Chapter 20

Beginning

(Four Days Later)

The air in the forest was heavy, almost humid. The bitter chill was pressing uncomfortably to the skin. Like a hot breath suspended in the air, clinging to the skin like sweat. It felt as if it's going to rain again but the skies weren't even dark or cloudy. It's just that everything, for some unfathomable reason, felt rather heavy.

Morino Ibiki crouched down and placed his hand on the forest ground. There were dry blood stains on the ground and he could feel a potent chakra signature streaming through his fingers.

He stood up and once again surveyed the area. In front of them was one of the Snake Sannin's old underground hideouts. The front door was almost inconspicuous, carefully hidden by overgrown shrubs. The entrance blended well with the surroundings and if one doesn't look well enough, it could easily be missed.

Wordlessly, Ibiki signaled half of his men to secure the front and back. The remaining half would go with him inside.

Once inside, Ibiki took in the details of the abandoned clinic.

The place reeked of decay and abandonment. Murky grey water hid the floor from view and if they weren't using chakra on their feet, the water would have reached their ankles.

The horribly cracked walls looked as if they could crumble any moment. Given enough push, the pillars could easily collapse and they could all be buried there alive.

They walked for a couple of seconds until they reached a door at the end of the hallway. They could sense someone at the other side. Just one. There was no movement or hints of chakra disturbance. It was as if whoever's inside the room didn't feel them or just… didn't care.

The interrogation expert signaled with his fingers again and his men immediately followed. They neared the door carefully.

One swift movement of Ibiki's index finger and the door was immediately destroyed. In a split-second, Ibiki and two of his men had already situated themselves inside.

As the smoke cleared, Ibiki's eyes roamed around the room.

And he stilled.

There, in the middle of the room, was the one person they were searching for for days.

Wearing a bloodied Konoha hitai-ite on his forehead and leaning against a long metal table in the middle of the large room was the two-time rogue-nin, Uchiha Sasuke. His head was bowed down; his face entirely hidden.

And on his chest, cradled and held so tightly in his arms, was the naked body of his teammate, Uzumaki Naruto. Countless tubes and wires were surrounding the blond's body, long needles embedded deep in the paling tan skin.

None of the machines surrounding them was showing any signs of life.

It was obvious that the cradled body was long dead. Ibiki didn't want to know how long the Uchiha had carried the body like that.

In his whole life, he had seen many facets of desperation. He was a master of torture after all, but this one, this particular one still managed to shake him to the very core.

"Uchiha Sasuke." He managed to say after a while. "You're coming with us."

The man didn't move, nor showed any signs he was even aware of their presence.

Ibiki made slow and quiet steps forward. Once he neared the rogue-nin, he noticed that the man's pallid lips were moving. And then the man's hand formed an all-too familiar jutsu.

'Shit.' Ibiki cursed. His hands flew immediately to his chest and he uttered a jutsu of his own.

Two seconds later, a huge explosion rocked the forest, sending some of the debris flying into the wind. In mere seconds, the ground caved in and the whole facility was swallowed up.


"Report." The Hokage commanded, her eyes fixed on the interrogator. Though the man's solid composure remained, Tsunade could still see the weariness in the man's eyes. Morino Ibiki looked drained to the bone. It was extremely rare to see him like that.

"There were explosive seals placed around the facility. Two of my men designated outside are in critical condition. None of my men with me were hurt. I have managed to create a barrier while inside. Fortunately, there were no other casualties." Ibiki reported succinctly.

Tsunade breathed out a sigh of relief. She leaned back on her chair. "Good work, Ibiki. You can go now. The medics will tend to your wounds. Please rest."

"Hai, Hokage-sama. I will submit the written report this afternoon."

"No, Ibiki. I'm ordering you to rest today. Just rest. You can submit the report tomorrow. Am I understood?"

The man looked stunned for a moment, then he answered. "Of course. If you'll excuse me then…"

A respectful bow then the interrogator finally left.

Just as the door clicked shut, Tsunade swiveled her chair to face the window.

"Detonations, huh?" She whispered, her gaze lost on the towering buildings outside.

-really intended to bury them all alive

"Tsunade-sama…" Shizune started a bit hesitantly. "Are we still going to—?"

"No. Cancel my appointment with that Uchiha brat."

Shizune shivered at the tone used. Though the Sannin's face remained blank, her voice still sounded so cold.

Tsunade stood. Her knees buckled a bit under her weight and she clenched the chair's arms for support. She hadn't slept since the gaki's disappearance four days ago. The lack of sleep was finally taking a toll on her.

"Hokage-sama! Are you alright?" Shizune was on her side immediately.

"I'm fine, Shizune," Tsunade bit out. "Let's go."

The black-haired assistant blinked. "U-um, but where to, Hokage-sama? If we're not going to see Sasuke-kun at the hospital…"

"…."

The amber eyes softened. A small yet sad smile graced the Hokage's face as she turned around.

"…I want to visit someone else first. He's more important."

There was sadness in that voice and Shizune watched the other worriedly. "Tsunade-sama…"

The amber eyes were shimmering with tears, but the smile painfully remained on the Sannin's face. "I missed him," she said softly. "That… idiotic brat. I want to see him."

Shizune nodded. "I understand, Tsunade-sama. I'll cancel all your appointments today. Let me make the preparations first and then we'll go."


As soon as the bodies of the two missing-ninjas were sensed in the perimeters of the village, the Council had taken charge.

The unconscious and injured Uchiha was immediately taken to the hospital, complete with a full team of ANBU to act as security. Naruto's body on the other hand, was transferred to ROOT despite the Hokage's blatant refusal. The Godaime was simply furious and demanded that the body be autopsied and given proper burial.

In the end, the Council conceded with the Hokage's request. It also helped that a lot of Jounins and Chuunins backed up the request. Danzo's justification that the body of the Kyuubi vessel be kept and preserved under his watch was immediately disregarded. Despite the cool exterior, Danzo's comments were scathing during the latter part of the meeting.

"Sure. The ROOT will surrender the host's body to you, Hokage. But I assure you, you would not like what you'll see," the old man said, his one visible eye narrowed. There was a sneer painted on his face and Tsunade resisted the urge to throw the table at the old fool.

"If I were you, I'll just give the boy a burial. Just to save everyone the shame."

And after those words, Danzo and his escort left the room, leaving everyone to ponder what he meant.

Tsunade shivered mentally at that, almost hesitating to proceed with the post-mortem examination.

She had seen Sakura's reports regarding the state of the blond's body before the release of the Kyuubi. Those reports should have warned her off.

The green chakra on her fingers wavered. Her hand, which was hovering over Naruto's body, was trembling.

"Oh god…" She uttered, eyes wide in disbelief. It was as if all the air had been forced out of her lungs and she suddenly couldn't breathe.

She finally understood what the old fool meant.

The gaki's insides were torched. There were no other words to describe it. Everything was utterly and severely swollen. Like someone had lit a candle inside.

Her world was literally spinning. She was gripping the edge of the metal table so hard that her fingers had started to pierce through the metal.

She couldn't even begin to imagine…

"Naruto… I'm so sorry," she said, her voice breaking. She stroked the blond's cheek gently. "I'm so…"

Teardrops fell down on the unmoving body. Amber eyes narrowed at the tan skin that didn't shrivel up. It remained smooth and almost unblemished.

It looked like the boy was only sleeping. It doesn't really look like a body that has been dead for four days.

["…Seemed like the Uchiha had slowed down the decaying process." Ibiki reported, sounding a bit vexed. "We almost thought the Uzumaki brat was still alive."]

"Sick." Tsunade hissed.

And then her eyes lingered to the small spot on the boy's neck. She blinked. Eyes narrowing, she fingered the tiny mark. It was reddish and…

Her heart skipped a painful beat.

'What in the world—?"

["Sure. The ROOT will surrender the host's body to you, Hokage. But I assure you, you would not like what you'll see… To save everyone the shame, just give the boy a burial."]

Danzo's ominous words resounded in her ears as she scanned the body again, looking for the same reddish marks. And she saw them. Quite a few of them, almost fading, but her medically trained eyes found them easily.

She gripped the white sheet covering the body's lower region, and slowly, pulled it down a couple of inches. The same red, almost pinkish marks littered the blond's upper thigh.

Tsunade pulled the sheet up quickly. She didn't need any more proof.

Her chakra flared furiously and in one blink, a Jounin appeared behind her.

"Hokage-sama?"

"Get. Uchiha. Here. Now." She commanded, stressing every word.

"Hai." The Jounin bowed respectfully and he disappeared.

The rogue-nin had not even made two steps inside the room when the Sannin had gripped his neck and slammed him to the wall.

"Leave," Tsunade commanded the escorts.

"But Hokage-sama, we can't leave you with him—"

"I said," the Sannin was glaring at them now, her hand still wrapped on the Uchiha's neck. "get out. Now."

The ANBUs exchanged furtive glances, still a bit shocked, but they complied nonetheless. In a puff of smoke, they were all gone, leaving the Hokage and the Uchiha alone in the room.

"Uchiha." Tsunade hissed threateningly. "What the fuck have you done?"

"…."

The lack of response aggravated Tsunade more and her grip tightened. With much force, she pressed the Uchiha to the wall, crumbling it bit by bit. She knew that he's not ignorant. The damn prodigy knew what she meant.

"Answer me!" She demanded.

Sasuke remained unmoving, his stance relaxed, his eyes vacant and unblinking.

Then, as if finally realizing where he is, the dark eyes blinked and slid ever so slowly to the corpse behind her.

There was silence then… in a voice so low and barely audible, he suddenly replied, "He said he loves me."

Tsunade froze. She wasn't expecting that. Her grip loosened unconsciously.

"I didn't think he would mind," Sasuke continued, his lips twitching in a half-sneer.

Tsunade almost broke the man's neck at that. But she stopped dead when she saw the man's eyes. The lips can smile, the words can lie, but it has always been the eyes which tell the truth.

The man's eyes, Tsunade noted grimly, were staring longingly at his rival's dead body.

The sneer deepened slowly and the pale, cracked lips moved again. "Because after all, that is what he always wanted…

…the fool that he is."

"…."

The man's eyes were still fixed on his teammate, looking as if he's expecting a retort. Waiting for the blond idiot to answer back. Waiting for anything. But there was none. He was met by silence. His rival's corpse lay as unmoving as ever.

The bitter smile slowly faded and dead, dark eyes lowered to the tiled floor.

"…Fool. He's always been such a pathetic fool." He whispered grimly. The rogue-nin's voice was like a sheet of glass close to breaking.

At that moment, an intense wave of pity gripped Tsunade's heart. She found herself unable to say anything.

She finally released her hold and the Uchiha fell to the floor. Blood was beginning to stain the fabric over his stomach. The stitches must have loosened or the wound might have reopened, but the rogue-nin didn't seem to care. He didn't even seem to notice.

"You." Tsunade started after a long while. "Did you ever love him…?"

"…."

The silence was expected.

The Uchiha never spoke again. His back was bent; eyes fixed on the floor, blood seeping from his clothes. He looked so pitiful that the pity that gripped Tsunade's heart increased tenfold.

Turning away, the Sannin flared her chakra once more and the escorts returned. She muttered a command and the rogue-nin was taken away.


Sakura stared at the door of the cell, almost willing it to open by itself. She really doesn't want to be here. But then, she had no choice. A heavy, lingering sigh escaped her lips.

Swallowing hard, she deactivated the seals, and proceeded inside. She found the rogue-nin seated on the floor, an arm resting on one upraised knee. His dark eyes were fixed on something on the wall beside her head.

He had a calm and detached expression on his face and though his body's currently wrapped up in bandages, he looked fine.

The Hokage had informed her that the Uchiha's injuries had all been looked at and treated. His life was no longer in danger. Though there had been infections because of earlier neglect, the deep wound in the rogue-nin's stomach was starting to heal quite nicely now.

He's alive… and well.

Sakura felt a pinch in her chest, feeling the unfairness of it all.

A huge lump formed in her throat and there's a prickling behind her eyelids. At that moment, the urge to cry and lash out had never felt so strong. She gritted her teeth and none-too-gently, placed the tray of medicine and food on the table beside the bed.

There was no reaction or any signs of acknowledgment from the Uchiha. The man remained sitting, staring at the wall with a withdrawn gaze.

"The funeral's tomorrow," she started in a low voice. Her eyes were fixed on the table next to the unused bed. "Sun down, half past 8." She recited the exact place in the most monotone voice she could manage.

"…."

Expecting the lack of response, she took one last glance at the Uchiha before turning to leave. Her role was done here.

Beside the door, she stopped.

"Be there." She said firmly. "At least for him, be there."

And then she left.

The seals were reactivated and the door closed with a sharp click.


The moment she stepped outside the detainment center, Sakura's tears were already streaming down her face. She didn't even pay heed to the ANBU guards and just started running away.

She ran aimlessly through the streets, feeling nothing but the heaviness blossoming in her chest.

Somehow… somehow, she knew this would happen. She must have been the first person to discover the real state of Naruto's body. That moment in the forest wasn't a fluke. When the blond almost passed out on her arms, she felt it. Felt and saw the body's real condition with her own eyes.

She should not have just shouted. She should've struggled harder to stop Sasuke from taking the blond away. At that moment, she should've warned the rogue-nin of Naruto's real condition. She should've done everything to inform him.

But she didn't.

At that moment, her mind just blanched.

"Naruto," she cried. "I'm sorry…"

She fell down on the grass, her knees landing callously on the ground. Her body started to shake with violent sobs. She wrapped her arms around herself, an attempt to stop the shaking. But it was no use. Unbidden tears streamed out of her eyes.

Funny how she'd always thought she wouldn't have any more tears to shed.

She naively thought she had buried it. She had tried to move on, to stop thinking, to just let this grief pass. But it wouldn't. It was no use.

She'll always be reminded of the person she's lost. No amount of mourning could alleviate this.

And seeing her rogue teammate – alive, able, and seemingly unaffected – brought back the pain tenfold. It was as if nothing happened. His expression was the same. His eyes were as jaded and empty as they used to be. Not even a hint of sadness or regret.

She clenched her teeth in anger and if it was possible, she found herself crying harder.

'Pitiful,' she berated herself. 'So pitiful, Sakura. Why don't you ever change?'

The trees hovered above her form; their leaves swinging in the light breezes of the dusk. The cool wind brushed her skin but she vaguely felt it.

"Sakura-chan."

A whisper suddenly sounded in her head. It was a familiar, high-pitched yet tender voice. It was Naruto's…

'God, she's losing it.'

And then she felt something touch her face. It felt wet.

Green eyes slowly opened and looked up. She froze immediately at the sight.

An image of her fallen teammate was before her. In human form, but not quite human. The image was drawn in black ink, outlined by heavy strokes and accented in the edges. The clothes of the image were colored in vague hues of orange and black. The flesh was in a lighter shade of brown and the eyes were the color of pale blue skies. Not like Naruto's, but still.

'Is this a joke? What kind of sick—?"

And then the image proceeded on wiping the tears off her cheek. The touch was so gentle, leaving dark smudges of ink on her face. Sakura felt her chest constrict painfully at that. It felt like her heart was being crushed. She struggled to breathe.

"I could not quite get his eyes," Said a voice behind her. Sakura turned around.

"S-Sai?"

The man was looking at the form made of ink, his eyes tinged with something Sakura had never expected to see in them. Longing. The eyes of their once unemotional and slightly insensitive teammate were now filled with nothing but longing as he gazed at the inked form. And deep sadness. Such startling amount of sorrow conveyed in those dark eyes that Sakura couldn't bring herself to say anything.

"…."

Blots of ink were falling on the ground. The image was starting to melt.

"Hopefully, the new one would resemble him more." Sai said after a while. His voice was low; his eyes never straying from the image. "Just the eyes. It is quite difficult to color them. I could never get his eyes right –"

Sakura's heart finally broke at that.

Now, she understood. She finally understood.

Before Sai could even finish his sentence, Sakura was already running towards him.

"You idiot!" Sakura said as she hugged the pale man tightly. "Baka!"

The man stilled at the sudden embrace, confused. The medic-nin was crying at his shoulders.

"Sakura-san…?"

"Shut up." Sakura said, softly. "Just… don't talk. I know Sai, I know…"

She finally realized what the other truly felt for the blond. It stumped her why she never realized it sooner.

Sai's eyes had always been solely on him. Only on him.

"You loved him," Sakura murmured. "Have you… have you ever told him that?"

The man before her tensed.

And in a much lower, slightly cracked voice, Sai answered. "…Yes."

Sakura waited. "And?"

"…."

There was no response. Sakura pulled back a bit and stared directly at the man's eyes, searching for the answer. As soon as their gazes met, Sakura knew.

"I'm sorry," she said, tears once again falling from her face. "I'm so sorry, Sai."

And she hugged him again. More firmly this time. The man stood still, his hands hovering over Sakura's form but never quite touching.

"…Why are you apologizing, Sakura-san?"

"Because you're an idiot." Sakura cried. "You and Naruto! You're such big idiots!"

"…."

"…He's so… stupid." Sakura mumbled in between sobs. "He should've… he shouldn't have left us…"

Sai didn't say anything.

And silence settled.

Neither of them spoke for a long time.

Leaves were falling all around them and it was growing darker, colder. Pale hues of black were filling the skies.

"He loved you too, Sai." Sakura said after a while. "He cared for you. Don't you ever forget that."

"Sakura-san…"

"That idiot… has always cared so much for all of us. More than he ever did for himself."

"…."

Something shuffled near them and before either of them could react, the ink image of their fallen teammate had closed in… and wrapped its arms on them. Shocked, both of them immediately stiffened, staring wide-eyed at the ink form.

"N-Naru—" Sakura began to say but abruptly stopped. 'This wasn't Naruto. This was merely an image,' she rationalized. Just an image made of ink and chakra. Nothing more than a jutsu.

It was nothing more. Just a very poor copy of…

"Naruto," she heard Sai speak. Sakura blinked and turned her head to face the pale man.

A lone tear had made its way past the man's pallid cheek. Sai was staring at the ink form as if seeing it for the very first time. Then another tear crept out of his eye, followed by another, and another...

Sai – Sakura stared in utter disbelief—was crying. This was the very first time Sakura saw the man shed any tears for anything or anyone.

If her heart could break for a second time, it could have. Sakura was sure of that. Because right now, she couldn't bear to watch this. Seeing Sai like this was breaking her heart into a million pieces.

"…Thank you." Sai said finally, a small yet genuine smile appearing on his face. His eyes were open and warm, staring longingly at the ink form.

It was impossible, Sakura knew, but a ghost of a smile seemed to have flickered on the face of the ink form. It stayed there as the eyes slowly closed.

A light breeze passed between them. The ink form was beginning to disappear, melting slowly in the wind.

"I love you. I will…" Sai said softly, lifting a hand to touch the blond's face. The form's face was melting in his gloved hand. And barely a second before the form dissolved entirely, he managed to whisper:

"…love you forever."

And then it was gone.

Sai's eyes fell to the ground, and even though Sakura could no longer see the man's eyes, the smile had never left his face.

"…Naruto."


The funeral was expectedly low-key. The Godaime Hokage had preferred it that way. But it didn't make the memorial service any less special.

It could have been the funeral of a Hokage if the amount of high-ranking officials who attended was something to go by. Though there were only a few civilians present, there were quite a lot of prominent people who showed up, hinting Naruto's position and great influence in the ninja world.

It may have also been because it was the funeral of the last of the Jinchūriki. Of all the human hosts, with the exception of Gaara, Naruto's body was the only one that was retrieved. All the other vessels were kept (and still hidden) by the Akatsuki.

The feared group was dead now. Most of its members, along with its leader Madara, have been killed. There have been reports that the remaining few members have disbanded and were now on their own. The threat was gone… for now.

Peace had temporarily settled between the nations, momentarily setting aside the rift that was caused by the Uchiha at the Leader's Summit. Of course, the fact that the Uchiha saved all their asses while in Konoha played a major part as well.

They'd all seen what the last Uchiha had done. At the Kyuubi's rampage, the rogue-nin had used himself as shield and "single-handedly" fought the cursed beast using his bloodline jutsu. He was also the one that helped kill Madara, the world's biggest threat to peace. He basically won the war on his own.

With the help of Team 7, Uchiha Sasuke brought peace back to the ninja world.

That's what everyone believed.

"Fools…"

Tsunade stared blankly at the skies.

"Such fools they are…"she whispered, holding the Hokage's hat in an iron grip.

Compared to all the funerals she's been too, this was the only one where she's perfectly sober. She doesn't know why but the sight of sake nowadays was upsetting her stomach. It's making her oddly nauseous. Too bad, she thought. She could really drown herself in sake right now.

It was all so convenient, she thought. She was the one who started the rumours of Team 7 taking the mission to lure and exterminate Madara. The "escape mission" was just a cover-up. The real goal had always been Madara.

That even Sasuke's assault in the Summit was forged for everyone to think that the young Uchiha had sided with Madara. This was so he can learn of Madara's true plan and weakness. This of course, wasn't true. Tsunade had just made it all up so she can salvage all the remaining members of Team 7.

And surprisingly, everyone bought it. The people were goaded so easily. She couldn't complain though. She needed this. To save all the members of Team 7, including Sasuke, she wanted everyone to believe that the rumours were true.

"This is what Naruto would have wanted," was all Tsunade said in the Council meeting. Her voice was firm, her eyes steeled as she gazed at everyone. No one dared to argue and though it's a big risk, everyone in the Council conceded in the end.

Team 7 was still valuable after all. Most especially, the Uchiha.

For the villagers and even the Kages who once hated the rogue-nin, Uchiha Sasuke was a hero. The hero who sacrificed everything to save them and the village from annihilation.

Hero.

"Hero." Tsunade repeated the word. It tasted foul in her mouth.

It was the most difficult choice she'd made. She wanted everyone to think that Team 7, including Sasuke, was innocent of everything so all of them could be saved and hence, allowed to return. Though she wanted to strangle the Uchiha so bad, she had no choice. If she didn't do it, all the members of Team 7 will be executed for grounds of assault and treason.

With only a few years of detainment and observation, Uchiha Sasuke would be allowed to roam free. All his sins would be purge, and everything, for him, will go back to normal. He can be eligible for reinstatement as a shinobi. Or he can choose to be a civilian. Anything. He can choose to have anything.

His life… will simply go on.

All for the sacrifice of one person.

Tsunade bit her lip harshly. She could taste salt in her tongue. She bowed her head down to hide the tears threatening to fall.

'I hope you're happy, brat.' Tsunade thought. 'This is… what you've always wanted, right. What you've been screaming in my ear for years.'

She began to laugh but it was too strained. It hurt to even smile.

"Baa-san."

"…Gaki."

"Hokage-sama…"

Shizune appeared behind her. "It's starting."

Tsunade nodded once and put her hat on. Without a word, she followed her assistant to the memorial grounds.


"Sakura."

"He's not here." The medic-nin growled low. Her eyes were scanning the area furtively. "He was allowed to go out, Sensei. But he's not here."

Kakashi looked down solemnly at his student, unsure of what to say. He had expected this, and had an earlier hunch that Sakura expected it too but the anger in her voice proved that wrong. She sounded so betrayed. Like she did expect the Uchiha to come.

"Calm down," he said. "Perhaps he's just…"

"Sensei!" Sakura's eyes were glimmering with unshed tears. "This is Naruto's…"

She looked away. Clenched her fists tightly at her sides. Even now, she's finding it very difficult to say the words.

"This will be the last time… he'll see him." Sakura continued. "He'll never see Naruto again. He's his best friend! He should be here!"

"…."

The medic-nin was close to crying now, burying her swollen eyes in her palms.

"Sakura."

"I hate him." Sakura hissed.

"No, you don't. Don't say that, Sakura." Kakashi placed a hand on his student's shoulder. "Hate is a strong word."

"I do hate him." Sakura repeated, but with less vehemence. And her voice cracked in the middle. "I…"

"Sasuke may or may not be here." The copy-nin said in a gentle voice. "But that would be his choice and his alone. We should try to understand that."

"But, sensei—"

"Whether he comes or not does not change the fact that Naruto has always been important to him."

Sakura stilled at that, shocked by the Jounin's words. It didn't take long though before her surprise was quickly overridden by anger.

"Ha," she scoffed. "As if. Out of all of us, Naruto was the one he hurt the most."

"…."

"Important? He's always been cruel to him. Even in the end, he didn't… he didn't even care." Sakura bit her lip, finding herself unable to continue.

"Sakura. There are many things we don't know. It's not fair to assume."

The medic-nin looked away, knowing the truth in that statement.

The procession for the offering of flowers was already starting. She glanced at the small mangled white flower in her hand. She had gripped it so tightly that she broke the stem already.

"I… I have to get a new flower," she said lowly, turning away from the jounin.

"He loved him." Kakashi said just as Sakura took a step away.

Sakura abruptly stopped.

"Out of all of us, Naruto was the one who changed him the most," Kakashi continued. "I know you know, Sakura. Sasuke has never looked at anyone but hi—"

"Sensei," Sakura interrupted. "Please stop."

All her breaths had frozen in her chest. The words were like razors piercing her skin. It hurt so much.

"I know," she said in a shaky voice. "I'm not blind."

She closed her eyes, remembering those dark, cold eyes which never looked her way. Dark eyes which always seemed to look pass her.

She looked back at the jounin, a small, bitter smile painted on her face. Her green eyes glimmered with tears, but she wiped them away before they even fell.

"But I still want him here." Sakura said in a much firmer voice. "At least for Naruto, I want him to be here, sensei."

"Sakura…"

The medic-nin punched her palm with a fist, looking suddenly determined. "And even if I have to break his bones to get him here, then I will."

The jounin blinked, then gave a long, heavy sigh.

'Those words…'

He raised his hands in mock surrender, looking defeated.

"Maa. I give up. Just… don't be too forceful, Sakura-chan."

A flash of pain glimmered in those green eyes. Noticing it, Kakashi apologized immediately. The medic-nin waved it away.

"It's okay, sensei." She gave a low chuckle to reassure the other, but it was strained and quite empty. "Naruto's not the only one who uses that damned honorific and— damn it, I really need to go."

She turned around. "I'll bring him here. Whatever it takes. I'll do my best, sensei."

And she left.


The doors and windows were all closed, allowing no sound or current to breeze through the house. The walls were thick with the aura of quiet and solitude.

Surprisingly, the house had remained clean and polished. Everything's in order and well-maintained. The white blankets covering the limited furniture were pristine and free of creases.

Even the dry blood that had managed to weave through the thin gaps of the floorboards was gone now. The ruined tiles were replaced; the wood newly varnished and scented.

Everything was perfect.

It was all so perfect. So horribly and disgustingly perfect.

The house had been maintained impeccably. So cared for with much attention and diligence. It was as if whoever did this really believed and expected the owner's return.

A bitter smile twisted the man's lips.

Such a cruel, cruel joke.

"…."

Pale, cold fingers touched the wall, skimming the surface slowly as the lone figure walked the long corridors. The man's pace was slow and quiet. His dark yukata swayed languidly behind him as he walked, his eyes drawn down to the floor, his whole face hidden in shadows.

After a while, the walking stopped. The figure stood still beside a door. And slowly, the fingers descended and rested on the handle of the wooden door. He grasped the handle and slid the door open. He didn't glance around or wait. Unlike his many attempts in the past, he walked inside the room without preamble.

He had always hesitated to visit this particular section of the house.

It was where his parents had died. Where his brother performed the most unforgiving act, and where everything was taken from him.

Even in his dreams, this room haunted him.

Even after all these years, the sight and smell of his parents' blood remained strong in his memory. His clan's tragedy followed him everywhere like a shadow, reminding him of everything he's fighting for.

But this time, it's different.

As he entered, the smell of something fragrant assailed his nostrils. The man stopped dead in the middle of the room. He glanced around.

Various kinds of potted flowers filled the room, filling the room with their fresh scent and bright colors. A mosaic of beautiful flowers surrounded him and though some of them were already wilted, the room still looked so… vibrant and alive. Petals and leaves adorned the floor and he could feel the rough texture of the soil beneath his bare feet.

The ruined floorboards were still there but the blood-soaked area was hidden from view, covered instead by pots of various sizes and colors. The smell of blood was gone. Unlike the rest of the house, this room smelled like… earth. Of the clean smell of earth after a long and heavy rain.

At the sight, the cooled off heart beat once. Heavily.

Something flickered in those dead eyes.

Slowly, the man looked around, taking everything in.

He found a note taped on one of the potted plants and before he could even stop himself, he was already walking towards it. He reached for the note and read:

Baa-chan, the floorings are all messed up. I'll buy the extra materials when I get back from the mission. (I hope the bastard comes with us this time. Wait, scratch that. I'll make sure he will.) And oh, this room smells horrible. I can't take off the smell so in the meantime, this is all I got. PLEASE tell your stupid ANBU not to take these away too. Not until I get back. I left a note on Iruka-sensei to take care of them while I'm gone. I'll clean this up, I promise!

A smiling face of a toad ended the messy note and even though there was no name at the end, there's no doubt on who wrote it.

One shuddering breath escaped the man's lips and the paper was crumpled in his hand.

The smell of blood was finally, finally gone.

His eyes burned, like lava had pooled behind his eyelids. And the tears that streamed down his face felt so hot and thick.

The man didn't feel his legs descending until his knees fell down to the floor in a heavy thud.

Indeed. Such a cruel, cruel joke.

In the middle of the room, surrounded by nothing but the final gift of his best friend, the lone figure was on his knees, his body bent down, and his forehead on the floor. The paper was clasped tightly—reverently in both hands.

"Naruto."

A whisper in the solitude of the room. His voice was like gravel in his ears. It was the first word he had ever spoken for so long.

He brought the paper closer to his chest. The pale fists were trembling. He spoke the name again, the syllables stretching out in his tongue.

And then he kissed the paper in his hand, his cold lips dragging over the rough surface of the paper. Wetness was forming on the floor, on his hand, on his face…

"Naruto."

The name was called out again and in the solitude of the room, his only response was silence. The walls were empty and hollow, and when his voice echoed, he could barely recognize it as his own.

He held the paper in his hand in an iron grip, his own tears melting the dark ink.

His eyes slid closed.

And finally, finally… the man allowed himself to grieve.


"I… chased after you. I wanted to catch up to you. I want to be at your side. Fighting alongside you. Training. Or just… fooling around. Those moments…they might not mean anything to you but I treasure those moments, Sasuke. Because you are important to me You've always been…

important, Sasuke…"


Sakura had felt the raging fires even before she saw it.

She looked at the source and noted, with horror, where the fire was coming from. The Uchiha District.

For the life of her, she had never raced so hard in her life.

'Please, not him too. Don't take him away too.' Sakura pleaded desperately in her head.

The gates loomed before her and she charged forward, not even bothering to check for any seals. It was only when she slammed against the invisible barrier that she realized her mistake.

She grunted in pain as she struggled to her feet. Once she found her balance, she ran towards the gates again. She felt the barrier with her hands, analyzing it quickly. Glancing around, she noticed the paper seals attached to the walls. Her eyes widened in recall. She studied these seals before her.

It was one of the Uchiha clan's ancient kekkai (barrier) seals. It's quite distinctive because it's a reverse barrier which means that it's mainly used for offensive purposes. It's not to protect anything or anyone. It's meant to destroy everything inside it – and in this case, by means of fire, the clan's main element.

And it was a seal that can only be started and stopped… by an Uchiha.

Sakura's heart could have just stopped at that very moment.

The whole Uchiha District was burning. Everything was slowly being swallowed up by the roaring flames.

Glancing around quickly, she saw the still form of her ex-teammate standing calmly in the middle of the huge Uchiha lawn; his whole expression calm, his eyes drawn towards the raging fires coming his way.

"Sasuke-kun!" Sakura shouted, banging her fist repeatedly on the barrier. "Please stop this! Sasuke-kun!"

Her lips and throat were drying, the scorching heat draining all the moisture in her face. But even then, it didn't stop the tears from falling relentless on her face.

The pale fists banging on the barrier were starting to hurt and swell but she didn't dare stop. She kept calling out, with all her voice, with all her strength, with everything she's ever got.

But the Uchiha won't even look at her.

"Sasuke-kun, please stop! Don't do this!" The medic-nin shouted once again. "Please, Sasuke!"

The man looked up to the smoke-filled skies; dark grey ashes already drifting and encircling him. He closed his eyes.

"Because I love you."

"Usuratonkachi," he said.

And as the last syllable left his lips, the seals around the district glowed. One by one, the pillars of the barrier vanished. The fires began to die down, being extinguished on its own.

Terribly stunned and thankful, the Sakura collapsed to the ground and cried. "Oh thank God," she managed to say in between sobs. She could feel other chakra signatures approaching. Relieved, she stood up.

Once the smoke cleared, she glanced around again, noting that the whole district was no more. Piles and piles of charred debris littered the Uchiha grounds.

Uchiha Sasuke, its sole and last living heir, had literally burned everything to the ground.

"Sa… Sasuke-kun," Sakura said as she neared the raven. It was then that she finally noticed the flower gripped so tightly in the man's hand.

Without glancing at her, the man tossed the flower to the ground, bowed his head and clasped his hands together.

Sakura blinked. 'That gesture…'

It was like an offering for the dead. Sakura looked around again, realization dawning on her. This was the man's final offering for the dead, that much she understood.

All the physical reminder of the clan's tragedy burned and buried to the ground. The man was finally allowing everything and everyone to rest in peace. It would be nothing else but a memory now.

Even with their damaged surroundings, a feeling of immense and soothing calmness filled the area.

All those pain, all those hurt seemed to have faded away.

Sakura smiled, feeling peace blossoming in her heart.

At long last.

Taking one final look at her ex-teammate, Sakura left quietly.


"Live, Sasuke...

Live on."


.

.

.

.

EPILOGUE

(Eight Years Later)

The figure stood tall and imposing as he surveyed the village from atop the Hokage monument.

A white hand emerged from the immaculate, white robes and took off the hat bearing the Rokudaime insignia. The man angled his face towards the skies, quietly reveling in the soothing warmth of the dying sun against his skin. They were the final rays of the sun before dusk settled. The deep colors of red and orange were melting together, creating an outstanding view in the skies.

A gentle breeze blew and his robes and raven locks fluttered gently in the wind. He closed his eyes.

Peaceful. He'd never felt so peaceful.

"Hokage-sama." A voice sounded behind him. The Jounin knelt down in respect. "The Council's requesting your presence. Should we go now?"

There was a minute of silence before the dark figure finally answered.

"I will be there," Came the short reply. The figure didn't say anything else as he disappeared in a puff of smoke.


It didn't look like a grave.

The stone monument was surrounded by bouquets of flowers. The flowers were arranged beautifully, surrounding the gravestone like an offering. Everything was fresh and the air smelled clean and wonderful.

The figure approached the monument. He plucked a small white flower from one of the bouquets and knelt down in front of the grave. He placed the flower and his Hokage hat on the ground.

Dark eyes stared longingly at the gravestone. His hand rose and pale, long fingers traced the engraved name, slowly and reverently.

Uzumaki Naruto

The fingers stopped tracing and the hand dropped.

As if comforting him, a soothing warm wind breezed through his back.

A small, rare smile played on the Hokage's lips. It stayed there for a long time.

"…I've been made Hokage." The man spoke after a while, his voice smooth and deep. "This was your dream, right Naruto? It's always been yours since we were…"

He didn't continue it.

His forehead lowered and rested on the hard surface of the tombstone. His eyes closed; fingers once again touching the engraved name.

"I accepted it. For you, Naruto," the man whispered, his lips almost touching the concrete. "For you…"

And just like every single day for the past eight years, three short words passed his lips. Three short words spoken so fervently. Three very short words that no one else will ever hear.

A confession that will never receive a reply.

There's still that soothing and warm feeling in the air. Petals flew and drifted slowly in the wind, surrounding him, embracing him.

The figure took his hat and stood up. Taking one final and long look at the grave, he bid his best friend good bye.

"Owari, Naruto."


"I love you."


END

Thank you all very much.