A/N: Because I love Team Seven almost as much as I love Sasuke. Huge thanks to my beta, Megyal.
The High Cost of Living
Leaving is harder than he had thought it would be.
He thinks that leaving Konoha will mean the memories of the past would slowly cease to exist, that they would collapse and disintegrate with each passing day like sandcastles on a beach.
They do not, and for that reason, are called 'memories'.
He can still see his mother's smile, bright and open and warm in this dark, dark place. He can still hear Naruto's loud, over-excited declarations resonating in the silence. He can almost smell Sakura's clean shampoo in the air, which used to make his nose itch.
Most of all, he can still remember the feel of warm blood under his fingertips, viscous and so, so red. The blood Itachi had spilled, and the blood pumping through his veins that continues to remind him of his true purpose.
Otokagure is damp and humid, and smells of wet earth and smoke. Orochimaru looks at him with unrestrained hunger and Kabuto treats him like a little boy and Orochimaru trains him so hard his bones ache and his skin blisters and the screams from the other people (Prisoners? Experiments?) keep him awake at night on the thin mattress.
In the end, he will not lie: leaving Konoha was hard.
Being left behind by Itachi, however, is harder.
Leaving is easier than he had expected.
They go around to tiny villages, and he thinks he spends more time submerged in hot, bubbling water than actually training, but it is fun. Ero-sennin smiles a lot, teaches him well (if not a little impatiently) and treats him to grape-flavoured ice sticks.
Of course he misses it back there too, sometimes. The happy, loud villagers who smiled at him. Ichiraku Ramen and their hot, steamy bowls of heaven. The tall, impressive trees that surrounded Konoha. Granny-Tsunade and her temper. Sakura and her temper.
Most of the time, though, he's happy that he has left Konoha, even for an interval. Now that he's far, far away from everything and everyone he knows, it's easy to survey the damage.
Sasuke is gone.
Konoha is no less Konoha without Sasuke in it. Tsunade still carries out her duty and finishes paperwork in the nick of time. Kakashi still reads his foul books. Ichiraku still serves delicious ramen. Sakura still has bright pink hair.
But to him, Konoha has changed. There, the Uchiha compound lies in total darkness. The bright symbols of red and white on the walls will fade and crack without Sasuke's immaculate attention. Team Seven is one man short and two members too broken.
He can wait around for the dust to still and for Konoha to feel like Konoha again in his mind, but (and he hates himself for thinking it) he really and truly believes it never will.
Not until he is strong enough, not until Sasuke returns.
Sakura's days are all the same: she wakes up, she trains (medical jutsus on even days, chakra control on odd days), she has dinner, she writes letters (she cries), she sleeps.
She tries not to cry now, because she's almost sixteen and it's unbecoming of a kunoichi. In order stem the flow of tears, she pours her heart out on paper.
Sakura writes letters to ghosts.
Countless pieces of thick but delicate paper that cover her desk like freshly fallen snow. Some are for Naruto, but most are for Sasuke.
Hey, Naruto! It's been good in Konoha; peaceful but quiet without you. Tsunade-sensei is a great teacher, how is Jiraiya-san?
Do you still think about Team Seven? Tsunade-sensei is great, but sometimes, I think Kakashi is better. I think it's the company I miss. I miss what we were.
or just simple sentences, like
Naruto, please come back.
She really does hope Naruto will come back.
Her letters to Sasuke are the most profound ones, even though they are mostly blank. They all start with his name, and continue with nothing more.
She writes his name on blank sheets of paper, over and over again, because some part of her hopes that when he reads it, he will remember who he (really) is and what they were before.
Uchiha Sasuke, she writes. Sasuke.
In his name, a million different truths reside.
I hate you for leaving us like this. I still love you, Sasuke-kun. You are good enough, even if you don't kill your brother. We could help. I could help. You've made us stronger. You've broken Naruto. Do you think about Team Seven? Don't ever come back to Konoha with all that hate within you. Please, just come back. Please.
She never posts them, because Naruto is gone and Sasuke is lost. She continues to write to them, day after day, because it's the only thing that reminds her of Team Seven. It's the only thing that ties her to bubbly, bright Naruto and quiet, melancholic Sasuke.
Most of all, Sakura writes because while leaving is painful, being the one left behind hurts most.
Kakashi is late once again, and the sky is a moody grey up above their heads. It's sunrise soon, and the tiniest bit of colour is beginning to bleed into the sky. Naruto is the humming, and it the only source of sound.
He's sitting on the grass next – but not close – to Sasuke, who is (uncharacteristically) lying on his back on the thick green grass.
"What's wrong with you, sleepyhead? If you can't get enough sleep, you shouldn't come on missions, let alone become a ninja!"
Sasuke, with his eyes closed, doesn't even respond.
Sakura starts to feel the lethargy gather in her bones, so she finds a spot between Naruto and Sasuke (but not too close to Sasuke) and lies down on her back. She's not at all surprised when Naruto mimics them, his tuneless hum ceasing.
And just like that, all the world is quiet, with just the three of them under the slowly-brightening sky. Sakura is feeling unusually restless, and notes that both Naruto and Sasuke's hands are outstretched, palms facing the sky.
Cautiously, she holds her breath and places her hands lightly on top of their palms, like butterfly wings, her left hand in Naruto's right and her right in Sasuke's left.
Sasuke doesn't move away or glare, nor does Naruto yell in happiness and glomp her.
Sakura exhales and smiles and feels weightless, because for fifteen whole minutes, Team Seven is unbreakable and invincible and forever.