Sakura drags the body half a mile. He is not heavy and he is not light; he is a solid reality, resisting her with an empty, dead sort of apathy. His limbs catch on branches and roots and she just pulls harder, because it is too late for respect and far, far too late for kindness.
It is getting dark, and the messy trail of overturned ground and scattered leaves behind her seems to seep from the long shadows cast by the trees. The forest is crying.
So is Sakura.
But there is no time for weakness or regret, no room for want and old wishes that are rotting yellow and gray with age and feathering around the edges.
All business and hands that would shake if she weren't such a damn good doctor, Sakura reaches down and rips away his shirt. Next, the disfigured headband. Pale, scarred skin comes into view, and Sakura doesn't even flinch.
She bundles up everything that might identify him to anyone that might stumble along. Standing and observing her handiwork, she wonders if she shouldn't cut out his eyes, just to be thorough. The thought is detached, distant, not really from Sakura because if it were she would have to cry. Not really Sakura's idea but she rejects it anyway.
It is getting dark and home is a long way off.
Sakura's knees wobble, but she manages to turn her back and walk away.
Sakura is in Rain Country but the sky is clear.
The sky is clear and the sun is shining bright, true. The sun is shining so she can see Sasuke's face, even though he stands fairly far off.
She doesn't say anything and neither does he. She wants to run but she doesn't, because predators chase and Sakura does not want to be caught. It has been a year since she saw him, six months since Konoha had received any intelligence as to his movements. (It has been a few thousand heartbeats since she realized that love cannot forgive hate.) She did not expect to see him when she took a simple solo mission faraway from home and far removed from Akatsuki.
Her heart is pounding but it is not in anything other than terror.
Sasuke speaks first, and it changes things.
There is no threat in the word, but there is no kindness either. There is a hollowed out rawness to his words, to his eyes. She looks at him more carefully, the veil of fear lifting cautiously.
Sasuke seems to shrink before her. He is taller, wider – smaller because of the gauntness that has nothing to do with flesh and everything to do with substance; he is broken and bruised and disappearing around the edges. He holds himself like a man about to crumble in two, and it suddenly occurs to wonder why he is here, so far away from the world of ninja and war, why he is alone, and why he has been but a whisper of a rumor for the last six months. But then the pieces click together, because Sakura has always been so smart.
And she knows – knows because humanity carries an ancient knowledge in its blood and Sakura still carries Sasuke in the space between who she was and who she is– that this is a Sasuke she has never seen before. This is a Sasuke without a goal or reason. This is a Sasuke who can recognize just how lost he is.
"Do people change?" he asks her.
"Yes," Sakura says.
"Can people be saved?" he asks.
There is no wind but Sakura can hear a low, whistling howl, like lonely night air searching through the dead trees for something it will never find.
"I don't know," she says.
She makes camp at midnight.
The fire burns bright and hot in front of her, and Sakura stares into its depths. Tears are gathering, hot and tight, at the back of her throat. She blinks, wipes her hands across her face, and mutters, "Fuck."
She reaches into her bag for Sasuke's shirt and headband.
The fabric of his shirt is soft against her fingers. She holds it in front of her, looks with a twisted mouth at the proud crest, and snorts a huff of angry, heartbroken air out her nose. But then she pulls the swath of fabric and lies and hate and memories close, buries her face in its damp coolness, and takes a few seconds to force the smell that still clings to the fabric out of her mind forever.
The fire hisses as she throws the shirt and headband into its hot, waiting hands.
"Fuck," Sakura says.
"It's too late," Sasuke says. Yet, there is something young and hopeful at the way he looks at Sakura, at the widening of his eyes and the opening of his face.
She kills the hope like bullets with words like damnation. "It is."
"You won't come with me."
And it is every secret wish from every secret corner of her heart; it is Sasuke looking at her like she is the meaning to his dreams, the key to his fortune; it is the lies that engulf and the hate that consumes and it is the way love can forgive anything, anything in the whole world, except for hate.
"No," she says, a metamorphous in a single syllable whispered into the silent air. "I won't."
She has been home two weeks when Naruto finally corners her.
"Sakura," he says, and she knows that this is it.
"Sakura." His hand reaches out so his fingers brush hers. This is friendship, this is love, this is where you end and I begin and this is why Sakura cannot keep secrets from Naruto. "Tell me what happened."
Sakura's footsteps slow and then stop. She looks at Naruto – looks up at Naruto – and reminds herself to breathe. Her voice is faraway and lost in the tide of memory's almost-regrets. But it is even and steady and she tells Naruto: "I saw Sasuke, in Rain Country." She doesn't cry because there is nothing left to mourn. "And – and I left him there."
There is an old scroll in Tsunade's library, way up high where no one but Sakura ever bothers to look.
It has old techniques, made strange my decades of misuse, but Sakura is a lover of knowledge, and she has learned to see the beauty of the slugs. And so she sits cross-legged one evening and reads. She reads and she absorbs and her fingers form seals and she learns.
Pushing the scroll back into place, she cannot immediately call to mind a realistic situation in which a memory-erasing technique would be useful. Ninja have other ways of making people forget. But, still, Sakura knows that knowledge is its own special kind of power.
The village is a little more than half a mile away. It is small, and it is secluded, and it has forgotten the ways of ninja and war.
She grabs Sasuke's collar and starts dragging.
At the root of the root and end of the end – at the heart of the period of the last sentence of the last paragraph of the story that is life– there is Sakura and there is Sasuke. And way down deep beneath the lies and the layers of years and the grit of growing old, beneath the muscles of power and the way a soul can twist and change until it almost forgets itself; at the center of the core, there are the bones.
There, Sakura finds Sasuke.
A boy with black hair wakes up to someone shaking his shoulder.
"Hey," says the stranger, face close, blond hair wild. "Took you long enough to wake up. Aren't you cold? You're practically naked! How long have you been out here? Was it a tryst gotten out of hand? Why you so scarred?" He leans closer, scratches his head. "Who are you?"
The boy with black hair opens his mouth. Then he closes it. "I don't know."
"Sakura," Sasuke says, "save me."
note: Questions? Ask.
and: This is not a romance.