After the current war.
I stood on a lonely bluff overlooking an even lonelier stretch of muddy road. I really couldn't see much of anything, it was a long four hours to dawn, and I cannot sleep. It was cold, bitingly so, and I wrapped my warm woolen parka closer to my body. It was times like these that I regretted my belly showing clothing choices. Nevertheless, for all that, I preferred the wind to the company below.
My gaze encompassed that barren patch of earthen road, though I could not see it clearly. I knew from the chill of moisture in the air that our footprints would be frosted with ice by now. When I heard the footfalls behind me, I turned slowly to meet the only person who would willingly seek me out, Sakura. I wasn't proven wrong, as her pale pink hair glowed though the dark and she lifted a hand draped in her red striped wool.
"Hey," she said, her voice strong despite the reason we were all here.
I nodded, and threw a calculated smile at her, "You should be in bed, Sakura-chan." She yanked her hood tighter around her face, "We have an early morning."
"I know, I know. I'm not exactly dying, Sai, I've stayed up later than this, and traveled farther and harder than this before the scare."
"It's not a scare, Sakura." Gaara's voice made us both jump. The man had an uncanny ability to be as silent as wind blowing over a grassy plain. "And I happen to agree with you, Sai, except that we should all be in bed."
Sakura smiled at the blank eyed boy. Boy, I mused to myself, he was younger than I was by almost two years. He'd held the hopes and fears of a nation for fifteen long hard years, and had worse than I could ever dream. He was not a boy.
"Good night," I said to them as I walked away, "I'll ask Temari-san to wake me, and I'll find you at noon."
Gaara nodded silently, his crimson hair waving in the icy air as Sakura frowned, and threw a hand over her mouth to cough. I sped my pace. I knew she did not want sympathy from anyone, and although no one else would grant her the dignity, I would. Besides, I needed to think. Passing by Tamari-san, I signaled, and waited for her to climb from her high perch.
"Sai-kun, what can I do for you," she smiled, her own dark grey wool whipping around her legs.
"Tamari-san, if you could wake me at dawn? Gaara-sama wants me in the air earlier since we're getting close to our destination."
"Have you been here before?"
I shrugged, "When I was with ANBU." I never mentioned Root; it was nothing but a painful reminder of my horrific past. "We'll see snow before too much longer."
Her green eyes danced with laughter, and she chuckled, "So have we. Just because I prefer missions with sunshine in them, doesn't mean that I won't go where my brother tells me."
I smiled, laughter being beyond my scope tonight, "Have a pleasant watch, Tamari-san."
"Get some sleep, Sai-kun."
Get some sleep, as if it was just that easy. I pushed into my tent, bending to remove my shoes before divesting myself of the parka. I stripped out of my clothes, pulled on my thermal pants and Konoha Academy emblazoned sweater. I had not attended it myself, but it was a gift from Naruto. I lit my brazier with a small katon before burying myself in my bedroll.
War is Hell
All I could think about was what had happened to us all during the war. There had been a lot of growing for me. My team, my world, was more than just the five or six people who could deal with me for the first time since my brother had died. I belonged to a large squad that was part of a bigger platoon, which was part of an army the like of which the world had never seen. I grew; I even managed to make friends with people that probably would have had Danzo rolling in his grave.
Sakura was not there.
I had hoped that she would be off the immediate front lines with the rest of the Medical Logistics Company. I myself was put on the Ambush Company, and it had been risky work. However, Sakura was more helpful to them as a close-range fighter and emergency medic. I was afraid for her life. That is when I realized it; Sakura was more than just my closest female friend, more than the 'Hag' whom I felt comfortable with. I liked her with more than my brain; I loved her.
I kept up with all the reports from Gaara's squad, which was easy since I worked directly under his older brother, Kankuro. The both of us even got personal letters; such is the reward of having friends in high places. At first, I had not noticed that anything seemed amiss with Sakura. The skirmishes and battles she'd seen, the people she had to work with, and her new commander - she was dealing, even enjoying herself as much as she had been able to with a war waging all around her.
After the first month, she would start talking about Gaara as more than the strangely quiet commander of their battalion. Her letters contained cute little stories about something that the two had done together, or how she had been chosen out for special missions. I had been worried, but not in the way that I see now that I should have been. I wrote back, tried to tell her only good things, but ours was a dirty job not many stable people were good at.
Then, Sakura's letters had slowed, though Gaara's to Kankuro had remained unchanged. I hadn't been prepared for that. It gave me too much time to think about her. Without her comforting words, I began to long to see her again. I missed training with them, eating Ramen three days a week, teasing our fair Sakura, and painting her when she didn't know.
It was nearly three months before our companies had been able to come together for a joint strike at Madara's base. We had come just three nights before the plan was set to commence, and I asked every soul I encountered where I could find Sakura. I had opportunity to see all of my friends and teammates over the last few months, but our companies had been so disparate, that I had concluded I wouldn't see her until the war ended.
That's when I heard the bad news. Sakura was not in the camp. She'd been sick, and sent to Medical. All of those weeks of emotional tension gripped my heart like a vise. I found Sakura's captain, and he sent me on to Gaara. When I had been admitted, the Kazekage's face was drawn and when he saw who it was, he looked even less likely to speak. But, speak he did, and told me that Sakura had started feeling sick, and when she developed a cough that nothing seemed able to touch, they'd gotten worried.
In a way, it was comforting knowing Sakura was somewhat safe behind Konoha's gates. There, she was receiving the medical treatment she needed. I was happy then. I could concentrate on the missions better, thinking Sakura's letters had become sparse because she'd gotten sick. The war was won just six weeks later. We were honored, and Leaf nin in my company were the first to see our home gates.
I went to the hospital as soon as I arrived. I had not been in a position of great importance, so the Godime had no reason to see me. The hospital staff reported that Sakura was home, and well enough to receive visitors, but they had a furtive look about them, and I soon found out why. Sakura was indeed well enough to have visitors. They didn't mention that she had lung cancer.
When I went to see her, I had one further surprise. Gaara was there. The Kazekage was in her house. Making tea, and telling her that their proposed trip to the Village Hidden in Snow would go off without a hitch. Sakura invited me in, and explained everything. How she'd realized something was really wrong, and Tsunade had determined that without full medical scans, no amount of tricky chakra manipulation would cure her. Unfortunately, she also explained why Gaara was there. They'd become close. They were really good friends, and he wanted to be there for her. I asked to come, and since I was also her friend, they agreed. I am a fairly useful nin after all. Gaara added in his sister, and they made a team of four to take a sick Sakura to Snow Country and their sophisticated medical technology.
I was able to get a few hours of sleep before a tired looking Temari threw open my tent flap, "It's dawn, Sai-kun."
"Care to come in for a minute?" I asked the yawning blonde, "It feels like it's gotten colder out there."
Temari covered her yawn with a hand, "Mind if I sleep in here? It's so warm, and it started snowing about an hour ago. It's not sticking, so Gaara said I could catch a few hours of sleep while you scout."
She smiled tiredly when I nodded my assent. "I'm just going to change, if you don't mind."
"Nope. I don't mind at all." Her smile went from tired to mischievous, "Are you offering me a peek?" I startled, and she held her hands out, "Hey, sorry, that wasn't as smooth as it could have been."
"Are you..?" I took a deep breath, "Are you coming on to me?"
"I heard you were a little backward, but that takes the cake." She smiled in a way I could only assume was meant to make me feel better about my confusion, "Yes, it was a little come on. I have seen how you look at Sakura-san. I also know that my brother really likes her, and she likes him back."
I cocked my head, "So you hit on me. To what purpose?"
"You're good looking, and Kankuro was right, you're a good guy. I've enjoyed traveling with you, Sai."
"I'd prefer if you closed your eyes while I change," I said with stone cold control, "I don't think I'm ready for a relationship with you, Temari-san."
She shrugged, "Can't say I didn't try. Think about it though, all right? I know what it's like to have eyes for a person who has eyes for someone else." She lay down, snuggling deep in my blankets, her eyes closed. I waited for a few moments, allowing her words to sink in. I knew this pain well with Sakura. It sometimes seemed she loved everyone but me.
Quickly, I changed my clothes, no longer even thinking about the sleeping girl. Temari's breathing had dropped into sleep almost as soon as she finished speaking. I twitched aside my tent flap, and snuggled the parka close to my body. My mind was still cluttered as I pulled my thickest scroll from the pack, and readied my brush with chakra-laden ink. I drew my great bird, and after climbing atop, I put away my materials. I gave the silent command to rise, hoping that the frigid air would clear my head.
I took to the sky, and for the first time during the whole trip I actually wished I was land bound like the others. It was positively frigid in the air, and I could barely control my shivers long enough to watch the road pass under me in a dark ribbon of frozen earth. I didn't see any breaks in the hoar, so I gained a little more altitude, and headed over the forests in a strict search pattern. Bandits could be found, even out in the middle of a snowstorm. I didn't see any trace of humanity anywhere close to us, so I moved on.
Further down the road and I started to let my mind dwell on Sakura. How in the five great nations was I to convince her that I was the man she could rely on? Gaara was certainly powerful and he had a slightly better time expressing emotion. He was the head of Suna, Konoha's greatest ally. A marriage between them would cement the relations between our hidden villages for decades to come. What did I have to offer that even compared? My superior skill in artistry? Somehow, that didn't quite seem like a trade off to Kage of a strong village. The only thing I had was our friendship. It had been a hard road for both of us, but we had both learned and grown together this last year. She was my best friend, and nothing nin-come-lately had could stack up to that. I hoped. I would have to let her know my true feelings when we finally reach Yukigakure.
I spent a frustrating two hours in the air before swinging back around to report to Gaara. They were already well along the road; they must have started out an hour after I had taken off. Temari looked dead on her feet when Sakura spotted me.
I dispelled the bird, the ink blowing behind me in a black rush after landing. I gave a wave and fake smile to Sakura and Temari before turning my attention to Gaara. "Nothing to report, any bandits in the area are holed up somewhere warm if they know what's good for them." I shifted my attention back to Sakura for a second before resuming eye contact with the black lidded kage.
"That's good," he responded, "do you need to rest at all?"
"No." He asked me the same every time, as if he thought I was lying. "I'm fine, Gaara-san." He nodded, and hiked his pack closer. He resumed walking without word, and we three fell behind like the obedient troop we were. The road was lonely in every sense of the word. Sakura didn't speak since the cold hurt her lungs when she had to breathe too deeply. Temari was playing with a set of hand fans, a stunning display of chakra control and dexterity. Not even an animal came close enough to glimpse. I just watched us march quietly until mid-day.
Eating was different, since we had time to set up a roaring fire, and had plenty of untouched snow for boiling water. Hot chocolate was broken out of Sakura's pack ever since it started getting icy. She did not disappoint, and we all held our mugs as if they were treasured mementos of the past. Hot reconstituted soup was next. It was tomato based today, and everyone slurped, happy to have something to warm up with.
I broke the silence first, "We should break onto the main highway before long. With your permission, I'd like to send a missive ahead to announce that we're arriving tonight."
"Your skills have turned out to be as helpful as Kankuro reported. How does this one work?"
I turned to face Gaara, and reached behind me to pull out a thinner scroll than the one I used for a large summoning. "I just write the message," I paused, and lifted my brush to ink out a short letter to the administrator of the medical center. "When I am finished," I washed the bristles in the snow, slipping the brush back into its sheath, "I just activate the pre-set seal, keeping an animal in mind that does not cause too much commotion. Rats are a good bet, as are birds. I'm going to make this one a hawk." With that, I slipped my fingers together and called the animal form forth. The words ran together, and suddenly a black hawk burst from the paper, and winged its way toward Yukigakure.
"It's all in the seals set to the scrolls," I turned my fake smile on Gaara. Although Sakura frowned, she certainly knew a fake from the real thing, Gaara 'hmmmed' in response. I stood, re-rolling and packing the scroll.
"We should all get done, then," Temari stood, and twisted her slim frame this way and that to the noise of bones releasing pressure. I nodded, Gaara simply dashed out the last of the soup, and Sakura wiped the utensils we had used with snow, and repacked them. Under ten minutes later we back out on that lonely road.
We were on schedule with my observations, as our party stood at the edge of a wide neatly cleared dirt road that led to the towns and villages of Snow Country as well as the Hidden Village of Yukigakure. Sakura glanced at me, and our eyes met. She smiled, her eyes glistening in the late afternoon light. What was she doing, looking at me that way? Was I no more than she professed? I smiled back, allowing the emotion to light my eyes, just for her. That's why I was here. No matter how confused I was inside, I knew I was here for her.
It didn't take long for the shinobi of the village hidden in snow to find us. They were a sturdy looking bunch, clad as I remembered them, closefitting weather resistant clothes and dull rubbed body armor. Two men and a woman stood in an easy stance, and there was not a smile among them.
"Welcome to Yukigakure," the tallest of the men said, "I am Takashi, and these are," he pointed in turn to the other man and then the woman, "Kensei and Shirayuri."
Shirayuri smiled then, "Like 'Kashi said, welcome. I am in the medical core, and we've been instructed to bring Harano-san directly to the hospital. The guys will take the rest of you to quarters near by."
Sakura thrust her hand out, "I'm Haruno Sakura, I'm in the medical core in Leaf, and it's nice to meet you, Shirayuri-san." The med-nin shook hands, and Sakura indicated the rest of us in turn, "You probably recognize the Kazekage, Gaara of the Sand, and his sister, Temari. This is my team mate, Sai."
"Now that that's out of the way," the tall Takashi rolled his eyes, "can we get going, I have other duties tonight."
"That's the Kazekage, baka!" Kensei punched the other man, "Sorry about that, but its cold, let's get you all situated. Will you need anything, Kazekage-sama?"
"Please forget my title, we're here as Sakara's friends. Your hospitality is enough." Gaara dipped his head, and we all turned to follow the snow shinobi.
The women went toward a tall building glowing subtly in the falling dark. I assumed it was the hospital. There was only a small sign denoting the use of the building, but I didn't do more than register it's location before walking past, and counting the steps from the hospital to where we would be staying.
When we stopped at a multistoried building, I was strongly reminded of the apartment building Naruto occupied. It wasn't exactly the nicest place he'd ever stepped into, but it wasn't bad. Gaara and Temari looked like they'd just about died and gone to a place much less pleasant than heaven. I grinned as small as I could. Finally, there was something Gaara wasn't good at. Must have been nice growing up as the son of the last Kazekage, and becoming the next one in turn.
We were ushered into two rooms. Temari said she'd stay with Gaara, and I faced an empty room. I closed the door, and sat on the neatly made bed. Now was the time. I wanted more than anything to make it to the hospital, and lay it all out. Sakura couldn't leave, and he'd know if Gaara tried to sneak up on him. I closed my eyes, and felt my chakra swirl in my veins. With that last bit of build-up, I left my room, and made my way to the girl I loved.
Carefully, I retraced my steps to the hospital, still glowing and casting reflective shadows off the snow banks surrounding the edifice. The doors weren't barred, and I strolled right up to a nurse in a demure pink outfit.
"I am Sai from the Konoha delegation, and I would like to see Harano Sakura, please."
The nurse looked me up and down, "She's up in radiology, waiting for a specialist. I can direct you. But, you must check in with their nurses before you enter. It can be dangerous, do you understand?"
I nodded impatiently. Konoha did have a radiology department. The problem was that their was woefully technologically deficient. That was probably why Konoha's Medical-Nin were the finest in the five principal nations. I'd heard Sakura say exactly the same thing a hundred times.
With my agreement, the nurse gave me some directions, ending that if I got lost at all, not to hesitate asking for assistance. I gave her my best smile, and left to go find the appropriate wing. It didn't take too long. The radiology ward smelled a little like the ink I use for jutsu. Following my nose, I was soon faced with a desk and a restricted entry door. A sweet faced nurse in a slightly different uniform stood as I approached.
"May I help you, sir?"
"Harano Sakura." I stated, "I'm Sai from the Konoha delegation, and I would like to see her if I may."
She flipped a few pages in a book, "I see here that she's scheduled for an MRI, and," she looked over her shoulder at a cork board pinned with names and paper, "the doctor is seeing her now. If you want to have a seat, I'll go see if she'd like a visitor. Her MRI isn't scheduled until tomorrow morning. You may accompany her to her room, if she says it's all right."
I looked over my shoulder at a cluster of highly suspect chairs that the nurse pointed to. Wearily, I let myself sit in one, and hoped that Sakura wouldn't mind some company. As five minutes turned to ten, I found myself wishing that I hadn't left my backpack and pouches in the room.
The nurse reappeared, another man in tow. "Sai," she smiled quickly, "This is doctor Shizaki, he's the doctor in charge of our department."
The man held out his hand, and I took it in a firm handshake, "She's doing quite well for her condition as reported by your Hokage. Tomorrow, we'll run an MRI to see the extent of the damage, and see what exactly can be done to get her back to healthy."
I nodded, "Thank you, Doctor. May I see her now?"
The nurse spoke for him, "She says to just wait, she'll be out in a second."
"Ah," looking over her shoulder I saw a familiar head of pink hair come toward me. In the wheelchair, she looked tired and drawn. She smiled, though it looked more fake than his used to be.
"Sai, I'm glad to see you." Even her voice didn't sound right. Maybe now…no. Now is all I had.
The orderly pushing the chair paused, "Just follow us, and we'll get her settled in."
As I followed Sakura in her wheelchair and the two nurses, I hoped that what I was about to do was the right thing. After all, she was sick, and I was not exactly in the best frame of mind. From all of the books I had read, I knew that this was probably a bad idea, but I had to do this. I had to at least tell Sakura my real feelings, even if she turned me down, I would not be going through the next phase of my life wondering 'what if'.
We stopped at a room, and the nurses watched as I perched in a chair, and Sakura got herself situated in bed.
One of the nurses gave me an extra look, "Only an hour left, young man, then I'll have to make sure you're gone."
"Yes, thank you." I watched Sakura's face for any hint of relief, and she maintained the same soft expression, so I took it as a good sign. The nurses left, so I got up to stand by the bed.
"Thank you for coming, Sai," Sakura smiled up at me, and I sank onto the edge of her bed.
I blew a slow breath out, and closed my eyes, "Sakura…"
"Don't say it, Sai." She grasped my hand.
The air whooshed out as if I had been hit in the gut, "I know you favor Gaara now, but…"
She interrupted again, and squeezed the unresisting hand again, "It has…well, almost nothing to do with him, Sai. If you say it, I'm going to cry, and the monitors will tip, and I don't want anyone else around."
"Then you…care for me, Sakura?" My eyes flew open, and a blush settled on our cheeks.
She held my hand, "I didn't want to, Sai, you were so broken when we met. Then I realized I was the broken one, as Naruto and I tried to make a real boy out of you. That's when I told myself you were too good for me."
"But, I'm not, Sakura! Please, I…"
"…I said don't," her eyes glistened with unshed tears, "say it."
Gaara's voice made us both turn to see him and his sister standing at the doors, "You might as well."
Temari frowned at her brother, "But, Gaara, she…"
"Loves someone else. I understand, she's loved him all along, and Naruto would try and kill me if I hurt his Sakura-chan." Gaara turned, "Let's go. Sakura, Sai, we'll wait for the tests and return you home safely."
"Gaara," Temari touched the younger man's face tenderly, "are you okay?"
"I'm sorry, Gaara, please don't be angry," Sakura interjected as I stood mute. There was nothing for me to say. It was as good as his personal seal of approval as far as I was concerned.
"He loved you for how long? Our feelings were but a flash in comparison, sooner cut, sooner mended. I will be fine."
The sand siblings strode out, Temari shooting a venomous glance in my direction. I turned back to Sakura, "I'm sorry."
AN/ Zeugmatography is: Imaging using nuclear magnetic resonance (MRI) to study soft tissue. Decided to write a real story for the final chapter. Thank you all so much for reading these. Maybe I will write some more for these two, we'll have to see! Please make me smile, and for the last chapter, ALL you readers could surprise me with a review?