Down the Road
Sakura had a predictable routine and a fairly consistent list of duties she attended to when in the village. She woke early, showered, dressed, and wandered into her kitchen to eat something small for breakfast. On the days that she had a shift at the hospital she went straight there to tend to patients and see that Tsunade was up on all of the goings-on. On the days that she didn't, she went to the Hokage Tower. Kakashi took his job quite seriously despite his grudge against it, but he did tend to slack off and misbehave in order to ensure that Sakura would keep coming back to help. In his words, "misery loves company" and if Tsunade could have a beleaguered assistant, why couldn't he?
She didn't mind.
Her afternoons were sometimes spent training with the boys. Other times she went to Ino's and helped in the Yamanaka green house, where they cultivated both the flowers they sold and the plants the hospital required for antidotes and medicines.
More recently, she had begun sinking her time into the village's orphanage.
Sakura laughed as she was nearly bowled over by the kids that rushed her at the gate. She lifted one young girl onto her hip and reached out with her other hand to muss the hair of a boy standing nearby. He was nearly twelve and stuck his tongue out at the action but didn't attempt to stop her.
She wished that she was a good enough person to say that it was entirely out of the goodness of her heart that she did this, but she couldn't lie to herself. Kakashi and all of his lessons over the years had rendered that impossible. She knew she did it for her own good as much of theirs; for the catharsis.
The war had wrung Sakura dry. Not just the war, but the years that had followed it as well. She had spent months on end away from the village, a backpack of mission scrolls bearing down on her. They were to be carried out consecutively for the most efficiency. Those had been months spent curled up against her team for rest and warmth, or wide awake to keep watch as they slept; months of eating nothing but rations; months of planning entry points and rendezvous spots; months of being on her guard at all times to keep herself and her team safe—all to reenergize a weakened, spent Konoha. The highs of victory were short lived and always soon squashed by the next objective they had to complete. Even her time at home held little joy with the soul-sucking knowledge that she'd have to leave again almost as soon as she had arrived looming over it.
In the last five years of nearly endless missions, her time spent in her own village was vastly outweighed by the time she spent outside of it. Even when she was home it wasn't to rest. There was a hospital to rebuild, patients to rehabilitate, and work to be done in spades to bring the village back to its former glory. There were also diplomatic meetings to attend and envoys to meet. It never ended. With Tsunade's retirement and Kakashi's succession, it just somehow managed to get worse. The hospital was flipped on its ear as Tsunade could now enforce a much more dictatorial set of rules and Kakashi needed help with his duties and to be startled awake when he tried to sleep in the middle of the day. The latter wasn't even nearly as much fun as it sounded.
It had been just two months since she had broken into tears in Kakashi's office for no reason good enough to justify embarrassing herself in front of her former captain. Not that Kakashi had been anything but kind about it. It had made him visibly uncomfortable, but he had sat with her through it. When her tears had dried, she explained that she was just tired and could no longer see the reason for any of it any more. Getting out of bed was almost impossible, her days were a blur, and nothing seemed capable of penetrating the thick haze of apathy that had started to cloud her perspective. She didn't feel a connection to her patients any more, sleep was difficult to come by, and each mission felt more pointless than the last.
Kakashi hadn't said a word to interrupt her near-hysterical rambling. Instead, he listened as he sat with a hand resting on her back until she finished. He didn't speak even then, but instead got up and went to his desk. He scribbled something out on a piece of paper and then returned to her side with it.
It was an order for indefinite leave.
"Battle fatigue," he had explained, as if that was all that needed to be said.
And it was.
She had diagnosed it enough to know that all of what she had just told him would have brought her to the same conclusions—had it been someone other than herself.
The idea of leave came as a horrible sort of relief. She felt weak and pathetic for how badly she realized she wanted it. She had thought she had overcome her uselessness, but it felt like she was letting herself and her team down and giving into something that she should have been able to overcome. Naruto and Sai weren't affected in the same way—didn't seem to be, anyway—and it made her feel like a load of deadweight. Just like when she was a genin.
She had tried to fight Kakashi on his decision, but he had been adamant. "You're free to train and continue working at the hospital. You might even get a mission or two if you're not expected to engage enemies," he had said and his hand squeezed her shoulder again. He paused and took a breath before looking at her. "I'm so sorry, Sakura. We were on so many of those missions together and I still didn't see it. I should have."
He sounded genuinely aggrieved by this and Sakura wondered if it all wasn't weighing just as heavily on him too. It was a cruel thing, but she couldn't deny that the prospect made her feel a little better. He hadn't wanted to be Hokage, after all. She knew he had agreed with Naruto in mind—knowing it would give him one more thing to recommend him when his time came—but he hadn't been happy about it. Accepting it had just been what he saw as his duty.
Maybe that was why Sakura was spending so much more time in the office lately. He had always been a good grounding force in her life and he seemed grateful for the company—although that could have just been the misery thing again. At least they were miserable together, which made it all, somehow, marginally more bearable.
"One of my teeth fell out!"
"My wrist hurts when I twist it around like this."
"Why are my boogers are green?"
Sakura genuinely enjoyed the kids and it was gratifying that the most complicated procedure she usually had to perform for them was healing a sprained ankle because of skipping too much rope. This was especially true after some of her more draining shifts at the hospital.
Her pride still battled with her good sense every now and then when it came to her enforced leave from action. She should be better than that. She should be stronger than something as amorphous as "battle fatigue". Who was she to wimp out when Sai and Naruto and everyone else were still going so strong? If Tsunade was disappointed, she didn't say it. Not that she would. The blonde was getting soft in her old age and everyone, she insisted, went through this.
Apparently, Sakura had thought somewhat bitterly at the time, not everyone.
In truth, this was a lot of the reason why she kept herself so busy because such thoughts took advantage of whatever brief moments of stagnation they could to attack her.
Sakura smiled at the familiar nickname as she entered the greenhouse. She had left the orphanage almost an hour ago and decided to walk. It was quite the trek, but she never minded being outside at this time of the year. Konoha was blooming and the fresh air was a good balm for her dour thoughts.
Ino was just coming from the rear of the greenhouse, wearing an apron with her hair tied up and hugging a bag of fertilizer to her front. Her skin glistened with sweat and her face and arms were smudged with dirt. Sakura had never let it be said that her friend was afraid to get her hands dirty, because this was how she knew her best really. "Pig," the medic answered with equal cheer. "How are my seedlings?"
"They're quite comfortably situated. Mom took care of them right away for you after you left," the blond answered happily. "I'm glad you stopped by because I haven't gotten the run down yet about your mission and the rumor mill is absolutely useless in this case; too much myth breeding with mere assumption."
"As with everything the rumor mill churns out."
Ino shrugged. "You learn how to sort the good from the bad after a while." She dropped the fertilizer bag on one of the many paved walks that formed a grid, dividing the plots of rich, black soil. "So, spill."
Sakura shrugged as she took an apron from a nearby workbench and put in on over her plain shift. "There isn't much to tell," she said. "They're just people, Ino. I've not even talked to either of them since we got back."
"Pft, yeah, whatever," Ino snorted back. "C'mon, give me something. I'm just curious."
"You always are."
The blonde smiled at that. "As a Yamanaka, I will take that as a compliment," she replied with false haughtiness. "You must have gotten a feel for them, at least. I mean, Kakashi wouldn't let them in the village if they really were as blood thirsty as they used to say."
Sakura rolled her eyes. "Kisame is, but he's no threat to the village itself. He just enjoys fighting. A lot."
"Sounds like a typical Mist-nin from my experience—rogue or not. What about Itachi?"
The medic shook her head without even taking a moment to think. "Itachi is… actually, I have no idea."
"Sounds about right. I mean, it is Uchiha Itachi. Enigmatic is kind of his thing, I hear."
Sakura shook her head. "It isn't even that," she said. "He's just… you know all of the stories we used to hear, right? That he wanted to test his strength on his clan so he slaughtered them?"
"Or the theory that he had just completely gone around the twist?" Ino shrugged as she pulled on a pair of gardening gloves. "What about them?"
The pinkette sighed and looked at her friend. "All of that makes sense. I mean, you can see someone doing that if they were driven insane or got power mad or whatever. But Itachi isn't—not from what I've seen. I mean he's… he's soft-spoken and painfully polite and really quite kind." She shook her head again, this time as if to clear it. "I just can't put the two together."
Ino frowned a bit at that. "Well," she began, a bit hesitant and a bit thoughtful, "we know now that he had reasons. I mean, the hostile takeover, saving the village, and what-not."
"The idea that he was crazy is easier to swallow, though. The thought of someone perfectly sane doing that kind of thing to their own family—no matter the reasons—makes me a little itchy under my skin. I know he's a hero, I don't doubt that. It's just… I don't know. I couldn't do it." She shrugged. "Maybe that's the crux of it."
Ino didn't say anything. There wasn't much to say, after all. Instead, she moved closer and wrapped her arms around her friend's waist and laid her head on her shoulder. She smelled like black earth and summery green. Sakura hadn't known that colors could have smells until she met Ino when she was five.
"How'd Naruto do?" the blonde asked after a moment.
Sakura smiled. "Good. Really good, actually," she replied. "He and Itachi seem to understand each other. I don't know how that works."
Ino laughed and straightened to look at her friend, her blue eyes twinkling. "It's Naruto," she said. "I defy anyone to figure out how anything works with him." One of her hands lingered on Sakura's waist as she placed the other on her own hip. "Hey, the family's doing dinner tonight. Come over. We'll eat and then you can crash at my house if you're too tired to head home afterward. It'll be great."
The medic smiled again. "I'll try to make it," she said. "Thanks, Ino."
Ino smiled and gave her friend a gentle squeeze before turning away. "I know you're anxious to get a look at your sprouts," she said. "Mom took good care of them, I promise. She said that she's only ever seen them grow in the wild, so she's eager to see how they do in a greenhouse. They're going to get the very best care."
Sakura nodded. Ino had been vocally grateful for Kakashi's decision to bench her considering how ragged the medic had worked herself in the years following the war. "Good. I'm glad! You look after everyone else, but no one thinks to look after you and you like it that way. It's about time someone stepped in. You need this."
It didn't make Sakura feel any better about her current position and it didn't silence the mean-spirited voice of her insecurities that harangued her for being weak, but she was grateful that Ino understood no matter how little difference it made in the grand scheme of things.
Sakura had come to think of Sai as something like a house pet.
Specifically a house cat. She could never be sure when she would find him asleep on her sofa or lurking around her kitchen table with a sketchpad. It was never something she felt the need to question, though.
Sai was much the same as he had always been, even now after the war. He was still stoic and unflappable; still the picture of composure and steadiness. However, the smiles that had once been faked were now genuine and he was slowly learning to express the emotions he had long been deprived of. However, he still made a very intimidating house cat as he lay sprawled out on her sofa in his ANBU armor, complete with the whisker-faced mask that put her to mind of a rat or mouse.
Sakura sat down beside him on the couch, knowing that her first steps inside had woken him and was not worried about doing so now. She smiled and reached up to remove his mask. He was watching her, one eye barely cracked open to regard her sleepily. "I have not slept," he confessed to her. "I travelled through the last two nights to get home faster. I know you do not approve of that."
She shrugged and laid a glowing, chakra-infused hand to his chest. "I don't," she said. "But I've done the same thing. You know that I have."
"Naruto and I have long accepted that you do not apply the same standards of care to yourself as you do to others. The hypocrisy is annoying, but it is a part of your nature. It is endearing."
Sakura rolled her eyes and only let her chakra die when she was satisfied that he was unwounded save for some minor bruising of his ribs that she would heal later if he asked. "How was your mission?"
"Routine," he replied, bored and almost dismissive. His eyes sharpened and cleared as he regarded her with renewed interest. "And yours?"
She and Naruto had departed before him, explaining him the details of their assignment even though it was supposedly classified information. Not that Kakashi would care. He had once been party to such sessions. "Successful," she said. "We returned with them about two days ago."
Sai frowned marginally. "You do not seem pleased with this development," he murmured. "Does their presence worry you?"
Sakura shook her head and waved a hand. "No, it's not like that," she said. "They are both agreeable and there's no need to worry about their presence in the village—not that I can see at least. It's just a lot to take in."
Sai hummed. "You are still greatly conflicted about everything that happened to the Uchiha clan, I know."
He laid a hand to rest gently atop one of her knees and she covered it with one of her own. "I feel closer to it than I really should, considering Sasuke…" She stroked the back of his gloved hand with her thumb and then set about removing the glove first and then his bracer. She laid both on the coffee table beside his mask. "I don't have any right to feel that way, I know."
"It happened in your village and concerns someone you knew from a young age. It affected you." His tone was soft, but firm. He was quiet for a moment before adding, "You still worry for him."
Sakura nodded. "You know I do and I know you don't like it."
Sai's lips twisted in a barely perceptible way. "He hurt you and Naruto. He had no right."
She started to gently undo the clasps of his breastplate. There was one on either side at his ribs and one at each shoulder that held the front and back of the bleached, hardened leather snugly to his frame. She had tried it on before just to amuse herself and found it even less comfortable than a flak vest. "He was young and confused and angry," she said. "I don't blame him."
It was defiant of him and Sakura was glad for it, the context aside. She was glad for any time that Sai acted in a way she knew to be contradictory to his training and expressed a dissenting opinion rather than blithely agreeing.
Sakura said nothing else as she eased the back of his armor out from under him and then laid both pieces down on the floor beside the couch. Next, she rid him of his other glove and bracer, undid his greaves, which were held firmly in place with laces and buckles, and then gently removed his boots. "Better?" she asked when she was finished and his things were laid out on the coffee table and floor beside the couch.
Sai nodded as he let out a quiet, contented sigh.
"Good. Get some sleep. If you get hungry, help yourself to what's in the kitchen."
She gave his hand a final pat and then stood up and moved out into her kitchen, her footsteps now silent on the bare wood floors.
The memorial stone was a beautiful work of craftsmanship with all of its polished, gleaming facets of shiny onyx that lazily reflected the light of the evening sun.
Sakura hated it. Most everyone who knew a single name etched on its face did and she knew more than a dozen. Some of them she had known herself, like Asuma and a handful of ninja who had been her patients at some point or another. There were at least two names she remembered from the war that stood out in particular. All she had been able to do for them was sit at their sides and hold their hands until they gave themselves away to the aether. She had done that at least a dozen times throughout the war, but those names were carved on memorials faraway in their respective villages.
Other names were ones that she only recognized by proxy. They were names from Tsunade's past, from Kakashi's, and even from Naruto's. They haunted the people she loved, so they haunted her. Respectfully, she traced the ones she knew with her fingertips as she said a prayer of gratitude for each of them. She traced Jiraiya's twice.
Then there were the name that weren't there. Like Sai's brother that she had never known but who she was endlessly grateful to. Shin had sheltered and fed the tiny piece of humanity left in Sai— the one bit that ROOT hadn't managed to reach. He had kept it alive so that it could flourish later. He had never officially existed, though. Shin, as Sai had explained years ago, wasn't even his real name. The Gods only knew what was and it made very little sense to pay tribute to someone who had been a ghost even while they lived.
Sakura reached out and on one of the unmarked facets of the stone she wrote out Shin's name with her fingertip and said a prayer of thanks for him as well.
And then an unbidden thought came to her next that made her heart sink in a painful and familiar way: Sasuke.
His absence left them in a sort of limbo. No part of her wanted to see him dead, but to see his name on the stone would have at last been the end of it. Instead, they were in this state of not knowing where he was or what was happening and, worst of all, there was nothing they could do about it even if they did. Would he ever come home? Had he ever truly come to terms with all that had happened? Did he think of Naruto or of her anymore?
In truth, Sakura didn't let herself think of him very often. That, however, was for sanity's sake. These moments in front of the stone were all she allowed, because even while she still cared for him she also had spent far too much time thinking of him in the past and it was hard enough to move forward as things were already. At present it seemed silly anyway. He was a grown man and he was not lost now in the way he had been when he had first left Konoha. This time he needed to come home of his own accord. He needed to choose if it was still his home at all. He needed to make this decision on his own and however he saw fit.
And she had accepted that. She just wasn't sure if Naruto would ever arrive at that same place with her. Maybe in that way, she actually hated Sasuke. On those rare days when she had herself convinced that she was entirely indifferent to him, she told herself that she only wanted to see him in the village again so that Naruto could finally come to terms with everything.
"Excuse me, I did not mean to intrude."
Sakura crashed back to reality and turned sharply toward the speaker. The only thing that saved her from embarrassment was the realization that the person who had snuck up on her was Itachi. She doubted if he knew how to be anything but stealthy. "Itachi," she said quickly, drawing his attention back to her just as he was turning away to leave again. "You don't have to go. I'm done."
If it had not been for the uniqueness of her features, Itachi might not have recognized Sakura when he came upon her at the monument. Gone was her mission gear, replaced with an utterly civilian shift and sandals with her hair down and loosely braided. She still stood with her back straight and her shoulder squared, but all of her ninja-bred rigidity was gone. There was something softer about her appearance overall; an easiness that she hadn't possessed before.
She was exhausted too, he realized as he drew closer. Her eyes were dark and the smile she gave him, while warm, was also weary.
"I hope I did not interrupt your prayers," he said as he came to stand beside her.
"You didn't. Actually, I'm kind of glad to see you again anyway."
"Oh?" It would take some adjusting, he thought, to get anywhere used to hearing that kind of thing. Yes, she had been very personable while they were en route to Konoha, but he had expected things to change once outside the context of a mission. It had, after all, been a matter of diplomacy. Nothing said that her behavior had to continue once the job was completed to the Hokage's satisfaction.
Sakura shrugged. "I wanted to know how you were doing. I know that Naruto's been to see you, but I've been so busy since our return that I haven't seen him to ask. And I'm sorry if he's been a pain, by the way. He's a bit like a stray dog: feed him once—or spar in this case—and you'll never be rid of him."
The corner of Itachi's lips lifted and he shook his head. "He is not a bother. I appreciate the company and Kisame and I both have appreciated his assistance."
"That's good. So you're settled then? Where would you be staying…?" Her eyes narrowed a bit skeptically as her voice grew quieter and her words trailed off. "You aren't camping in your own village, are you?"
His village. He had always thought of Konoha as being his village even while in exile, but it was nice to hear the words spoken from someone else's lips. "No. Naruto saw to that, actually. Your former captain Yamato has quite a useful set of abilities."
Sakura laughed and her face brightened a little as a result. "Oh, Yamato," she said with a great amount of affection. "A genetic descendant of the First, an S-ranked ANBU Captain, and the village carpenter. Do you suppose the First would roll over in his grave if he knew that his revered bloodline ability was being used to accomplish such mundane tasks?"
She said it with such cheer that Itachi couldn't help but smile a little wider as he mulled over the answer. "I would not know. However, from what I have heard about Senju Hashirama he might have actually found it quite amusing."
She laughed again and looked to him with her eyes dancing. Then some of her cheer faded a bit as her eyes trailed back to the memorial stone and she shifted her weight away from him onto her other foot. Her fingers fiddled with the shoulder strap of her bag that crossed diagonally over her chest. "I should go and let you have your privacy."
Itachi shook his head. "That will not be necessary," he said. "I have had years to mourn and have done so. Today, I just came to look. I have not seen the stone since I left; since the names…"
It was not so much that he could not say it. He had spoken so matter-of-factly about the massacre for so many years that saying it came easily even if it reopened the wounds a little bit every time he did so. For Sakura, though, he did not need to reiterate himself. She knew. He suspected she knew better than most. To have heard of it was one thing, but she had known his living victim and saw firsthand the depths he had been driven to. Whoever the boy was that she had known was gone. In a way, Itachi knew that he had killed him as well.
"How did you go on after…?"
Sakura's voice was barely above a whisper before her words just died all together, but it pierced the deathly stillness of the clearing as if she had shouted. He glanced at her. Her eyes were trained on the stone, but she looked to be far off in some other place as she stood cradling her right arm to her chest with her left and her right hand resting over her heart, as if attempting to soothe away a phantom ache.
Her words weren't accusing him. It wasn't a grant of innocence or praise, but nor was it one of condemnation. She spoke of him as a man. A mindless automaton did not struggle to move forward after completing a mission. A ruthless killer thirsting for power didn't mourn for the lives he took in pursuit of it. She was granting him his humanity, struggles, and regret. She was not speaking of a murderer she had heard well-circulated campfire stories about, but to Uchiha Itachi as a mere man.
He wondered if she knew what she had just done and if there was any way to go about thanking her for it without sounding completely mad.
"I'm so sorry. I don't have any right to ask that—"
"No," he cut in and she looked to him, her eyes fractionally widened with surprise. "You did not… it was only just barely." He paused to find the words, knowing he wasn't making much sense. "If not for Konoha; for Sasuke…" He shook his head and turned away again to look instead at their reflections in the stone. "I… put that part of me to sleep; kept alive but suppressed. It was something I had learned to do in ANBU so that I could finish a mission even in the very worst of circumstances."
Itachi wasn't sure what, if any, sense that could possibly make to her, but it felt like he had shrugged off at least a small portion of the weight that bore down upon him. He looked at her to gauge her response and saw that she was still staring at him. Her expression had softened and her eyes were unbearably kind. He couldn't tell if she pitied him or was simply being sympathetic, but she somehow seemed to understand and that mattered more. He wondered how often she had to decipher such rambling from her patients as she acted not only as their healer but their sounding board.
He looked away again. He was at ease with her in a way he had never been with a stranger and that made him uneasy. She had a sweet face and a kind demeanor that was off-balancing. How often did that give her an advantage? Underestimating someone was the mistake of cocky, untested genin, but even the most seasoned veterans made it and the consequences often proved dire.
That knowledge warred with what he had personally observed of the girl's candid demeanor. He had not sensed any subterfuge on her part and he could count on a single hand the times he had been fooled by a simple guise of innocence.
"Has Naruto spoken to you about Sasuke?"
He glanced at her from the corner of his eye and gave a small nod of confirmation. She was staring at the stone again. "He has," he said. "Only once, though. Why?"
Sakura tucked some stray pieces of hair behind one of her ears. "I was just curious. I thought that he would, of course. Sasuke…" She shifted her weight again as she mulled over her choice of words and Itachi turned just slightly toward her to listen. "After Madara fell, Sasuke left before Naruto regained consciousness. They never had a chance to speak. I know it bothers him, but I don't know what to do for him. It won't be long before he'll want to leave the village again to look for Sasuke. It's been longer than usual already."
Her brow was tightly knitted with concern and the look in her eyes made it clear that she was almost entirely elsewhere and consumed by her thoughts.
"I have told Naruto that Sasuke will need to return of his own volition," Itachi spoke before he could stifle the urge to offer some solace to her. "I am afraid that it will take some time before he truly accepts that for fact."
She mutely nodded in response.
The silence stretched on for a little while longer and was broken only by the quiet sound of Sakura shifting her weight again, her shoulders turning away from him just a little with her movement, indicating her intentions before she even spoke them aloud. "I should go," she said again, with a little more conviction. "It was nice to see you again, Itachi."
This time, Itachi did not try to stop her and simply nodded.
She was nearly at the edge of the clearing before she paused. "Itachi?"
He looked to her, prompting her to speak.
"Say hello to Kisame for me and if you two need anything, let me know."
Itachi just nodded and she started on her way again, eventually vanishing into the trees and leaving him to his thoughts.
The wind was moaning as it blew through the bare limbs of the forest, biting at the trunks of trees and carrying with it the loose powder that had fallen the night before.
Sasuke just barely felt the icy cold as it lapped at his cheeks. He blinked, but he wasn't exactly awake or seeing. The only things could feel at all were his face and the fact that his eyelashes were frozen together.
He blinked again and suddenly the murky gray light of morning pierced his clouded vision just enough that he could almost make out the silhouettes of the trees that surrounded him. They cradled him in the bosom of a clearing and did what they could, leafless and skeletal as they were, to shield him from the icy, howling winds. It wasn't much. It wasn't enough, either.
He was dying. He was sure of it when he inhaled and an invisible knife gouged into his lungs and tore through his throat, splitting him open from belly to neck. It wouldn't be long, or he hoped not. Fate was a cruel and merciless bitch and the gods were laughing at him.
It wasn't the sort of death he had envisioned himself succumbing to, but it was the kind he knew he deserved. The kind that was lonely and cold. It would be prolonged too, if there was justice in the world.
He thought of the aimless miles he had trekked all over the world, searching for something unclear to even himself. He longed to fill the empty, aching void that left him a mere husk of flesh, but nothing did. However, wandering kept the pain it caused at bay, so he moved for days on end until his body simply refused to go another inch. But it was pointless. The beast of emptiness eventually found him anyway and sunk its teeth into him again, tearing away another piece.
It was that tireless game of hunter and prey that found him where he was. What he had at first thought to be the effects of the cold had soon settled into his lungs and he found himself hamstringed by fatigue, fevers, and body-wracking coughing spells. He had stayed on the move for as long as he could, in search of civilization among the frozen wastelands of the northern territories, but his body had given in to the merciless environment in the middle of a desolate nowhere. It could have been days since he had collapsed, but he would never know for sure.
At his side, Sasuke's fingers gave a violent spasm and the wrenching pain that tore through his frozen muscles gave a tiny thrill. It was something, even if it was only a sign of his impending death.
He took a shuddering breath in, wincing at the pain that ripped into his ribs, and thought of Konoha as he so often did. He thought of the small apartment he had stayed in during his formative years and of how, at this time, the village, its trees, and animals would be coming back to life after its winter hibernation. Of all the places he had travelled, that was where his mind always went to find peace.
Inevitably, his thoughts turned then to Naruto and Sakura and he wondered if they had managed to find some sort of happiness or a sense of normalcy in the wake of the war. He hoped so, for their sakes. He hoped that they weren't looking for him or waiting earnestly for his return to come, because he didn't know if he could ever face them again in light of all that had happened. Given his current circumstances, he was positive he would never have the chance.
His eyes began to burn with tears, but he doubted if he could actually shed them. His vision grew hazy and his lids heavy again as the combination of wrenching pain and exhaustion began to tempt him into returning to the blissful dark of unconsciousness and then to whatever might lie beyond it.
He made a concentrated effort never to do so, but that seemed pointless at the moment so he put his reservations aside and began then to think of Itachi. The pain in his chest grew tenfold and he squeezed his eyes shut tightly in a grimace. Maybe this was for the best. Even if someday he managed to work himself up to facing his old teammates, how could he ever face Itachi again? How pointless it had all been. How blindly he had acted.
As much as he feared the very idea of having to face his brother again, Sasuke found that he wanted nothing more than for a chance to throw his arms around him. In fact, he wouldn't have minded the chance to do the same with Naruto and Sakura. He was never good at it, but he had thought he might get the chance to apologize—and explain himself—before his death. He wanted to hear that they forgave him, even if he didn't deserve it; even if they didn't really mean it.
An involuntary sob wrenched its way free from inside of him and the effort sent another bolt of pain through him and up his dry throat. He could feel how cracked his lips had become and how chapped his skin was from the wind and cold. His eyes and the fragile skin around them burned as a few salty tears trickled free of his lashes.
He hated to cry, but that didn't really matter anymore, did it? There was no one to see it and what right did he have to be too proud to do so at this point?
The sound of footsteps suddenly pierced through his thoughts and all of his senses went on alert at once. Out here he couldn't imagine that it was anything but an animal. Hopefully it was something benign. As resigned as he was to die he didn't particularly care for the idea of being eaten even if he couldn't feel the greater majority of his limbs. However, he was too stiff and numb from the cold to really move and he was forced to lay there and strain his ears listening for the next sound.
More footsteps soon followed and then, to his shock, he was suddenly staring up into a pair of big, midnight blue eyes.
Sasuke blinked to make sure he was actually seeing what he was seeing. And he was, to his utter amazement. A little girl, maybe all of two years old was staring down at him. Her pale, white-blond hair skimmed her shoulders in a long, tangled mess and her big eyes were set into a pale, cherub-cheeked face.
They blinked at each other again. Then the girl crouched down and laid one mitten-covered hand against his cheek. Sasuke somewhat belatedly realized that she was wiping away the combination of tears and frost that had collected there. Then the little girl suddenly straightened and removed her heavy, woolen cloak. She spread it out over his chest and patted it gently before just as quickly as she had come she was gone.
Sasuke was in shock. With some half-hearted sarcasm he might have thanked the girl for her efforts, vain though they would prove to be, but he couldn't even fully comprehend what the hell had just happened. Had he not scoured every mountainside for even the tiniest trace of civilization? Or was the girl just some kind of figment of his sickness-addled brain?
"Yes, I see him, child. Quit pulling on me."
The voice was cracked and old, worn by time, but distinctly female nonetheless and suddenly it wasn't the round-faced little girl that Sasuke was staring up at, but a withered old crone whose skin looked like tree bark and hair like white straw. She was also dressed in a heavy wool cloak and mittens with a fur pelt draped over her and pinned at her shoulders. In one hand she carried a staff of gnarled wood.
"You alive, boy?" She poked him with the end of her staff.
Sasuke blinked at her. "Maybe…?"
"Good enough," she declared with something akin to amusement. "I'll get the sledge. Try not to die in the interim. Tomoe, stay here."
The little girl was suddenly at his side, sitting cross-legged in the snow. Sasuke managed to turn his head just enough to look at her, frowning as he considered her. "Tomoe?" he said. "Is that your name?"
She stared at him for a moment and then nodded once. "Toto," she confirmed. She laid a hand on him. "At doh?"
He wanted to laugh, but couldn't muster the energy necessary to do so. Instead, he smiled the best he could with his lips so cracked and blistered. Tomoe, he thought with some hysteria-riddled humor. There ought to be three of her. "Sasuke," he told her at length. "My name is Sasuke."
Tomoe squinted at him. "Sa-ki," she said carefully. She smiled and then patted his chest in an almost fond sort of way. "Saki."
His lips lift a little higher out of wry amusement. "Close enough."
The old crone returned minutes later, leading a dog that put Sasuke to mind of the Inuzuka clan immediately because of its sheer size. He was wolf-like in every way, with a long snout and sharp, upright ears that twitched and swiveled to take in his environment. His white coat was wooly and thick, at its longest around his neck, but he was thoroughly brushed and groomed.
Sasuke barely had the ability to help the old crone as she hefted him to his feet with strength that belied her age. All he could do from there was gracelessly collapse onto the sledge the dog was leashed to, but that seemed good enough. Tomoe immediately climbed on and laid beside him, rubbing one of his hands vigorously between hers as the old bat threw several heavy furs over them.
"Your name?" he asked the old woman as she took a seat at the fore of the sledge with the reins in hand.
"Baba," Tomoe replied, somewhat insistently.
The old woman rasped out a laugh as she pulled the hood of her cloak up over her hair. "I suppose that'll do for you as well," she said. "Call me Baba."
Sasuke wandered in and out of consciousness on the sledge and really only kind of came to when he was being shuffled down some steps. At that point he had warmed up enough to have some semblance of control over his limbs and he managed to vaguely follow in the direction he was being guided.
Every noise and sensation that followed for the next eon (or so it felt) blended together into an incomprehensible mess. Eventually, he became aware that he was sitting on a wooden stool in a room of some sort, but that was the extent of it. However, his troubling predicament was put to an end when he pulled to his feet and his shirt was yanked over his head. The first shock of the air against his cold, bare skin brought his consciousness immediately to the fore, which was quite inconvenient timing as he was then rendered trouser-free and pushed into a bath tub with a cacophonous splash.
Sasuke sat up, coughing and understandably perturbed. His arms still felt a bit like dead fish, so the best he could was half-heartedly try to slap away the dripping curtain of his own hair that had fallen into his face. He really needed it cut, he thought distractedly.
He had only managed to just uncover one eye when another tidal wave of water washed over his head and he was rendered blind again by his own mane. Somewhere behind him, the old hag was laughing. "Tomoe, take his clothes and find him something dry to wear."
Sasuke managed to shake his hair out of his eyes again and shot the old woman a cross look as she was placing a bucket back in the corner of the room. "You're enjoying this," he grumbled.
"A bit," she answered cheerfully. The room was a cellar of some sort, with stone walls, ceilings, and floors. An oil lantern was hanging from a hook on the wall and was burning brightly, washing the room in its warm glow. The tub he was sitting in was ancient and cast from metal. The water in it was shallow, but surprisingly warm. He wondered if there was some sort of spring nearby that it had been drawn from.
Again a far wall was a wooden work bench and above it a series of wooden shelves stacked with glass bottles and jars filled with various substances obscured by the dark brown of the glass. There were bunches of herbs and roots hanging overhead as well, bundled together by twine and nailed into place to let dry.
Baba had picked a handful of glass jars from the shelves and was busily measuring out the ingredients and dropping them into a mortar. When she had finished grinding them with a pestle, she came to Sasuke's side and dumped the contents into the bath. This was followed by what appeared to be a handful of salt drawn from a roughly woven sack in the far corner of the room and then another handful of something else taken from another bag. The mixture was fragrant and ignited a pleasant burn in his sinuses and throat.
"I don't know how long I was out there," Sasuke said, to fill the quiet that was pressing in on them.
The old woman hummed. "Likely not as long as you think," she replied. "You're chilled, but you don't look frostbitten." She had taken a clean cloth from a bundle on the work table and reached down to soak it in the bath water before wringing it out and draping it over his head. Then gently, she pushed him back so that he was propped against the wall of the tub. "Just rest for a bit. You ought to start feeling thawed soon enough. We'll add a bit more warm water then and get you scrubbed up so I can take a look at you. Tea first, though."
"Is she your granddaughter?"
Sasuke frowned at the floor. He was seated in front of a stone hearth in another room where a fire was burning brightly in a stone hearth. They were underground, though how far he didn't know. The hallways they had come through from the washroom were labyrinthine and he had been careful to keep close on Baba's heels so as not to be lost in them.
Tomoe had picked a pair of roughly woven trousers and a simple tunic for him to wear and he was glad for them, though he couldn't fathom where they had come from. Not that he was in a position to be choosy. In fact, he just was grateful to be dry for what felt like the first time in a month. He was warm too. The old hag had poured a half a pot of tea down his throat before letting him up from the bath. Now she had him seated in front of the fire and nursing another cup as she toweled his hair dry.
In the strangest way, he was grateful for the contact. She was being gentler now than she had been earlier when inspecting his every scrape and cut and scouring clean his hands and feet to check them for signs of frostbite, but even then he found he didn't begrudge her for it. He had not interacted so closely with another living person in five years. To be cared for to any extent was a welcomed thing.
"Who is she then?"
"I found her in the snow three months ago. I imagine she came from the village north of here."
"There's a village nearby?"
"There was before it was sacked and burned to the ground. Not sure how she made it out alive when no one else did."
Sasuke glanced across the room to Tomoe, who was sleeping soundly under a pile of blankets on a bedroll. She was curled up beside the wolf-beast from before, which was now freed of its pull harness and reins and made the room feel that much smaller.
"I can't pay you," he said after a while longer.
"I've no use for money," Baba answered dismissively. She rubbed gently behind his ears and turned his head to check a gouge in his scalp where he had stumbled and hit his head upon a bit of rock in one of his fevers. "You'll stay and recover here. You'll help us with chores and the like until it thaws. Then you can move on if you wish."
"It thaws this far north?"
"Aye, for a few months. Enough to travel."
He mulled this over and winced when she pried at his wound a little more.
"I have to wonder what one of your kind is doing so far from home," Baba spoke after a significant pause. "Ninja, no?"
Sasuke stiffened a bit.
One of her hands ran over his back where he knew a mess of scars had left his skin discolored and uneven. It was one of the few he wore with genuine pride. What mobility he had lost in that shoulder because of the scar tissue was worth the time it had given Naruto to drive a Rasengen through Madara's chest. "You are so young," Baba went on, "But you have so many scars. I know of no other life that is so hard on a body."
A breath that he had not realized he was holding silently slid out from between his teeth, but he didn't relax. "I was," he confirmed after several moments had passed.
"Was? And what are you now? A rogue? One of those missing-nin?"
No, he wasn't. He had confirmed that a long time ago. At least, he wasn't so far as Konoha was concerned and that was all that concerned him. It didn't really bother him if another country wanted his blood. To have a few bounties on one's head was almost a rite of passage among ninja. It made travel troublesome, but when the proper care was taken there wasn't much to worry about on that front.
"I don't know."
The gentle rubbing of the towel against his scalp paused again. "You don't know? Have you lost your way, then?" she asked.
A part of Sasuke wanted to laugh bitterly at that idea and another part of him was crushed by an overwhelming sadness. "I don't know if I ever really had one."
The old woman hummed at this as she pushed the hair out of his face. "What of friends? Family?"
He did laugh at that and the sound came out as a wretched half-rasp, half-croak; a sob more than a laugh. Baba seemed to understand even though he couldn't find any actual words to explain himself with. She ran her gnarled fingers through his hair the way a mother might to sooth their child and another silence fell over them.
In time, his hair was dry and thoroughly combed. Sasuke sat still when the woman wordlessly reached for a rusted pair of shears and began to gently cut away his mane. He said nothing—barely heard the rasping of the blades as they cut through each shaft of hair. His mind was elsewhere; at home in Konoha again, with his team and his brother, in a life that wasn't this one where he was so gutless. He indulged in this and in that time he felt warmer and more alive than he had in years.
1. Whew! I know this one was a long time coming and I'm glad to finally be posting it.
2. The interest in this story had totally blown my mind and I was to thank everyone for their wonderful reviews. You guys are really the best.
3. Sasuke! Yeah, his introduction was actually going to come later, so this sort of snuck up on me, but eh. Also: OCs! OCs as far as the eye can see! Yes, there will be a point to this, I promise.
4. I had a bugger of a time getting Itachi down the way I wanted him here, so I hope that works for everyone as well. Also, yes this is a much different interpretation of Itachi than what a lot of writers go with, but I think it's much more true to who he really is and doesn't buy so much into the crazy act he was putting on initially.
5. And I will defend until my dying breath the rights of a female character to express herself in ways other than ball-busting femi-nazism or cold-hearted cruelty while STILL remaining a dynamic, strong, female character. The tough-girl stereotype that the girls are often painted with in fanfiction is annoying as FUCK because it makes them even less dimensional than what Kishi has done. Real people have feelings! So, yes! Sakura is experiencing battle fatigue/PTSD to some caliber and she will be working through her feelings in this story. Fuckin' deal with it, yo.
6. Sorry, the above is just a disclaimer to anyone who might want to call me on that because it's absolutely RIDICULOUS that female characters can't express emotion without being called anti-feminist. It annoys me in the same way that male characters can't express feelings or show the remotest bit of affection or concern for another man without being automatically labelled as "gay".
7. Ranty, ranty, rage, rage. Okay now I'm done.
Review, if you please! Then, with any luck (if this comedy of errors that is my life doesn't get in the way, that is) the next update will be much sooner!