chapter title: a blue question mark on my mind

summary: They die under a red sky in mud and blood and bitter regret. Team Seven, at the end of the world…at least until Sasuke wakes up – twelve, sharingan-less and back on his old genin team

dedication: BTS for being such a bright source of joy

well we met each other at the house of runaways

i remember it perfectly

we were running on honesty

we moved together like a silver lock and key


"So tell me again," Kakashi said, watching her carefully with his one visible eye. "What happened when you joined Sasuke in the mirror prison?"

Sakura swallowed, the bruising around her throat still a little swollen and uncomfortable. It was a bright, clear day – perfect for a long journey back to Konoha – but rather than packing up their things and setting out early, her sensei had pulled her out of the house for a 'walk' to test her legs. Or so he said. The minute they were out of view of Tazuna's little house, the debrief started; she had a feeling he never normally would've waited so long, but her voice had not come back properly until the previous evening.

"He wasn't happy with me," she admitted after a moment. "He shouted at me to run, but I wouldn't leave him to fight Haku alone. After that – Sasuke took the lead, I guess."

Somewhere in the trees a bird squawked inelegantly, almost (but not quite) covering up Kakashi's non-comital noise. "Took the lead how?"

"He went on the offensive." It was the nicest way she could put it without lying; something told her that Kakashi – and the Third – would not be very impressed by the way Sasuke had basically ignored her in that fight, refusing to co-ordinate or work together. The threat of disbandment felt as real as it ever had.

It'll be his fault, not mine, she told herself, trying hard to keep her body still and calm – to not show the agitation currently running through her bloodstream. She didn't know what Sasuke had already told him.

Kakashi nodded, thoughtful. "And this offensive broke the ice prison?"

"No," she answered in a small voice. "Nothing he – we did made any mark on it at all. Sasuke was getting angrier and angrier the more hits we took and we – we were taking them pretty badly at the end. I think Haku was just trying to keep us busy for a while, but after a while he knew he had to end it. He went for Sasuke first."


She couldn't explain it; the way time almost slowed as she realised what was going to happen, the bone deep certainty in her moving body. It was a reflex from nowhere, an endless feedback loop. Even to herself it made no sense.

"I intercepted the hit," she said slowly. "It – my body just moved on its own. I just knew I had to get him out the way. I pushed him as hard as I could. I don't remember anything really, after that."

"Hmm," Kakashi said, frighteningly casual. She had no idea what he was thinking, if he'd already written Team Seven off as a hopeless case. "I haven't asked Sasuke for his side of it yet. What do you think he'll say, Sakura?"

That I slowed him down. That I messed up his fight. That I got in the way, as usual. "I don't know, sensei. Mostly I think he'll be angry. The fight didn't go his way, exactly."

He just looked at her, one raised eyebrow silently demanding an explanation. A dull flush crept up the back of her neck; she would've thought it would be obvious.

"Well," Sakura said quietly, twisting her hands together anxiously behind her back. "He was the best in our class at the Academy. I don't think he's used to losing, sensei. And it's not that I think he lost the fight exactly, but he didn't…he didn't win it either. I think for Sasuke, that's something to be angry about."

"It does seem to be his defining trait at the moment."

There was something in her sensei's voice that made her nervous; he looked away from her and out into the middle distance in the direction of the sea, the bridge they'd risked so much for. It was early yet, but the quiet that lay over everything felt less like a sleepy hush and more like the silence before a storm.

The words were there on the tip of her tongue. Are we going to be disbanded? She was so close to speaking them aloud, acknowledging the elephant on the mission that had been lurking on the edges of everything. What would happen once she did? Sakura wasn't sure if she was quite brave enough to find out the answer just yet; she wasn't prepared to face a future which didn't involve Team Seven.

She wasn't prepared for this to be the end.

The silence stretched on for so long it was unbearable; Kakashi appeared to be deep in thought, but the moment finally came when he shifted the gaze of his sole eye from the distant horizon back to her bruised and battered form. He straightened up with a faint air of apology in the line of his shoulders.

"It's getting on," he said, as if he hadn't just been contemplating the shape of their future in his hands. "We should get back. It's a long journey back to Konoha."

"Yes, sensei," Sakura murmured, ducking her head as she fell into step beside him, wondering why she felt slightly disappointed. After all, what had she been expecting? Praise? For her sensei to look at her the way she'd seen him look at Sasuke whenever he did something brilliant (and he was often doing something brilliant) and proclaim a job well done? She hadn't stood on the side lines this time. She'd followed her mother's advice and done her best – her very best. And her best was better than she'd ever believed it could be.

Why was that still not enough?

I'm never going to be his favoured student, she thought, heart heavy like a stone. But as they walked back down the path towards Tazuna's little village, Kakashi reached out and with one nonchalant hand, gently ruffled her hair.

It was only for a brief moment, but Sakura felt a pleased blush blooming across her cheeks nonetheless. She let her hair swing forward to cover her face as Tazuna's house loomed up ahead; small and somewhat lonesome looking now that they were about to leave it.

Sasuke stood outside, leaning against the house with his arms folded across his chest. His pack lay at his feet and she tried to catch his eye as they approached, but he stared resolutely at his feet instead.

"Someone seems impatient to go," Kakashi remarked. "Where's Naruto?"

"Inside," Sasuke said. "Talking to the kid. Inari. He said he won't be too long."

Sakura wondered if she should go and say goodbye to Inari too, but she hadn't spent all that much time with him between training and trying to keep her stupid teammates from killing each other. The young boy was still bed-ridden and pale beneath his many bandages; Kakashi had done his best and Tsunami would do what she could for his recover, but the Land of Waves didn't have the same resources or expertise that Konoha had. It felt wrong to just pack up and leave, but what else could they do?

"Wait for him here. I'm going to have a quick word with Tazuna."

Sakura nodded, a familiar and unwanted sense of awkwardness settling in her limbs the moment she and Sasuke were left alone together. Weeks ago she'd have tried to fill that silence growing louder between them, but there didn't seem to be much point these days; putting on a sunny disposition didn't melt his cold aloofness and at worst, just seemed to irritate him further.

And if he was angry with her, she'd rather not find out while there were still days of travel ahead of them. Sakura scuffed her foot against the ground and then noticed her pack propped up by the back door.


Naruto must've brought it down for me, she thought, picking the pack up and slinging it across her shoulders. Though they were not immediately hurrying off, her body still felt stiff at times and she thought it would be better to let the weight settle first. She turned back only to find Sasuke watching her with dark, unreadable eyes. It made her throat – already sore – go completely dry to see him looking at her like that.

"What is it?" Sakura blurted out, before she could stop herself. "Is – is something wrong?"

"Nothing," Sasuke said, after a moment, abruptly looking away from her. His voice was softer than she'd heard it in weeks – she'd almost forgotten what it sounded like without that ever present sharp edge always cutting through the air between them.

"Nothing?" Sakura repeated, almost in disbelief. "That's all you have to say? Seriously?"

"What else," he asked quietly, "do you want from me?"

Her conversation with Kakashi was still too fresh in her mind – why else would frustration with the beautiful boy in front of her rise so readily? She wanted to scream, to stamp her feet, to split the earth with her heel – to do something, anything to make him understand the situation they were in.

"I don't know," she said flatly, in a voice that didn't even sound like it belonged to her. "An apology, maybe."

That made him react. He turned on her angrily, dark eyes burning in his pale face. Once the force of his fury would've frightened her, but Sakura was so used to Sasuke being angry now.

"I didn't make you jump in front of those needles."

"Of course not! But you shut me out of that fight the moment I got there! You treated me like a burden, like I had nothing to contribute – and I know I'm not as fast or skilled as you Sasuke, but I'm not useless and you acted like I was right from the start. We're supposed to be teammates! Teammates don't act like that, they just don't!"

Something flickered behind his black eyes – eyes that she'd once thought so lovely, never realising how empty they were.

"I don't think you're useless," he said at last, practically between gritted teeth – like he'd had to force the words out. And how messed up was that? That it cost him this much effort just to tell her she wasn't basically worthless?

"You've got a really funny way of showing it," Sakura said coldly, turning away from him just as Naruto came stumbling out of the house, the smallest possible frown between his eyebrows as if he was troubled. Given that he'd just been with Inari, Sakura supposed he was.

"Hey," the blond said, blue eyes moving quickly between them nervously. "Everything alright guys?"

"Perfect," she said crisply, resolutely not looking at her other teammate. "I can't wait to go home."

"Me either Sakura-chan. It's been too long. Ichiraku's is calling my name!"

"Isn't it always?" Sakura asked, trying to ignore the flush in her cheeks. She could still feel Sasuke's dark gaze on her back, but he said and did nothing. She chatted to Naruto until Kakashi returned and they set out on their way, but the anger that had flared up so suddenly inside her continued to burn all the way back to Konoha.

Despite his eagerness to get the kids home, Team Seven made slower progress than Kakashi had hoped for on the return journey. Part of it was that Sakura was still suffering the effects of the fight with Haku – she was a little slower, a little stiffer than usual and no one, not even Sasuke had seemed to want to push her too hard.

But at last the village gates loomed up before them after days on the road and Kakashi allowed himself to breathe a small sigh of relief. After the unexpected turns this mission had taken, some cynical part of him had truly expected to encounter even more trouble on the road home.

The sun was setting as they walked through the gates, casting longer and longer shadows along the ground. He watched discretely as Sasuke's shadow, which had walked a little apart from his teammates all the way from Konoha, peeled off in an entirely different direction without so much as a word of goodbye.

"OI!" Naruto yelled, but Sasuke continued walking away with his head bowed and his hands in his pockets. "Where're you going, bastard?!"

"Leave him be," Sakura murmured, restraining the blond with a gentle hand to his arm. "It's been a long mission, he probably wants some peace."

Peace and quiet would be wonderful right now, he thought, but there was still much he had to do. The way Sasuke had retreated worried him, but there was a change in his demeanour too – the sharp edge of anger and resentment Sasuke wore like a knife had given way to something else.

"Well," Kakashi drawled, feeling a little guilty – he really should stop by Sakura's home at least to reassure her parents she wasn't too badly injured anymore, "I trust you both to get home safely."

Before they could say a word of protest he was gone in a puff of smoke, quickly depositing his pack at home before heading directly to the memorial stone. He knew he was expected to make his report to the Hokage soon, but he could not go anywhere without visiting Obito and Rin first; every time he was taken out the village for longer than a week at a time, he felt the keen sting of guilt for neglecting them.

As he stood in the gathering darkness, Kakahsi wondered what his friends would make of his bratty little genin team.

Obito would make them laugh, he thought with a familiar pang of grief. He'd encourage Naruto and charm Sakura and make Sasuke feel less alone in the world.

As for Rin…

She would make them feel truly cared for. Rin had been gentle, but strong of heart and conviction. He wished she was still alive, that he could stop by her old house and ask for her advice on how to manage Team Seven.

He wished he could go to her and wash himself of the guilt which clung to him, even now, for putting his lightning through the chest of a boy who'd been too young to die. He couldn't be sure, but Kakashi thought that Haku wasn't much older than his own little genin, just a boy with a mentor who cared too little until it was far, far too late.

"It wasn't your fault," she'd whispered to him, so many times – even the last time, with his fist in her chest and the light leaving her eyes. "It wasn't your fault."

Shinobi died in battle; Haku had made a choice, the same way that Rin had made a choice, that Obito (so, so long ago now) had made a choice. Kakashi didn't always like the choices he himself made.

And now I need to help the Hokage decide what to do about my genin.

It wasn't a conversation he was particularly looking forward to, but he turned and headed for the Hokage tower anyway.

His feet carried him to the one place in Konoha he'd had yet to visit since his return to the past. The night air was thick and sweet, the way it only ever was in the Land of Fire when summer was on its way. It felt like walking through treacle, his body strangely heavy, legs made of lead. Or maybe it was just that his feet were as reluctant as the rest of him to show his face in front of his family.

I did what I thought was right, he thought, as he left the bustling streets behind. Everything he'd done, he'd done for them; he'd chosen the dead over the living, over and over again. He'd been their champion, their vengeance, their bloody sword – because there was no one else left to defend their honour, no one else left to seek justice for all those messily ended lives.

Itachi told me to hate him and I did. And then I hated Konoha when I learned the truth.

The graveyard loomed up before him, drowned in the red of the setting sun. There were so many headstones. So many names. He'd carried every single one of them with him through every dark place he'd been. Sometimes the weight had threatened to crush him beneath it; now he wondered it had crushed him after all, so long ago that he'd never noticed he was drowning.

The boy he'd been – the boy his mother had kissed every night, the boy his father had shared the breakfast table with – had drowned in all that hatred, submerged himself in it and never resurfaced. When he stopped in front of his parents graves, he almost couldn't look at the kanji of their names.

"Help me," he said, so soft and quiet he might have been just another ghost haunting this mass grave.

His eyes burned and his hands trembled, so he stuck them in his pockets and clenched them into fists; an old habit, one that had belonged to the Sasuke Team Seven had loved, the one who no longer existed.

The night around him was hushed, almost peaceful – if he strained his ears, he could hear the laughter of Konoha's civilians somewhere not too far away and it should have been hateful to know that in the same village that killed his family, other families lived on in blissful ignorance, but mostly it was exhausting. Mostly, it just hurt.

It had always hurt – making himself hate someone or something he'd once loved so much. It was like holding a double-edged sword with no handle; you couldn't harm your enemies without harming yourself too, but he'd ignored the hurt for so long he'd forgotten what he felt every day was pain. (Because he had loved Itachi and even worse, he'd loved Konoha too; both the place and the people it held inside its walls. Maybe loved it still, despite everything.)

"I don't know what to do anymore."

It hurt to admit that, even to the dead. Especially to the dead. But there was no one else to ask. The path Itachi had sent him down hadn't helped anything or anyone. It hadn't brought his clan back, or restored their honour. The only thing hatred had done was maybe destroy his own.

He had to admit it aloud, to face up to what he'd done but the words lodged in his throat like a stone. It took a few tries to speak that awful thing into being, but at last he managed.

"I let Madara win," Sasuke whispered into the warm night. "I let the world burn. I let them die."

He laid down on the cold ground, one arm slung over his burning eyes – but even that was not enough to block out the memory of Sakura and Naruto lying in the mud, all the light extinguished from their eyes. It was not enough to block out the image of Sakura – twelve and so small – white and unresponsive in his arms. Twice now, he'd let her die.

No more pretending, the ghost of the boy he'd once been jeered at him. You still love them, asshole. You never really stopped.

That was the worst thing, the thing that made him feel most ashamed. Buried under all that rage and hatred, he'd still loved them the same way he'd still loved Konoha, still loved Itachi. And it hadn't been enough.

"So what do you think?"

There was a ringing silence in the Hokage's office, one in which the Third puffed on his pipe contemplatively and Iruka leaned back in his chair with a sigh, something faintly uneasy in the furrowed line of his eyebrows.

"I'm pleased with Naruto and Sakura's progress," the younger man said after a moment. "It seems like they're starting to work well together. He admires her, you know. Not the same way he admires Sasuke, but then you'd have a hell of a time getting him to admit he admires Sasuke at all."

"Yes," Kakashi agreed. "I've noticed."

"I'm sure you know a thing or two about having a rival," Iruka said, mouth twitching. "Competition can be healthy in the right circumstances. You and Gai –"

"It's friendly competition," Kakashi interrupted. "Our eternal rivalry is based on a foundation of mutual respect. Sasuke is by turns dismissive, disdainful and antagonistic towards Naruto lately."

"Even on this mission?" the Hokage asked.

"At times," Kakashi allowed. "It could just be a clash of personalities. He seemed to work better with Sakura from her account of their fight with Haku, but she's not as forceful a personality. She will let him take the lead, which he seems to prefer – even expect. Naruto challenges him for that position."

Iruka sighed. "Of course he does."

Part of Kakashi wanted to smack the other man upside the head. Iruka had helped put these genin teams together; surely he'd seen this issue coming, knowing his students so well? What, then, did he expect to happen?

"Do you think this power struggle could settle with more time, Kakashi?" the Third asked, concern in his voice. "I wanted the boys together as a failsafe; Sasuke could be a very useful asset in keeping the Kyuubi under control once he develops the sharingan and you're the best person to show him how to use it."

Well that answers that, he thought, surprised at his own bitterness. It made sense, of course it did. The seal had held for twelve years, but after what he'd seen of Naruto's fight against Haku there was some cause for worry. Of course it made sense that they'd want someone with the sharingan around, just in case things got out of control. The shinobi in him could recognise that, even as the boy who had been Minato's student wanted to declare that the Fourth's son deserved better from everyone. It wasn't difficult to swallow that tirade back; he'd been doing so for over a decade, after all.


He grimaced under his mask, thinking carefully. "I sensed a change in him after his fight with Haku. He was quieter, more withdrawn. Less hostile. The threat of disbandment didn't seem to bother him, but the death of his teammate absolutely did."

"So he does care for them," the Hokage mused. "That's something. It will keep him grounded."

"Of course he cares for them," Iruka sounded scandalised. "Sasuke isn't heartless, you know. He has a lot of kindness in him, even if he doesn't like to put it on show. That's partly why I chose Sakura as the third member of Team Seven, you know."

"Oh?" Kakashi was mildly interested. At first he hadn't thought much of his female genin, but she was proving to have more substance than she'd previously shown.

"Out of everyone in their class, Sakura was the one he seemed to tolerate most," Iruka said. "Even despite her obvious crush on him. She has a warmth that both of the boys are lacking in their home lives and she's generous with her affection. She's assertive enough to keep Naruto focused and clever enough to keep up with Sasuke. I thought the three of them together would balance each other out."

"I agreed with that assessment," the Third said, rather unnecessarily. He leant forward in his chair and finally set his pipe down, tired lines carved deep beneath his eyes. "I still do, so long as Sasuke shows improvement in his teamwork moving forward."

Kakashi let out a breath he didn't even realise he'd been holding. "Then you're not going to disband them?"

"Not tonight. Rather than disbandment, I have a rather different idea in mind for encouraging cohesive teamwork. I'm not sure you're going to like it, Iruka."

Judging by the wicked gleam in his Hokage's eye, Kakashi thought he probably wasn't going to like it either. He had a sinking feeling he knew what this idea was.

She thought she'd feel better after a night in her own bed.

Sakura yawned and rolled over, barely wincing now – her bruises had started to fade on the long journey back to Konoha and by the time they walked through the gates some of them had healed entirely. Honestly speaking it was a relief; when she'd walked through her parents front door the previous evening, they'd made enough of a fuss over the few injuries that were immediately visible. She hated to think how they would've reacted had they been witness to her appearance directly following the fight with Haku.

Ka-san would've had me off the team right away.

Though, if Kakashi-sensei wasn't impressed with their performance as a team, Sakura had a feeling her ninja career would go up in smoke before the week was over. Probably, she should be viewing that as a good thing; her daydreams of ninja life had always featured acts of heroism, not maimed civilian children or the feel of senbon sinking into her skin. There was nothing dangerous or terrifying about living as a shopkeeper; no blood, no tears, no hard choices to make.

It wasn't too late to take it all back and settle for that easy, bloodless life her mother wanted for her.

Sakura crawled out of bed and shuffled to her bedroom mirror. The girl who looked back at her had the same long, pink hair and pale skin, but she thought there was something different in the back of her eyes now. She wasn't the same girl she was before.

Since she last stood in this spot, Sakura had ruptured a man's intestines with a kunai, learned how to walk on water, thrown herself into the path of flying senbon to protect someone else.

And shattered an ice prison with the force of your punch, a quiet voice at the back of her head reminded her in a whisper. You hit Sasuke so hard when you pushed him out the way he broke straight through the ice.

The Sakura who'd left on that mission never could have imagined herself doing any of those things.

But she had done them, even if she didn't fully understand how. Maybe that was the difference she was seeing in the mirror.

No matter what happens, I can't go back.

Maybe the Sakura who didn't know what it felt like to walk on water could've been a shop girl for the rest of her life, but it would never be enough for her now. Even with all the blood and violence that came with it, she wanted to continue walking on water. She wanted to find out how far she could go.

There was no training planned for that morning, so Sakura had breakfast with her father and went to the hospital (as per her sensei's recommendation) to get her arm treated properly. Konoha was the way it always was; warm, bustling, familiar. Something in herself might have changed with this mission, but it was a relief to find that some things in life stayed the same.

The sight of her shortest teammate being yelled at by a shopkeeper, was not one of those things she wanted to stay the same. Naruto's face was downcast, his hands clenched into fists as the aging woman berated him – growing redder and redder in the face all the time. Grown ups were always shouting at Naruto, she'd noticed and sometimes he even deserved it with the pranks he pulled on unsuspecting people, but as far as Sakura could see, there was no graffiti on the storefront and no broken merchandise anywhere in sight.

She was marching up to the pair before she could think twice about it.


Both turned towards her, Naruto's expression immediately brightening and then turning to something like shame. Was he embarrassed to be seen like this? It wasn't like she hadn't seen him being scolded by Iruka-sensei a million times before.

"Why are you yelling at my teammate?" she demanded, before anyone could speak.

The woman – greying, harassed looking and mean about the eyes – pursed her lips. "He's a damn nuisance, that's why. I don't want him in my store."

"I didn't want to come in any way!" he said rudely. "Stupid old granny –"

Given that it was a trinket shop – full of things Sakura and Ino might have squealed over together once – she could believe he had little interest in going inside.

"Shut up," Sakura said, grabbing his wrist and pulling him behind her. She turned her best glare on the older woman, wishing she could be as intimidating as Sasuke when he was really pissed off. It was a look that could turn lesser mortals to stone. "The only person I see causing a nuisance here is you, ma'am. I suggest you quiet down, or I'll be forced to report you for disturbing the peace. We're leaving."

She turned her back on the shopkeeper's indignant face before anyone could say another word and towed Naruto down the street, away from the small crowd that had gathered to watch.

"Ow OW Sakura-chan! Slow down!"

She dropped his wrist when they turned the corner and was faced with his most belligerent look, though he couldn't quiet meet her eyes either. There was something distinctly shifty in them that made her wonder if he'd been up to no good after all.

"That old woman was being abominably rude," she remarked, hands on her hips. "If you want to file a report against her, I'll go with you as a witness."

"Nah," he rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly. "It's okay Sakura-chan. Forget about it."

"If my mother treated the public like that we'd be out of business in about two days flat. There's no excuse for –"

"It's really alright. It happens all the time. I'm used to it."

Sakura shut her mouth, momentarily silenced by the resignation in her most boisterous teammates voice. She knew he was a trouble maker, but loads of kids were – Kiba had been involved in half the pranks Naruto pulled back at the Academy and somehow he didn't seem to have the same poor reputation. Was it just because Naruto was an orphan? Somehow that didn't seem fair at all.

"You weren't even doing anything wrong," she said. "You weren't, were you?"

"Nah," he said, clearly forcing the breezy tone. "Just window shopping, y'know? But the old lady didn't like me hanging around, I guess."


"What? What's that HMMMM for?" he demanded, suddenly beady-eyed as they started walking again, no clear destination in mind. "I'm not suspicious!"

"No, it just doesn't seem like your kind of shop."

The red face came back, faster than Sakura would've believed if she didn't witness it with her own two eyes. Before, she might've taken it as some kind of inadvertent admission of guilt – like he'd been caught doing something he shouldn't. Now she thought he just seemed embarrassed in a way that almost made him small and she didn't like it at all. Naruto was a lot of things – annoyingly stubborn, a boy with no concept of things like volume control, a bottomless pit where ramen was concerned – but the way he shrank in on himself over something so innocuous made her throat prickle. Sakura dropped the subject.

"Never mind," she said, in the same brisk voice her mother used when she was trying to sidestep something unpleasant or uncomfortable. "You want to get a snack or something?"

Immediately his expression brightened and somehow that made the prickling feeling worse instead of better. "For real?"

"Sure. My treat, alright?"

They went to a little dango shop she used to frequent with Ino when they were little kids. It was in the civilian district, somewhere ninja didn't usually bother with and she bought them three sticks each to eat as they wandered around the village. It wasn't what Sakura had planned to do her first day back in the village, especially after weeks of being in her team's company…but she also felt a little more settled in her own skin.

"Are you still in a lot of pain, Sakura-chan?" Naruto asked, after a little while. He was, she realised, watching her carefully out of the corner of his eye – watching her to make sure she was okay, that she wasn't hurt.

"No," Sakura said. "It doesn't hurt at all anymore, not really. The hospital checked me over too and they said I'm healing really well."

"That's where you were? Man, I shoulda thought of that."

So he was looking for me. She felt a surge of affection for him that took her by surprise, but the realisation also pained her. Was he so used to rejection from her that he felt embarrassed to be caught seeking her out? She must have stung him so much with her unkindness when they were in the Academy; she hadn't gone out of her way to hurt him, not like some of the others, but there were times…times when she'd been casually unkind because she was irritated by his presence.

I was a stupid girl who didn't know anything about anything.

"Just come to my house next time you want to see me," Sakura said after a moment, trying to keep her voice light, like she wasn't wilting inside at her own carelessness with other people's feelings. "You know where I live, right?"

His blue eyes went round as saucers. By the way his mouth dropped uncertainly open, she had completely flummoxed him. "Yeah…I know where you live Sakura-chan, but uh, won't your parents mind?"

"Why would they mind?"

He rubbed the back of his neck, something he did when he was uncomfortable. "Well, you saw that old lady earlier. I've uh. kind of got a bit of a reputation for causing trouble, I guess."

"My parents won't mind. And neither will I."

"But –"

"They've already told me to ask you to dinner one day," she added, not looking at him. "You and Sasuke both. So you see it won't be a problem."

He dropped his hand, uncharacteristically shy all of a sudden. Sometimes Naruto could be so endearing it almost broke her heart. "They really said that?"

"Yep," Sakura said, finishing off her last piece of dango. Naruto's was long gone; he'd scarfed it down even faster than he usually ate ramen. "If you don't want to, that's – I'd understand if it made you uncomfortable, or whatever. But I'd like you to come and I think you'd enjoy it."

That shy smile on his face grew and grew. She thought she'd never done or said anything to make him as happy as this had and it was such a small thing to offer. She'd never realised before how easy it was to make him happy…had never considered before that he might not be happy at all.

"I'd love to come for dinner Sakura-chan! But uh – you gotta tell me how to act, alright? I don't want to do anything bad, or that'd upset your parents."

The time for bargaining was now. "Alright, I can do that. But you gotta promise me something too, okay?"

"I won't ask them for ramen!"

"Not that," she said, laughing a little despite herself. "Just – don't tell my parents what really happed in the Land of Waves, okay?"

"Sakura-chan, you want me to lie to your parents?" he sounded scandalised. "I thought you were a good girl!"

"I just don't want them to worry about me," she said hastily. "My mum isn't totally on board with me being a shinobi, so just don't freak her out with stories about senbon and how you thought I was dead for a couple of minutes."

He squinted at her suspiciously, like he thought there was maybe more to her story – or like he was reconsidering his idea of her as a nice, smart girl who did what she was told. She found she didn't mind if he was. The nice, smart Sakura who did what she was told would've settled for being a shopkeeper.

She stuck her hand out and he shook it solemnly. "Deal?"

"Deal," Naruto said. And then, "Let's get dinner at Ichiraku's!"

He'd stayed in his apartment for as long as he could stand, pacing the same stretch of floor and sharpening his already perfectly sharp kunai over and over again. It didn't help. Being inside didn't help; being outside didn't help either.

He was surrounded on all sides by reminders of his own inadequacy; a multitude of his own personal failures staring him in the face. When he closed his eyes, Sasuke saw Itachi dropping dead to the ground, saw himself standing impassively at the end of the world watching it burn. When he opened them he saw the village that his brother had deemed more worthy of saving than his own flesh and blood, the teammates he had loved and thrown away.

So he wandered, the way he used to – in those long lost days of the Academy when home was only silence and everywhere else was only noise. He wandered to the docks where so long ago he'd practised his kaaton.

All I wanted then was father to be proud of me.

Sasuke still wanted that, deep under everything he'd ever done, every sacrifice he'd made, every bond he'd thrown away. When he met his father in the afterlife all he wanted was to be able to say, I have done our clan no dishonour.

For so long that had meant revenging himself on the clan's killer; to erase blood with blood. And someone still had to pay – Sasuke was sure of that – but he could no longer be blind to the cost of his actions on innocents. The whole of Konoha was not necessarily complicit in his clan's massacre. Naruto and Sakura were not complicit.

And I let them die on the funeral pyre of my revenge anyway.

Since he'd cradled Sakura's unresponsive body in his arms, Sasuke could no longer delude himself into believing he still wanted that. He didn't know what to do next, but he knew he had to make better choices than he had before.

When he saw his teammates sitting side by side at the counter in Ichiraku's, he knew how to start.

Every step seemed to take forever. He felt strangely nervous, his heart fluttering beneath his rib cage as he moved towards them with the warmth from the kitchen washing over him. They were only on their first bowls; Naruto slurping enthusiastically and Sakura taking delicate sips of broth. The steam from the kitchen made her hair curl at her temples.

"Hey," Sasuke said, making them both startle. They hadn't noticed him approach, too caught up in their own chattering. He imagined it had been like that when he was gone – the two of them growing together around the hole he'd left in their lives – and not letting other people in. They'd certainly seemed closer when they were older than they ever had when he was still around.

Naruto blinked, a long noodle trailing out of his mouth. "Hmhhf," he said and choked. Sakura slapped him on the back, her green eyes appraising him warily; an expression he'd only ever seen on her when she was older. He didn't like it now.

Neither invited him to sit. Resolutely not looking at them, Sasuke took the empty seat anyway and leaned on his elbows, waiting for someone to come and take his order. He could practically feel the other two having a silent conversation to the side, but he didn't want to see it up close. Not until he relearned that unspoken language Team Seven had always communicated with.

After an awkward pause, his teammates went back to their meals. The chatter had died down, but that was alright. Sasuke ordered a miso ramen and stayed where he was, wondering at the soft familiarity of this; how it smelled and looked exactly the same in this booth as he remembered.

I could have done this when they were still alive.

He couldn't take it back, no matter how much he wished he could. But at least, he thought, this was a start.


the playgrounds they get rusty

and your heart beats another ten thousand times before

i got the chance to say

i miss you

notes: so it turns out 2021 is really not going to be any better than 2020, for my family at least. only five months between diagnosis and death. wasn't there. didn't get to say goodbye. didn't get to see her at all since the pandemic started and i am so angry about it, that that was her last year.

notes2: lyrics taken from New Empire's A little bit Braver (if you have not seen Uncontrollably Fond, go watch and cry all the tears)

notes3: literally finished this 5 mins ago, this has not been edited or checked sorry, i'm sad and i don't care.