Dislcaimer: Once again, as we all know, Naruto was mine, but he was smuggled out of Neverland during my reign by Masashi Kishimoto, and I sent a bunch of assassins after him, but that guy has some serious skills.
Prequel-ish to the spaces in between, but fine as a stand-alone. On a side note, for sci-fi geeks like me, you'll notice that this verse is really an amalgamation of Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica.
Special thanks to Iulia, Miko-chan and Asha3 who gave me the motivation to churn this out. (Although I know I mentioned I was going to work on a sequel to Game Over instead, sorry! This plot bunny bit me and refused to let go.)
Their name is one spoken of in reverent whispers, and stories of his ancestor's deeds in the Colonial service abound. (an illusion, she later realizes; theirs is a name bathed in blood and betrayal and hate, and he knows this all too well.) She is the first in her family to enroll in the Colonial Academy. Hers is a nondescript background, the only daughter of the farming Harunos from a tiny village southwest of Konoha capital. She is left bewildered when she is assigned to the same unit as the illustrious Uchiha Sasuke. Their instructor is the renowned Colonel Hatake Kakashi, scion of White Fang, and her other unit mate, Uzumaki Naruto, is the orphan of beloved Admiral Minato. She cannot help but feel slightly out of place, awkward and wholly inadequate when compared to these living legends. Haruno Sakura, with her bubblegum hair and innocent eyes, has no place among these elite. (they are family now, she tells-whispers to herself, but the doubt is insidious, like snakes and poison; and only later does she laugh at the comparison)
She works hard, studying late into the twilight hours and until the sandy feeling behind her eyes becomes something she is accustomed to. She is not brilliant like Sasuke, she knows, and she is not lucky and gifted like Naruto. She works hard, and it is not until she comes in first in their mid-term assessment that she finally feels that she has earned her place beside them. (she later learns that just because she can finally stand beside them does not mean they want her there) She struggles with some of her classes, and hurts inside when Kakashi-sensei bypasses her to instruct Naruto and Sasuke in Field Combat or Military Strategy or Melee Fighting. You will be fine, he tells her, you are a hard worker. She wants to scream and rail and cry, but she is sure it is not intentional on his part, and that is what hurts the most.
Naruto is all noise and action and movement, and his energy and love for life endear him to her. (it is only later, much later, when she is older and wiser and sadder, that she compares him to the sun.) They are fast friends, and sometimes she tutors him in Xenolinguistics or Astromechanics. Sasuke never talks to her. She is drawn to him, though, drawn to the cloak of anguish and anger and grief and despair and loss that he shrouds himself in but never acknowledges, hidden behind his façade of non-emotion and silence. She watches him, and sees him talking to the Hyuugas and Inuzukas and Naras, all distinguished military families like his own, and she burrows a little further into herself, insecure and alone and half less confident.
The first time they touch, it is four months into their first year and entirely by accident. They are exiting Lecture Theatre 6, sluggish in the aftermath of a mind-boggling three-hour lecture on The Biological Peculiarities of the Flora and Fauna of Sand. In his haste to wolf down a bowl of ramen in the student cafeteria, Naruto charges ahead, knocking into her and causing her to slam into Sasuke, who walks behind them. His hands (pianist's fingers, she notes, like the fingers of a killer) grab her shoulders to steady her, and are only too quickly removed once she murmurs her thanks. It is only later, in the deep of the night, that she recalls the feel of his fingers on her person, and she traces her shoulders where he touched. (his hands were warm, but she knows he has no warmth to give)
Unit Seven completes their first year of compulsory modules with little fanfare. Sakura is the top of the class for written examinations and theory, and Sasuke is first for all of their practicals. Naruto's grades look something like a heartbeat, ups and downs and lines and peaks in sputters and starts. (when she looks back, she smiles a little at this; Naruto was always the life of their Unit, and Sasuke – Sasuke was death.) She is sad, going into their second and penultimate year, sad because for all their flaws, this is the only family she has ever known, and they have but one year left after this. The curriculum for second-years is an optional one, where students choose their modules and begin to specialize. Sasuke does not hesitate to select Military Tactics and Strategy, and Naruto loudly declares his choice of Advance Combat Flight. She is left bereft, lost and confused while her boys (boy, she thinks, because one was never really hers) leave and once again, she is left –
Later, Kakashi is kind when he sits down next to her in the cafeteria, suggesting that she sign up for Medical Training and handing her a sheaf of application forms. She looks up and spies Naruto and Sasuke across the room, Naruto making swooping motions with his hands in what she guesses are meant to represent Viper planes, and Sasuke watching and sardonically commenting with a ghost of a smile on the corners of his lips. She fishes a pen from her bag and fills the forms. (she will save them from what danger and pain and blood she can, even if she cannot save herself)
She sees less and less of them everyday, and the time Unit Seven spends together dwindles under the combined weight of their new classes and schedules and separate lives. She often spots Naruto careening down hallways, boisterous and loud and bright, and occasionally glimpses Sasuke buried in a book in the cafeteria, aloof and silent. They are drawing apart, she knows, and the parallel lines on the paper in her notebook mock her.
They announce the start of the war three months into their second year. Oto insurgents, reports claim. The Akatsuki, others whisper. She does not fail to notice the way Sasuke's fingers whiten on his glass when they mention the latter. Naruto proclaims his desire to join the fight, and Kakashi laconically reminds him to graduate first. (their world is turning into dust and fire and all they can do is sit and keep watching.) Sasuke remains fixated on the holo-screen broadcast, his eyes cast red with the reflection of fire and death in them. Kakashi pats her hand, and Naruto bounces around her extolling the heroic wonders he is sure Unit Seven will perform together (together, together; it is a word she comes to hate) to turn the tide of war. She watches Sasuke leave, and notes the cracks in the glass he leaves behind.
A week later sees Naruto ecstatically announce the acceptance of his attachment to Commander Jiraiya. She is happy for him, happy because his dreams and goals are one step closer, but she cannot stop her heart from twinging in envy. (and oh, Life, she thinks, you have taken something that I love away from me again, haven't you?) Jiraiya is a legend; the best Viper pilot the Colonial fleet has seen in decades, Commander of the USS Toad, and one-third of the Unit that studied under the famed Admiral Sarutobi. Naruto is making something out of himself, she acknowledges, and her heart breaks a little more when she hears of Sasuke's attachment to study under Kakashi later that day. She sits in her Medical Training class, surrounded by anatomical models and formaldehyde preservations, and wonders why the things in life that allow her into them are things that cannot love her back.
The war has begun seeping into the lives of those not yet in the Colonial forces. Their curriculum has been condensed, and they have been told that they will graduate a term early. Viper pilot cadets have been sent for flight runs four months ahead of schedule, and Military Strategist cadets have been brought to tactics offices for inundation into the world of war. (they are soldiers, you see, and all soldiers are biological ticking time bombs) Sakura sees the worry etched deep into cerulean eyes, and notices the fatigue shadowing onyx ones. She practices sewing her stitches in Medical Training, neat in, out, in, out in straight clinical rows and wishes she could sew their world back together. Hours later, when she shuts her thick medical tome and trudges out the library, she spots Sasuke slumped on a desk in a corner and makes her way over to him. She glances at the book he is trying so hard to absorb. Espionage and Intelligence Warfare, the title reads. She places it aside, and picks up the jacket he has discarded on the table. (no, not discarded; it is folded and pressed and neat and compartmentalized, and she wonders if he is always like this, was always like this) She tucks the jacket around him, and traces a finger down his jaw. It is not until the next day that she wonders what he is doing reading books on espionage.
(she is a fool, you understand, and she really should have realized it sooner.)
War has come for her, and her stomach clenches painfully as she boards a shuttle bound for the USS Shadow with her fellow Medical Training cadets. A field training test, her instructors tell them, and she cannot help but feel that they are being thrown straight into the fire. (fire, sound, she broken-giggles, space has none of those, so what are they fighting in the name of?) The Medical Bay of the battleship is colossal, vaulted ceilings and wide space and a flurry of movement on the ground. They are given no specific tasks, so she helps wherever she can. The wounded are carted in with alarming frequency, she observes, and she overhears a Deckhand informing a Marine that a pair of patrolling Vipers have stumbled across an Oto outpost. (she witnesses horrors that day, mangled limbs and faces half gone, and she will use these to reassure herself that there are things in life far, far worse than death)
They bring in a Marine who has lost three fingers and half of his left leg. The Medical Officers scurrying around her are busy attending to their own patients, so she swallows and approaches the bleeding soldier. He moans loudly in pain, and she injects him with a dose of morphine to alleviate what she can before she addresses his wounds. She staunches the bleeding first, and wraps white gauze onto the remains of his hand and leg. (she doesn't think, doesn't let herself think, that he is alive and there is blood, so much blood, and what will a soldier do without fingers and half a leg?) She focuses on the around, flatten, around, flatten repetition of bandaging the stumps, and it is only after she has finished and he has passed out from the pain that she allows herself to heave the remains of her breakfast into the bedpan next to his cot. She does not notice amber eyes track her progress as she wipes her mouth and soldiers on.
Her first taste of battle has left her changed, quieter and more reserved and older. Her eyes are a little duller, more tired and a great deal wearier. She realizes that this expression is mirrored in the eyes of every other cadet she sees around the Academy, and is grateful that she is one of the last to understand what it represents. Naruto and Sasuke and Kakashi all carry this burden too, she knows, only that Naruto does it with more hope, Sasuke with silence, and Kakashi with memories. She feels less alone but more isolated than ever. (men live alone and die alone, she recalls reading in a book she once tossed aside, and wishes she hadn't done so) Her Unit mates notice this change in her, and empathise but do not comment. They are soldiers, and they deal with their burdens in their own ways. She escapes to the roof in the dead of night, when shadows are deep and memories are real, and stares at the stars that beckon her to the infinite reaches of space. (these stars are the silent witnesses of death and war and chaos, and she wonders if this is what made them so pretty) She is not weak, and she holds herself together with lost innocence and broken illusions. (she will survive, she promises herself)
Sakura is surprised to discover that Sasuke has signed up for a module on Basic Xenopsychology, and even more so when he sits next to her during their first class. He nods at her in greeting, and she tentatively smiles back. (but it is broken and hastily repaired, the remains of the girl she had once been, and he sees that, sees everything, but his voice is one of silence) The weeks pass, and they have established a routine; he nods, she smiles, they open their books, and sometimes he will help her by tapping the paragraph she cannot find if she looks confused, and sometimes she will lend him a pen when his runs out of ink. His handwriting is neat and flowing and aristocratic, and she looks down at her childish loops and slants her book away from him. She frequently stares at his hands when she is sure he won't notice, and she admires the clean lines and smooth planes that construct him, and sometimes she spots an ink stain. (later, when they are all much older, she will notice they are stained with blood; but it is later, so she will not judge, because her hands are as bloody as his)
And even amidst the war and the death that happens around them, Sakura thinks she is content for that hour-and-a-half in Basic Xenopsychology, when her world is narrowed to just her textbook, Kurenai-sensei, and Sasuke. There are no words, but there is quiet understanding, and she is thankful for that, because Naruto is loud enough for both of them, and their world outside the classroom is collapsing in chaos and destruction. They are five months away from graduation, and she worries for them, worries for the boy with so many hopes and dreams and the boy with so much sadness and anger, and the man who is haunted by too many ghosts from his past. There is a strange disquiet around the Academy that she cannot shake, and some nights she wakes up crying for reasons she cannot remember. It is too cold to escape to the roof, so she curls up in her room and muffles her sobs. (years after, when they are not-whole but not-broken, he will tell her that the walls had ears, and she was not as alone as she felt – but it is now, not after, and so she swallows her pain and carries on)
It is four months, three days and seventeen hours until they graduate, and Sasuke is gone. She is the first to notice it, and she spends the entire Xenopsychology period staring blankly at the holo-board. The seat next to her is cold when she places her palm flat against it. She reasons that he could be ill, but the dread that builds up at the back of her throat keeps her from believing it. She does not see him in between classes, and he is not in the library when she looks. (the fragile lines that extend into the dusty confines of halcyon days shiver, and she wonders why everything is so breakable) When she enters Sasuke's room for the first time, it is completely empty, and that is when she loses all hope.
Kakashi is the one who informs them of Sasuke's defection. Naruto is outraged, swearing that he will bring Sasuke-bastard back, that he will make them whole again, that they can be like they were before. She remains silent, and his eyes are softer, more sympathetic and understanding when they look at her. She looks at him, looks at this damaged man that life has given too many short ends of the rope to, and she hugs him because he needs to know that he is not alone, and he still has Naruto and her, and they are here. (he clutches at her too tightly, and she is reminded of a drowning man) Several days later, when she feels strong enough to open it, she finds a note slipped into her Xenopsychology textbook. Thank you, it reads, and it is too much and nothing all at once. She traces her fingers along the indents his pen made on the paper, and she tucks the note with its flawless cursive into a small lacquered box where she keeps her treasures. The note sits silently next to a Unit Seven hologram.
Their graduation is a hurried affair, with little ceremony. The war beckons, and all cadets – Ensigns, she corrects, they are Ensigns now – will ship out to their postings in three days. She watches other (whole) Units accept their diplomas together, and she holds Naruto's hand like a lifeline. (and maybe it is, she realizes, maybe it really is) Naruto will join the Colonial fleet as a Viper Pilot aboard Commander Jiraiya's ship, and she – she is a medic now, she supposes, and she will go to wherever she is posted to. (her words sound hollow to her ears, and she feels like a marionette on a string) Naruto runs off to congratulate the others, and she hangs behind, slightly lonely but less than eager to join the fray. There is a tap on her shoulder, and she gasps, turning around to meet amber eyes that see too much.
She is still reeling when she informs Kakashi and Naruto of her assignment under Chief Medical Officer Commander Tsunade. Naruto is overjoyed for her, and Kakashi is impressed when she tells them how Tsunade noticed her performance during her field training mission aboard the USS Shadow and specifically returned to Fire to seek her out. (for once, she thinks, someone wants me; and the words taste bittersweet on her tongue) She is to serve a two-year posting aboard the USS Kyuubi, and when Naruto informs her that the USS Toad is located in the same star system, she feels less daunted. There is a faraway look in Kakashi's eyes, and she sees him stare longingly at the sky.
Her time aboard the USS Kyuubi is hectic, and it is almost always an endless cycle of – wake, eat, work, eat, work, sleep, repeat. Commander Tsunade is a hard taskmistress, but Sakura is hardworking and earnest so she learns fast and saves lives and keeps death at bay. She is tired, but it is a feeling she is used to, and she is doing something good, and even if it is only for a moment, she feels better knowing that. (she knows, subconsciously, that for every life he takes, she will try to save two, so that she can save him) Naruto is now serving aboard with her, reassigned after Commander Jiraiya accepts a solo recon mission. She knows he worries for his mentor, so she eats with him and spends what time she can spare with him, and they talk and laugh and avoid all mention Sasuke. They talk of work (his, mostly; hers is blood and death and horror – his is daring stunts and death-defying maneuvers, and it is an unspoken agreement that they will talk of nothing that matters) and of old days, and she learns that Kakashi has returned to active service in intelligence and spec ops. Naruto loves flying, and she does what she can to save lives, and their world is stable for now.
Tsunade informs her, one year, eight months and twenty-three days into her assignment aboard the USS Kyuubi that she will be next assigned a two-year post aboard the USS Sharingan. Sakura is exhausted after an eighteen-hour shift in the Medical Bay, so Tsunade merely hands her a dossier, gets her to sign the transfer papers, and leaves her to sleep. The next day brings a surprise offensive by the Oto fleet, and with casualties pouring into the Bay, the dossier lies forgotten under piles of research material in her room. (Tsunade watches her, watches closely, and knows that she is running from something that plagues her dreams at night) It is not until Sakura is packing for the transfer that she recalls Tsunade handing her a dossier, but by then it is lost, and it is not that important, so she lets it go. (the words stand out in her mind: lost/important/go, and she is reminded of glasses that crack and paper that has creased in a small lacquered box)
She boards the Raider shuttle that will take her to the USS Sharingan, and she can taste something almost-tangible in the air. (but the air they breathe is recycled and filtered and screened, she knows, and she is really breathing the same air that many dead soldiers before her have breathed) Her pilot is a Lieutenant Juugo, a hulk of a man but a pleasant one, and the way he talks of his Captain (hers too now, she reminds herself) makes her breath catch in her throat. Silent, Juugo says, the Captain is always silent. He is brooding and taciturn, he goes on to elaborate, and so full of anger. She is rational, she tells herself, and it is impossible, because he is gone, and she knows he is gone. (but there is doubt, doubt like the snake Juugo says he served under during his time as a double-agent in Oto for Konoha intelligence)
She disembarks the Raider with shaky legs, and Juugo gives her directions to the Command Centre as he unloads her crates of supplies and belongings. The USS Sharingan is newer than the USS Kyuubi, quieter and sleeker and more dangerous, and she traverses the silently whirring hallways and port doors with cautious steps. (something else makes her slow down her pace, but she doesn't know what, doesn't want to know what) She passes several people – Marines, Deckhands, Engineers – on her journey, and there is something more subdued about them then there was about the crew on the USS Kyuubi. She sees the Command Centre double doors looming ahead of her, and she is overwhelmed and has to stop before she resumes her walking.
She approaches the double doors, and the sensor draws them open for her. The room is a cacophony of sound and movement in a mood of controlled order, and few turn to look at the newcomer when she enters. She cannot yet see the Captain, so she draws closer to the centre of the room, where blueprints of the ship and a live-monitoring dradis emanate from a holo-projector. She spies the First Officer, and she steps towards him. Her voice is soft amidst the din around her, but he turns, and she introduces herself. Lieutenant Suigetsu, as she learns he is called, nods and tells her, with a knowing look, that the Captain has been waiting. He gestures her over to a smaller holo-table in a corner, and she is puzzled, but she turns and goes towards it, and –
There is a man standing at the table, and his hair is ebony black, and his hands are as she remembered, and he is angles and planes and lines in beautiful architecture, and he is real, and she knows him, and there is a faint smirk on his lips as he –
"Welcome aboard, Sakura."
(everything is in the way they collapse like supernovas and exist like dark matter, and she learns to breathe without oxygen)