She had knocked them out.
She really didn't want Sai, Kiba, and Lee to remember her for that, but she had no choice. If she was going to succeed, they couldn't interfere. She had to do this alone.
She emerged from the forest and then her eyes locked on her target.
He should have sensed her coming. She shouldn't have seen his shoulders tense in surprise. Hell. She had thought he would have disappeared before she could reach him.
"Sakura. What do you want with me?"
Sakura had come into this thinking that maybe everything could be okay. That maybe she wouldn't have to go through with this. But one look into his eyes convinced her that this was not the same Sasuke who had left the village. One look at the red-haired girl he had taken as his teammate lying dying next to him had convinced her that this was not the boy she had fallen in love with.
And yet her heart still yearned for him.
And that's why she had to do this.
She had to save him from himself.
"I'm here to fight," she answered him, sliding her gloves onto her hands and curling her fists in anticipation.
"I won't fight you," he answered her.
Sakura was stunned by his words. He had been ready to kill her the last time she had seen him, and she had just seen the absolutely frigid coldness in his eyes.
And then she sensed his depleted chakra levels.
She couldn't help it. She laughed. And she was satisfied when his eyes narrowed in what she could only guess was confusion.
"You won't fight me? Or are you afraid you might actually lose to your frail, annoying, former teammate in your weakened state?" she asked bitterly.
She saw the disdain fill his eyes. Saw him shift into a fighting position even though she knew how drained he must be. She didn't know who he had just fought, but a battle had most definitely been waged here...and it had exhausted Sasuke.
But she was exhausted too. She had raced to get here.
"Hn. Don't think that I'll hesitate to kill you," he told her.
"And don't underestimate me," she told him, stomping the ground and splitting the earth.
Sasuke jumped out of the way.
"Unlike you, I still have some chakra left."
Sasuke stared at the pinkette who stood glaring at him so defiantly.
When had she grown a backbone? When had she stopped hoping to convince him with words? When had she stopped fawning over him?
Sasuke knew that his chakra was almost non-existent. He had expended most of his energy in the fight with Danzo. And now he had to deal with this annoyance.
He wondered why he didn't hate her on sight. She bore the leaf symbol that he resented so much. She was a representation of the village he sought to destroy...and yet he couldn't bring himself to feel any real hatred for her.
"You're a criminal now," Sakura said. He thought she might have said it sadly.
And then she came at him.
He was still fast.
She had to give him that.
Even though she knew he must be absolutely exhausted, he dodged her onslaught of kunai like the pro he was. She had expected it however, and was quick to follow by closing the gap and attacking him with taijutsu.
It was risky, reckless, and stupid.
If he had been at full capacity, she would probably already be dead. She thanked the gods that some luck had come her way. She wouldn't die...at least not yet. That was not her plan.
Sasuke had pulled out his own kunai, and he was slashing at her viciously and artfully. Sakura was forced to retreat so she could grab the weapon she had been holding out on.
Somewhere in her heart she had hoped that it wouldn't come to this. That maybe Sasuke had changed and would repent when he saw her. It was a false hope. A delusion really. She had already reasoned through this. She had even left letters for her friends in her apartment expecting the most likely outcome of her dumb, dumb plan.
The katana that was strapped to her back found its way into her hands, and she moved in on Sasuke again, finding her voice.
"Our age mates have decided that it's their responsibility to kill you to prevent war."
She didn't know why, but she needed to tell him this.
She needed to tell him a lot of things.
"Since you left, we've all grown closer. We've all grown stronger too. Especially Naruto. He saved the entire village."
She swung the katana at him with expert ease. She had trained with TenTen.
He met her blade with his chokuto.
A shower of sparks erupted.
Naruto had saved the entire village? Naruto?
Sasuke was shocked, though he didn't show it.
He couldn't understand why he was feeling anything right now. He had cut his ties with Konoha long ago. And now he even had a reason to despise his old teammates - they came from the village that was responsible for the massacre of his family. For his painful existence.
And suddenly it dawned on him that Sakura was here alone. Where was her team? More importantly, where was Naruto?
He didn't know why he deigned to voice his question: "Where is Naruto?"
Sakura smiled at him. But it wasn't the cheery smile she had flashed him when they were genin. It was fake. She spun away, disentangling their locked swords.
"Hopefully not on his way here. Though Sai did make a clone before we left. I'm sure he used it to tell them everything I kept from them and about my plans to kill you," she answered.
Sasuke was shocked again. Yes, she had said that the people he had gone to the Academy with, the people he had competed against in the chunin exam, the people Sakura and Naruto were friends with, had decided to kill him...but she hadn't lumped herself in with them initially.
Now she had.
Sakura realized she didn't have much longer if she really planned to go through with her plan the moment her own movements were slowing down. Somehow, Sasuke was still going strong, even though he must have been worse off than she was when they had started. It just reinforced for her how weak she was in comparison to her two original teammates.
She hadn't been able to lay a hit on him because he had dodged her every attempt. She was too tired to continue this any longer. She would draw him in close enough for her plan to work.
A single tear slid down her cheek as she silently apologized to all those who cared for her. She had put in her best effort to do this without dying herself, but she had known all along what it had to come to. She admitted to herself that this was no different than suicide before she recklessly charged at him, reminding herself not to dodge.
When Sasuke's chokuto cut through Sakura, impaling her right next to her heart, nothing crossed his emotionless face.
He had gotten her before she had gotten him. It was simple enough. So why did he feel something stirring inside of him?
"Got you," she whispered, locking her eyes on his, her own katana swinging up and nicking the flesh on his arm before he dodged back, pulling his sword out of her as he went.
She fell to her knees, blood spilling from the wound.
Sasuke could only stare.
What was wrong with him?
The battle had been short, but she had thrown herself into it. Plus she had been drained to begin with.
She didn't have enough chakra left to heal herself. Not that she had ever planned to do so in the first place.
Sasuke didn't make any move towards her.
She glanced up at him, knowing how completely vulnerable she was in her current state.
She didn't regret getting herself into this position.
But she had needed to get close enough to him to cut him with her blade...her poisoned blade.
It was a dirty, underhanded trick in her mind, but she had known that it was the only way she stood any chance of saving Sasuke from himself. Just as she had known letting herself be hit could get her close enough and open up the split second of opportunity she needed to connect with one of her own blows.
She coughed, spitting blood on the ground.
"Why won't you finish me? Do you have no mercy for the dying?" she spoke.
Wasn't she a medic? Isn't that what he had heard Orochimaru say once when the snake had been collecting research from Kabuto? Why wasn't she healing herself? Why did he care?
"Consider it another whim of mine," he answered her. "Aren't you a medic? Heal yourself."
He turned and began to walk away. Leaving her to repair the damage he had caused. It wasn't because he felt anything for her. Killing her just didn't have any point.
At least that's what he was trying to convince himself his reasons were.
The exhaustion that he had felt before this short fight suddenly tripled and he felt his limbs getting very heavy. He slowed.
"That would be the poison you're feeling now," Sakura told him through pained gasps.
Sasuke whipped back around to face her.
"The poison that I soaked the katana blade in that is."
Sudden realization smacked him full on.
"You let yourself be hit," he managed in his very real disbelief.
"I told you not to underestimate me," she choked back.
She was dying.
She knew it.
And now Sasuke was dying too. Albeit more slowly than she was. But it was still a fast acting poison. Another ten minutes and his heart would stop beating.
She was surprised when he didn't make any move against her and when he didn't call for any sort of help.
She felt awful. And it wasn't just because of the gaping wound in her chest. She had effectively killed the man she loved.
But it was better this way.
This way, he wouldn't continue to become a worse criminal. This way, he wouldn't continue down a path of hatred. This way, darkness couldn't overtake him anymore than it already had. He would be free of it all. He would be saved from himself and his own destructive path.
And Konoha would be saved and free from harm.
Though she knew her actions would hurt some people as well.
Naruto would feel it the worst she was sure. He would hate her for taking this on herself. He would hate her for killing his best friend. And then he would blame himself because that was the type of person he was. He carried the world on his shoulders.
She had left a whole letter just for him. He deserved better than that, but it was all she could give him.
She had left a lot of letters. One for Ino, one for the rest of her age mates, one for Tsunade if she ever woke up, one for Sai, and one for Kakashi. At the very least, she wouldn't be paining her parents. They would meet her in the next few minutes.
Before that moment of death came though, she had a few more things to say.
Sasuke let shock take over his features as he watched Sakura cough again, more blood pouring from her mouth.
"I'm sorry," she finally said when she had regained control of herself.
Sasuke didn't say anything, though he could almost feel the poison creeping through his body. Was that what was making him feel like ice water was running through his veins?
"I'm sorry," Sakura choked out through breaths that were growing heavier. "I couldn't watch you be a part of Akatsuki who wants so badly to kill Naruto for what is contained in his body. I couldn't watch you destroy Konoha. I couldn't watch you destroy yourself."
"I hoped you'd come back one day," she continued through breaths wet with blood, "I hoped that maybe you could be forgiven and that we could have some semblance of the life we had before. I spent every day cursing Orochimaru, becoming stronger, ignoring the pain deep in my heart and hoping for a happy ending."
The sound affected Sasuke deep down. He didn't know why, but he walked closer to her, sinking down right in front of her, their knees touching.
Why wasn't he angry that he was dying?
And why was he so upset that she was dying?
She should have healed herself by now. That meant that she couldn't. That she didn't have the strength.
It wasn't supposed to happen like this. Even when he thought of destroying Konoha, he had never imagined killing Sakura or Naruto. He had known they would stand against him, stand in his way...but he had determinedly avoided thinking more than that.
Now, he came to the realization that deep in his heart he had never planned to kill them.
Her time was short. There was one more thing she had to say.
And then she felt it. Two chakras closing in on their position.
It didn't matter.
They couldn't stop what she had set in motion.
She didn't want to live if Sasuke had to die.
She had killed and willingly greeted her death.
It was a murder suicide.
"I fought you so that I could hold good on the promises I left everyone in my letters that I would try my best not to be killed. And then I let you hit me because I knew that was the only way I had any hope of you letting your guard down and letting me get close enough to strike. But it was really always my plan to die here today. I couldn't live in a world without you, especially knowing that I was the one responsible for it. And if I had died without killing you, then at least you would have been the last thing I saw and I wouldn't have had to endure the pain of losing you later."
Sasuke listened to her cough some more. Her words pulled at the heart that he had hardened even more since learning the truth about Itachi. He hadn't said a thing since she had apologized for killing him. He could only listen to her words. Words that implied that she had never let him go.
"And I'm glad I got to see you one more time before death...and I'm glad that I stopped you from going further down this destructive road. And hopefully Naruto will come to see it that way too and won't hate me for too long. And hopefully you won't hate me for these last few minutes - though how could you not? But it had to be done. And I couldn't let anyone else take on that burden. I had to stop any potential for war between the shinobi nations - we can't risk that right now. People in Konoha would die. I couldn't let that happen. I'm sorry," she said.
Then she paused and uttered her most shocking words yet.
"I love you, Sasuke-kun."
She had said it.
But she hadn't expected this reaction. She hadn't expected any reaction.
"What?" he spluttered.
It was very uncharacteristic of him but she figured he could afford it in death.
"I love you," she repeated.
"How can you still love me after everything I've done?" he asked.
Sakura thought that he sounded depressed.
He couldn't believe the words he was hearing.
She still loved him?
And why did those words warm his dying body?
Already he could feel his life slipping away from him.
"Because I do," she said simply before pitching forward into his lap.
She was still breathing.
His hands moved unconsciously to stroke her hair.
He should have been angry that he was dying. He should have been angry that it was his weakest teammate who had killed him. He should have felt hatred for her.
But he didn't.
Because he had loved her too. Loved her and pushed it to the back of his mind in the hopes of forgetting about it. To love was to encourage pain.
And now, instead of feeling anger at her for his own oncoming death, he was angry at himself for killing her. She didn't deserve to die. Most definitely not by his hands. And he was pained that she wouldn't keep existing in this world.
Her breaths were slowing even more.
He continued to stroke her hair and realized he did have something else to say. Something he had to make sure she heard before she died.
"I love you."
The words floated around Sakura's head. She couldn't be sure that she could believe them. But they sounded so real. And they filled her with such happiness.
He heard her words, and then felt the rising and falling of her chest stop.
He didn't realize he was crying until the tears were rolling down his face and off his cheeks.
He had killed Karin to get to Danzo without a second thought. And now he had killed someone else and he was in tears.
But it wasn't just someone else.
It was Sakura.
He had killed Sakura, and she had killed him.
It was almost poetic.
Through bleary eyes, he saw two people make their way out of the forest and rapidly approach him and the body he had moved to cradle in his lap so that he could hold her like he hadn't done in life. So that her serene, smiling face would be the last thing his eyes would ever register before they fell shut like her own.
"What did you do?"
It was Naruto's angry voice that cut him deeply, voicing the same question that kept running through his head. What had he done?
Then Naruto reached for Sakura, and Sasuke pulled her closer to his chest.
He was dying and he had killed her. He needed this last comfort of her body in his arms before he left the world of the living. He had realized much too late what he should have recognized sooner.
"She poisoned the katana. And from the looks of it, she managed to get you," Kakashi said solemnly, observing the dripping cut on Sasuke's arm. He placed his hand on a growling Naruto's shoulder.
Sasuke tore his gaze from the girl in his arms and watched Naruto stiffen after Kakashi's words.
"She cut you?" he asked suddenly. Sasuke could swear he saw the boy's world falling apart.
"She let herself get hit," Sasuke mumbled in answer. "She let herself get hit so that she could get me. And then she couldn't heal herself."
The tears were still pouring down his face. He had no control over them anymore.
He had no control over anything anymore.
His traitorous mouth opened up before Kakashi or Naruto could say anything.
"I killed her. I'm sorry," he muttered, "I'm sorry for everything. I'm sorry for this...I...I loved her..."
And then words failed him.
If only death hadn't been the catalyst for all of this. If only he could have realized this much sooner. If only he could have let his hatred go and become the hero of Konoha that Itachi had wanted him to be.
He felt his body failing him.
He had a request to make.
"Please..." he started slowly, looking up at his former teacher and the boy who had been his best friend, "please bury my body with her's if it's possible."
Sasuke could see the maturity on Naruto's face. He could see the boy who had saved all of Konoha. Naruto nodded once, and then Sasuke slumped forward over Sakura, taking in her face one last time.
"You'll make a great Hokage, dobe," he muttered.
Then he had a brief vision of Sakura meeting him in the afterlife.
Naruto watched as one of his teammates fell over dead on his other teammate's body. Teardrops escaped his eyes and he turned away from the scene and looked at Kakashi. The older man had a tear in his visible eye also.
"He came to his senses too late," Naruto said bitterly, "it could have all worked out. The other villages could have been convinced to let him live."
Kakashi looked at his only remaining student and couldn't help but agree that Sasuke had come to his senses much too late. The way Sasuke had clutched the dead Sakura's body to his chest, not letting Naruto take her from him, had shown him just what he had always suspected.
Sasuke had only had his two teammates. Naruto had become his brother. And Sakura, the only girl he had ever gotten to know, the one who had cared for him and who he had watched over and protected...of course she had found a place in his heart.
Maybe it all could have worked out. Maybe Naruto could have convinced the other villages' kages to back down where Sasuke was concerned. He was the most unpredictable ninja Kakashi had ever known, and people were always influenced by him.
But now they would never know.
"It was Sakura's decision. She made it, just as Sasuke made his," he responded.
A few days later, after Kakashi and Naruto had carried the bodies of Sakura and Sasuke back to Konoha with help from Sai, Lee, and Kiba - all three who blamed themselves for letting Sakura get away from them - the two were buried. There was a big, public service for Sakura - she had met many people and saved many lives while working at the hospital to practice her medical jutsu. Afterwards, late in the evening, when no one else was around, a private service was held for Sasuke - Shizune had released the body to them in secret and completed the paperwork saying that it had been burned...not everyone would be happy that the traitor Uchiha was being buried in Konoha soil.
Naruto, Sai, Hinata, Kiba, Shino, Ino, Shikamaru, Chouji, Lee, TenTen, Neji, Kakashi, Shizune, Yamato, Kurenai, Gai, and Iruka were the only ones at the midnight vigil. They were also the only ones who knew about Sasuke's change of heart - Naruto had told his friends all that he knew about what had happened when he had brought back the dead bodies of his two teammates. They had all agreed to help Naruto and Kakashi dig up Sakura's fresh grave so that Sasuke's body could be lowered into the hole as well.
And now, unable to sleep, Naruto had the letter that Sakura had written him in his hand. He was sitting alone, perched on the top of the Hokage monument, Sakura's penned words floating through his head.
Please forgive me.
How could he not? Her and Sasuke were the ones who were dead. He was still alive.
A week later, Naruto went to visit Sakura and Sasuke's shared grave - though few knew that truth.
He placed the flowers he had bought from Ino by the headstone that bore his pink-haired friend's name.
"Hi, Sakura. Hi, Sasuke," he whispered as he knelt down on the soft earth where grass had already begun to sprout.
"I hope the two of you are, you know, okay. And I hope that wherever you are...you're together. Sasuke, you deserve some happiness. And Sakura, you deserve to have your heart's wish fulfilled."
He choked back his sob and lifted his eyes from the ground so that he could trace over the name on the headstone again.
His heart skipped a beat and he froze.
It was impossible.
Because there stood Sakura and Sasuke.
Naruto knew he must be imagining this because it was impossible that the two of them were here. They were in the ground. Cold and lifeless.
But even after he rubbed his eyes, the vision persisted.
The two were holding hands. Sakura with a serene smile on her face. Sasuke with the smirk he had sported in their genin days.
Genjutsu maybe. He tried to dispel it, but nothing happened.
And then he heard the words on the wind. Two voices he had thought he would never hear again.
That's what both of them had told him before fading back into nothing.
Naruto was startled out of his stunned silence by the appearance of Hinata.
Had she seen what he had seen? She couldn't have. It was all in his imagination after all. But...
"Na-Naruto, I thought I saw-" she started, but then she cut herself off, "n-nevermind."
Maybe it had been real then?
It didn't matter whether it was real or not. Whether it was his subconscious or some magical force. He would take the advice either way. It was coming from the two most important people in his life.
"Hinata? Do you want to come to lunch with me after you're done visiting Sakura and Sasuke?"
She blushed furiously, but nodded, and Naruto stepped away from the memorial to his friends to give her a moment alone.
Sakura and Sasuke had told him to live.
He would do just that.
Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto. And if I did, this is never what would actually happen.
Authoress' Notes: This was an idea that popped into my head a few months back when Sakura first decided to go after Sasuke and since Wednesday's chapter (482), I've had sudden inspiration to write it. Is this what I expect would happen? No. Is this what I want to happen? No. But I liked the idea so much and my fingers just started typing the story when I opened up wordperfect on my computer.
It's a little disjointed. The thoughts aren't fully fleshed out. But I like it. It's the most raw piece I've written, and I'm happy with how it turned out even if it's not perfect. That's what makes it...perfect.