Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto
His coarse hands (since when were they so cold? they weren't supposed to be cold, no they were supposed to be those warm ones that would fight for her, for Team 7)gripped her throat, firm and decided. No remorse or guilt for what he was about to do flickered in his bleeding red eyes. His Sharingan had evolved, grown so bloodthirsty, so different from what she knew it to be. From what she knew him to be.
It was then she had her chilling epiphany, as her heart pound wildly (how could it still beat so when it was broken?), head not quite facing him (because she never could quite see him and she never did quite know him). This man, this crazed, unfeeling madman was not the boy she loved, not the person she had been striving to save. No this man was a stranger, no more related to her than the next person passing by on the street. Just another missing nin, just a name in the Bingo Book.
And here she was dying by these ever so familiar (a stranger's, she forcefully reminded herself) hands. She had often fantasised about her death but she had never thought it would be like this.
She let out a pained gasp (why not some weakness now? she was dying anyway and it wasn't like he ever saw her as strong to begin with) as he slowly (excruciatingly slowly, such a drawn out torturous agony, if she didn't already know she was worthless to him she would have thought it to be on purpose) squeezed the breath out of her (he always was breathtaking, she mused wryly).
Vaguely she wondered why the tears (because crying and begging and just being pathetic or in his words 'annoying' were all she ever could get right) weren't spilling yet. Perhaps if he were her Sasuke-kun, they would be. But he was a stranger, merely a shinobi who wanted to kill her. This was how most of those who walked her path met their end (that was what she met, when she met him. she never met her Prince Charming, no he was only her and her only End). Her end was this far too familiar stranger, but still a stranger. There was nothing special about it except that for some reason the stranger was not making it more painful. At least he was merciful (it never occurred to her that she was not resisting like she should be, not even trying to fight her oncoming death). So the tears never came and she felt oddly bereft without the salty, soothing liquid slipping down her cheeks.
Just as her thoughts began to lack clarity as life ebbed away (almost gently, like death was a comforting embrace), she was roughly pushed away, apparently saved. Of course it had to be Naruto (so typical of him to interrupt a tragic moment and play hero). And she was callously thrown away, forgotten, and Sasuke could care less about her now.
For the last time, Sakura broke a little bit more.
Things are different now. She doesn't know how much time has passed nor does she care. It doesn't matter to her now because what good is the past if there are no memories? For about three years she has lived lifelessly.
It was odd, just how quickly everything she knew deteriorated. Since that one encounter, the only time he'd ever hurt her, she had accepted Sasuke wouldn't come back. But she still had the rest of her boys so she futilely continued doing her utmost and at least then, she had a dream. Now, she thinks, there is nothing worth trying for, no deed to be fulfilled.
At that time, she should have known, should have prepared herself, should have realised that nothing resembling normalcy could ever last. She always made that mistake, she silently contemplates, when she was twelve, when she was sixteen (always a fool).
Naruto was the first one to go (because the baka always had to be a fucking hero and never thought about himself, about what it would do to her). She hasn't forgiven him yet. She can still remember sharply, as if it were only yesterday that it happened, his mangled body being rushed in, her working so, so desperately on him, doing all that she could in her power (her power that was never ever enough and never going to be) to save him, praying to that unjust vicious God up there to let him live. Of course, she never gets what she wants, and that time was no exception. She knows she'll never get over his death nor will she want to. Because getting over it and moving on is the same as forgetting she doesn't want to forget him (because she's so afraid to lose him for good). Sometimes she can still hear his voice calling out to her and so many regrets pile up.
Kakashi's death was less dramatic, he died on a mission and she never knew the exact details of his death (which was good because it made it so much more distant). There was no crying over his corpse, she didn't even see it because she herself had been on a mission at the time. She had just made it in time for the funeral and she couldn't find it in her to cry (what was there left to cry for?) so she just stood in front of the memorial stone, accepting it and not recognising herself (since the last of her soul died with him).
Uchiha Sasuke is not her team mate. Sasuke-kun was her team mate and Sasuke-kun is dead.
She is what they call numb, a good way to describe it she guesses. Soulless is better though (because she entrusted all of her soul in her team and they never cared about it enough to care about themselves, did they?). It is good that her heart is dead because she can't get attached to anyone so she can't ever be hurt.
Spring has been dead for a long time and she died with it.
There is always Sai but he was learning to feel again and she was learning to forget feeling so she can no longer explain emotions to him because she hasn't felt them for such a long time (only holds the memories that she clutches onto with all her might but never thinks about). The blind cannot lead the blind. She's happy for him and Ino and hopes that their happiness can survive. She is thankful, that perhaps, Sai escaped the tragedy of Team 7 and has a second chance with someone with a soul. Ino's smile always meets her eyes; Sakura has forgotten how to do that (one of the many things she's forgotten).
She's an ANBU captain now, quite an accomplishment for her twenty years of age. There is no pride in the title, however, because she had no team to celebrate it with. All she wanted when she finally passed her exams was for Kakashi to ruffle her hair proudly and Naruto to hug her and ask her out for ramen (that could never happen though, it was just an evanescent dream to remind her what life was like).
Perhaps she stays like this just to hurt them. She knows they wouldn't want this for her; they would want her to be happy (as if they were so worthless to her) but if they wanted her that way they should have stayed alive (they just left her behind… no better than Sasuke). It is her little revenge, her way to vent out her anger at them for letting themselves die. Often she can picture their indignant faces and she likes it like that because then they are so much more tangible. She needs to hurt them, like they hurt her so that she can believe in those reminiscences of an innocent, bubbly girl getting into trouble with her team and having fun (something that didn't exist in her world). The images flash through her head like a movie in a cinema, so tranquil and somewhat joyful (if she even knew what that meant anymore) until that one day and then it all spirals out of control and she's screaming for it all to end but it never does.
It shocks her that she's still alive. The weakest one of the team is the only one who lives, how ironic. Perhaps it's her punishment for being weak (to live and watch the lives of heroes end until the regret is unbearable).
A soft sigh escapes her lips. Peering out of the window, she can see merchants setting up their stalls in the early morning and discreetly adding the finishing touches to their produce (oblivious…to the death in the air). Life must be easy as a civilian, to know nothing (as they say 'ignorance is bliss'). No children are up yet and that's good because it is so difficult to handle their innocent, awestruck questions (why is the life of a shinobi so glorified? is being taught to become cold blooded murderers such a good thing?).
She always leaves at this time in the morning, not because she has things to do (there are never enough things to do) but because it is quiet at this time, nice and empty. She likes the emptiness because then she doesn't have to smile and pretend she's alright (she'll never be alright, is that what they wanted? it's all their fault and she hopes they feel guilty).
Dressing herself up in her normal attire (that's black now because she'll never finish mourning) she makes her way to the bridge. The bridge where Team 7 used to meet. She always goes to this place in the morning to meet up with her ghost team. Sometimes, on the harder days, she can make out their silhouettes in the mist or see their faces by a trick of the sunlight. She's the only one on time nowadays, the rest never show up.
No one knows of this habit of hers and no one steps on the bridge (they say it's cursed, and she agrees), which makes it hers (the precious fading morning moments… they all belong to her because she has no one to share them with). People would label her insane if they knew of her activities (but who cared enough about her anymore?) and in the early days many suggested for her to seek help (help? it was Kakashi and Naruto who's hands' would lift her up again). It's unhealthy to dwell in the past, she knows that, but she needed to. In those brief minutes (hours perhaps when she had time) reliving the better days she was so painstakingly close to being alive.
Fast approaching the bridge, she realises there's a difference. There is a real silhouette, a real figure, standing there cloaked in mystery. Her heart starts beating in such a way that seems abnormal to her, who is this person, this intruder? When she draws closer, her heart thrashes wildly and she's suddenly tempted to turn on one hell and run far, far away. But although now she can feel herself breathing she's still a zombie and she never breaks her routine even for him.
She arrives at her usual spot and leans against the railing. She pays no heed to the fact that she's standing beside him, so close that their shoulders are almost touching. After all she's long stopped feeling anything. It annoys her though, that he's there. She can't pretend that everything is alright whilst in his presence. She can't make out the childish figures of the past. He's become strings pulling her back to reality in the only time she could dream. She hates him.
Wind sways pink strands out of place.
Not acknowledging his company, she moves to light a cigarette just to imagine Naruto yelling at her for it. He always detested it, and so did she for a while (for the while he was still there). Creating images (pretty images of when she was just a naïve little girl) in the smoke, she leans back and closes her eyes to dream. To dream of Naruto throttling her desperately for doing this to herself. Dream of Kakashi advising her not to. Dream of Tsunade (who is still in that prolonged sleep, comatose they say) suspending her from hospital duty because she 'evidently didn't know how to take care of herself let alone others'.
There is a silence, and she likes this silence because it is comfortable and not awkward like the so many silences she's seen.
"Sakura," the man, Uchiha Sasuke (stranger, stranger, stranger) begins in a familiar way (he always said her name in that rich baritone of his).
She wonders why he called her that. Does he not know that this person was dead? Her stomach doesn't do somersaults and there is an absence of those butterflies that should be passing. He is an outsider, a trespasser in her space and she doesn't know him (because she never did, it was only ever Naruto who knew).
She asks "What are you doing here?" calmly, although inside she is shaking and screaming at him to leave (how dare he come here after destroying those bonds? he has no right, he's not part of the story anymore).
He shrugs his shoulders casually as means of explanation. He's doing the same thing as her, remembering the days before their paths divided. Before it all got so complicated (so tragic) and the flowers of innocence wilted.
If she had been Sakura, she would have yelled and hit him but she isn't. "You can kill me now if you want;" she wryly drawls out, unconcerned "No one's looking."
The thought of killing her, despite her connection to Konoha, isn't appealing. He never held any specific hatred towards her anyway, just her village. There's no glory in killing someone who could care less whether they were breathing or not. He snorts. "You're already dead."
Her voice is softer now, and more real (because he saw right through her façade, saw that she was just a corpse) "Yeah, I guess you're right."
There is another silence as both of them are lost in their own recollections.
"You smoke now," he states impassively (he doesn't care for her wellbeing at all because this person is not the Sakura he'd protect).
Slowly, she nods her head in affirmation (she doesn't explain her reasons because she knows he's not interested).
"Pass it here," he demands (he never did learn how to ask politely).
Since she doesn't know him, she is obliging and inhales one more time before handing it to him. She's surprised that he handles it with about the same amount of experience as she does, able to draw deep breaths without difficulty. When did he acquire this habit of sorts?
He's still heartbreakingly beautiful (an incredibly pretty disaster) but now he looks rougher and more experienced with a defined masculine edge to him. The soft childlike roundness is gone so he looks so much older than his years. He towers over her now and she feels so small.
He is scrutinising her also, trying to find traces (if there were any in this unfamiliar person) of Sakura. The physical resemblance was perfect, she hasn't changed much in that aspect, except maybe grown an inch or two, but in other ways… She is hollow (like a porcelain doll), characterless and listless.
Essentially what makes her into her has vanished.
She can smell the smoke in the air, such a foul odour, tarnishing the fresh scent of the morning. Tainting the memory of what used to be Team 7.
"Why are you here?" she asks, her first question having gone unanswered.
He withdraws the cigarette from his mouth before answering "To reminisce," He looks at her and then adds "Like you."
The expression on his face is a contemplative one as if he is considering something he hadn't before.
Her eyes are now heavy lidded and she's caught up in something too long ago (how long has it been since she's smiled? or even shed a tear). It's so easy now to pretend, the bridge brings it all back so effortlessly. After a while she mutters "They're dead now,"
Immediately his head snaps up. "Who?"
"Both of them," she murmurs "Kakashi-sensei and…" her voice trails off because she's so afraid to say it (because it will wake her up from the hazy blur she lives in).
"Tch, the dobe could have at least kept himself alive for me," he says disapprovingly "Apparently we were going to 'die together'. Some best friend he is."
"I thought he would keep his promises," she doesn't know why she's saying this all to him but perhaps it was time to talk about it after years of silence "You know when he was dying he told me 'Don't worry Sakura-chan, I won't die!' and I was just there working on him, holding his hand and I believed him." Her voice is bitter, unforgiving.
It is strangely therapeutic, talking to this stranger. Perhaps it's because he doesn't comment or try to comfort her, when she doesn't want to be comforted.
"Fool," he remarks.
She's not crying, she doesn't ever cry, even when talking about her darkest times. People say she's strong but she's not, it's just that Sakura doesn't exist anymore. She thinks Sasuke sees this too because he gives her an indecipherable stare.
There is stillness as they both turn to face the other way, to look down on the rest of the world. Her elbows are propped up against the railing and her face is cupped by one of her hands as she lazily peers down. His posture is similar, except his face rests on both his hands, fingers interlinked. Their proximity is so close that if they were a handful of centimetres nearer to each other they could have been (because nothing ever is actual, there is only a 'could have been' in their story) mistaken for a couple. Instead they look like two individuals admiring the same thing.
"I hate him more than I hate you," she mutters, breaking the quiet.
He is taken aback by her declaration (because she says she hates him and although he thought she would, the words sound so wrong but how can she hate Naruto more?).
"He lied to me. You never did," she explains.
"Hn," he makes that painfully recognisable sound that shows he doesn't care (since when did he ever?) or doesn't know what to say (what could he say to her statement?).
She continues talking, the floodgates breaking and every locked away thought pouring out "I loved you, you know,"
He nods, to show he knows (the past tense stifles the screaming in his head and suffocates his soul and he's choking on what never happened).
"Correction: I loved Sasuke-kun and I still love Sasuke-kun except that person is dead. I never loved you."
There is no response from him (it's true who she loved is long dead but so is she, so he supposes it's fair). The fact that he has nothing to say is okay for her because she never expected to elicit a reaction anyway.
He's finished the cigarette and he drops it on the ground then extinguishes it with his foot.
Now it's his turn to talk. "I considered Team 7 my family," he starts, almost hesitantly, but it's time to face what he's been running from all his life.
Her eyes widen with shock (because he just admitted that she meant something to him).
"And I hated it all. Because I had a family already and they weren't replaceable. I turned away because I could feel myself forgetting but none of you gave up."
Intently, she listens to his speech (his turn to speak at the funeral of Team 7).
"Especially you. You were so annoying because the more I pushed away, the more you pulled me in. I almost became attached."
She lets out a wistful sigh. "Do you dream about it sometimes? Of what we could have been?"
"I used to," he curtly answers (he'll never admit that those dreams were what kept him alive in his darkest times).
"I dreamed about me and Naruto dragging Sasuke-kun back," a ghost of a giggle escapes her lips (and it hurt so much when she realised it would never happen, but he doesn't need to know that) "And Sakura and Sasuke-kun finally being together,"
"When we were genin, I'd already decided that you would be the one I'd resurrect my clan with after killing Itachi," he confesses detachedly (it's easy to say these things now, when they're impossible).
"If we were twelve, right now I'd be dancing over the fact that we're alone here,"
"Hn," he lifts his hand and fingers the mark on her arm (she shudders at the almost gentle touch). He flatly states "You're ANBU now."
"ANBU captain," she clarifies tonelessly.
He winces, as if physically hurt. "Like Itachi,"
His voice turns darker and more hateful "What do you do?"
She shakes a little and glances at her hands (sometimes she can see the bloodstains). She's a masochist she knows, and the only reason she accepted the invitation to ANBU was for a valid reason to hate herself. Pain filled screams echo inside her mind. "Nothing that I can ever justify to myself,"
It takes them both a while to realise they're conversing with each other, something that has never happened before (and something that felt somewhat nice).
His hand moves further down her arm till it arrives at her wrist and he grabs it firmly. He turns her till she's facing him (she tenses because she feels powerless in front of him and she loathes it). "Would you still fight for Konoha now?"
She bites her lips and just thinks (because as many reasons there are to say yes, there are to say no).
"I never hated you," he intones in his velvety voice "But I hate Konoha," (it's his way of saying 'I never meant to hurt you, I'm sorry')
"There's nothing to fight for," (she understands he's saying sorry, and she feels like smiling) "But Naruto would want me to." Her tone is soft and genuine now, and forgiving.
He breathes in slowly, inhaling her warm scent of fresh flowers and smoke (that defiled her natural sweetness), not once letting go of her wrist. "Come with me," for once it's a request and not an order.
She smiles, a brilliant radiant smile (no matter how small it is, it's real), before answering "I'm sorry, no,"
But it's okay because for once they're not suffocating on the unspoken.
He doesn't let go yet. "Why not?" he inquires.
"Because we don't know each other," she replies.
It's odd just how close they are. They look almost as if they're together.
He relents with a simple 'okay' (because he really didn't need her, his almost first love).
Aware of the time, she turns to leave. "Sasuke," she calls out, knowing this will be the last time she'll see him "Thank you." (For making her feel alive again)
"Wait," he orders, immediately appearing in front of her.
But it is time to end the story of Sasuke-kun and Sakura, time to confront the last of the dead boy's desires (so the restless children can finally fall asleep).
He hesitantly leans in, allowing the phantom emotions to flow through him, inhaling her for the last time. Her jade eyes are wide and suddenly she's not a zombie, she's that twelve year old bubbly girl named Sakura.
Tilting his head so as not to bump noses, he draws himself closer and closer until their lips meet. He is gentle and undemanding an inexperienced as she (and in his eyes she can see the images of what could have been). It is awkward and sweet, as their lips move together (they have now reduced themselves to the spectres of the dreams they once held), somewhat ruined by the smell of smoke (that reminds them that they're not children anymore). Tentatively, she places her hands in his raven hair whilst he slowly wraps his arms around her (and this was what was meant to be years ago).
This one moment is theirs only, as they stand on the bridge (the graveyard of Team 7), kissing with the emotion they don't have.
He pulls away first (and finally the spirit of Sasuke-kun is satisfied), staring at her for one final time. Stoically he says "Consider this goodbye,"
She gives him a smile, one of the ones she only smiled for her Sasuke-kun. "May we never meet again."
They both walk their separate directions, knowing that that would be the last time their paths crossed as former team mates. The next time they met, if ever, they would meet as enemies.
Now the last of the haunts has been satiated, the dead children shall sleep peacefully and the adults will move forward, free from the curse of regret. The final remnants, final bonds of Team 7 have been destroyed, the ghouls exorcised. The team is dead, a part of the survivors is dead, and no longer shall apparitions be made out of cigarette smoke.
There is no pain in the goodbye, only closure.
A/N: Remember, smoking is bad for you and I am in no way promoting it. Don't smoke! Reviews are very welcome.