i. The End
Sasuke sat looking out the open window, his thoughts lightyears away in another time, another place. It was nighttime, and they were by the sea. The moon tonight was full and so bright that its silver light spilled onto the dark waters below, illuminating the boats by the docks as they slowly bobbed up and down in the tides. Every once in a while the old house would groan with age as the wind blew through its wooden bones. It was absurdly peaceful, and compared to the easy breeze and the hush of stars overhead, the horrors from this morning seemed like just another nightmare. However, the wounds beneath his bandages throbbed hotly— a painful reminder that it had all been much more than a bad dream.
He closed his eyes and breathed deeply, trying to push away the memories, but he could sense them lying in wait at the edge of his thoughts; he probably wouldn't sleep well tonight. He stood up with the mind to return to his room when a hair-raising scream pierced the air: it was Sakura.
At first it had seemed like any other muggy afternoon at the Fire Country's border: big clouds, blue skies, and open grassland as far as the eye could see. Sakura had been on her way to a routine border patrol, wilting beneath the white-hot sun. She was cursing the luck of her draw for getting such a terrible assignment during the hottest time of the year, when she spotted the figure wading through the grass not a hundred meters away. The distance had made it difficult for her to recognize him at first, but when she did, she stopped in her tracks.
He had paused as well—a dark, thumb-sized smudge in the distance. The air was dead and the cicadas shrilled in the boiling heat between them.
Sakura's mouth had fallen open in surprise, and though letting her emotions get the best of her was unbecoming of a jonin, she couldn't stop the images as they danced seductively through her head: her bringing Sasuke back through the village gates, back home; the fanfare that would await them; Naruto's great big smile- everything would be perfect again. Her hand strayed to the kunai holster at her thigh.
One thing led to another, to be more specific, Sakura had picked a fight, and now here they were, standing in a battlefield of craters and upturned dirt while the sun beat down upon on them. Most of the devastation was her doing, though it was the result of many missed blows—glaring physical proof of the difference in their levels.
Sakura scraped her bangs away from her sweaty forehead, panting hard to catch her breath. The humid air was difficult enough to breath while simply walking, but it was suffocating during a fight. Her thoughts slipped to the painful stich in her side, her cracked rib, and the fire of thirst in her dry throat…
Damn it, focus, Sakura!
The heat was getting to her. Sasuke stood just a few yards away, the closest she'd been to him in years, but his eyes were empty of recognition. The boy from her childhood had long since disappeared; the bloody cut on her neck—too close to her jugular—was proof enough of that.
In fact, throughout the fight, the evidence had been steadily mounting, and the truth began to loom over Sakura, casting its dark shadow over her: he was a lost cause.
It's pointless, said a tiny voice in her head, but impending facts only steeled her resolve; the more hopeless it became, the deeper she dug her heels in denial to brace against it.
Meanwhile Sasuke stood across from her without a glimmer of sweat to show despite the heat and their drawn out battle. Only a thin line of red marred his cheek where she had managed to get in a knick with her kunai. His eyes remained hollow and Sakura suddenly thought of Sasori's wooden puppets: empty husks with human faces.
A blast of hot wind tumbled past her kicking up clouds of dust, bringing more discomfort than relief. Sakura heard the rasp of metal as Sasuke pulled his sword from his sheath, and just as the sun licked the blade's edge, he disappeared like blown out flame before reappearing behind her.
When his feet touched the ground, Sakura stood facing the same direction with a look of surprise and a missing arm. Her eyes slid down to her shoulder and she stared at the gristly wound.
The world slowed for a moment, her horror suspended over her by thin thread. One knee came crashing down then the other. From the outer belts of her consciousness, she sensed the pain building like the swell of an incoming wave.
A calm voice broke into her thoughts. Close the wound…you need to close the wound before you go into shock.
I barely have enough chakra left.
Barely enough is still enough.
I could die.
You will die if you let yourself bleed out. Close the wound, Sakura, the medic in her commanded.
So she dug deep, scraping the bottom of her reserves, gather what little chakra she had left. Her brows knitted together in a mixture of concentration and pain as she molded it into the wound. As the raw flesh disappeared beneath a pink cap of newly grown skin, darkness began the hem the edges of her vision. When the last of her chakra left her fingertips, the sky and clouds spun above her like a bright blue pinwheel. Her eyes slid shut, and upon opening them again, she was lying on the ground, her body refusing to move.
"You're still too naïve." Sasuke's voice came from directly overhead. It was the first time he had addressed her.
Sakura's breathing grew ragged, and she closed her eyes against the nausea. "You…my arm…"
"The strong devour the weak," he replied with a shrug she couldn't see. His flat tone was empty of mockery, and that made it all the worse.
"Fuck you," she threw out, but the words hit him like thrown straw.
Sasuke remained quiet, while Sakura felt as if the world had tilted forward she was about to slip off the edge. Suddenly, from behind her closed lids she saw a burst of light and a sound she would have recognized anywhere: the cry of a thousand chirping birds. Her eyes snapped open, and she looked up, coming face to face with the tip of Sasuke's blade; blue sparks crackled along its edge like strikes of lightening—Chidori. The hair on her skin prickled in the charged air. She stared at it dumbly, not quite ready to believe that she was about to die at the hands of her childhood love. Then again, he had taken her arm. She looked past the length of the sword and searched his face for a teasing grin, or even just an arrogant smirk—anything really except for that horribly blank expression and those dead eyes. He raised the sword over Sakura with both hands, the tip poised perfectly over her heart.
"Sasuke-kun," she murmured, unable to summon her voice. "—Sasuke-kun, please—"
"Too weak," he said softly, and the blade came plunging down.
Sakura woke up screaming. Her eyes opened to darkness, and the remnants of her cries trailed off of her tongue, her chest rising and falling as if she'd been running for days. She sat up and pressed a hand to her sweaty forehead. Terror bubbled up within her, and she squeezed her eyes against it, trying to force it down, but a sob managed to slip out anyways. She was going to be sick.
"Sakura?" Someone grabbed her shoulder.
"No!" She blindly knocked the hand away, unable to get her bearings in this whirling mass of darkness.
"Ow—hey!" The hands locked around her again. "What the hell's wrong with you?"
Panic surged inside of her and she thrashed like a trapped animal."No! Stop; please!"
"Sakura! For god's sake, calm down!" Someone shook her hard. "What happened? What's wrong? Hey look— look at me!"
The command pierced through her blind panic, forcing clarity back into her eyes. The blurry face before her came into focus. She froze.
Her breath lodged in her throat. The world paused. Then like air violently sucked into a vacuum, she roared back to life.
"Sakura," Sasuke began but couldn't finish; Sakura's punch struck him like a gunshot, catapulting him across the room. He slammed to a backbreaking stop against the wall, and before he had a chance to collapse to his knees, Sakura was on him. She rammed her arm into his throat, crushing him against the wall.
"You," Sakura snarled, the hatred dripping from her bared teeth like venom. Sasuke gagged for air, clutching at her forearm, but she only pressed harder into him. Her green eyes crackled, and she wished she could burn him alive with the heat of her anger.
Spots swarmed before Sasuke's vision. The first blow had knocked the wind cleanly out of him, and Sakura had closed off his windpipe before he could take in sufficient air. At this rate…Sasuke tried again to pry her arm away, but it wouldn't budge.
"I can't believe you tried to kill me!" She was screaming at him, but her voice sounded far off and muffled to Sasuke's ears.
He watched from a distance as tears flowed freely from her eyes. What's she so pissed about? He wondered with a touch of annoyance, floating further and further away into the back of his mind. Wasn't he the victim here?
A black curtain began to fall across his vision when the pressure disappeared from his throat. His lungs ballooned with the sudden rush of air, and the explosion of oxygen to his brain sent him reeling. His legs crumbled beneath him, and he fell to his knees gasping, gripping the wooden floor as it spun out beneath him like a lopsided top.
He glanced up, dizzily noting that Kakashi had finally made his entrance. Their teacher had managed to separate his two students and looked more bemused than upset that Sasuke sounded like a broken squeaky toy.
"Everything okay here?" He asked in what Sasuke thought was an inappropriately blasé manner. Of course things weren't okay, for fuck's sake, Sakura had just tried to crush his trachea.
"Fine," Sasuke rasped and fell back into a sitting position.
Meanwhile Sakura gaped at their teacher with brows furrowed in confusion. "Ka—Kakashi-sensei?!"
"In the flesh," he replied good-naturedly, though he didn't loosen his grip on her wrist.
"You—" She sniffed and dragged the back of her arm across her eyes. "What're you doing here?"
"Funny, I was just about to ask you the same thing, Sakura."
Sakura opened her mouth to reply, to tell Kakashi she had been on her way to the border for a mission when she had run into Sasuke and tried to take him home by force, to tell him that was hopeless though because Sasuke had changed too much in the past six years, that he was a murderer because he had cut her arm off in cold blood and then plunged his sword into her chest-
Suddenly, her free hand suddenly went searchingly to her chest.
She looked down and then noticed her arm in Kakashi's grasp. It then belatedly occurred to her that she still had both limbs attached.
"Sakura, what's going on," Kakashi said, and this time his tone of voice expected an answer.
Sakura's pulse began to increase. Her eyes darted frantically darted around the room. Tatami mats on the floor. A sleeping pallet. The window outside revealed it was nighttime. Where was she? How long had she been out for? She stared at her arm, still not quite able to believe it was still there.
Was she dreaming? Genjutsu? She checked: no.
"Hey, what's going on?" Sakura turned at the familiar sound of Naruto's voice. The blonde stood in the doorway, rubbing his eyes sleepily.
"Naruto?" Sakura asked, the hysteria straining against her voice.
"'Sup Sakura-chan," Naruto raised a hand in greeting before using it to stifle a yawn. "Was that you screaming earlier? Did the boogie man get to ya or something?" He spotted Sasuke on the ground, and a devilish little grin cut across his face. "Oooooh I see; bet you saw Sasuke's ugly mug on the way to the bathroom, and it scared the shit outta ya."
"Lay off, dumbass," Sasuke scowled, though he greatly preferred that explanation to the truth; he'd die in shame if Naruto ever found out that their female teammate had done him in.
Sakura just continued to stare at Naruto, and when the blonde finally noticed her expression, he quickly traded in his smirk for a concerned frown. "Hey, Sakura-chan? You okay? You kinda do look like you've just seen a ghost."
And maybe Sakura had, because just three days ago, when Naruto had seen her off at the village gates, he had been a head taller than her with a chest broad enough engulf her in a crushing bear hug. Now, he stood before her dwarfed by the doorframe with a pipsqueak voice to go along with the rest of his pipsqueak self.
Within the gloom of that moonlit room, slowly—bit-by-bit like the waking sun—the truth began to rise within her. Kakashi must have sensed something wrong because he let her arm go and took a step towards her.
"Sakura?" He asked again, this time more gently and with a touch of concern.
She suddenly turned on him, and Kakashi hesitated when he saw her eyes, wild and frantic; he'd seen similar expressions on the drowning.
"Kakashi-sensei, what's today's date?"
"And—and the year?"
Sakura did the math.
"No way…" She fell to her knees.
Startled, Kakashi automatically reached for her, while Naruto bounded over in alarm.
But she was deaf to their calls; the walls of her world had shrunk to contain nothing more than the dark haired boy before her.
"What," he snapped, irritated by the dumb look on her face; had he seriously been at the mercy of this? Before he had a chance to supplement his anger with a scowl, Sakura suddenly lunged forward and locked her arms around his neck.
Sasuke visibly recoiled from the touch, his expression twisting as he was pulled between surprise and disgust. He made an effort to squirm out of her grip, but she ignored it and pressed her head into his shoulder.
"Hey—!" Sasuke began testily, but he never got to finish.
"I'm dreaming," Sakura said, sounding pathetic enough to cause even Sasuke to pause.
"This—a dream—it must be a dream—" Her voice broke over the last word. A sob scraped out of her throat, and all three males went rigid with fear.
"Sasuke, you ass!" Naruto instinctively shouted.
Sasuke's hands shot up in the air, claiming innocence. "What?! I didn't do anything!" He resisted the urge to tack on a "she started it" at the end of his sentence.
Meanwhile Kakashi stood over his students and rubbed the neck of his head uncertainly. And this was exactly the reason why he hadn't wanted to be a teacher in the first place. He knew how to silently kill a man forty-three different ways, but he had never thought of adding the "emotionally comfort" ability to his skill set. And now, here he was with a crying kid on his hands, wondering if this was what incompetence felt like. Who knew being a well-calibrated killing machine could come with a weakness as pathetic as tear ducts.
Kakashi grimaced internally. Well, here goes nothing. He dropped down into a crouch and tried to scrounge up the shriveled up remains of what little empathy he had left.
"Sakura, is—uh, everything all right?"
She didn't answer, and he helplessly looked on while she kept her face hidden again Sasuke. Her shoulders shook with the effort of muffling her cries, and he could too clearly imagine the silent stream of tears flowing down her face. Behind him, he sensed Naruto fidget uneasily while Sasuke pointedly glared him down. The unspoken agreement was that he, Kakashi-sensei, as the responsible adult in the middle of this whole mess, would solve the current situation at hand. Kakashi wished there was an option two to this scenario.
Beneath his mask, Kakashi's lips pursed as he decided upon a course of action; it was one of the more difficult calls he had to make in recent memory.
Forgive your sensei, Sasuke. I will admit that I am worse than scum.
"Well," Kakashi chirped, trying to lighten the heavy atmosphere as he placed an awkward hand on Sakura's head. "I guess I'll be going then; if you need anything, Sakura, remember I'll be in the room down the hall."
He then turned around to shepherd Naruto out of the room with him. Meanwhile, Sasuke's eyes looked dangerously close to popping out of their sockets.
"Wait—where the hell are you guys—"
Halfway out the door, Kakashi looked over his shoulder. "Don't worry Sakura, Sasuke will stay with you until you feel better."
Sasuke wanted to throw something at his teacher's smiling face, preferably something sharp and dangerous.
He reached out with a hand as if to hold them back. "Wait a sec!"
"No fair! I wanna stay too—" Kakashi slid the door shut on Naruto's protest.
Sasuke stared stupidly at the closed door, his hand still outstretched. It didn't require much genius to figure out that his teacher had just offered him up as sacrifice, turned-tail, and ran. He dropped his arm and tipped his head back against the wall to consider his situation; it hadn't even been a whole day since Haku had turned him into a human pincushion, and now here he was with a new bruise on his jaw and his shirt soaked in tears. The cherry on top to this terrible day would be if Itachi came swinging through the doors with Kakashi and Naruto's head on a pike. Sasuke then mentally kicked himself for being so morbid.
A wet snuffle at his throat returned his attention to the main issue at hand. Despite the soggy condition of his shirt alluding to a rather heavy crying jag, his teammate had remained surprisingly quiet; only her trembling shoulders betrayed her muted tears.
He wondered what had frightened her. A bad dream maybe? Spiders? IUt's not like he really gave a damn, right?
Sakura shook out another stifled whimper, and his lips twisted, the sound dredging up old specters of lonely dinners on too-big tables and an empty house that echoed with silence. Sasuke knew fear and pain well enough, so he placed a hand on top of Sakura head and sighed wearily.
"Just let it out."
And Sakura, who had been struggling heroically to hold back the storm within her, felt her resolve break beneath his words. A whimper slipped out between her clenched teeth, and the rest of her came crumbling down with it.
A long, plaintive wail clawed its way out of the ladders of her throat and cut the air. The too-human noise stabbed Sasuke's heart, and he found himself involuntarily grimacing against the raw cry. Without thinking, he pressed Sakura closer to his chest; she cried all the harder for it.