don't touch my hand and call it love
you said it was over, and then cried and cried; you were gone before i said goodbye.

19.


There exists, right now:

A battle. A struggle. A fight.
A reason to wake up, a purpose to fulfill.
There exists another day to make things right.

Under no circumstances is she going to go down without making sure she's done everything she could.

They talk until the sun begins to peek over the horizon. Sakura hasn't gotten a wink of sleep since the night before, but she isn't tired.

"If it really is what I suspect," Sasuke says, "I don't want you to interfere."

"Sasuke—"

"Sakura," he interrupts, effectively silencing her. "I know that choosing between me and the village is hard, and I won't hold it against you if you choose the village. I understand, because I chose revenge over happiness. But don't expect the best of both worlds—don't expect that I'll be appeased and village will be spared and we'll all live happily ever after." She frowns at the way he's speaking about this, so detached, as if it doesn't matter at all. Of course it matters. Of course it does.

"How can I not interfere?" she whispers. "This is every part important to me as it is important to you. Are you telling me to just stand by and let you run rampant?"

"This is," he sucks in a breath, "not something I want to associate you with. This is the ugly part of me. You don't mess with my business, the way I don't question your loyalty towards your friends and the people I don't like. Sakura, you have to promise me not to interfere."

Sakura shakes her head, violently.

"Promise me this one thing."

"What if you die?" her voice is hoarse. "What if you die just because I made a stupid promise not to butt in?"

"I'm not going to die."

"So…the village will die instead. And you expect me to stand by and do nothing about it. Sasuke, do you even have a plan? Are you just going to charge in headfirst without thinking things through?"

"I've put this off for too long. And I have grown much stronger since the last time any of you saw me truly fight."

"That's not—that's not the point!"

"Remember what I said?" Sasuke moves across the couch—pushing Sai's scroll to the floor—to reach out and touch her face. "I don't regret you. No matter what happens, I do not regret this having happened between us."

"What's with the fatalistic view?" she says weakly. "This isn't some twisted romance. Nothing bad is going to happen." But can she guarantee that? How can she know for sure that Sasuke isn't going to die, or Konoha isn't going to fall? What's going to happen if that's what it really comes down to? What will she do then?

"I love you, Sakura," Sasuke says, and it's so honest, so brutally vulnerable that it makes her want to cry. "And you love me. That's why you have to let me do this."

"This isn't love." She swallows the lump in her throat and shakes her head again, although she lets his palm continue to rest on her cheek. "Love is compromise—love is understanding and making sacrifices—"

"Not this kind of love. Not our kind of love." She might have imagined it, but she thought she saw a smile ghosting across Sasuke's lips. "We've never had room for compromise and sacrifice." She lets him move closer until they're sitting side by side, and she can feel his warmth pressing up against her.

It's almost been a year since Sasuke returned to the village. It took them a year to get this far—and now he's saying that in no time at all, they could lose it all.

Sakura doesn't want to lose Sasuke. Not after what they've been through together.

"Whatever happens, happens," he says. "You can support me or you can support the village. You can wait by my side or you can ease the collateral damage that I'll inevitably create. But whatever you do, Sakura, don't interfere. This is my life."

"This is my life too," she hisses fiercely.

"I don't want to hurt you."

"Then don't!"

"But if you get in my way, I will." Something in Sasuke's voice turns hard, in a way that has her blood running cold. "Don't think that just because I love you, it will stop me from achieving my goals. You know what I can do, and I will cast those feelings—and you—aside if I have to. Don't make me."

She stares at him, eyes wide and glassy with tears that she refuses to shed. Sasuke can be so, so cruel sometimes.

So in the end, even with his memory loss, he hasn't changed a bit. In the end, some things just run bone deep, unable to be erased, unable to be washed away with time. Unable to be cured with love.

"And you know where I stand, don't you?" she asks sadly. "As long as I have legs and as long as I have the strength, I will chase after you until the ends of the earth and I will scream your name until I lose my voice. If I have even a sliver of hope that I can save you, I will go down trying."

There might have been a touch of regret in his eyes. "So in the end, it still comes to this."

In the end, their love changed nothing.

Sakura has finally found the bravery to love him again, and he's finally found the humanity to let her, but all of that means nothing.

In the bigger picture, their love doesn't matter.

She manages to catch a few hours of sleep (and she dreams, has nightmares of flames burning down the village, flames that burn higher than the trees and fiercer than the ones that licked the earth the day she found him broken and alone) before there is a loud rattling at her window.

Sakura violently jerks awake, hardly registering that she managed to climb into bed at six in the morning in some exhausted frenzy. She nearly trips and falls on her face when she goes over to pull the curtains away from the window.

In the bright sunlight, there is Naruto's blonde hair.

"Morning, Sakura-chan!" His voice is muffled, but she hears him loud and clear.

She's struggling to even keep her eyes open. She pushes at the window and it gives, sliding upwards and letting the cool morning breeze roll in. "I really should be sleeping right now, Naruto."

"Me too." He shrugs, and points at his head. "Killer hangover. Shouldn't have drank that much last night."

"I don't—" Sakura runs a hand through her hair. "Naruto, I really don't want to deal with this right now—"

"It's important, Sakura-chan." The smile has disappeared from his Naruto's face. "Please."

Sakura is tired, Sakura is frustrated, and Sakura is full of secrets that she can't tell. No matter how important Naruto's thing is, there's no way it's more important than what's going on inside her head. But of course, she can't tell him that, so she shuts the window, pulls the curtains shut again, and turns to get ready.

Their short conversation had woken Sasuke, who is now sitting up in bed, the sheets tangled in his legs. He doesn't say a word as she gets changed, runs a brush through her hair, ties on her hitai-ate.

"It's nine in the morning," he says just as she's about to walk out the door.

"The start of a new day," she replies, even though it doesn't quite feel like one.

"We didn't go to sleep until three hours ago." He's merely stating facts, but Sakura knows what he means. Come back. Stay in bed. Stay with me.

We don't have much time left.

"I have to go." But she has the decency to at least round back and peck him on the lips before leaving. He grabs her wrist and pulls her back, yanks her down with force and smashes their mouths together again—but his kiss is soft, dreamy, lulling—and so full of tenderness that Sakura wonders if this is really Sasuke, or if she's dreaming and this is just the Sasuke she wishes existed.

When they part, she wants to dive down again and never come up for air.

How could anyone bear to hurt Sasuke? How could anyone break his heart and not feel a thousand daggers stabbing them, over and over until there's nothing left?

"I don't regret you either," she says, pressing one last kiss to the corner of his mouth before standing up straight. "Get some more sleep, if you can. I'll be back later." He has his signature apathetic expression when she manages a weak smile, and she doesn't stay long enough to see if that expression turns sour.

Naruto is leaning against the wall outside her door when she steps out, rubbing his temples in an attempt to nurse his headache. Sakura laughs, and beckons him over.

He lets out a long sigh of relief when her hands glow green at his forehead, taking away his pain. "You're an angel."

"You shouldn't have drank that much in the first place," she admonishes.

"I do what I want."

Yeah, well, when everything is over, I might be dead and there will be no one to relieve you of your hangovers anymore.

Sakura still has a small hope that everything Sasuke suspects is wrong. After all, he did say that he wasn't positive yet—and no matter how plausible it may sound, nothing can be claimed without proof. Maybe Sasuke's memories were stolen by a rogue shinobi who had nothing better to do than to play with people's minds. Maybe he did this to himself, out of despair after discovering the truth.

No, Sasuke wouldn't do that. Sasuke clings to despair. He clings to rage and devastation and vengeance—he wouldn't cast it away. No, he didn't do this to himself.

"Where are we going?" Sakura asks Naruto as they start walking down the street.

"To see Baa-chan." His voice is serious, in a way that has her a little scared. "New mission. S-rank, I think—and even if it isn't, I really think it should be."

His eyes, blue as the sky, are foreboding.

Sasuke doesn't get more sleep, like Sakura told him to. Sasuke gets out of bed and walks into the living room, picking up the scroll off the floor where they left it the night before.

He still hasn't opened it yet; he didn't want to open it in Sakura's presence. The closer and closer he gets to discovering the truth, the darker and darker he becomes—he suspects that this is who he was before his memory loss, someone cruel and heartless without a moment's regard for someone else's well-being.

It's hard to discard the human parts of him. He can understand why he kept them as far away as possible the first time around.

But this second time—maybe he made a mistake. Maybe it was wrong to let himself sink into a false sense of security, to let himself think that maybe there is a hope for happiness. There is no room for that—he can't have both. For an Uchiha, justice and happiness do not go hand in hand.

Sasuke says he doesn't regret a single thing, but maybe he regrets this. Not because it will hurt more to distance himself again, but because it will hurt Sakura.

He understands why he treated her so badly when they were children. Because it doesn't matter how he feels about her—he will never choose her over Itachi. It's better to cut her losses early on than to lead her into a dream that's going to be cut short.

He shakes his head to discard these useless thoughts and sits at the kitchen table with the scroll in front of him.

Then he rolls it open.

"I don't believe you." Sakura hopes she's only shaking on the inside, because she needs to look as intimidating as possible. "That's not true."

"I talked to the council yesterday." Tsunade looks tired and weary. "They confirm that it was indeed them who sent out forces to wipe Sasuke's memory."

"Out of fear," Sakura hisses.

"Out of safety for the village."

"That's cheap! That's dishonorable!"

"Sakura." Kakashi's voice is calm against the storm in her heart. "There is nothing about shinobi that is honorable."

Her bottom lip trembles but she does her best to hide it. Everyone else in the room—Kakashi, Neji, Shikamaru, Naruto—are not even fazed by this information, so she's assuming that they already knew. Naruto already knew about this and he didn't even tell her.

"You guys have no idea…none of you have any idea the things Sasuke has gone through. You took away the one thing that defined him. How could you?"

"Would you rather have had him burn down the village, then?" Neji snaps. "Would you have stood by him then? Watched us all die and be perfectly fine with that?" Sakura stares at him with wide eyes, never having heard Neji say such crass words before. A moment passes, and he rubs his face with a hand. "I'm sorry. That was out of line."

"It's been stressful for all of us," Tsunade says. "Sakura, we want the least damage out of this. I know you personally asked to be left out of issues regarding Sasuke's memory, but we need you on this." Now she hands out scrolls, several copies of the same mission to each and every one of them. It must be important, to make more than one copy. The rank isn't labeled.

Sakura opens the scroll. It's formatted the way all other mission scrolls are: with a picture and small paragraph about the client, the mission objective, team members and squad leader.

It's Sasuke's picture that's on the scroll.

"One week from now, we will be detaining Uchiha Sasuke," Tsunade tells them. "We will use all tools on hand: chains, chakra seals, ropes, jutsu. I will even have Morino Ibiki there, just in case. We will bring him several miles away from the village first under the pretense of a mission, and secure our location in a temple the daimyo has guaranteed us. And we will tell him the truth."

Even though Tsunade is telling them exactly what is written on the scroll, Sakura's eyes still scan the words over and over again, a cold feeling of dread overtaking her heart and her blood running so cold that he hands begin to shake.

"It's not going to work," she whispers, unsure if anyone hears her. "There is no way this will be end peacefully."

Shikamaru steps up. "All of us will be on site," he says. "If our physical tools can't keep him down, we also have my jutsu and Morino. And on top of that, we have you and Naruto, our trump cards. You'll be able to appeal to him."

"Yeah, Sakura-chan!" Naruto's voice is unbelievably optimistic for such a dismal situation. "We can handle it!"

Except they can't. Sasuke is back in Konoha right now, but it has nothing to do with her and Naruto's success in bringing him back. They have never deterred him before, and they won't be able to do it now—Sasuke said so himself. He will cast her aside. He will cast all of them aside, if it means he can achieve justice.

"And what if we can't?" She looks up and surveys the room. They are all such capable shinobi, but when they're up against the boulder that is Sasuke, everything seems so hopeless. "Are we just going to keep him in that temple forever? Are we going to take turns guarding him? Sasuke is patient. You can tie him down but he will never stop hating, and the moment we let our guards down, he will strike."

"Our other option," Shikamaru says with careful nonchalance, "is to kill him."

Both Sakura and Naruto tense up at that, and Sakura wonders how appropriate it would be to connect her fist with Shikamaru's jaw, on matter how great of a guy he is.

"I'll beat the crap out of him until he understands." Naruto places a hand of reassurance on her shoulder. "Why are you suddenly so pessimistic, Sakura-chan? You were never like this before."

That's because she didn't know Sasuke before. She knows him now—knows him to the bottom of his heart, loves every part of him, even the ugly beasts that he keeps hidden away. She knows just how full of darkness he is, and she doesn't know how to make this hurt any less.

She loves Sasuke and everyone is trying to make it so she can continue loving him, but it will never work.

Either way, someone's going to lose.

Sasuke's damp hair doesn't stop him from heading to the library.

Upon opening the scroll, a torrential water jutsu overtook him as a defense mechanism. It wrapped around him in a large bubble of water, constricting his breath and movements. It's an easy enough trap to escape from, though; one large fire jutsu was enough to break the surface of the bubble and have all of the water crashing to the floor.

He had changed into a new set of clothes, towelled his hair, and headed straight to the library where he could decipher the markings on the scroll that are completely unfamiliar to him. It's not often that he doesn't understand the contents of a scroll, and it makes him uneasy.

With a large stack of books in front of him and the unrolled scroll in his lap to keep it hidden from the general view, Sasuke begins researching.

The heavy pit in his stomach stays lodged exactly where it is.

Sakura and Naruto bump into Hinata on their way to the teahouse, and Sakura stands aside to let the couple talk for a few minutes before continuing on their way.

It must be easy, she thinks, to love someone who has the same loyalties as you. But then again, Naruto and Hinata have their own problems—being a Jinchuuriki, living under the stress and expectations of the Hyuuga clan—everyone has their own anchors, and Sakura supposes hers is Sasuke. She just can't believe how incredibly heavy he is.

"Why didn't you invite her to eat with us?" she asks Naruto when they continue on their way after saying goodbye to Hinata. "I wouldn't mind."

Naruto locks his hands behind his head and looks skyward. "I don't know." He shrugs. "Today feels like a Team 7 kind of day. Out of all of the teams that were assembled when we were genin, I feel like Team 7 is constantly in this bubble of sadness that will infect other people if we get too close, you know?"

She looks at him incredulously. "This isn't like you, Naruto. Why are you so pessimistic?"

"Why are you?"

They enter the tea shop and take a free table. As they're handed cups of tea, Sakura tries to find a way to explain it.

"Before Sasuke came back to Konoha, I don't think we really knew him. We thought that if we tried hard enough, we'd be able to bring him back, but the truth is, I don't think we'd have ever succeeded. But since I've spent more time with him…who we thought he was is definitely there, but it's completely hidden, you know? Insignificant in comparison to the rest of him, who wants nothing but blood and revenge." Sakura holds her tea between her palms, her brow creased with worry. "We can't save him, Naruto. No one can."

"What," Naruto's voice is gravelly, "so are you just giving up on him? After all this time, Sakura-chan, and how happy you finally are to be with him, you're just going to give up?" His blue eyes are hard, in a way that they haven't been in a long time.

"I'm not giving up on him, but I just…" She sighs. "I don't know what we're going to do yet, is all. How do we save both Sasuke and Konoha? How do we keep both?"

"If it comes down to it, I'll let him kill me." Sakura's head shoots up and she stares at him, wide-eyed. "I'm the future Hokage—that's enough to appease him, right?"

"Are you an idiot, Naruto? That's not going to get us anywhere."

Naruto's head drops. "Yeah. It's not."

"I'll kill him, Naruto. If it comes down to it, I'll kill him."

He snorts. "Yeah, that sounds about right, considering all the trouble he's given us."

"No, I mean it." The next time Sakura looks at him, her eyes are just as steely as his, hard with determination. "I will kill him, Naruto."

The smile slips off Naruto's face and he stares at her, slack-jawed. "What?"

"There's no life beyond a fulfilled revenge—and that goes for all of us. Konoha will be gone, and Sasuke won't have a goal anymore. I don't even know if that kind of damage is repairable. I'll take responsibility—I'll do it. Just keep the village safe, Naruto. You're going to be the Hokage one day, after all."

Naruto's fist meets the wooden table in a loud thump that has Sakura's cup of tea jumping and falling to its side, spilling tea everywhere. Some of it lands on her hand, but she hardly notices the burn on her skin.

"We started this as Team 7." Naruto's hands are clenched into tight fists. "We finish this as Team 7."

Sakura doesn't have the heart to tell him that Team 7 doesn't exist anymore.

When Sasuke returns home that night, it's nearing midnight. Sakura is sitting on the couch, the living room only illuminated by a single lamp. She's reading a book.

"When I came home this afternoon," she says without looking up at him, casually flipping a page, "the kitchen was soaked, and there were singe marks all over the counter. And a note with the audacity to say that you would be at the library, and not to make dinner for you."

There are bigger things to worry about than a little water and fire in their home.

"Have you deciphered the scroll yet?" How easily she speaks about the subject makes Sasuke wonder if something's wrong.

He places said scroll on the kitchen table (now dry and clean) and heads over to sit beside her on the couch. "Not yet. Soon, though."

"Ah." Sakura reads her book for a moment longer, before she marks her page and closes it, placing it to the side. "Sasuke, there has to be another way."

"I already told you. There is no other way."

The way she's looking at him, with a resigned sort of sadness, makes his heart clench in ways that he hasn't felt in a very long time. The emotions that Sakura gives him remind him of his life before the massacre, the happiness that could have been. He reaches out to touch her face, but at the last moment, changes his mind. His hand remains frozen between them, hanging between what could have been and what will be.

"You could always try the old-fashioned but peaceful method of talking things out." She takes his hand in hers, her touch so gentle that Sasuke feels a little bit of himself crack more. "Come to an understanding. Gain rights as an Uchiha that your clan didn't have before. It's possible, you know."

"I'm not interested in that." He watches her play with his hand, turning it over and over, tracing the lines of his palm, outlining his fingers with her own.

"Even if you're not…" Sakura is much too relenting tonight. "You could do it for me, you know."

She speaks with the voice of someone who's already given up.

"I love you," she whispers against his knuckles. "I don't want to lose you. I don't want you to get hurt."

"We all make sacrifices." What will yours be?

When Sakura looks at him, Sasuke expects watery eyes, but there are no tears present. It strikes close to home, because he knows that kind of sadness—one rooted so deep that it's pointless to cry over, a looming inevitability that no one wants to face. This is the pain that Sasuke felt during the years he spent training to kill Itachi. Sakura now has to face the same pain, and it's all his fault.

She says no more. Instead, she moves until she's on all fours, and crawls closer to Sasuke. He lets himself fall back onto the cushions of the couch when she nudges him to, watching her as she hovers over him, her eyes the greenest green that he'll ever see.

For everything he's made her feel, every tear he's made her shed, he'll let her have whatever she wants, for whatever time they have left.

"I love you," she says again as she caresses his face.

"Yeah."

"And you love me."

He tilts his chin upwards to meet her in a small kiss. "Yeah."

"And it's not enough."

Their foreheads touch, warm skin on skin. Sasuke can feel her slow, even breaths against his mouth. "Yeah."

Sakura moves until her ear is pressed to his chest, listening to his heart. His finds weave through her hair, idly combing and petting. This is the calm before the storm. Tomorrow, he will completely decipher what's written in there.

The components that he's decoded today…

He'll think about that tomorrow. Right now is a moment he'll never get back—and now more than ever, moments with Sakura are limited. They are precious.

How did he keep her away the first time?

"Sasuke?"

"Hm?"

"It'd be nice if you could let yourself be happy."

He doesn't answer, because now she's saying nonsense, and they both know it.

"If you could let yourself off easy just this once…what Itachi had to do sucks, and the fact that your entire clan died for it sucks too, but did you ever consider, Sasuke…that it's not your fault? You're the only survivor, yeah, but you were seven and being the only survivor is not reason enough to avenge everyone. That's too much for anyone to handle."

He tightens his hold around her, and that's the only response she manages to pull from him. He feels her lightly fist his shirt in her hand more than he sees it.

"Sasuke, you idiot. You're just going to get yourself killed this way."

Well, everyone dies eventually. Might as well take some people down with him.

Sakura idly drinks her coffee while staring at her mission scroll, rolled open on the table.

The mission takes place one week from now. They'll detain Sasuke, and try to make things right. And if not…

She takes a large gulp of coffee, wincing at the way it scalds her throat.

If not, she'll clean up this mess herself.

She doesn't want Naruto to be part of it. Naruto still has so much ahead of him; killing his best friend is an unnecessary anchor, and a weight that she's willing to shoulder instead. She's the one who's been the closest to Sasuke all this time, after all. If anything, it's partially her fault for not being able to stop him.

There was a note on the bedside table when she woke up to an empty bed, and although she would've preferred to wake up to the person himself, it's nice that he bothered to think of her before he left.

At the library. I'll be back later.

x

She fingers the note now, turning the small slip of paper over and over in her hand. There are still so many things she wants to tell Sasuke. There are so many days she hasn't spent with him yet.

Sakura loves Sasuke, and she doesn't regret him. From the moment she saw him again one year ago to now, every moment of doubt, every worry and every uncertainty, has been the biggest adventure that brought her here today, and there isn't a single second of it that she'd take back. From then until now—everything was worth it.

So why is there this chilling feeling of dread sitting in the pit of her stomach?

"Another Team 7 day?" she asks when Naruto shows up at her door.

He smiles meekly. "Is that okay?"

Her coffee is still in her hand as she lets him in. "Yeah. It feels pretty appropriate right about now."

"Where's Sasuke?"

"At the library." She scrambles for a lie. "Looking up some things on medical jutsu."

"You're still teaching him, huh?"

"I strictly keep my personal and professional lives separate." Sakura tuts him, waggling a finger at him for good measure. "Something you should learn too, Naruto."

Naruto laughs heartily, the first time she's heard that in what feels like a very long time. "Funny, Sakura-chan."

Yeah. Funny.

"Oh, by the way." Naruto opens the fridge and is met with many, many tomatoes. He frowns in distaste, but grabs one anyway and takes a bite out of it. "Shikamaru wants to meet up this afternoon—he's drawn up a more detailed plan, and wants to make sure we all know our roles well beforehand, in case things don't go the way they're supposed to."

"But it doesn't matter," Sakura says, drinking her coffee but no longer feeling like she can stomach anything. "I'm not going to follow the plan."

Naruto shrugs. "Me neither, but we have to play the part, right? We can't let anyone know that we're going to take matters into our own hands."

And Sakura can't let Naruto know that if she has to, she'll kill Sasuke before he gets the chance to.

"Hey, Naruto? Before this mission, before anything happens and I don't get the chance to tell you…" She puts down her coffee, which grabs his attention. "I love you, okay? When Sasuke left all those years ago, it was like my entire life ended. But when I picked it up again, and you came back from your training…it somehow felt like it would be okay, even without Sasuke there, because you were still here. I really don't think I would have made it through anything without you. So…thanks. And I love you."

Naruto is struck by silence for a moment, and when he speaks, his voice is wavering. "Aw man, Sakura-chan, you're going to make me cry! You've never said that to me before."

"Well, it wasn't really an everyday topic of conversation, you know?"

Sakura finds herself in a bear hug, pressed tightly against Naruto's body as he yanks her close. She'll never tell him, but her eyes are welling up too—honest tears, happy tears, tears that are for once not caused by pain or loss or hopelessness. She hugs him back, just as fiercely—because this is it. This is the moment.

Team 7 doesn't exist anymore, but this is the moment for them to bring it back.

Sasuke leans back in his chair, the familiar feeling of purpose flowing new in his veins.

So that's it, huh?

It's fairly easy to connect the dots after deciphering the scroll. There is no plot twist. There are no feelings—just cruel decisions that were only hidden because the people involved had too many feelings.

He stands up with a surprising calm, and returns the books to where he found them, tidy and orderly—and then he grabs the scroll, and leaves the library.

So that's it.

There exists, right now:

Everything that he could have ever wanted.
Choicesones that he's already made, ones that he has yet to make.
Easy decisions, avoidable heartbreak.

But of course, that is not what he'll choose.

He's never really considered it, but maybe, it was always going to be this way.


A/N: I…have been MIA, I realize! Life, blah blah blah, I am not expecting your forgiveness, and that is okay. Next chapter is the last, but I'm actually stuck. Plot holes and writer's blocks are a thing.

IT MAY NOT MEAN ANYTHING TO YOU GUYS BUT I'M SORRY ANYWAYS.