Chapter 17

Leaden by the weight of regret and disappointment… and the body in her arms, Sakura slumped forward. From a distance, a hawk wheeling overhead, she was nothing but a bloody, dirty, sweat-soaked, drained heap. Head bowed impossibly low, shoulders following suit, she forgot about the still whirling sand brushing against her bare arms and drying her already parched lips. It took a few tries for her to whisper his name before she succeeded, the raspy voice that toppled out almost unrecognizable, even to her—

"Gaara," she managed, "Could you help me… ?"

A breath of sand around her lap and the body she was holding lifted without her, steadied by a gradually solidifying platform. She remained kneeling during its ascent, her now black and blue hand last to leave his cold weight, his cold wrist. Light was still gray as it beat upon her mercilessly. She blinked slowly, as each movement of her eyelids required a disproportionate amount of effort. Her head and chest felt so hollow, yet so heavy. A pale hand suddenly materialized into view. She would've recoiled from the abrupt movement, if she were able to do anything at all. But she just glanced upwards, neck muscles protesting from the slight motion...

Blinking once to focus, to not seem rude, she tried her best to seem alert. The planes of his face were too smooth, too blank to make simple the task of finding sympathy there. When Sakura let herself look at his eyes, however, she found hard warmth, tempered by perseverance against unimaginable toil… A gaze she had always wanted to attain, one with some palpable strength… a gaze she'd never managed to achieve. She was too weak… Her sight lowered back to his hand, no longer wanting to understand his silent words.

Everyone's waiting.

Sakura closed her eyes briefly before her dirt and blood encrusted hand lifted and met his, gripping it tightly as she hauled herself up, noting with displeasure just how much support she needed, especially when her knees buckled quickly, unexpectedly. To say she hadn't fought so hard for so long in her life would be an exact truth, however extreme, and her muscles were not happy with her. A jarring step forward steadied her, as well as the cool large hand wrapped tightly beneath hers. Wincing, she shook her head free against the wave of dizziness and nausea folding over her forehead and sight like a helmet. A few measured breaths later, and she was able to stand on her own, straightening, finally observing the absolute destruction of the landscape around her… In front of her.

Her hand loosened from Gaara's and moved to gently brush the side of Tomio's cold cheek. His pale skin contrasted sharply with the red and brown staining her fingers. Sakura's eyes lingered, unsure of how to stop the unwanted pressure against the back of her throat, her eyes, her heart... She couldn't remember how it felt to cry only a few minutes ago… Was it just minutes? Eyes screwing together tightly, she tried to erase and remember him—erase his death, remember him as he lived… But at this point, how could one be without the other?

We did this.

Breath hitching, she gritted her teeth, shaking from both effort and exhaustion… and she stopped.

She had to stop.

She'd said she would.

Her movements hindered by pain, but unbroken through perseverance, she slowly unzipped what remained of her flak jacket. There were no scrolls left in it; it was utterly of no use to her. But for him… She draped the tattered green canvas gently over his torso, covering the unnatural cavity that worsened his death. Her sleeveless black turtleneck jounin shirt lay in jagged strips around her waist, but sweat still saturated the shirt. An errant wind cooled the cloth. She was no longer warm.

Gradually making herself more aware of what was around her, Sakura felt the signatures of all her teammates—all significantly weaker but all definitely there—and felt one of the knots in her gut loosen, but only just. A stark contrast to the signatures of Gaara's fresh battalion of four hundred chuunin and jounin didn't help but emphasize how drained the group was. Suna med-nins were already tending them—a task she knew she was grateful to have help with, as she only had one reserve chakra diamond left, and none of her own to even get her back to Konoha in a timely fashion.

Moving past her, Gaara began walking back towards his troops—an impossibly straight-backed figure, despite the weight of his gourd—Tomio's body floating gently beside him. Sakura stood still, though cognizant that she should've already been walking with him, towards the low bustle of busy life towards the near horizon. But…

There wasn't any wind left.

Her face lifted, bruises, smudges of dirt and dried blood made that much more prominent by her already porcelain skin blanched by fatigue of all kinds. Closing her eyes against the weak warmth thrown out by a cloud-shrouded late afternoon sun, she realized how much and how little time had past. Fights did that. They'd throw off one's perception of time, space, and oftentimes, of oneself. She hated that part the most—hated it for loving it. Throwing her chakra sensors as far as they could go, searching for them while an empty, dead rage built a hollow chill in her stomach, she absently clenched and unclenched her fists.

They weren't here.

Naruto…

Eyes barely open before she was whipping around to follow Gaara, teeth closing painfully over the inside of a cheek to handle the fresh wave of agony rolling up her leg as she tried to move. Swallowing back a scream more of aggravation than pain, Sakura limped, her split Achilles tendon's failure to clot thus exacerbated and leaving a trail of dark red behind her. Five minutes of pure, untended, and yet welcome, agony before she reached him—Gaara had waited after all. He'd stopped and had been watching her progress, turning once more as she neared. Together, they trekked across the dirt plain, the voices of many growing steadily louder. She stayed near Tomio, doing her best to not look down, to not think, to not feel…

Entering the camp meant passing by a kneeling line of Oto POWs, Sakura gave Gaara just one glance. He didn't miss much, and said with a slight chill, "You need not worry about them."

Sakura couldn't help the frown that creased the skin between her eyebrows, but she chewed her words and thoughts carefully before she asked, "And what of the citizens?"

To this Gaara seemed a little more accommodating: "Most had already been coming as refugees to Suna. I'm sure Konoha, Ame and Suna will work something out," he said crisply, although judging by the almost imperceptible lilt of his voice and the focused unspent anger still weighing his brow, it was clear that Oto citizens would be last on his list of priorities. Sakura didn't get to press the issue further as she approached her teammates. A skein of silky mahogany hair, a shred of bright green cloth, and a tuft of brown hair against burnished metal headgear were all that Sakura could make out from the bustle around them. Neji, Rock Lee and Tenzo were conveniently buried underneath at least three Suna med-nins each. Sakura swallowed heavily—chakra was weak from all three. From the fray, Ino seemed to suddenly materialize, her ponytail whipping around her in a cyclone of gold as her head turned sharply towards Sakura. Standing shakily, her eclectic and fashionable jounin outfit revealed itself to be much less than its former glory. Strangely, Ino didn't seem to care at all, as she hurried to Sakura with obvious relief on her gashed and hastily bandaged face—

Which vanished instantaneously, to be replaced by a slow-moving horror at the prone figure between the Kazekage and Sakura. Ino stopped dead, her ripped deep purple skirt fluttering against her thigh-high boots in delicate disbelief. The silence was perilously thick, and none of them wanted to disturb it. Ino didn't seem to want to move any nearer. Frozen still, at a distant too far to be close, suddenly wet, light blue eyes rose slowly, desperately to meet Sakura's. Green eyes flickered away, downwards; she wanted to quake under that stare, shake her head, and do something, anything… Sakura's head bowed of its own accord; unable to bear Ino's unspoken questions, her eyebrows pinched in guilt so inordinate it was making her numb.

It was her fault.

She heard Ino let out a shaky breath, the exhale shuttered by parched lips pressing together tightly. Limping forward, Sakura reached for Ino's bare shoulder, squeezing it lightly once her bloody palm rested against soft skin. There was really nothing she could say, as words of comfort failed to form from lack of practice and use. Pushing against her diaphragm uselessly, Sakura tried and tried, but found her throat empty, the air voiceless.

Ino hastily wiped her cheeks after rubbing her eyes roughly for a bit, her strongly beautiful face momentarily disappearing behind the blood and dirt-stained backs of her hands and wrists… Ino was missing two fingernails; the red stain from where they'd used to be too mockingly shallow and dark to be nail polish... Of all things to cry about… Sakura squeezed her eyes shut to disperse the moisture suddenly appearing there. As if realizing her physical appearance was under scrutiny, Ino brought her hands away from her face, gaze flickering just once to Sai's body, resting there before hurriedly reverting back to Sakura. Blue eyes weren't rimmed with red—Ino had breathed enough. The feisty blonde pulled her features into a defiant mask of confidence, braving a grim smile. And as if reading her mind said hurriedly, voice slightly shaky but thick with her usual self-assured strength, "It wasn't your fault, Sakura."

Startled, Sakura waited silently, searching her best friend's face for some nonexistent explanation, but Ino's eyes were cloudy and unfocused, her mind elsewhere as she said sadly, "He'd run off suddenly… I didn't think—… "

Swallowing heavily, Sakura's face became strained, as she felt the sharp memory of Tomio's death barreling into her thoughts and stomach simultaneously. It was only broken by Ino's low voice, and replaced by a dull chill, as the mind-manipulator asked pensively, "Which one? It was Sasuke-kun, wasn't it?"

Sakura froze, her mouth going dry almost immediately. She could feel Gaara's stare against her back.

Guilt over wanting to lie forced the smallest shake of her head.

It was Ino's turn to look startled. Sakura refused to meet her eyes. So frowning, Ino placed her hand over the one Sakura was still gripping her shoulder with, holding it tightly until Sakura did manage to lift her head, fixing Ino with a stare that was too desperate to not bode ill. Challenging Sakura with a fiery glint in the baby blue eye not shadowed by a curtain of blond hair, Ino firmed her voice, her resolve, hid her doubts and asked, "So what do we do now?"

OOO

Accompanied, or rather supported, by a small group of Suna soldiers and their Kazekage, their progress home was slow, hindered by thick layers of bandages and fatally drained chakra systems. Lee could not see out of one eye. Neji had broken both of his wrists. Tenzo's chakra system had been laid bare, so much that he could not even produce a three-walled shack for shelter. Kakashi was limping heavily yet refusing to let anyone treat him. Ino, though, had escaped much physical damage by flitting in and out of her opponents' consciousness while her body was hidden in a specialized genjutsu she'd created with Sakura a few months back. However, the blonde's luck had drawn short against a nin wielding a scythe attached to a hidden chain. Underneath the bandages covering the left side of her face was a scar trailing from her scalp down to the skin of her neck. Ino wouldn't take the bandages off in front of anyone.

As for Sakura herself… She just stared at her hands. Wiped clean at a small river they'd camped near a day prior, she'd been able to wash most of the grime covering her arms, face, neck and hands. It had taken a while. Her injuries were mostly superficial; the more traumatic internal bleeding induced by hits from the Tailed Beast Rasengan were still throbbing, but not life-threatening. Her Achilles' tendon had been healed nicely by a Suna med-nin. Walking wasn't painful anymore, though running still posed a problem.

At the moment, she sat with her knees drawn up before a small campfire, its smoke a light gray shadow against the dull darkness of late night. The trees around them were silent—the presence of so many people had long driven away any crickets or small animals.

Tossing some nearby twigs into the dying blaze a few feet in front of her, Sakura surveyed the rough camp they'd set up. Everyone was asleep, or just quiet.

Kakashi was breathing deeply not too far from her; he was clearly exhausted enough to take a heavy nap—something he rarely indulged in on missions. Ino, Lee, and Neji were bundled in blankets, curled up on the ground, only recognizable by the tops of their heads. They too were fast asleep, if the deep breathing and slight snoring from all three was of any indication. Tenzo was awake, though resting, four meters away. The obvious discomfort on his face made Sakura shift her attention elsewhere abruptly. A few Suna shinobi were on watch, chatting in low voices while Gaara sat against a tree at the edge of the clearing, arms folded across his armored chest in meditative fashion. His teal eyes were shut.

Sakura didn't look any further to know who else was with them. Shutting her eyes, she rested her head against her knees, arms curling around her calves more tightly. Her toes were warm.

Tomio's body rested in a block of ice just thick enough to encase him completely, courtesy of Kakashi. Gaara's sand was insulating and covering the body from sight at the same time.

By now she was throwing whatever was within hand's reach at the flames, which bore such treatment gamely, only puttering indignantly at a small handful of dirt.

She was useless.

At the moment, at least, she was completely and utterly useless.

She'd never once been drained so thoroughly and so completely that she'd been unable to seal up a simple scrape. All of her chakra was gone. Three days of rest had allowed for the slow beginnings needed for her to replenish her system, but once they began the journey home, her body had automatically began to use her main diamond reserve to keep from shutting down; she was moving only because of it. There'd been essentially none left to salvage for her teammates.

They had looked so expectantly at her…

And yet, they'd moved away once they realized she couldn't help them.

By the first nightfall of the day they'd battled Otogakure, she'd only managed to close the edges of a gaping kunai wound on Tenzo's tricep before waking up fourteen hours later with no memory of how she'd come to wake up staring at tree foliage on a late afternoon, a full thirty miles from the Sound Hidden Village. Gaara had apparently carried her on a moving bed of sand alongside Tomio, after Kakashi had passed out briefly from attempting to piggyback her the entire way. The poor geezer…

Lips pressed together tightly, Sakura shifted, and lay back down on her sleeping roll slowly—her abdominals shrieked unappreciatively. Once successfully flat on her back, Sakura closed her eyes, both hands at her sides, one near her kunai holster, and the other at a scroll holster. She tried to breathe deeply, to meditate. She gave up after less than a minute. There was a storm in her chest and her head that refused to be quelled. Sakura resigned herself to thought until sleep overtook her…

The mission had been a failure.

What would she tell them?

The darkness glinting above her had no answers.

All worn out, her teammates had thankfully refrained from asking any questions, opting for a more detailed, official meeting once back at Konoha, by which they could be alert and fully functioning human beings. If anything, it gave her the time to prepare what to say, for even she'd yet to understand the events that had happened so recently. That whole day, fraught with fighting and death, was now just a blur, when usually the horrors of missions keep her awake at night with gruesome detail…

She hadn't spoken a word since she'd woken. There was too little to say and nothing to say it with. Her friends accepted this silence with their own and kept their distance.

Though

She turned onto her side, her back to Kakashi, Ino, and everyone else. The empty fullness of the forest crossing her vision gave her little comfort; they seemed little less than mocking, horizontal cage bars.

She wouldn't have minded, had they stayed near.

OOO

There wasn't much light passing through the large windows, even though it was midday. Silence didn't help the overcast atmosphere, either. Empty seconds ticked by as the seated shinobi around her stayed drawn into themselves, unsure of where to begin for fear of where it would all end.

Shikamaru had long since closed his eyes, leaning back into the chair he occupied at the head of the table. Only the deep frown etched into his face assured the rest of the shinobi gathered that he was not asleep. Gaara sat at Shikamaru's right, his expressionless face a grim reminder of what a hard life can do. Sakura refrained from shifting uncomfortably in her seat. The uncomfortable stiffness of the cold wood didn't help. Neither did the silent tension that she was met with after she briefed the room with the events following her split from the group.

No one would meet her eyes, so she resorted to staring at the slightly reflective surface of the mahogany table before her. A few minutes into her report, and she realized she could see them all anyway… Or, at least the bottoms of their faces.

Neji finally broke the silence, asking Gaara, "How'd you know when and where to show up?"

Gaara leveled a glance at Sakura, saying, "You said you just needed two days… And I said, I'd move my troops in seven."

"…It was only five days," Sakura deadpanned.

"Therefore I had only mobilized one eighth of my troops," Gaara returned smoothly. "We were unaware of your mission until my scouts had reported on the destruction you," he looked pointedly at Sakura, "were inflicting on the landscape. We moved as fast as we could."

"And then Sasuke and Naruto just, disappeared?" asked Kakashi.

Gaara and Sakura both nodded. The following silence answered any unspoken question of, "To where?"

They could be shacking up in another dimension, for all Sakura knew. Other dimensions were apparently Sasuke's specialty. It was befitting of a coward who couldn't deal with the dimension he was born into. Sakura's eyebrows screwed together, the green of her eyes shaded black by the shadows of her downturned head. She was sick and tired of thinking badly of him. She was sick and tired of just thinking of him.

"So, is Oto up for grabs?" asked Ino.

Shikamaru shrugged, sharing a look with Gaara, as he said, "Until Mei-sama gets back to us, Suna and Konoha will only be jointly providing relief aid and limited law enforcement to Oto citizens. We need to meet with Kirigakure and Oto representatives before we can decide whether incorporation of Oto will be necessary."

Everyone seemed to give a slight nod. Besides, Sakura noted, Oto was a burden no one at the table was willing to address when the prospect of a war-mongering Sasuke on the loose hovered over them like a bad haunt.

Speaking of war and of Sasuke, Sakura pinned Gaara with the most authoritative glare she could muster and said firmly, "You should probably go back and reinforce your troops along the border you share with Iwa. If Sasuke had escaped there, we should expect some retaliation."

Gaara didn't try to pin her with an authoritative stare. He did pin her with an authoritative stare, his lightly nasal voice brimming with dry sarcasm, "I'd be more worried about Konoha if I were you. Suna's troops would only be an asset if Sasuke should decide to attack Konoha."

"He will," Sakura argued, "But Sasuke is Konoha's problem. We will deal with him."

"Sakura," Kakashi eased, "If Sasuke does decide to attack us… More lives will be lost. And you say Naruto is blindly fighting with him? There is no one left in Konoha that could defeat the both of them together. Our only chance of survival is working together." His voice was warm, comforting… Sakura kept herself from glaring, focusing on the mahogany finished wood in front of her.

She could.

Brushing off the underestimation she should've gotten used to by now, she simply shook her head, the much shorter strands brushing against her collarbone. "I can last against them in a window of twenty-six to forty-eight minutes, depending on how soon either of them start using Susanoo or the Nine-Tails Chakra Mode. I can guarantee that I will be able to seal them if they attack Konohagakure directly. During that window, Konoha has plenty of capable ninja to prepare their defeat," she said coolly.

Everyone seemed reassured. Hell, even he was. The entire group had seen the way she was almost able to defeat them. Who knows how much better she could do if she's prepared and fully driven (especially with a motivation like the village behind her)? But… Kakashi's visible eye narrowed ever so slightly as he watched Sakura enter into a discussion of possible defensive preparations with the rest of the group.

There was something else…

He couldn't see in on her face, this concealment. But he certainly felt it. Sakura's small smile at Rock Lee only made the discomfort in his chest worse.

He didn't like it.

OOO

It was raining by the time the meeting had ended. Walking out of the Hokage Tower, gravel and mud sloshed against the heels of her boots while she trudged slowly towards her apartment. Whatever had been holding her up—back straight, chin lifted, and eyes clear—had by now certainly been expended. Her shoulders drooped, while her eyes remained downcast.

Her chakra was only barely back. She would need another few days to recover. Even attempting to refill her second chakra system didn't work, as the absorbed chakra backfired, exploding erratically, and causing muscle hypertension that just wouldn't go away.

No one was outside. Bleary green eyes peered through the grey mist and fog from behind sodden pink bangs. The market was devoid of people. But the lights were on inside homes and buildings, the brightness dimmed into a glow by the rain. Sakura felt the corners of her lips move upwards just a tad. No matter the weather, here was still home.

But wincing, she stumbled a little, brought back to herself rather ungraciously by the cramp in her leg… Straightening with some effort, she quickened her pace. There was no denying it: she was in continuous physical pain. Yet, she wasn't upset about it. Rather, it was a relief from the torture of not knowing whether the pain she was feeling was real or imagined, rational or irrational. Unlike memories, inflamed nerve cells were definitely real and didn't allow any leeway for questioning its significance.

Sakura was a little less than drenched when she reached the door to her home. Leaving her boots outside her doorway to dry, a jingle of her keys, and she was finally at the entrance of where she belonged. Inside was dark, as she'd left it. A habitual movement from her hand to flick on the light paused midway, before falling to her side. The door shut silently behind her as she stared at the painting on the wall. She couldn't make out individual brush strokes in this light.

Her hand reached out, almost a ghost hand, touching the smooth paper softly.

The wet cotton of her back met the plaster of the wall behind her. Slowly, she slid down to sit on the floor, face and eyes empty. Even sitting was an effort. She gently moved to lie down, curling up into a sodden dark mass as the rain kept pelting against her window.

She was so cold.

OOO

He woke suddenly, head throbbing and chest heaving in agony. His hair clung to his forehead and neck, drenched in sweat. Gasping and doubling over, his large, rough hands pressed tightly against his lower left shoulder… When his breathing had steadied, both still shaking hands covered his face, concealing eyebrows scrunched in thought and frustration. Moments ticked past, a cool breeze escaping into his room from the crack in the papered window, before two cerulean, bloodshot eyes slowly emerged between tanned, calloused fingers.

His stare into the dark nothingness in front of him drowned with intensity, from conviction based only on intuition, sleepless nights, and incessant dreams. Hands dropped to the bed sheets tangled in a damp clump around his torso. Fingers clenched slowly, but tightly.

He'd known her.

In the adjacent room, obsidian irises confronted the darkness, frozen open, unblinking, and listening.