"Words giving birth, words dying out, the words that live on inside you." - Lira
Warning: Character death, angst. This is rated M for a reason, dearest ones.
Time skip- two years.
Sakura was alone once more.
It wasn't so rare these days, to be alone. The death toll over the past two years had rivaled that of the last shinobi war.
Sakura trudged through the rain, carrying whatever groceries she could buy back to her apartment. She was on leave from duty, though she took no pleasure in the reprieve, all to aware that her comrades were fighting in the cold, far from home.
A small procession of black-clad people, some of whom Sakura recognised, walked slowly and purposefully down the main street. A coffin was borne upon their shoulders.
In some ways, they were lucky, Sakura thought. Most families did not have a body to bury. She bowed her head low in respect as they passed.
One of the first to go in a long line of casualties, was the girl who had become her closest friend; Tenten. As Sakura promised, she taught Tenten how to 'dodge like a cat,' as the cheerful girl had once put it. All the extra training had done her no good though, as she'd been murdered in her sleep by one of Kiri's silent assassins, who'd slipped invisibly past her teammate's watch.
Lee had never forgiven himself.
Before the war, the pair had spent months poring through the scrolls that Sakura had begged Tsunade to give them access to. Together they had pored over the secret jutsu scrolls of long-gone clans, at first with fear of angering the dead, and then with a sense of determination. Between them, they brought to life forgotten techniques; after all, there was nobody left to tell them 'no.' Neither of them saw any reason why the techniques should be abandoned, just because the original users were dead.
One such scroll, hidden amongst dust and lacy cobwebs, had detailed the use of nature manipulation, coupled with sharp things.
Sakura had done the test for her chakra type years ago, and was happy to find that her fire element would work well with the technique, her hot wire cutting through even metal like butter.
Tenten however, had never mastered the technique. The chakra control it required was so high that even chakra specialised ninja would have had difficulty mastering it. It seemed that Sakura's perfect chakra control was useful for more than just healing, though she would never have as much of it to use as Naruto or Sasuke. Her chakra level was very similar to that of Kakashi.
That name again. The one that wouldn't leave her alone. It seemed that anything would remind her of her last mission, the one she truly wished she could forget.
Kakashi, absent and preoccupied for a good portion of her teenage years, had steadily grown more involved with her education; teaching her techniques, and working on the taijutsu he was a master at, but had neglected to teach her until then.
It was a warm day when she came to him for the first time, timidly, asking if he could train her with his 'string reeling technique.' His interest peaked, and once she told him of her small successes in trying to re-create his technique with the addition of nature manipulation, he began scribbling diagrams on a dog-eared scroll.
"This is the way you study best, isn't it Sakura?" he'd asked her, explaining the rough sketches involving angles, distance, and application of chakra. It seemed he knew more than enough about the technique to guide her, even going so far as to attempt to teach her to apply lightning natured chakra to the wires, though she still only had varying success with it.
Looking back on how driven Kakashi had been to teach her, she wondered if he'd felt guilty for neglecting her training, focussing on Naruto and Sasuke instead. It had crossed her mind that he was atoning for being a bad teacher, spending nearly every free day training with her, trying to make her ready for the war, for anything.
Their last mission, the one that was gorily etched into her memory like a fresh wound, had been his last.
"We must strike now," Tsunade was pacing back and forth in front of the assembled jounin, "while he is weak. This mission..could mean the end of this wretched war."
Sakura and her fellow jonin stood just a little straighter at that. The hope they were each breathing was almost palpable. Tsunade stopped her pacing and turned to look at them all gravely.
"Though he may be weakened right now, we all know who he is," Tsunade paused, "and what taking this mission might mean. Do not volunteer lightly."
Kakashi had been the first to raise his hand.
The rumours had been true; Madara was indeed in a weakened state, having somehow lost his left hand, making him unable to form hand seals, though that didn't stop him from slaughtering the first two jounin who attacked. He sucked them out of existence without a trace using the Mangekyou.
Sakura should have been the next to go, all her training with Kakashi and Tenten worthless as she found herself in the most horrifying genjutsu she'd ever met. For her, it had lasted seven days.
When she came to, vomiting, a familiar figure was standing over her, protecting her, just like in her genin days when she was too weak to defend herself, only this time copious amounts of blood were seeping through his flak jacket. Madara was lying on the floor twenty feet away, unmoving.
"Kakashi...sensei?" she'd asked trembling "You-"
He'd turned his head to face her, and she gasped; his sharingan had exploded in his eye socket, and blood was streaming down his face.
"I made it," he coughed, "in time."
He crinkled an eye at her before collapsing into her arms.
She'd tried to heal him them, tried to force the chakra out of her and into him, but it wouldn't come. She screamed, and swore, but her chakra wouldn't come out. It seemed that the trauma of the genjutsu had messed up her control.
"Damn it!" she'd screamed, sobbing onto her sensei's bloodied chest, beating the floor with her useless fists as their comrades could only look on in helpless silence.
"It's okay Sakura," he'd comforted her kindly, "things are fine like this."
He'd reached up a shaky, battle-scarred hand, and clumsily cupped her cheek.
"You have so much to live for."
The sound of her groceries hitting the pavement brought Sakura back to the present. How long had she been standing in the rain? Her paper bag had gotten soaked through, giving way and sending apples and cup ramen rolling across the street.
Her gaze followed the path of one red apple, speeding along the slight slope of the pavement, before coming to a stop at a pair of feet. A slender, pale hand reached down, and picked the fruit up off the floor.
"Sasuke," she murmured, surprised, "why are you here?" The last she'd heard, he'd become a complete recluse ever since he'd lost his eyes.
"Shikamaru told me you'd returned," he replied, approaching her slowly, certain of her identity after hearing her voice. Sakura still couldn't get used to seeing Sasuke with bandages around his eyes, and the slender cane in his left hand.
Like her, he had no umbrella, and the ends of his hair were dripping with water.
"You're soaked," she observed quietly.
"...It's raining," his lips rose in a slight smirk as he held out her apple, which she took from him wonderingly.
"I suppose it is..." she agreed, before adding the apple to the soggy pile of groceries in her arms, which promptly collapsed further, sending more items slipping out of her grasp.
"Give me those," he ordered softly, offering his hands, "you can't carry them all, can you?"
In reply, she stacked him up with the items she held, before getting on her hands and knees to pick up the rest.
"Come back to my apartment with me, and I'll make hot tea," she offered, and started walking, knowing he'd follow.
Neither of them made any effort to start a conversation as they walked, only the sound of the rain on the pavement, and Sasuke's black cane skittering lightly in front of him breaking the silence.
Sakura hadn't noticed how cold she was, until she was nearly defeated by the lock on her door, her numb fingers struggling with the keys. Silently cursing herself for daydreaming in the harsh weather, she finally wrenched the door open, kicking off her shoes and heading to the kitchen.
"It smells like dust," remarked Sasuke behind her, wrinkling his nose by a fraction.
"Nobody's been in here for over a year," Sakura explained, placing her groceries on the table, "and I haven't cleaned yet. You can put those down now."
He joined her at the table, feeling for the edge before spilling her shopping onto it. He felt out the plastic chair, before sitting down on it slowly, while Sakura quickly packed up the groceries into her cupboards. The low hiss of the kettle began to fill the air.
"I hear rumours you've become one of Konoha's most vicious assassins; 'Konoha no Setsudanki,'" he told her, his voice steady, "Konoha's guillotine."
"Where did you hear that?" Sakura asked absently, pouring tea for two into her earthenware mugs. The name had begun to follow her around, clinging to her like thick oil. She despised it.
"Vague mutterings coming from frightened men in dark bars," Sasuke rested his pointed chin across his elegant fingers, elbows resting on her table. "Horror stories they surely tell to enemy shinobi children-though I'm sure much it couldn't possibly be true," he smirked. "Our little Sakura-chan surely wouldn't do such bad things; like cutting three Stone ninja in half with a single flick of her wrist, for instance."
"Why did you come here, Sasuke?" she asked lightly, distantly. "To torment me? Mock me? I assure you, you're wasting your time. Your words are just words, and nothing more."
"I came here to check something," Sasuke said simply, "and the rumours are right, you have changed."
"Haven't we all?" replied Sakura, placing a hot cup in front of him with a light clunk. "You're not exactly the same person you were when we were genin."
"At least I'm alive..." he said softly, and she felt as if he was looking far too deeply into her, through the bandages across his missing eyes and into hers. "Sakura, you're not even really here, are you? Where did you go?"
"...I'm still lost somewhere, Sasuke. Just leave me be."
Sasuke had left shortly after that, and she had tipped the remains of his tea down the sink, while abandoning her own cup in search of dry clothes and a towel for her hair. Her delay in changing out of her wet garments had caused her body temperature to drop by quite a bit, she estimated, and it wouldn't do anybody any good if she were to get sick.
For the first time in over a year, she opened the door to her room, the soft padding of her feet giving rise to mini dust clouds. It had been so long, that her own home felt strange to her, and the ceiling was an oppressive cage above her head.
She tried to ignore the cooped-in feeling as she rummaged through her drawers to find a pair of soft flannel pajamas. It had been so long since she had slept in a bed. After pulling on the downy nightwear, she sat on her bed, suppressing a sneeze as the dust puffing from the bed irritated her nose.
Sakura lamented not putting dust-sheets on her furniture before she left, but there had been no time. The troops at the border had been overwhelmed, and needed reinforcements quickly. Sakura hadn't even stopped by to pack before landing herself in muddy, bloody trenches and constant threat of death for the first three months, before struggling through the rest of the war, away from home. She had been surprised at how well she had taken it; the fear, exhaustion and adrenaline served her well as a distraction against all that she had lost.
In the nights where the moon hung heavy amongst the stars, and the sky seemed to weigh and press upon her tired body, in those precious moments were rest was permitted, Sakura still dreamed;
She dreamed of her friends, all together and smiling. She dreamed that the war was over, and that she had returned home to find everyone waiting for her, and they had never been gone. It had all been a confused exaggeration of a tired mind.
Sometimes she dreamed of him. Never his face, but his voice; the single calm point within the rush of fear and noise. The hushed tones drowned out the screams from both comrades and enemies alike that replayed like a broken record in her head.
"It's alright Sakura, yeah..."
She'd wake up happy, and then feel a sense of ripping loss as she remembered where she was; lying under the night sky, dyed orange and red with the promise of a bloody dawn. The tears would fall silently while she prayed for the power to forget, and cursed herself for her weakness and self-pity.
A fluttering, tapping noise interrupted her reverie, and she looked up from the cracks in her floor to her desk, upon which stood an object shrouded in a faded cloth, weak nighttime light from her window bathing it in a blue sheen.
A hint of a smile touched her lips. So it was still there, was it?
Sakura stepped into the shaft of moonlight, and slowly lifted the cloth, revealing an upturned glass vase.
"Hello you," she greeted softly, touching the cool glass with her fingertips. "It's been a while."
Inside, a small white butterfly beat its wings, floating prettily in the confined space.
A clay butterfly.
Sakura had found herself unable to sleep in her bed, the softness and vulnerable position far too strange for her paranoid mind to deal with. She lay there, watching the threadlike wisps of cobwebs wave gently in the weak breeze coming from her cracked window. Eventually, she succumbed to her old habits and curled up on the floor by her dresser, facing the door, kunai in easy reach.
She had achieved four hours of sleep before awoke, alert and paranoid that she hadn't been woken up for her watch, until she realised that she wasn't at the border camp anymore.
The grey skirt and red shirt felt alien under Sakura's fingers, callouses snagging on the fragile cotton. She put it on anyway, trying to remember the last time she wore it, but failing. It had been so long since she had worn anything but black.
Out of habit, she strapped a small band of stiletto knives around her upper thigh, and slipped a small coil of her trademark wire inside her chest bindings. One could never be too careful.
The sun was oppressively bright as she stepped out onto the bustling street outside, small bento-box in her hand. She made her way slowly through the less busy streets, avoiding the busy crowds of the market places. The quiet of the border outpost, and the constant threat of danger had put her senses into overdrive, and she found it difficult being in the middle of such a throng of activity.
Finally, after nearly taking one shopkeeper's arm off when he waved a sample of his fresh baked goods at her, she reached her destination; Konoha's park.
She felt so out of place in the homely, normal scenery. In the distance, children played while their parents looked on, unaware that right then, people were dying on the battlefields so that they could enjoy their peace.
Shaking her head, she sat down on the soft grass. She shouldn't resent them for their carefree behaviour; it was for this very purpose, for the village and its citizens, that shinobi gave their lives. The battle would be pointless if there were no civilians to enjoy the freedom that was bought for them in blood.
There was a slight chill in the breeze, but for Sakura, who had patrolled the borders all through the winter, it didn't even make her shiver.
She ate her lunch slowly, soaking in the relaxed atmosphere, trying to let it dissolve her unease at sitting in such an open place, where she stood out against the grass. She even went so far as to take off her shoes, tufts of grass poking up from between her toes.
"Sakura! I heard a rumour you'd returned!" A feminine voice assaulted her, causing her to jump to her feet, brandishing a handful of tiny throwing knives in defense.
Ino stood there, her smile slowly fading off her pretty face, holding a small blonde-haired infant on her hip. The girl looked at Sakura, wide blue eyes far deeper and brighter than her mother's. Naruto's eyes.
Sakura fell to her knees with a light thump, her right hand dropping back to her side. She was trembling.
"Ino..." she muttered, but her gaze was focussed on the child at her side. "Is this...?"
"Minato-chan, meet Sakura," Ino explained to the infant, "say hello."
Minato smiled shyly at Sakura, and shook her hand clumsily in greeting.
Sakura waved back, stunned.
"You've been away for so long Sakura," Ino started, "a lot has happened in your absence. It's been nearly two years."
"I didn't even know you were pregnant..." Sakura murmured, unable to take her eyes off Naruto and Ino's daughter. "How old is she?"
"One and a half. I only found out I was expecting after Naruto..." Ino trailed off. "He didn't know."
Guilt clawed its way through Sakura's chest.
"I'm sorry Ino," she said, ashamed. "I should have been there."
"There was a war on, Sakura," Ino shook her head. "You were needed elsewhere. I'm lucky enough to have both my parents to help me. Luckier than most."
Ino sat down neatly next to her, Minato on her lap.
"Now that the war is over, maybe you'll come and see us more often?" Ino suggested hopefully, her hands resting lightly on the infant's head.
"That would be nice," Sakura replied with a shaky smile. "I'm going to be on cleanup operations and recall duties for a while, but I think I'll be back here at least some of the time. Not like before."
"It's been a strange war..." sighed Ino, "I'm so glad to see the end of it."
"Yes," agreed Sakura, "it feels like a lifetime since it began."
"What do you think Naruto would have said?" asked Ino. "About the war, about us fighting to avenge him?"
"When he was murdered," Sakura said slowly, "although this meant Madara couldn't cast the world into a genjutsu, it meant that relations between the Five were shattered. There was doubt and betrayal everywhere, and it wasn't just vengeance that fueled the war. We loved him, all of us, and that thought kept us going, while we fought to prevent our way of life from being taken from us. I think he'd know we tried to do the right thing."
"That's what I think too," Ino smiled, "I think he'd be proud."
They settled into a comfortable silence then, listening to the breeze rustling the healthy leaves in the trees surrounding the park. The distant sound of children's laughter was like music to Sakura's ears, having only heard tense orders and screams of agony for the duration of the war.
"I hear you made quite a name for yourself in the past year," mentioned Ino lightly, playing with her daughter's hair.
"Exaggerations, I'm sure," replied Sakura, "you know how things get twisted by word of mouth."
"Oh," said Ino with a mixture of disappointment and relief. "So the rumour about you cutting three Stone jounin in half isn't true..."
"Well..." Sakura shifted uncomfortably, "It's not that it's not true, it just sounds more dramatic when you say it like that."
"No way! So you did do that!" exclaimed Ino, "How did it happen?"
"There was a lot of fighting, and my teammates were in trouble," Sakura recounted. "These three beefy guys were in my way, and I think one of them was about to summon something. I managed to loop my wire around them, heated it up and pulled. I just got really, really lucky."
"If you say so..." Ino grinned, the familiar expression taking Sakura back to her childhood. "So tell me, did you meet any attractive, talented young men at the border?"
Trust Ino to make an unglamorous, bloody life or death situation all about boys.
"No, pig," Sakura laughed, "no nice young men I'm afraid. Just sweaty, smelly comrades and a whole lot of fighting."
Sakura found herself amazed at the sound of her own laughter. It had been a very long time since she had heard it, and it felt foreign in her throat.
While they had been talking, little Minato had squirmed from Ino's lap onto Sakura's, and had begun playing with her candy-coloured hair, tugging gently at the strands with delight. She clearly found Sakura's hair colour fascinating.
"Oh, she likes you!" exclaimed Ino happily, clapping her hands together.
The tiny girl gave Sakura a grin, spread wide across her youthful face to reveal small white teeth. She had her father's grin, the embodiment of all that was carefree and pure in the expression. If only her hair had been a little more spiky, then she could have passed for Naruto when he was that age.
"Sakura?" Ino's voice lilted with concern. "You're crying, what's wrong?"
"I'm sorry Ino." Sakura returned the confused child to its mother, standing up and teetering oddly on her feet. "I can't be here anymore."
Tsunade sat at her desk, looking over the top of her laced fingers at Sakura. The familiar scene calmed Sakura's nerves a little as she bowed and entered the room. Little had changed in the design, as Tenzou had rebuilt the Hokage's tower to resemble the original closely.
Upon seeing Sakura, Tsunade's head rose off her hands, and her eyes widened a fraction, then narrowed.
"Sakura..." she said, "I didn't think I'd be seeing you so soon after your debriefing. What's bothering you?"
Tsunade's voice had become somewhat more hoarse over the war, the only sign that she had aged.
"I'm requesting to be put back in the field," stated Sakura quietly, "today."
A long, tired sigh was her reply, before the silence began to stretch on longer than Sakura felt comfortable with.
"Shishou?" Sakura looked up at her old mentor, surprised to see such a sad, yet fond smile on Tsunade's usually stern features.
"I knew something like this would happen to you," Tsunade explained. "You're too good of a ninja to let your fear stop you from doing your duties, but you're not quite good enough to stop those duties from affecting you."
Sakura remained silent.
"You're something like a cross between predator and prey; constantly alert for attack, ambushes, but you have the burden of being a killer. I think...you should stay here for a while." Tsunade fixed Sakura's eyes with her own. "The war is virtually over, and I called you back for more than one reason."
"What are you trying to say?" Sakura was confused. She had done everything the Hokage had asked, hadn't she? Jumped over every obstacle she was presented with, for the sake of the village. Konoha, the village she loved with all of her heart.
"You're almost like a different person, Sakura," Tsunade reasoned. "It's like your mind is somewhere else entirely, and this is just what's left."
"War changes everybody..." Sakura protested, trailing off, unhappy with where the conversation was going. "And I am here, and I need to be somewhere else. Shishou, don't make me beg, just give me an assignment."
Sakura's posture, although correct and polite in the presence of the Hokage, was that of a cornered animal. Tsunade looked on with resignation.
"There is an operative," she began gravely, "stationed in Wind country. He has been acting under my orders, and solely carrying out dangerous espionage and assassination missions throughout the war. You may know him as...Konoha no Kyuuketsuki. Konoha's vampire."
Sakura nodded mutely. She had heard of the assassin; the name muttered fearfully under the breath of enemy shinobi when they were giving bad news to their superiors. Tales of black wings, a mask and hood, and troops left with the life sucked out of them; a living horror story for those who called him 'enemy.'
"It's time to bring him home."
Sakura's apartment, its cleanliness, the normality it offered; the lazy darkness at the window mocked her, daring her not to leave it. Her small, childish bed that monopolised the north-facing wall beckoned her, invited her to lie down and sleep in her past, and bathe in it until she was a memory herself.
Sakura knew that she had no choice but to leave. To stay in the village would mean the slow decay of whatever was left of her heart, despite her love of Konoha and its people. She needed to be away and free. Far away from the memories of those she had loved, who had died.
Her supplies seemed almost to pack themselves, assembling tightly in her small bag. Practice had made perfect, and she packed only the necessities for a simple reconnoissance mission, keeping her pack light but well equipped.
The silhouettes of houses cut patterns against Konoha's sky, made visible only by the dying light of the setting sun. The air, heavy with precipitation and the smell of wood fires was in itself a memory; a sensory trigger that made Sakura pause to push away thoughts of missions with team 7 out of her mind.
Around her, the stillness of the night was complete, the moonlight glinting off her forehead protector like silver rime. Sakura moved through the dark foliage with purpose. A long journey lay ahead of her.
Clutching the pristine scroll she received from the Hokage as proof for 'Kyuuketsuki,' Sakura allowed her thoughts to wander lightly, skirting round the mysterious image she had of the assassin. Would he be as the rumours suggested; evil and vicious? Perhaps he would be more like Itachi, cold yet courteous. She couldn't help but hope for the latter, as she was in no mood to deal with a renegade killer.
The darkened trees, cast deep, long shadows that made the moon flicker across her eyes as she flew along her path.
Used to nighttime travel, her body guided itself towards Wind country, confident in its movements, while Sakura's thoughts were her own, plagued with flashes of what ifs and idyllic daydreams, before they were swiftly crushed by her conscious effort. Instead they turned to mysteries and puzzles. Her mind turned back to the last mission she had taken with Genma, back in Kiku village;
Sakura threw herself back on the bed provided for her by the village head, wincing as it was discovered to be harder than anticipated.
The mission was complete. A pathetic excuse for a mission that any first-year medical ninja could complete effortlessly. The outbreak of flu had taken little more than a few hours to assess and treat. She and Genma would be heading back in the morning, as there was nothing more for them to do.
Suddenly, a familiar noise assaulted her ears, and impacted the foundations of the building.
A sick feeling arose in Sakura's throat, and she swallowed bile.
Surely there was no way Deidara could be here? He couldn't possibly be cleared to leave the village, which would mean that he had escaped, ruining all chances of becoming one of Konoha's own.
She sped out of the small inn, foregoing shoes in favour of speed. She saw Gemna approaching from her right, and she joined him anxiously.
"Any ideas what that was?" he asked her, frowning. He was wearing only his jounin trousers, clearly having come straight from the baths. He didn't even appear to have any weapons on him.
"I hope not," Sakura replied honestly.
The pair hurried towards the noise, entering the dense foliage that surrounded the small border village.
Three figures were involved in a fight, it seemed, with the two males cornering the female.
Sakura was about to angrily intervene, when she felt a hand on her shoulder, stopping her.
"They're shinobi," explained Genma. "We can't risk interfering; our actions could have big repercussions in foreign affairs."
That made sense, and Sakura cursed herself for not noticing the skill in which the woman regained her balance and formed a fighting stance, and the stealthy approach of the men in front of her. However, the woman appeared to be injured, favouring her left side considerably, and Sakura doubted that she would survive the fight. Guilt tore into her at standing by while someone was murdered, but shinobi guidelines were very clear, and since none of the shinobi's forehead protectors were visible, they could not risk interfering.
The injured woman was skilled, Sakura observed, as she managed to fend off her attackers with precise, rapid taijutsu. Sakura didn't recognise the style.
The woman appeared to have on of the men in a sort of choking hold, while she kicked the other into a tree with a sideways flick from her left leg. No, wait, the angle was wrong, was she using some sort of jutsu? Sakura couldn't sense enough chakra being expelled for a jutsu, so craned her neck, attempting to see what the woman was doing.
She gasped. Loudly.
The woman looked up as her opponent fell to the floor, dead. The mouths on her hands licked her lips, and she brushed her short, black hair out of her eyes before squinting up at them viciously, as she sank into her fighting stance once more.
There was no mistake, Sakura had seen it in his memories. The woman below them was Kurotsuchi Mei. Deidara's cousin.
A:N/ Thank you so much for the incredible amount of reviews last chapters, although quite a lot of them were like 'wtf?" etc. =.=" I apologise for the cliffhanger, but it's just the way I roll, baby!
Not much Deidara in this chapter. Well, not in person anyway. I think he was very much there in spirit.
So, time for more 'Wtf? Stop with the cliffies, you idiot writer!' Then review, my beloved readers! You fuel my story, but you know this already. :p