her voice means that she has abandoned the idea.
"Good." He mutters, and Sakura hears the trace of relief in his voice, realizes that maybe Kakashi cares more about what's happened then he lets on.
"Don't you miss him?" She whispers, shivering as the rain lashes at them. He doesn't answer for a long time, so long that Sakura thinks perhaps he has fallen asleep against the hard bark of the tree.
"Life is transient... fleeting, you might say. Yes, I do. But I suppose that we'll meet up in the next world sooner or later."
"And what if there isn't a next world?" She says, teeth clenched. The prospect of heaven or hell, once seeming so far away, terrifies her now. Kakashi shrugs.
"Then I guess it won't matter in the long run."
Sakura scowls, and neither of them say anything more.
When she returns home that evening, there is a note from Shizune sitting on her desk. Slightly surprised – Sakura gets along well with her, but they have never been close friends – she picks it up.
I wanted to say this to you in person, but I have been sent on a mission by the Hokage. I'm very sorry about Naruto, although I'm sure you've heard that a thousand times by now.
It's hard when you can't heal a friend. Every medical nin goes through an experience like this, and you might be asking yourself what the whole point of learning medicine is if you can't even save someone you care about. I know I certainly did.
Just remember this... anyone can destroy. It's easy to rip apart a life or a body. It's healing what's left behind that takes true bravery, and strength of character. I know you have that, and I urge you not to give up during what must be a very stressful time.
My best wishes.
Sakura sets the piece of paper down, a flurry of confusion crowding through her mind. Is what she's planning an act or bravery, or giving up?
She doesn't want to die.
But she doesn't want to see Sasuke close down and slowly fade away. She doesn't want Sai to retreat into his emotionless shell, like she can already see him doing as she passes him in the street. She doesn't want to see Kiba cracking unfunny jokes to try and get Hinata to smile or even talk, doesn't want Shikamaru to sit on that rooftop in the thunderstorm and play with the lighter that his other dead friend left to him. Most of all, she doesn't want the Ichiraku Ramen shop to be putting that small plaque up in Naruto's favorite seat.
A life made beautiful
By kindly deeds
And a loving heart.
Sakura doesn't want to die. But she doesn't want to continue living like this, either.
Sakura is very smart. It is a fact that is often overlooked when others take in her perfectly groomed appearance and obvious blind spot when it comes to Sasuke, but it is not something that can be ignored. She can't hold a candle to Shikamaru, of course, and her teammates easily beat her in tactical planning, but she has an excellent mind and is rumored to be in the book of potential candidates for Hokage. It is not often that she wavers on a decision.
Now is one of those times, though. Sakura lies on her bed and stares unseeingly at the ceiling, the unsolvable problem weighing on her mind like a heavy cloak. She is the only one who can save Naruto, she knows. She has seen a resurrection jutsu, has the knowledge necessary to implement it, knows the chance of success is nearly a hundred percent.
...but to die in return? The thought sends the cold pressure of utter fear throughout her body, matching the biting wind that moans outside her window and rattles the shutters. It is one thing to die in battle, where your body moves out of conditioning and pure instinct, where adrenaline and sheer panic makes it easy to throw yourself in front of a companion and shield them. It is quite another, she realizes, to calmly plan how you are going to die, to deliberately force the chakra out of your body and sign your own death warrant. Naruto had it easy, she reflects somewhat bitterly, when he died for his friends. Then she slaps herself, unable to believe she has just thought that. No one has it easy here, she thinks to herself wearily. The faces of her friends, each beaten down with a lifetime of torments, dance in front of her eyes.
But Naruto has changed that, has put gentle smiles on the faces of those where before there were only scowls of hatred. Konohamaru, Inari, Neji, Gaara, Tsunade, Sora, Sasuke... all people who have been saved by him. What has she done, in comparison? Nothing. She is the Haruno girl, from a plain background, with no history to speak of and no feats to her name. Naruto has always put his life on the line to save his friends and his village, always willing to go one step further than everyone else. He has saved Konoha more times that he can count on one hand, and changes the lives of everyone he meets.
Even her. Sakura allows herself the barest hint of a smile as she remembers...
"Sakura-chan! Sakura-chan!" Naruto whispers urgently as he taps at her bedroom window in the middle of the night, perched on her balcony. It is a year before Sasuke returns, and they have both just returned from a mission that left him with a few cracked ribs and her completely devoid of energy. She groans from her sprawled position on the bed, then clambers over to open it, dressed in only a bathrobe with her hair sticking out in all directions.
"Naruto, if you don't have a good reason for waking me up, I'll break your fingers." Sakura grouches, but Naruto only grins and sticks his tongue out at her.
"You know you love me deep down. Besides, you'll want to see this. Come on!" He reaches in, wraps both arms around her waist, and lifts her out to stand next to him before she can protest.
"Naruto..." She warns, eyes narrowing, but he puts a finger to his lips. "Follow me! This is good, I promise!"
With that, he hops neatly onto the railing and then gathers enough chakra at his feet to leap onto her roof, hair glinting in the moonlight. A few seconds later, his head pops over the side, and he beckons eagerly. Despite herself, Sakura feels a little thrill at the prospect of sneaking out. With a resigned sigh, she does the same and lands lightly next to him a moment later. He is lying on his back on the rough shingles, pointing to the sky.
"Look up, Sakura-chan."
She does, sitting down with her knees tucked to her chest, and gapes. The night is absolutely clear, and the stars are tiny blobs of silver on a great tapestry of midnight blue. And, directly above them, a dazzling splotch of color, like an accidental smudge.
Sakura smiles. "A supernova."
Naruto grins again. "Three, apparently, all at the same time. What are the odds of that?"
"I'd say it's impossible, but the evidence is staring right at me." She shakes her head in amazement, eyes enchanted by the range of glowing colors. "Hey, that one looks like you." She points to the largest one, a vivid orange and yellow splash against the dark backdrop. "Always standing out... and clashing with the others." She nudges him and sticks her own tongue out, all annoyance at being woken falling away.
Naruto laughs and puts his arms behind his head. "The blue one is Sasuke. It's just like his Chidori. Plus... it's kinda cold and a bit farther apart from the others, but look... some of the colors from my supernova are mixing with it. Think it's a sign?"
"I hope so." Sakura lies next to him and entwines their arms, causing him to start in surprise. She merely smiles mildly – Naruto is the brother she wishes she has, and while he irritates the hell out of her ninety-five percent of the time, it's moments like these when she feels like she would do anything for him.
He turns his head to hers, watching the side of her face as her eyes roam through the stars. "The last one is you, Sakura-chan."
Her eyes immediately find it – it is the smallest, a mere pink blotch against the brilliance of the others. "That tiny thing?" She snorts, pulling her hand away. "Hardly a good way to compliment a girl, Naruto."
"No," Naruto insists, backpedaling. "You're looking at it the wrong way. It's smaller than the others... but it's stronger." He lifts himself onto his elbows, and looks down at her, eyes serious. "More beautiful, even if the others are have brighter colors. You don't have to be big and flashy to make a difference, Ero-sannin told me once, although I don't think he follows that rule himself. You notice all the other stars first, but once you see this one, it holds your attention."
Sakura takes another look at the star, notices the perfectly symmetrical fluctuations of color on either side, the tiny glints of red and blue and green swirling in with the rosy pink. Sees the gentle ripples it sends out, already threading its own pigments through the much larger splashes of the other two supernovas.
Naruto smiles and sits up fully. "Just like you. You're beautiful, and I don't think I'll ever forget you." He winks. "And I'm not even trying to get you to go out with me anymore. Am I getting better at talking to girls, or what?"
Sakura giggles (what a weird sound that is, she thinks absently... there's not enough laughter around here anymore). "I'd say you have."
They laugh together, and Sakura takes his hand once more. "Thanks for showing me this, Naruto."
"Hey, would this be half as awesome if I couldn't share it with one of my best friends?"
He squeezes her hand, and they lie in companionable silence on the rooftop until the sun rises and the stars fade away.
Sakura blinks out of the memory to find her pillow soaked and her eyes stinging. When she thinks about it, it's obvious which one of them should really be alive.
... but to die?
She jumps out of bed and onto the balcony in one smooth motion, craning her neck backwards to look at the sky. But tonight it is covered in clouds, with only one or two of the more brilliant stars penetrating the thick haze between earth and the heavens. Perhaps that too is a sign, but for what Sakura cannot say.
It's a very small thing that causes Sakura to make up her mind, like the small pebble that begins an avalanche.
It is the beginning of the third day of the vigil for Naruto, and she is walking back from the cemetery with Neji and Ino. The three of them watch the brisk wind stir up great spirals of leaves that sweep across the street in little flurries, never content to settle down in one place. The cold bites savagely at their exposed legs, but the three shinobi still stop to watch a little girl racing behind the leaf tornadoes, laughing as her hair is tossed in the wind and the leafs swirl around her. Sakura wonders with a heavy heart how anybody can laugh now, with the brightest light in Konoha extinguished. Her face is crusty with the salt from dried tears, and her limbs feel like she is drained of energy. Sasuke is refusing to speak to anyone apart from Kakashi, who is avoiding the area like the plague. She has seen him from afar, shaking as he sits before the monument where the names 'Obito' and 'Rin' are inscribed in flowery penmanship. Naruto's is going to be added tomorrow, and the thought makes her heart give a painful thump.
Neji bends next to her and delicately picks up a leaf between his index and middle fingers.
"I don't believe in fate, anymore." He remarks simply, examining the veins threading intricately though the green flesh.
Sakura is silent. She doesn't want to hear another tale of how Naruto changed a life, of how the world is so much darker with him gone. Every word that has been spoken at the vigil weighs on her heart, mocking her for her cowardice, reminding her that every hour she delays her decision, someone suffers a little more.
"Because he died?" Ino, oblivious to her friend's discomfort, replies quietly. She has been subdued over the last few days... the night spent holding each other in silence has not been mentioned since it happened, and Sakura is worried about her, despite more pressing concerns.
"You could say that." Neji twists the stem of the leaf, milky eyes half-closed. "He was destined for greater things, and yet still lies in a coffin." He sighs. "It lacks poetic justice."
Ino snorts and rubs her arms as a gust of wind attacks them. "There's no such thing as poetic justice. Fate, maybe, although it isn't by any means fair."
Who says life is fair? Sakura thinks. There are so many things unjust in the world. Sasuke should not have had to watch his family die before his eyes. Neji should have been born into the Main Hyuuga House, where his abilities would have made the clan strong again. Naruto should be alive, smiling that big stupid grin of his and asking when the next mission is coming up.
She shouldn't have to make this decision, but life wasn't just going to let her ignore it.
Neji nods absently. Sakura cringes as he clenches his hand suddenly, crumpling the leaf. "I have just changed the course of this leaf's destiny." He says sadly, opening his palm. The three of them stare at its crushed edges, its red color bleeding into his hand, and Sakura feels like she's going to throw up. The metaphor is just too perfect.
The others seem to realize this. After a moment of silence, Neji turns his hand over to let it fall to the ground, but Sakura grabs his wrist.
"Let me keep it."
They look at her in surprise, but both of their eyes darken in understanding, and when they bid each other somber farewells a few streets later, Sakura is holding the leaf in cupped hands as though the slightest movement will break it.
Hunching on the street corner, she carefully (can't let it break, that would be too much to bear) smooths out the creased edges, uses her fingernails to restore the damaged veins, rubs her thumb over the edge to make it shine again. It's not fair that this work of art should never again blow in the wind. Satisfied with her repairs, Sakura admires at the work of nature in her hand. It is indeed a beautiful leaf, deep red in color lightening to orange at the bottom, with yellow veins winding lazily out from the stem and a slight shimmer to the underside. The damage from Neji's hand is still visible, but under her skilled fingers it is more whole than not.
Sakura lifts her hand and watches the wind catch the leaf off her palm and spin it down the street, dancing with the little girl chasing it, standing out like the supernovas she watched with Naruto all those years ago, and feels a sudden lightness in her heart. Perhaps it's possible to right wrongs, once in a while. Elder Chiyo has done it before, corrected the injustice that the world had bestowed upon the Kazekage.
It's her turn.
Her decision is made. Sakura closes her eyes and breathes deeply, threads of relief and a sickly fear intertwining in her veins as she begins the long walk home.
It is three hours until she dies, and Naruto returns to the world. Sakura sits at her desk with a pen poised over fresh paper, but no words come. How can she explain this feeling, the chain of events that have brought her here?
It wasn't your fault.
It'll be alright.
Show some dignity and bear your grief like a kunoichi, not a scared little girl.
Even diamond can break.
Anyone can destroy. It's healing that takes true bravery.
I don't believe in fate.
Who says life is fair?
Sakura sets her pen down, knowing that the task is impossible. Her goodbyes will have to be said in other ways.
It is two hours until she dies. Sakura has set midnight as her death hour, and Naruto's rebirth. Sasuke will have ended his vigil by then, and besides... she always did have a flair for the dramatic.
It doesn't bother her, yet. Strangely, now that she has decided, a calm has settled over her shoulders. By tomorrow, her friends will be happy and Naruto will be back on his path to save countless more people, more than she could possibly do as a healer. She doesn't think about the other's reactions to her death – it might cause her to change her mind, and she refuses to let that happen. For once in her life, she wants to be sure of what she's doing.
Sakura fixes the final flower in the door of the Akimichi household. She has bought some twenty boughs of cherry blossoms (how the Yamanakas got them at this time of year is a mystery to her), and has placed them in the doorways of each of her friends and family. Life in a season where only coldness and death remain. The symbolism pleases her, and she can't think of a better way to say goodbye. She has not told anyone of her plan – the idea of explaining it in words makes her feel ill, and they would try to change her mind anyways.
It is an hour until she dies, and Sakura is beginning to feel the first flutterings of panic in her breast. With every step towards the graveyard, her senses are sharpened. The stars are bright pinpoints of light, illuminating the simple beauty of an empty street, showing her the smooth curve of the dying trees, the soft tenderness of a couple wandering home from the lake. She can taste the crisp night air, smell the faint scent of cinnamon and ramen and fresh grass, feel the hard stones under her feet and the caress of the wind as it blows her hair behind her. All trying to convince her to stay alive, to experience them for one more day.
There are so many things Sakura wants to do.
She wants to become the best medical ninja in all of Konoha.
She wants to finally beat Ino in a fair, one-on-one fight. She knows she can do it now.
She wants to see Sai emerge from within himself and become the man she knows he can be.
She wants to marry Sasuke and revive the Uchiha clan.
She wants to live.
But this is what is going to make her sacrifice all the more significant, she decides, forcing her feet to keep walking at the same pace. She wants to live, but she wants Naruto to live more. Six years ago, she would not in her darkest dreams have thought that she would be standing once more at the cemetery gates, willing to give her life for the annoying Uzumaki kid that always disturbed the class and had stolen what was supposed to be her kiss.
Six years ago, she had not known the meaning of loyalty, friendship, or duty.
And so Sakura smothers the fear coiling in her stomach, and walks into the cemetery as the wind shifts once more, sending a flurry of leaves around her feet.
It's not painful, she notes with surprise. Dying isn't like anything she imagined. Just... tiring.
As the last of her chakra fades, the color leaches out of the world, and there is only a blinding white.
You can tell a lot about a person, she thinks mildly, by the way they handle death. She wonders what her reaction says about her.
Sakura lets out one final breath, and slips into the next world with a smile on her lips.
Beneath her slumped form, Naruto's body stirs, like a leaf slowly being picked up in the wind.
So... please review! I've never really written Sakura before, so hopefully I captured her well.
And, yes, I do know that the likelihood of three visible supernovas in the same area (relatively speaking) at the same time is virtually impossible. Then again, this takes place in a world where people create clones and water dragons by performing sign language and shouting out their attacks. I count nothing as impossible anymore ;).