To answer some reviewer's questions & comments:
1. The changes were made to chapter 8, The Tributary. Because of the prologue at the beginning of the story, the chapter appears as number 9 in fanfiction's chapter guide. However, it is actually chapter 8, parts I & II (so chapters 9 and 10 if you follow fanfiction's guide).
2. Glad to hear positive feedback about Karin.
3. Especially glad to hear no one was too annoyed by the changes to The Tributary chapter.
4. As to why Sasuke, Hinata, Shika, and Sakura didn't just K.O. their followers, it just made sense at the time. Of course, as one's writing, everything seems to make sense, so looking at it from an outside perspective, I can see how this might be a flaw in design. I can only say that the team was following a guideline of maintaining minimal contact with the enemy. Tsunade had hoped for a clean recon with zero ties back to Konoha.
5. And finally, thanks for all the reviews with kind encouragements and questions.
As always, dedicated to the reviewers.
Chapter 16, Day 604
Her hands, glowing a translucent, wavering green, swept over his chest. She felt his skin underneath her fingertips, smooth and feverish. Sweat gathered on her forehead, rolling from her temples to her chin. Her eyes were scrunched tightly together, breath coming in short gaps. The light gloving her hands flickered, fluttered, and was gone-like a flame snuffed gently in the wind. With a quick inhale, Sakura fell foreword, gasping. Her brow touched Sasuke's arm and her hands lay flat over his chest while her back heaved. White lights flickered in her vision, the pallet beneath her narrowing with black as vertigo washed over her. She squeezed her eyes shut, waiting for the feeling to pass.
Sasuke remained still. From her place, she could hear all the more clearly the sound of his breath, like the clattering of seeds within a hollow gourd. She pushed herself upright, minding both the tent's ceiling and her weight against him. Her hands shook as she drew his undershirt, his shirt, his rain slicker, and then his fur overcoat closed. The upper flap of the pallet, as she tugged at it, was stuck beneath him and she had to struggle to pull an end free, throwing it over him, before tucking it carefully around and under. She stuffed both their spare shirts around his chest. He shivered despite it. The marriage of his sunburn-she had one, too-and his pale, dry skin sired grim results. Combing back his black hair, greasy and dirty, she tipped a canteen to his lips. Until they could make fire again, or melt the snow through other means, this was the last of their water.
Sasuke groaned in his fitful rest, turning his lips away. Sakura wiped the spilled water quickly from his chin, tucking the canteen under her. Teeth clattering, she gripped her pallet with uncertain, shaky fingers, digging herself into Sasuke's back. Outside, the wind howled, a sharp, keening sound like the wailing of a wolf. It's lament swept over their tent, clawing at the cloth and rocking the ceiling. She watched the flexible skeleton overhead snap violently from side to side. Beneath the pallet, she flexed her fingers, but couldn't tell if she had. When she brought her palm up to her face, closing it into a fist. Her fingers-cyanic in color-responded, curled into themselves, brushed her skin, bit into her palms, but she did not feel them. She watched in detached fascination as her nails scored her skin. Pinpricks needled her. Tucking her hands beneath her armpits, she turned her head into Sasuke's shoulder. When she curled her toes within her boots, she found she couldn't feel them either. It was childish, she thought, to be worried about frostbite. At this point, she should be worried about never waking again.
"Sasuke," she whispered hoarsely.
His uneven pants answered her, brow smooth in sleep. She dropped her head heavily against his shoulder. She wasn't sure how long she slept, but she was woken by a shoulder nudging her temple. Her eyelids, weighing more than the Hokage Monument, peeled open. Blearily, she focused on Sasuke's bloodshot gaze. His head was angled towards her, eyes hooded with weariness.
"Wha-" She croaked, closing her eyes again.
His voice, when he spoke, was hard to hear, hoarse as it was. "How long have I slept?"
Sakura sifted slowly through her brain. He'd gotten worse after their last substantial meal-over six days ago-and had only gone down hill since. "A day." She tucked her chin into her neck, curling her knees and burrowing under him. Her bones ached. He didn't protest, or even move for that matter.
"Any food?" he asked.
Her stomach cramped painfully, gnawing at her skin from the inside out. She wondered if all the aches and weariness came from her body eating itself up. Nearly a month of running through snow had trimmed fat and muscle. "No," she breathed, eyes still closed, trailing the footsteps of sleep.
A loud, racking cough erupted from him and the force of it shook his shoulders. Her head slipped to the ground.
"I ran out of chakra," she told him, after he'd calmed. I can't do anything for you anymore. "Can you," she faltered. Her silence pressed him to urge her, "What?"
"You still have chakra, right?"
"Can you summon some snakes?"
The thought filtered through his mind, a warning ringing. His brow wrinkled, "What?"
"To eat," she confessed, still keeping her head mostly beneath the pallet.
Sasuke's wheezing breath filled the silence. "Are you insane?" he finally asked, glaring. Her head shook. "No," she said, staring back at him. "It's been two days, Sasuke, since we've eaten anything. The quikmeals are gone, too." His breath rasped through his open mouth, scratching the back of his throat as it rattled into his chest. He moistened his cracked lips and swept his gaze over her pale face with its blue, dry lips. Her cheekbones were gaunt, sunken like the bruises under her eyes. "We won't last long like this" Sakura prodded. And he knew they wouldn't.
"What about your slugs?"
"No chakra," she reminded him, as if she'd already thought about it.
He shuffled around-she felt the brief flare of his chakra-and then he was strangling the life of a snake with his fist. It hissed in betrayal, slithering desperately in the air before coiling strongly around his wrist. She watched him drop it between them with some level of repulsion. Pulling a kunai from her holster, Sakura pushed herself onto her elbows, searching for a pan through their things. His gaze never once left her as she cut the head from the body, skinned, gutted, and chopped. She bit her lip through the ordeal, feeling nausea rise in her at her callousness, the raw reality of their meal, and her nevertheless raging hunger. She pushed the pan to him. "We'll have to eat it as is," she explained shortly, "your fire jutsu is best left for other things." Her fingers gripped-unfeeling-a slab of pink meat, slipping over the blood. Her heart beating, she brought it to her mouth. The smell made her hold her breath and she scrunched her face as it slid over her tongue. Swallowing, the lump descended down her esophagus heavily. She fisted her hands in her pallet as she felt every inch of its journey. She gagged once, hunched into herself, and worked through it. When she was able to look up, Sasuke was staring at her. Shame rose in her, and she averted her gaze. "It's not so bad," she lied, catching as he scowled at the pan, as if blaming her for the mutilated body of his summoning. Without sitting, he dropped his hand wearily in the pan, picking a chunk that he swallowed as naturally as if he were eating sashimi. Between them, they polished off the entire meal, bloody hands wiped carelessly over their pallets.
Sakura stored the pan in a corner of their tent, eying it warily. First genin rule of the wild: never gut your food in camp, much less leave its mess behind. So much for that. "Sasuke," she called, turning to him as he was near sleep. His chest rose sporadically, breaths short, fast, and uneven. He did not answer, but she continued nevertheless. "I want to tell you something."
When she looked up again, his eyes were open, trained on hers. She dropped her gaze, pulse wrenching within her, churning her icy blood into slush. She sent a prayer to the kami, Please, don't let this be a mistake. As she began, teeth clattering softly, she assured herself that they were close enough to death to warrant a gentler response from him. "The night of the Lantern Festival, I sneaked into ANBU's archives. I stumbled onto the Uchiha records." She felt him tense beside her. Peeking, she caught his stare, bright with fever, but solid and lucid. "I read-" shaking her head, Sakura pressed closer into him. "You have to understand, before I say anything, that your brother was a sick man, Sasuke. I've had access to his medical history, and from a professional standpoint," she continued, speaking lowly, "he was…mentally unfit for service. But he had a ridiculously pristine military record and his success rate was unparalleled, so people turned the other cheek."
Sasuke crushed his coat within his hands, staring straight up at the ceiling, his breathing hitched.
"The night of the festival, I found out something, but I can't tell you until you give me your word Uchiha Sasuke."
The world spun. "What word?"
Rising on her elbow, Sakura loomed over his vision. He was forced to focus on her. "Swear to me by the blood of your family," his scowl blossomed across his face, "that you won't kill anyone, or do some other stupid thing, or leave Konoha." Not that it's likely we'll ever see Konoha again, she thought grimly, looking down at him with somber, intense eyes.
Sasuke stared at her without blinking, her green gaze boring into his, pink hair falling from its unruly braid to frame both their faces. The urge to lie was strong. "I won't promise you anything." She fell back beside him, sighing as she curled herself under the pallet. "I had a feeling you'd say that. But I-" She swallowed thickly, mind racing a million thoughts ahead of her. What if she pushed him to do whatever stupid thing he'd been plotting? She inhaled deeply, feeling the cold air sweep mercilessly into her chest. He'd find out eventually, she thought, these sorts of truths always manage to find him. "I think you should know, despite how you may react. That night, I read that the Uchiha were planning to overturn Konoha's government, to begin a civil war. An order, from Konoha's council, was issued to attack the Uchiha clan beforehand." She looked up at him. His face remained blank, black eyes staring steadily away, mouth relaxed. "I think the Uchiha clan was killed on orders because they were trying to launch a coup." She couldn't plainly state that Itachi had been the man ordered to do it, though it was clear enough. Her muscles tensed, expecting him to fly from his pallet, to start screaming, throwing, hitting. But he remained utterly still, breath falling in its same wheezing rhythm.
"Sasuke?" she asked, voice soft, soothing. Looking at him, her brow narrowed. Her next words were whispered. "Are you-are you alright?"
A long silence descended, in which Sasuke averted his head. His calm gave it away. "You knew," she said incredulously. Touching his shoulder, she leaned closer, seeking his gaze. "You knew."
His black eyes stared back at her hollowly and his mouth remained closed as hers gaped. She caught her gasp in her hands. Kami. Did he kill his brother knowing that? No, no, she thought, remembering his recent behavior. "You found out before we left." Turning away from his gaze, she fell back into her pallet.
"How much do you know?"
Finally his voice, controlled, broke through calmly. "You first."
She resisted the urge to roll her eyes. As if anything else she added could be as telling. "I know that the Third had nothing to do with it."
"Oh?" The word fell humorlessly from his mouth.
"He didn't want a massacre, Sasuke. The council operated without his consent. I also know," here she stopped to watch him carefully, "that Itachi was certifiably insane to have complied."
She just caught the flicker in his pupil, the tightening of the skin around his eyes and mouth. The spike in his chakra was more obvious. "You have no right to blame him."
As if she were handling a tailed beast, Sakura spoke gently, but firmly, "I'm not denying that they took advantage of your brother. I'm not saying he's responsible, but he's not blameless either. It took more than the council to murder them." She watched his jaw strain. "Would you have done it?" she asked, trying to throw him.
His gaze flashed to her angrily.
Her heartbeat picking up, Sakura met his eyes solidly. "Would you have killed your family to preserve peace and prevent civil war?"
"Of course not!" he snarled, swaying as he rose onto an elbow. She felt his chakra crash into her like a wave.
His brow, lowered over his eyes and framing his scowl, smoothed. His face blanked quickly, like turning a light on and off. With cautious movements, Sakura placed her palm over his fist, squeezing softly. "He killed his family, Sasuke. Whether for the right or wrong reasons is irrelevant. What matters is that Itachi massacred his entire family." The rasping sounds of his breath picked up speed. "No normal man, however patriotic or peace-loving, would do that."
Beneath her palm, she felt his fingers curl into the pallet. Taking a risk, she cupped his jaw lightly with her free hand. It was a brief touch, which she ended when he turned his face away. "Your brother did love you, and I think he loved his closest family. But his work destroyed him, Sasuke, and what he did, illness or no, is inexcusable."
Pulling away from her, he observed her with flat eyes. "And is the council excusable, Sakura-sensei?"
She held her anger. "I'm not trying to patronize you, Sasuke. And no, the council isn't excusable, they took advantage of a sick man to destroy an entire clan. Neither party is without blame, neither the council for getting bloodthirsty, nor your brother for shedding the blood, nor your clan for inciting the bloodshed."
An interminable hush swept through the tent, dragging icy fingers between them. Sasuke's loud rasps were interrupted only by the howl of the wind. He shifted in his pallet, stomach and head whirling.
"Sasuke, I told you this because I wanted to make it easier for you not to hate your brother, not because I wanted you to torture yourself about his death. You killed the man that killed your family and ruined your childhood. Orders or no, he was insane, what he did to you was insane. He was no martyr."
His voice was strained when he cut through her words. "That's enough."
Shame shot through her. Looking at the back of his head, she pulled the pallet higher over his shoulder. "I'm-I'm sorry. I'm just afraid of what you'll do." She finished quietly, tucking herself into his back.
"Why did you tell me?" His hoarse voice asked her between breaths.
"I already said why-"
"Why risk it?" He clarified.
Touching her forehead to his neck, Sakura stared at the pallet, straining to focus on the separate threads woven together into one strand. "Because I think it would have been worse if you'd heard this from anyone else."
He coughed, something of a laugh, shoulders heaving and unsettling her. He wheezed quietly, clutching the fabric over his chest. "Who else," he spoke through the phlegm in his throat, prodding, "would know?"
Though his voice was casual, as if he were making a sarcastic remark rather than asking a genuine question, it held a prying undertone that made her brow lift. "No one but the council, I think. Why?" she finished, voice raising suspiciously.
His silence prompted her. "Sasuke, how did you find out?"
It was an easy enough thing to lie when he truly wanted to. Feeling the iced air slipping through the cloth of their tent, he replied dully, "An old teammate."
"Oh." Sakura's head slumped down again, but her mouth remained pressed in a crooked line. Something was off. "You're not going to do something stupid, are you?
"Sasuke," she prompted, trying to read the words of his silence, "Kakashi and me, we can help you with the council."
His head tilted marginally as the words made his eyes narrow. Sakura, help him kill the council? But her train of thought, he found, was treading in a vastly different direction.
"Between Tsunade and Kakashi and the proof we can bring, you can expose the council. What they did was genocide, it was beyond corruption, and they'll be punished. Besides, Mitokada's already dead and once this comes out his memory will be sullied. There's no need to bloody your hands with one old woman-" Suddenly, her words faltered and Sasuke could hear the hitch in her breath, could almost feel the rapid pounding of her heart as her mind snapped the pieces into place. He tightened his hands into fists.
"You killed him." She pushed away from him roughly when he didn't respond. Slowly, he turned on his side to face her, setting her with calm eyes and a mouth bordering between an empty line and a smug curl. She stared at him with wide eyes that soon narrowed. "Did you kill Mitokada?"
The smirk broke through his flat mask. "And if I did?"
That stupid smile infuriated her. Face twisting with rage she smacked her hands against her pallet to keep from flying at him. "You idiot!" She yelled. "You're one fucking offense away from execution and this is what you do!" She wanted to march out of the tent, but it was too cold to do so. Hiding her face in her hands, she took a deep breath through her fingers. Her voice was flatter when she spoke. "Did you at least cover it up right?"
His eyebrow hitched up.
"Sasuke!" she prompted, gritting her teeth.
The dark color of his eyes watched her carefully, reading the lines of her face. Sarcasm seeped into his tone. "What? You're not going to turn me in?"
Her jaw clenched and she chewed on the inside of her cheek, looking at him solidly with an unwavering gaze. "I've never tried to kill you. Why start now?"
The upward tilt of his lips fell instantly. The brief memory of his sword narrowly missing her flared brightly in his mind. He looked away casually, tightening his lips. "He had a heart attack."
"With some help from the sharingan."
Looking at him incredulously, she bit off testily, "You scared him to death?"
"Hn." His chest heaved as he coughed, eyes scrunching closed. Clearing his throat, he said dully, "All he had to do was believe he was having a heart attack, and then he did…after some convincing."
Sakura groaned. "Kami," she muttered under her breath. "Well, you did a great job, scared him through and through." She finished, remembering Tsunade's doubts.
The storm worked restlessly outside and Sakura ducked under her pallet again. She let silence slip between them. Pursing her lips, she told him: "I won't let you kill the councilwoman."
A broken, rattling laugh erupted from him, shaking his back. He sounded amused. "And how are you going to stop me?"
Sakura was ready for his question. She'd already worked through it. "When we get to Konoha-"
"If," he dropped nonchalantly. She continued as if he hadn't interrupted her.
"-I'll get a warrant from Tsunade to unlock the archives. Then she'll have the evidence she needs to act. The councilwoman will live out her days rotting in a cell, miserable, isolated, caged, and forgotten. Isn't that enough for you?"
When Sasuke didn't answer, Sakura whispered into her pallet, "You gave up everything for their memory, Sasuke. You destroyed a part of yourself for them." She searched for his hand under the covers. It was tense and curled into a fist he didn't release even as her palm slid over it. "It's enough, Sasuke. It's enough."
Hinata opened her eyes dazedly. A filmy fog covered her view. Blinking thrice, it cleared, revealing a plain, arched, wooden roof. She turned her head slowly, groaning under her breath. She was stiff, as if she hadn't moved in days. The smell of disinfectant hit her as she took in the empty cots filling the narrow room. Bright sunlight spilled over her feet from the windows. Her privacy curtain was drawn part-way. Beneath it, the four legs of a wooden chair and two dusty, sandaled feet peeked at her. She recognized the shoes, and hurriedly-with quiet, cautious movements-she grabbed the strip of cloth she saw resting on a bedside table. Unraveling it, she fastened it over her eyes, noting the flowery waft of detergent as it passed her nose. It had been washed. A spring in the mattress must have alerted her guard, for in the next moment a hand drew away the curtain impatiently. Kenta's curious face caught the jerk of her head as she faced him. A smile, distinguishable in the bright light, bloomed across his face.
"Look who's up." He grinned. "About time, too." Noting the blindfold, he asked, "Your eyes still bothering you?"
She was surprised when her voice filled the space hoarsely and weakly. Clearing her throat, she spoke again, still in soft, dry tones, "A little."
Kenta grabbed the glass and pitcher on her nightstand, pouring fresh, clear water. His arm slipped underneath her neck, he helped her take small sips. It was cool, and she was grateful as the water ran over her parched lips, tongue, and throat.
"Chilled in the river," he told her as she sighed.
Blushing, Hinata thanked him. "Where are we, Kenta-san?"
Kenta set the glass over her nightstand and pulled his chair closer, dragging it from behind the curtain with a scraping sound. "We're in Siri. It's a tiny village near Cloud."
Hinata's heart thudded loudly in her chest as her eyes darted to his face. She hoped he couldn't detect her stare or hear the sudden pitch of her pulse. "How long have we been here?" Her words flowed with the same weary curiosity she'd maintained before.
"Two days. You've slept through our entire visit." He reclined, stretching his legs out before him and tucking his arms behind his head. "Shame, really," he added, "they actually have decent sake here."
With a barely detectable curl to her lips, Hinata smoothed her hands over the hospital sheets. "I do not think I am in any condition for alcohol, Kenta-san."
He snorted. "After blood poisoning and an emergency surgery, I don't know who would be."
At his words, Hinata's fingers went to her hip, where a vague pain thrummed dully. She winced and gasped sharply when they came into contact. The flesh was tender and her gentle probe felt like it reached down to the bone. Kenta's hand shot out, gripping her wrist and pulling it back. "Easy," he warned, "that'll be sore for another few days."
"Was it the bullet?"
Kenta smiled grimly, rummaging through a pocket on his flap jacket. Between his fingers, he held a deformed metal casing. "There's your problem," he told her as she reached for it.
He dropped it into her palm, and she observed it with disbelief. "It's so small."
"Frightening, isn't it?" he asked, sharing both her line of sight and her train of thought. "That little shit can kill any one of us."
Ino twisted the doorknob to their apartment. In one hand she carried a brimming bag of groceries-milk, eggs, grapes, tea-and in the other she carelessly gripped the bunched stems of three blue hydrangea, against which, pressed beneath her thumb, was a pack of Shika's favored cigarettes. She heaved the groceries onto the counter and settled the flowers beside them. Walking between counter and fridge, she put everything away, except the tea, which she stowed in a cabinet above the teapot that waited on the stove. She rummaged through a drawer for her chunky, kitchen scissors, then found a vase under the kitchen sink. Slicing through the brown paper wrapping, she worked mechanically to put things in order. The sound of crinkled paper filled the empty apartment as she peeled it away from the hydrangea, then used the scissors to cut the stems at an angle, as her mother had taught her. She barely glanced at the pack of cigarettes, lying innocuously in her line of sight. In all their time together, she never encouraged Shika's smoking. She never so much as tolerated it. Arranging the flowers into a tall, clear vase, she thought she'd let him smoke all he wanted. At least for the first month after his return. Then she'd cut him off again. But for the first month, she'd indulge and pamper him and tell him to pollute their sweet-smelling apartment with his noxious fumes. She just wanted him with her.
Setting the vase in the very center of their small dinning table, Ino took a step back to observe the result. Tilting her head to the side, she found the flowers were perfectly centered and complimented the kitchen's coloring. She turned, went to march down the hall, but returned to grab the box of cigarettes and walk into the living room instead. It was dark, and only the straining tendrils of the strong afternoon sun lit the room through the closed shutters. She hated when the shutters were drawn, but it was usually Shika who opened them in the mornings before she woke. Dropping the cigarettes over the coffee table, she walked to the window, pulling it open and reaching to push out the shutters.
"I didn't know you smoked."
Her heart leaped up to her brain as she spun around wildly, one hand over her pounding chest and the other wrapped tightly over a shuriken. Then the voice registered, she dropped both arms, shuriken falling to the ground as she tackled her boyfriend.
He was lying passively on the couch, one forearm outstretched over his eyes where he'd placed it casually after observing her, as if sleeping. Except Ino landed with such force and weight against him that both his hands stretched out to catch her as he grunted and shied away from a knee too close to his groin.
He was about to reprimand her for mauling him, when he felt the skin of his neck moisten. Then she started wailing, crying loudly and messily. His hand wound over her back and he tightened his hold. "I'm fine," he hummed into her ear. Her fingers curled into his hair and she pushed herself against him. "I thought," she sputtered around her heaving gasps and cries, "I thought you were-" The word hung unsaid between them. "They said you were M.I.A." Her fierce hug grew fiercer even as her crying gentled and then Ino's arms relaxed around him and she leaned softly against him. "No one would tell me anything. No one knew anything." She sniffed loudly, rubbing her hand under her nose. Shikamaru smoothed his palm over her hair, threading his fingers through the silky strands, which were uncharacteristically loose-she liked to be contrary and often wore her hair up because he preferred it down. Gripping her jaw, he pushed her back gently. Her mascara painted black paths over her cheeks and the underside of her nose was wet. "You look atrocious."
Her eyes flashed and she smacked him across the head. "Fuck you," she growled, clambering off him. With a 'tsk,' he pulled her back to the couch and kissed her messy cheek, her jaw, the edge of her mouth, and finally, her lips.
"Troublesome," he said, drawing back. Ino smiled, half-laughing, half-crying. They sat together for some time, the breeze and the sunshine coming in through the open window. "Welcome home," she said at last. He grunted a reply, reaching for the cigarettes on the table. She watched him as he peeled away the wrapping, opened the box, and pulled one out, taking it between his teeth. "Thinking of me?" he said around the butt of the cigarette, grabbing Sensei Azuma's lighter. Ino made a noise of denial, tilting her chin up and away. Before he could light up, she took the lighter from him, leaving him with an outstretched hand and a dull cigarette drooping from his lips.
"Not inside the house," she told him by way of answer.
"Then why'd you buy them?" he pulled the cigarette away, throwing it haphazardly onto the table.
"Because I thought you were dead. But now you're not, so rules still apply."
He said something that sounded suspiciously like "Damn man can't smoke in his own damn house," but died away under the press of her lips against his. She whispered "I love you's" over and over again, spreading them across the scruff of his jaw, the curve of his ear, the underside of his neck, and the swell of his cheek. The nagging itch for a smoke was quickly forgotten.
"Did you go to the hospital?"
The rising heat she'd stirred dimmed and he pulled away from her mouth with a sigh. She rested her chin on his shoulder. "No." He dropped his hand over her knee, fingers whispering over her skin. "I went straight to headquarters, got a brief physical before debriefing, and was released."
After a long silence, in which she played with the end of his ponytail, she asked, "Do you think Sakura's ok?"
His brow remained smooth as he stared sightlessly at the ceiling in thought. "Sakura was with Sasuke. We both know how resilient he is."
"I can't say," he told her.
Ino hid her face against the side of his neck. Her voice wavered when she spoke again, a deep-hearted earnestness painting her words, "I'm so glad you're home."
In that instant, she'd never seen a color as beautiful. Green, kilometers and kilometers of green painted over the horizon. Her breath caught in a laugh that grew into a sob. Thank you, thank you, she thought, closing her eyes. The frigid wind scraped over her cheeks and she felt needles explode viciously across her fingers as she tightened her grip. They weren't safe yet, but soon. The promise gave her strength. Panting-white clouds waxing and waning before her-she pulled the tent's blue cloth. Sakura cast a look over her shoulder; Sasuke was bundled in both his coats, two pallets, and their extra clothing, sleeping feverishly on the litter she'd fashioned. "We're almost there," she told him, though he wouldn't hear her, "just hold on."
When the shade of the tall pine forest finally fell over them, Sakura tumbled to her knees. She screwed up her face, yelping as her fingers painfully unfurled from their grip. Shakily, she brought them to her face, turning her palms up. A variety of shades colored her skin, blue, purple, and at the very ends of her fingertips, a deep grey. She curled her fingers slowly, biting on her chapped lip when pricks of pain cut through her. At least she still had feeling, she told herself. Pushing aside the thought of lost fingers, she struggled to her feet, starting her search for firewood. In a frenzy, she ripped brittle, broken limbs from the surrounding trees, shaking them free of snow and hoping they were dry enough. She couldn't register their rough bark pressing into her hands.
Clearing a pit of snow with her foot, she dropped her pile haphazardly, falling down beside them as she fumbled with leaden fingers for their fire kit. Delicately arranging the kindling, she grabbed the tiny bottle of fire fluid. Her numb fingers slipped dumbly over the red cap and she had to use her teeth to pry it open. Squirting a sparse amount over the wood near the kindling, she recapped the bottle. The terrible tang of the fire fluid settled over her tongue. Smacking her mouth, she gripped the flint. One of the stones fell from her clumsily. Shaking, she brushed snow away from it, tightening her fingers over it viciously before striking the stones against each other. Sparks flew away from them, scattering like fallen stars over the kindling. One spark caught, an ember burn that burst into a flickering speck of flame with drifting plumes of smoke. She hovered over it, shielding it from straying winds and gently blowing. The fire spread tentatively, tendrils probing experimentally at new sources of fuel. The heat clashed against the frigid temperature of her skin and she moaned. Quickly she pulled Sasuke nearer, then set about laying large stones near the fire and boiling water. When a frothy layer of bubbles had settled over the water, she carefully brought the pot near her, sitting over a bed of branches. Removing the rags she'd used to handle the pot, she hooked her hands under Sasuke's arms, settling his head over her lap as she pulled the second pallet from him and struggled to drape it over them. The steam from the boiling water filled the space quickly, trailing warm, moist kisses over their skin. Sasuke's chest moved up and down slowly, releasing terrible, wet, rattles. Brushing his hair away from his face, she moved closer to the pot, making sure the steam drifted by his face.
She wondered if he would be okay, if such a simple remedy could even help at this point. Naruto, she prayed silently, watch over him. She dumped hot stones into the water whenever the steam cooled, being careful to keep the draft out of their warm bubble. Between helping Sasuke breathe through coughing fits, keeping watch over the fire and the water, replacing rocks, and rubbing soothing circles over Sasuke's back, she battled weariness, her head drooping forward onto her chest or Sasuke's shoulder. It was Sasuke who sometimes woke her with his nightmares. Sakura would touch his forehead, brush his hair, and whisper to him when it happened. Eventually, his tossing would slow and the noises he made in the back of his throat would end. She tried to imagine the landscape of his mind, pictured darkness and death and blood and suffering and the red eyes of his brother. Leaning into him, she touched her forehead to his. His breath fluttered warmly over cheekbone. "It'll be okay," she whispered.
Sakura waited patiently for their space to gradually cool. Unlocking her limbs, she crawled out from under the pelt, sweating and panting. The freezing air struck her like a blow. She tucked the pallet around Sasuke, entombing him in a swath of fabric that revealed only his pale, handsome face. The sound of a branch breaking snagged her attention. Gripping the hilt of Sasuke's sword, she tensed, searching the trees. As she was sliding the metal from its sheath, a child slipped through the nettles of the evergreens. A girl, wrapped in thick coats and heavy boots froze upon seeing her. Her gloved hand crushed the nettles in her hand and her wide, black eyes stared from a perfectly round face with caramel skin, a button nose, and red cheeks. The gap in her smile disappeared behind her lips.
Sakura sheathed the naked blade in her hand, holding it at her side. "Hello."
The little girl took a step back, turning to glance over her shoulder as bells jingled in the distance, their intensity growing with their encroaching proximity. A low sleigh, drawn by two large caribou, appeared. At the helm of pelts and pots and tightly wrapped wooden crates, sat a thin woman, similarly dressed. Her black hair fell in straight hanks through the soft fur of her hood and her face was majestic, slightly oval, with pronounced cheekbones and stunning blue eyes in contrast to her rich skin and hair.
Sakura edged closer to Sasuke under the woman's unwavering gaze. Those blue eyes flicked casually to his form, then back to hers. "He is ill," her voice, smooth, and elegant, was accented thickly. But it took nothing away from her regality, "and you are lost," she finished, chin tilted high.
"Ninik." She called, catching the child's attention. Foreign words fell from her lips gracefully and immediately, the child scrambled onto the sleigh beside her. Her gloved hand extended from under her parka, settling on the child's shoulders. "What is your name, lost one?"
"Imari," Sakura lied easily, "and this is my companion, Ken." Her tense muscles loosened gradually as the low drum of untrained chakra buzzed around her. She did not think this woman could hurt them.
"And what is your intention, traveling through my people's nation?"
"To head south and find warmer land."
The woman held her gaze steadily, playing with the reins of the caribou in one hand. She made a noise of disapproval. "The pass to the south has closed with the snow. It, and any other path remain impassable until the warmer months."
Typical, Sakura thought with frustration. Her hands fisted. The wind stirred the snow around them. At her side, Sasuke began coughing loudly. Sakura turned her back on the woman, falling to her knees and struggling to get him upright. His eyes cracked open and he leaned forward onto his palms, spitting up phlegm into the snow. She held his shoulders as he shook, rubbing his back with her free hand. He pulled away from her slightly, falling back to the pallet.
"Bring him onto the sleigh." Sakura looked up at the woman. Her eyes had softened. "My people will help him."
Sakura closed her eyes in relief. Thank you, Naruto. The wind stirred around her, tugging at her hair as she sighed.
Sakura dragged him through the gates of the Uchiha compound. The wooden frame had been freshly varnished and the clan's koto was prominently painted. He tilted his head up, catching sight of the bronze bell hanging from the frame.
"We're so late!" Sakura told him with a glance over her shoulder. He scowled, grunting an answer. She walked quickly ahead of him, pulling his weight by her grip on his wrist. The narrow streets within the compound were filled with distant relatives. Most acknowledged him in some way, with the bow of a head or a polite greeting.
"Come on!" Sakura jumped onto the engawa of the main house, slipping off her sandals in a frenzy. He toed his own off behind her-slowly. With a huff, she pulled him through the open shoji. His family was kneeling at the table, dishes spread before them. Mikoto bustled to and from the kitchen, adding more things to the table.
"Ohayou gozaimasu," Sakura said with a broad smile, bowing briefly. Mikoto, a bowl of rice in hand, set it down quickly. "Sakura-chan! Sasuke-kun!" She wrapped an arm over Sakura's shoulders. "Come, come, we've been waiting for you." She pulled Sasuke into a hug, and he stiffened, blushing as she dropped a kiss on his cheek.
"Okasan!" he hissed under his breath, falling onto his usual seat beside Sakura. His mother hid her smile behind slim fingers, patting his head as she rounded the table and sat by his father. Fugaku lowered his newspaper, nodding briefly to them.
"Where is Naruto-kun?" Mikoto asked, pausing as she reached for the rice. "Should we wait for him?"
Sakura shook her hand. "He got called into a meeting with Tsunade-san."
"That's a shame," Mikoto said, uncovering the beautiful bowl she had before her. Steam rose from the miso soup.
"Itadakimasu," Fugaku's voice was deep and quiet. With slow, controlled movements, he brought a spoonful of miso soup to his lips. As if given permission, the others followed suit.
Beside him, Sakura spoke, "It's delicious, Mikoto-san, as always."
His mother smiled, meekly looking away. "You flatter me, Sakura-chan."
"And so much, too!" Sakura's gaze swept over the steamed rice, the soup, the grilled fish, the nori, the pickled vegetables, and the fresh fruit. Her elbow jammed Sasuke's side. He grunted, shooting her a look. "Why don't you invite me over, more often, eh? All I ever have for breakfast are protein bars."
His mother 'tsked.' "Protein bars, Sakura-chan! That's no breakfast at all for a growing kunoichi!"
"Oh, I'm no worse than Sasuke-kun." She glanced at him slyly, a wicked edge curling the corners of her lips. "He rarely eats anything at all."
Sasuke gripped his bowl, face souring. His mother's angry rebuttal forced a sigh from his lips.
"Sasuke! Fugaku-" She turned to her husband. "-tell your son he should take better care of himself."
Fugaku's gaze remained passively on his meal, taking a calm sip of green tea. The steam from his cup scattered with his quiet breath, "Listen to your mother." Before more could be said, Itachi slipped though the shoji.
"Ohayou," he greeted, dropping a kiss onto his mother's head.
"Itachi-kun, you're late," Mikoto chided, making to stand.
"I'll get it," he told her, pushing gently on her shoulders before disappearing into the kitchen. He returned with a tray loaded with his breakfast. He bumped Sasuke's back with his knee as he passed. "Otouto."
"Idiot," Sasuke muttered, picking at his fish with graceful, nonplussed elegance.
Sakura covered her laugh with a mouthful of rice.
"Itachi-san," she answered with a smile.
Removing the lid from his bowl, Itachi looked at her dashingly, "Lovelier everyday."
Sasuke glanced between her blushing face and his brother's snide look. Scowling, he slapped his palm against the back of Itachi's head.
"Boys," Mikoto said, just after Fugaku's intense stare swept over them.
"Works every time," Itachi hummed, picking a slice of radish. "I don't know why you agreed to marry him. You should have married me."
Sasuke choked on his tea. He felt Sakura's hand pat gently on his back, then felt her fingers drift lazily to his collarbone as she leaned in close. "Insecure?" she teased, whispering the word into his ear. He turned, staring at her, ready to tell her just why he wasn't insecure, when Naruto's loud voice interrupted.
"Wrong. She should marry me." He draped his arms over Sakura's shoulders, fluttering his lashes. "Right, Sakura-chan?" A flat line straightened her smile and her elbow crashed into his gut.
Naruto's blue eyes snapped to a close as he groaned, dropping into the empty space dramatically. "That hurt, Sakura-chan."
"It was supposed to."
Setting his breakfast before him, Mikoto placed a hand on his shoulder, smiling warmly. "I'm glad you could join us, Naruto-kun."
Naruto grinned at the bowl of ramen made especially for him. "Thanks, Uchiha-san." Turning to Sasuke, he added, "You think she'd adopt me?"
"You're overage," he replied, "fortunately."
"Bastard," Naruto whispered sourly, careful he wasn't overheard.
When Sakura and Sasuke were doing the dishes, Itachi stepped into the kitchen. He leaned against the countertops, standing quietly.
"It's more entertaining when you help," Sasuke said, not bothering to turn.
Eyebrows rising, Itachi crossed his arms casually. "I much prefer passive observation to active engagement. Sakura," he added, "Naruto's boasting about his sexual exploits with you-"
The plate slipped from Sasuke's hands, clattering undamaged into the sink, as Sakura shrieked, "He's what!"
Itachi watched her leave, then gripped Sasuke's shoulder, "I forgive you."
Sasuke paused, looking away from the suds on his skin. "What?" he asked, tilting his face towards his brother, brow furrowed.
"I forgive you, if you forgive me."
Snatching the dishtowel Sakura had abandoned, Sasuke dried his hands. "What are you talking about?"
His mother entered the room. "He's talking about what happened, Sasuke-kun." The noise around them, the television, the bellowing between Naruto and Sakura, disappeared. Sasuke remained quiet, eyes shooting between his mother and brother as nervousness stirred within him.
His mother neared him, raising her hand to cup his jaw. "Sasuke-kun," her soft voice, usually so light, was burdened with gentle severity, "we can't come back to you the way you want us to."
Sasuke held her hand to his face, fear threading through the beats of his heart. "What are you talking about, Okasan?"
"But we're always with you, Sasuke. And there are still so many wonderful people to love you, and be loved by you, and so many more to come." She turned him to face the window. Outside, Sakura sat on a stone bench, Kakashi beside her. "You lost your family, Sasuke, but all children do at some point. That is why they build their own families, to love and protect and lend strength to and receive strength from."
His mother stepped into his line of sight. Itachi had disappeared from the kitchen. "It's enough, Sasuke. For my sake, for your brother's and your father's sake, stop this. Honor us with your happiness. Bring us that peace and let us rest, Sasuke, let us go." Both her hands held his face, and as Sasuke searched her black eyes, a shiver crawled along his spine, a dawning sense of something terrible. He buried his head in her neck, wrapping his arms around her back and crushing her tightly to him.
"I love you, Sasuke-kun. Always."
His eyes peeled open slowly; the world coming into focus as the last tendrils of his dream fled. He stared at a low ceiling, held by the crude beams of untreated wood. Sasuke blinked, breathing deeply to slow his racing heart. Weakly, he turned on his side, setting his palms against the furs beneath him as his arms shook with his weight. Sitting upright, thick bedding falling to his waist, he leaned his head into his hands, snagging his fingers on his tangled, dirty hair. He closed his eyes and savored the memory of the dream, revisiting each image carefully, fearful that like most dreams, he would forget. The strange normalcy of it, of sitting down with his family to have breakfast, of bringing Sakura and Naruto to his home, filled with family, with his relatives, his brother, was enough to make his fingers dig harshly into his scalp. He pictured his father reading the newspaper, his mother chatting amiably with Sakura, his brother teasing him, the easy peace of his home and in his soul. "Bring us that peace."
Standing quickly, Sasuke took in the room he was in. There were no windows, the floor was hard, cold earth, spread with furs for warmth, the walls were logs stacked and cemented with mud, and a sunken hearth simmered in a corner. Small containers, carefully carved from animal bone were lined neatly at his bedside. Incense had been burned in them. His clothes had been changed, they were warmer and his breaths came easier, though he still felt phlegm coating his throat.
The untrained chakra signatures outside eased him marginally. From the only doorway hung the long hide of an animal. It had been cut to fit the frame and sweep the floor. Gripping it, he swept it aside. Bitterly cold air smacked into him. Gritting his teeth, Sasuke stooped under the low lintel, ducking outside. People, dressed in long, heavy furs with intricate patterns, moved from place to place. A group of women sat weaving baskets, children played a game with painted stones, men were skinning the carcasses of large animals, and others sat smoking from pipes or sipping steaming drinks while they chatted. The clearing of tiny log homes was surrounded by a forest of towering evergreens, and he could smell the salt of the ocean on the breeze. A child approached him. "Come," she said, waving her hand. He followed at a distance behind her, catching the poignant stares he received, the snippets of foreign conversation. Sitting over a blanket on the ground, he saw Sakura's unmistakable pink hair. Her back was to him and she was speaking to a woman dressed in the same suede parka as she. The girl ran the last steps through the snow, drawing the women's attention. Sakura's green eyes snapped to him and her smile grew. "Ken!" She said, scrambling to her feet. Her hands, hidden under bulky gloves, gripped his. "You're awake!"
Flicking his gaze to the woman behind her, he replied absently. "Obviously." The girl was hanging onto the woman's arm, who had stood and shocked him with her height.
Sakura's voice nabbed his attention. "You idiot!" she said, waving at him. She removed her parka, struggling as it snagged her hair, then pushed it to him, "You're not wearing a coat! You've been really sick and you're not wearing a coat!"
Holding the parka loosely against his stomach, Sasuke stared blankly at her. "Where are we?"
Grabbing his forearm, she dragged him closer to the tall woman. "This is Nanaki and Ninik." She swept a hand in their direction. "Nanaki-san, Ninik-chan, this is Ken."
The woman smiled pleasantly. "A pleasure to see you well again, Ken-san."
Sasuke remained quiet.
"Excuse him, he's chronically rude."
Nanaki shrugged elegantly, taking her daughter's hand. "Few men aren't." Stooping to whisper in her daughter's ear, she wove a hand over the fur. "Sit, please." Ninik walked into the lodging whose 'porch' they shared. Sakura tugged him down with her as she settled onto her knees.
"To answer your question," Nanaki spoke, filling a cup and passing it to him, "we are on the borders of Snow Country. This land belongs to my people, the Kokie."
Sasuke stared down at his drink, the blend was cloudy and thick, with a bitter smell. He enjoyed, at least, the warmth it offered his hands. Ninik returned, her shoulders burdened by a heavy coat larger than her. As she held it out to him, Sakura retrieved her parka.
Taking the coat from Ninik, he shrugged into it. "Thank you," his voice was low and clipped.
"Nanaki tells me," Sakura spoke beside him, "that leaving snow country in this weather is impossible."
"And when," Sasuke stared calmly between Sakura and Nanaki, "will it be possible?"
He noticed the way Sakura shifted her drink in her hands, rolling the cup between her gloved palms. "At the earliest? Late spring."